Lost in Space
“I’m gonna wait till the stars come out. And see them twinkle in your eyes. I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour.” (Wilson “the Wicked” Pickett)
“Nature has thrown away the key; and woe unto that fateful curiosity that might once manage to peer out through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and gain an intimation that man rests in the indifference of his ignorance on the merciless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous, suspended in dreams on the back of a tiger.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Interstellar is not so much a heroic dystopian epic about “science and exploration,” as it is a disturbing ideological fantasy using CGI special effects and the tear-jerking egomania of what is left of the method acting in America, to obscure its true agenda. And this is precisely where the key problem with the film lies. Interstellar is, essentially, a darkly elitist flight of fancy, in spite of its painstaking efforts to ingratiate itself to the general multiplex audiences by artfully employing the common touch in its choice of the down-to-earth main protagonist, an ex NASA test pilot who is also a dirt poor farmer, played by Matthew McConaughey, and a story line that replicates the age old rags-to-riches formula, only in dystopian settings where riches are not exclusively material but existential ones. Everything about the film – from its cutting edge space science, courtesy of one of the leading NASA theoretical physicists, Kip Thorne, to its spectacular, detail-obsessed imagery conjured up by DOP Hoyte van Hoytema – is there not to engage the imagination but rather to subjugate the mind.
What can be glimpsed behind the film’s deceptive veneer of progressive science and revolutionary cinematic vision is, in fact, one of the most politically oppressive worldviews to emerge out of already dangerously oppression-susceptible contemporary Hollywood. One can even go a step further. One can say without fear of paranoid exaggeration that Interstellar is so oppressively fundamentalist, yet smug about it, that it sets new standards in cinematically enjoyable elitist ideological radicalism under the guise of purported “political correctness.” And that is something the vagabond gypsy trooper, the opera loving Führer and Reichskanzler might have found rather intriguing as a concept.
Precisely at this point I am sure eyebrows will be universally raised. Some will wonder how a visionary film maker like Christopher Nolan, who did not only put his signature directorial touch on Interstellar, but is also responsible for some other recent box office hits such as the sci-fi thriller Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy, all widely considered as sophisticated, engaging, and aesthetically audacious mainstream entertainment, beyond any sweeping statements or ideology, can be, of all things, accused of political subversions of any kind, let alone political extremism. Well, the same way a robustly conservative film such as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) can be seen as a naïve yet powerful plea for social justice, or the way in which Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) should be hailed as a much more profound statement on the dubiousness of our male-female role models and our sexual politics than the much more cultural zeitgeist-conscious, fussy and earnest Boys Don’t Cry (1999), whose director Kimberly Peirce seems to have spent much time studying Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.
Let me elaborate this a bit further. Selling itself as “the thinking man’s” sci-fi epic Interstellar is, in a nutshell, focused on an insanely quixotic intergalactic voyage of a group of especially driven and gifted individuals who perform unbelievable technical feats and risking their lives in order to save the world. The underlying concept behind the breathless spectacle here seems an audacious one indeed. Treat our planet as a dispensable good that can eventually be replaced with the similar, brand new one – a different world for our new beginning that will offer a habitat and the resources that can sustain our way of life. What Nolan argues is that we have lost touch with ourselves. We have sadly forgotten who we really are. And the formula he offers as a remedy for a looming holocaust of the species on Earth, and for the total collapse of our system of values, is a deceptively simple one. All we have to do is call a spade a spade, be honest with our innermost selves, let bygones be bygones and instead of impotently brooding over our fate go for broke in the universe beyond our wildest imaginings.
Our future and our deliverance, therefore, do not depend on our capacity for righting our wrongs, for fixing the broken political system, or on finding moral strength to own up to our damning responsibility for the environmental mess on our planet. None of this is cinematically challenging enough or interesting. In Interstellar Nolan turns his piercing gaze away from madness and muck and blood spilt all around us to peer into the remote, celestial infinity with the roving abandon of an eager explorer. He craves for a wide-open playfield, a pristine, untouched cinematic canvas to let himself go. And ecological problems on an already too familiar and overexploited horizon seem too warped and too pedestrian to hold his visually rapacious eye. Instead the wide-open outer space is “the thing.” It is like a clean, guilt-free slate from which one can start anew, from scratch, and swing for the fences.
All we need to reach for the stars and save our kind is to get reacquainted with our original selves. The wandering spirit of the first explorers, adventurers and, why not, killers who discovered our first new world, America and all its unfathomable riches and possibilities will lend us the decisive strength and Nietzschean will to power. No inner change is necessary. No moral consideration need interfere with the superego trip. And the deeper we go into that dark unknown realm, the magnetically enticing outer space, the more we will look like our true, unconscious, and age-old primitive selves. And this is precisely where the danger of Nolan’s titanic, fresco-like cinematic storyline lies. The whole extravagant structure here hinges on no non-sense, in-your-face neoliberalism, on heavy-handed scientific verisimilitude, on hyper realistic eye-candy imagery, so that with every new plot twist and turn the entire film, lock, stock and barrel, can irreversibly sink into the siege mentality of evermore psychotic conservatism.
Yet, in our day and age of jihadi decapitation videos, borderless drone wars and general sense of uncertainty this may seem like a moot point. Therefore, it does not surprise one a bit that a prevailing majority of the mainstream critics, with a few honorable exceptions, such as David Thomson in the New Republic, have taken Interstellar at face value. Technical achievements and the film’s entertainment value have generally managed to trample all other considerations.
Interstellar’s immaculately visualized roller-coaster rides across the universe, and its great mix of emotionally engaging human drama and spectacular CGI effects of time travel to never before seen inhabitable planets has been hailed as nothing short of ground-breaking. The consensus of critical opinions has been that Interstellar is every bit as visionary as say Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, we conveniently forget that Kubrick’s controversial masterpiece is still considered a masterpiece precisely because it makes no sense and is confoundingly misleading. Every bit rooted in 1960s experimental aesthetics and alternative politics 2001: A Space Odyssey is a tightly controlled dark realm where free flowing imagination rules; acid culture informs the film’s color schemes and narrative arc. Compared to its outrageous visual flourishes Nolan’s sci-fi extravaganza quite simply seems trite and tame. Worse than that, its high concept posturing and its postmodern computer generated fireworks mask a total lack of conviction or faith in what is really being suggested between the lines of dialogue and the cuts between shots. We refuse to acknowledge that vulgar fantasy rules with a curiously sadistic bravado in Interstellar, and that a need to impress and enthrall is all that matters. And while Kubrick’s Odyssey is, in the final analysis, an absurdist intergalactic death trip with a stillborn baby-planet floating through the dark universe, Interstellar ends up as a very silly Victorian ghost story set in outer space, with the added element of its hidden agenda – Nolan’s curious Hitlerite prorogation for obsessively self-aggrandizing utopian fantasies, that can easily become everybody else’s dystopian nightmares at a second glance.
Consequently, the main protagonist in Interstellar is not merely a heroic individual hell-bent on saving his kin from natural disaster, he is also a New Man. This new man whose name is Cooper, so he can rekindle the viewer’s memories of the salt-of-the earth lonely sheriff in High Noon, is someone who will escape the broken social system on Earth and radically reinvent himself in the cosmic wilderness, only so he can remain the same as he has ever been. The radical change in space and time here serves no other or higher purpose but to preserve an already established ideological matrix. Political status quo is reinforced through the seemingly revolutionary revamping of the age-old heroic male stereotype, so that the same white faces that bear the brunt of responsibility for the ecocide on Earth can rule ad infinitum on the new far off planets. And this terrible and insidious lack of imagination on Nolan’s part, his wilful refusal to see the cosmos as a domain of never before discovered freedom from the social bondage, is the key to his unconscious ideological extremism. On the other side of the universe, by the end of his intergalactic ordeal Cooper will return to an idealized version of himself.
An Arian looking like a folksy princeling and family loving go-getter will emerge from the 5th dimension’s wonder box at the bottom of a black hole to be reunited with his daughter on a space ship that looks like home in the final cathartic part of the film. What we, in fact, see looming large through Matthew McConaughey’s visceral performance is nothing short of Nolan’s romanticized alter ego, his updated version of the pioneering explorer type, a brave loner of few words and innate taste for physical action. However, what truly matters here is the loudly advertised notion that this self-sufficient, pragmatic fantasist – staying not only faithful to the original spirit of America, but also embodying its manifest destiny – is the guy we should trust fully. A vast gallery of moving close-ups in which McConaughey expertly pulls all the stops on the tsunami of his deepest emotions are here to impress on the spectator all the psychological dimensions of his human drama and suffering. Yet, this aesthetic strategy on Nolan’s part leads to a strange emotional overkill. In spite of Cooper’s feigned humanist concern for the well-being of his family and the human race, he ultimately emerges at the end of his epic voyage as nothing more or else than a conquistador for conquests sake, an adrenaline junky hooked on highs, be they in dreams or in outer space. And precisely this idea about the eternal return to an ancient and ruthless creed of achieving one’s goals, living the dream no matter the material cost or human sacrifice, here means reliving “the original crime” of stealing and controlling an unfamiliar, foreign world but this time as a redeeming, life-affirming “politically correct” good deed to save our species.
To make this monstrous notion additionally accessible, if not instantly acceptable as a big screen experience, Nolan has no choice but to further distract the viewer from thinking “the unthinkable” while the show is on. The ugly truth artfully wrapped up in the new emperor’s clothes of elaborate sound and intoxicating vision is supposed to sink in gradually and in the process turn itself into an appropriately accidental “after effect” of the principle attraction of cool spaceships and amazing planets, and suddenly we realize what the special effects and the method-acting grandstanding are really here for.
Yet in spite of Nolan’s best efforts to create exciting visual and sonic distractions the scenes in the first, earth-bound section of the film, full of elegant camera movements and crafty close ups with special focus on sweat and dirt under the nails, are curiously stilted and trite. They appear like an integral part of a half abandoned folksy IMAX sitcom. One after another they show countryside in danger and in flux. Predominantly set in cornfields that come alive with ominous apocalyptic winds, they revolve around an old farmhouse that could have been a haunted perch out of Edgar Allan Poe’s universe, full of eerie psychological horror and devil worshiping. Yet, for Nolan anything that smacks of dark ambiguity is strictly verboten. For him the farm is foremost a hotbed of traditional values and emotional resilience. We meet the honest, hard-working Cooper family, for whose survival and benefit the hero will go, literally, to the end of the universe. Paradoxically, however, the moral universe of these earnest redneck traditionalists is so simple-minded, their everyday so dull and predictable that Cooper’s subsequent suicidal voyage into the unfamiliar dimensions beyond the limits of the visible sky is inevitably perceived as a welcome distraction.
What startles “the thinking man”, whose attention Nolan here seeks, is his confounding inability to conceive the unknown worlds as possibly anything else than even more stupid and more trivial in comparison with the strange wonders of our dying planet. He discovers iconic enough images to illustrate alien worlds, but no convincing visual storytelling technique to link up individual shots with a wider meaning or purpose. Unlike Michelangelo Antonioni who in Zabriskie Point conjures up an audaciously episodic narrative structure to give credence to his groundbreaking vision of an America in which the only answer to corporate tyranny are acts of individual terror, Nolan in Interstellar, relies time and again on a whole array of stereotypical melodrama devices often associated with Charles Dickens classics such as Oliver Twist or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A wondering snob in him undoubtedly yearns for something more, for something new, something substantially different, yet the cinematic language itself, its deeply associative, moody and obscenely fetishist nature betrays his earnest artistic intentions.
The earnest melodrama in Interstellar arises from an unresolved tension between the aestheticized science and the mystifying nature of the most elemental human emotions. It begins with Nolan’s need to ensure, at any cost, the audience’s total identification with Matthew McConaughey’s character, the kind of typically soft spoken, awkward and bigger than life American countryside misfit that Sam Sheppard or Ed Harris would have felt most at ease in playing back in their heydays. Yet, McConaughey is essentially hopelessly miscast in Interstellar. In making him the epicenter of action Nolan unnecessarily complicates the intended transfer of credibility from the purported heroic stereotype to McConaughey as a wayward character actor. For, quite simply, the Oscar winner for his role in Dallas Buyers Club works the most effectively when cast against type. Challenged to explore unmapped emotional territory or lose weight to help him uncover the hidden depths of a character, he performs small method acting wonders. In Interstellar, however, McConaughey is not only traveling through outer space, he seems lost and outmaneuvered by it. Negotiating distant galactic systems he is more like a black hole dead ringer to John Cassavetes’ deceiving husband in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. In other words, it is hard to have much faith in his restless gaze or to put much stock into the character traits he more often than not wears on his sleeve like an emotional badge of honor. It is even harder to imagine him as the single, struggling parent of two rebellious children, Cooper’s daughter Murphy played by Mackenzie Foy and his son Tom played by Timothée Chalamet. But instead of facing the music and adjusting the cumbersome sci-fi narrative twists to the inner demands and emotional range of Cooper’s character, Nolan blithely forces his star actor into a suffocating old-fashioned Victorian narrative straight jacket.
The plot, in fact, by and large hinges on a safety net of “too late” and “just in the nick of time” narrative moments quintessential to the populist 19th century melodrama. So, the whole story can be easily divided into three shamelessly melodramatic parts or chapters. The first, on dying earth where desperate farmers fight dust storms to save their crops and lives, which is all about “too late”-tension and melancholia; the second, in outer space, which follows the space ship “Endurance” as it races against time through a worm hole to reach distant planets so the people on the earth can be saved, which is all about “just in a nick of time”-drama; and the third which mixes the two in the most scientifically and cinematically daring part, showing Cooper discovering his true self in the 5th dimension beyond time and space limits, while simultaneously helping Murphy to finish the job the “Endurance” crew started and deliver humanity from ecological apocalypse.
In fact the bread and butter melodrama is so thickly spread that it is almost impossible to see through it. The most banal and trite narrative codes from Victorian serialized novels not just rule but are ubiquitous. Yet, somehow it seems that this double-dealing strategy of combining cutting edge sound and visual effects in order to mask the inner narrative lack of innovation, is not enough. Heavy dependence on the most tired, ultimately overused pulpy platitudes, is not sufficient for Nolan. His control-freak impulse gets out of control and he suddenly goes all poetic. More than that, poetry gradually becomes more and more prominent as the notion of the ultimate crime, the final destruction of our world looms larger.
The first scene of Interstellar is Cooper’s nightmare. We see him falling from the sky. Later we learn that once upon a time he used to be a test pilot with NASA, and if this sounds like the beginning of a poetic fairy tale with sci-fi elements, well, it is. And even that would not necessarily be so bad or out of hand uninteresting. For as G. K. Chesterton correctly observed somewhere, fairy tales are the closest equivalent we have for the most secretive workings of the Real itself. The only problem with Nolan’s futuristic fairy tale is that it lacks the perverse realness of genuine magic. Steeped in in-your-face melodramatic antics, he wears his storytelling cape the way the wolf wears a sheep’s skin. So, we learn that Cooper survived his traumatic flight accident once upon a time and also once upon a time gave up flying for good, only so that he can be more susceptible to far-fetched flights of fancy later when he meets Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine). And with that, another Dickensian melodramatic feature is quickly introduced. An idea of mistaken identity and a double, secret life, beyond the socially acceptable and the culturally obvious, takes center stage.
Our tormented test pilot is only a dirt poor farmer, looking after his failing crops and raising rabble rousing children, during the day. At night he is someone else entirely, a tormented daredevil spaceman for whom only the sky is the limit. His dreams and nightmares of flying and falling, just like the ghost that haunts his daughter Murphy, set him decisively apart from the rest of the crowd, the desperate, red neck community in his immediate surroundings. An insidiously manipulative narrative double game begins mixing melodramatic clichés with poetic nihilism: Cooper is both ordinary and exceptional. And with it an exotic element of game of chance, the gambling with fate connected with a higher calling is additionally reinforced. We learn that Cooper’s daughter is not called Murphy for nothing. It has got something to do with Murphy’s Law, the notion that what can happen eventually will happen no matter what. So, in that first section of the film, all in muted green and dusty, funereal brown colors, we learn that Murphy, like her father, is furtively different. What sets her apart from her peers is not just her rebellious spirit, but also what she sees up in her attic. During one of the cataclysmic dust storms she is visited by a strange dust ghost who leaves code messages hard to decipher in the dirt on the floor of her room.
Her special status in the narrative, therefore, arises from and is dependent on extraordinary beneficial external circumstances, not so much on her character traits. Unexpectedly visited by “the good benefactor,” a ghost from a different dimension, she finds strength to speak her mind and later discovers her future calling as a scientist as well. This particular plot device, “the good benefactor,” that is, as Amanda Ann Klein observes, meant also to be poetic, is not just melodrama at its purest but also the most grimly conservative construct as well since it “places the burden of the victim’s survival on the shoulders of a kind-hearted stranger willing to do good” (Klein 2009: 183). This way the need for wider social change is dispelled. A desire for robust, decisive and organized action is safely relegated into the easily controlled and manipulated domain of individual efforts where “a few wealthy individuals intervene in a nick of time” (Ibid.) and render any further social-conscious action redundant. In Interstellar the appearance of a benign problem-solving alien force will not just set Murphy apart from the other less “supernaturally blessed” farm kids in her proximity, it will also help her, in the end, to get reunited with her father in the outer space and simultaneously save the human race.
But this is not all. The poetic ghost as a good-natured benefactor is not the only benefactor or the sole, exclusive, brush with poetry. Elsewhere in Interstellar one benefactor leads to another. The mysterious codes in the dust, that Murphy discovers and Cooper deciphers, open up not just a secret door for the happy deliverance of our species from environmental disaster, but also a way to go up in the world, literally, for the waiting cosmos on the other side of the dust riddle is also an untapped realm for future social mobility. Following clues written in the dust ciphers Cooper and Murphy, who now work hand in glove like the father-daughter team from Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, visit a remote location steeped in titillating obscurity, and realize that destiny brought them there. On the other side of the barbed wire are robots, scientists, engineers, technicians, doctors – the works – a sci-fi version of the Land of Oz.
NASA has, like some kind of cult or a mafia organization, been driven underground, out of fear of public backlash, which only seems reasonable and just on the overheated planet where there is not enough food, let alone funds, for the extravaganza of space travel. Yet Nolan seems to disagree. While the other, less fortunate protagonists of the film can count their blessings on the fingers of one hand, Cooper remains miraculously on top of things. The former NASA test pilot is privileged not by birth but by fate, which is far more dangerous. In the NASA’s maze-like center, hidden in wilderness, what he finds is a semi religious shrine to visionary science run by Sir Michael Caine’s quaint quantum physics whizz, the second benign benefactor figure in the film. Yet one would wish for a mad gangster mastermind with scientific superpowers along the lines of Fritz Lang’s doctor Mabuse or at least an abusive proxy father figure, like the imprisoned gangland kingpin played by Niels Arestrup in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.
At one point during his tour of NASA’s underground compound, Michael Caine’s Professor Brand, in order to convince Cooper to take up flying for him and the team again, recites the famous Dylan Thomas verses about not going gently into that good night. Poetry here serves the pragmatic purpose of lifting up a confused and sagging spirit and make men do what seems humanly impossible. But while Dylan Thomas’s immortal poem is essentially a death-defying drunken cry for more of the same in terms of existence, a Dionysian plea in defence of beauty and horror of life as it is here, on Earth, under this moon, this sun and no other stars, Caine’s rendition of the verses is cool and detached. It is a meticulously executed battle call. By raging against the dying of the light he actually asks for the blood of those among us who will not be fortunate enough to board the fateful spaceship scheduled for far off planets and their utopian cosmic promised land. And here is where I believe that my assertion pertaining to Interstellar’s radically conservative politics, and underlying Hitlerian undertones, does seem adequate. For take a look, for an instant, at the NASA underground compound in the first part of the film and then, setting aside for a moment the melodramatic smoke screen of the “just in the nick of time”-narrative devices and the hyperrealist representational front of visuals and soundtrack, and what is one really left with?
Not just a high-tech lab under the ground, but also a black sight in the wilderness. Whoever goes there stays there indefinitely for one reason or another. Intruders and trespassers are apprehended, questioned and perhaps tortured indefinitely by indefatigable robots. The elaborate, gargantuan subterranean infrastructure that we savor with cinematic aficionado relish, is a kind of fortified haven and a hi-tech bunker that in reality cannot be easily built let alone financed or equipped without a covert military involvement of some kind. One wonders how we do not hear in the background of the otherwise incredibly detailed soundtrack muted, the cries of deranged and dying zero-hours wage slaves working overtime to finish the space ship “Endurance” on time, while Professor Brand stokes Cooper’s appetites for outer space adventure. In the same scene Michael Caine calmly delivers the lines that succinctly summarize Interstellar, the secret credo behind the appearance of stiff upper lip resolution: “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”
And finally it becomes stark clear what Nolan’s film is really all about. This is how the global class struggle that has been raging on with ferocious intensity ever since the fall of Berlin Wall really ends. Exhausted, brutalized and clueless underdogs use up the last remaining vestiges of their Matrix-bound energy to build starships the size of California for the selected few women and men from the club of fortune and privilege who, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, are “a new biological race, secured against disease and enhanced through generic intervention and cloning, while the same technologies are used to control the poor” (2012: 93) so that the victors in the global game of winners and losers can leave the mess they made on Earth behind and light out safely into the setting suns of new habitable planets near the black hole they call Gargantuan, where the real estate business is like ubiquitous stardust on their dainty fingertips.
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.
Klein, Amanda Ann (2009), “‘The Dickensian Aspect’: Melodrama, Viewer Engagement, and the Socially Conscious Text,” in Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (eds.), The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, New York & London: Continuum, pp. 177-189.
Žižek, Slavoj (2012), The Year of Living Dangerously, London & New York: Verso.