Interstellar Is a Crying Shame

The just-released film Interstellar, while certainly a feast for the eyes, represents, in one fell swoop, much of what is so terribly wrong with our species, our thinking, our actions, and our intended future. As accompaniment to a bag of popcorn it's delightful; as a piece of cinematic art, however, it is a violent, awful revelation of human hubris, shortsightedness, and self-importance.

The overall premise of the film -- set in a post-apocalyptic future where our briefly referenced habits of consuming resources and destroying nature have resulted in a dry, dusty landscape devoid of wildlife and no hope for the survival of mankind -- is that we can save ourselves by finding another planet upon which to live. The job of getting us there falls upon a secretly preserved N.A.S.A. bunch led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and, including the film's hero, a spacecowboy/stick-jockey named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).

A big theme in the film is time: it's relationship with gravity and space, its effects on human life and relationships, and, predictably, the toll it takes on love and families. Wormholes, interstellar travel, and temporal mind games provide the intellectual fodder all science fiction stories require, and Cooper's relationship with the story's heroine, his daughter, Murphy (played by Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, and Jessica Chastain) provides the tear-jerk moments.

Despite the marvelous special effects and the great lengths gone to by the filmmakers to imaginatively render singularities, Interstellar misses the chance to be either an inspiring or cautionary tale. Instead, the film lionizes precisely those social elements that are most reprehensible and scary, and lauds precisely those psychological traits that we must excoriate if we are truly to save our planet and survive along with it. More, instead of juxtaposing technology and consciousness, science and morality as James Cameron did in Avatar, director Christopher Nolan panders to our primitive urge to resort to fantasy rather than reality when facing the very problems that have put humanity in its current pickle.

To sort through the razzle-dazzle and get to what really makes this movie so reprehensible requires some straight talk about who we humans really are and are not, both in the physical and spiritual sense. Physically, we are one species among millions, living an impermanent existence against an ever-changing bio-geological backdrop. If we are unique, it is not because we are the most intelligent species on the planet (that honor likely goes to whales), nor because we are the most enduring (look to cycads and roaches instead) but because, in addition to being stunningly resourceful, creative, potentially loving and deeply spiritual, we are also the most hubristic, self-absorbed, and destructive.

In fairness, the film does acknowledge some of our baser aspects when it shows McConaughey's Cooper struggling mano-a-mano with another of the film's cosmonauts, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). The image of that pair of self-absorbed, bipedal predators waging a personal, miniature war against the vast and frozen tapestry of an alien planet in a galaxy far, far away is perhaps the most honest portrayal of human nature in the film, and therefore perhaps also the most memorable.

The remainder of this nearly three-hour-long strip of film sadly becomes yet one more self-congratulatory bit of feel-good-because-you're human pablum rather than giving a more balanced view of our species. In this day and age, I find it boring to celebrate being human without discernment. From a planetary point of view, (appropriate for a story about planets) our species has little basis for such pride. We may create beautiful music and art and extend our reach into the far reaches of the galaxy, but by dint of violence, toxic effluvia, and unmitigated growth we often behave more like a malignancy than a miracle.

If our species is to become worth saving, then we must quickly evolve away from any model that makes us feel exceptional. Thus the Judeo-Christian fiction that some concocted supernatural being gave us hegemony over our planet must be immediately cast out, especially as it justifies and gives us pride in the very technology that will kill us long before it saves us. We would do far better to embrace the mythologies of aboriginal people, indigenes who see a far more interconnected world, than to cleave to the prevailing Western model.

In Interstellar, McConaughey's Cooper at one point describes humans as "explorers not caretakers." What a terrible, self-indulgent truth that has thus far been, and how entirely necessary it is to turn it around. Until we learn to take care of all life on Earth, including each other, the idea of exporting our values and behaviors to another planet, once there to destroy that world as we have our own, is morally unbearable.

Let's stop making movies like this, or, at least, let's stop watching them. They freeze our hearts, turn our brains to mush, and delude our children into believing in Scientism, the latest and most dangerous of man's religions. If we are going to explore, let's explore our spiritual landscapes in a quest for an antidote to all such fantastical belief systems. Let's find a mindful, balanced, and harmonious alternative to hating and killing everyone and everything in the name of what we say we believe. Let's create cinematic masterworks that exhort us to cherish the planet we have, and all the wonders upon it, rather than jettison it in favor of new turf to kill.

Let's concentrate instead on developing ourselves into a species that really is special, that really deserves to spread out across the galaxy, but as wave of consciousness, not a cancer. Let's stop thinking that we're so interesting, lose our narcissism, and look for information, pleasure, fascination, and titillation in the lives of creatures other than ourselves.

Let's cast time as a bit player in the drama of our development rather than our denial, departure, and demise. Let's stop deluding ourselves, stop lording it over others, stop worrying about who wears what, who eats what, who worships what, and who lives where. Let's concentrate on compassion, frugality, and humility instead. The first of these virtues will give our lives meaning, the second will help us sustain our resources, and the third will help us understand that while we ourselves are not special, the larger fabric to which we belong most assuredly is.