[Be advised; spoilers for Interstellar beyond this point. Do avoid the entire post if you haven’t seen the film. Although the trailers also did a pretty good job of that already. But I digress.]
While watching the Endurance brave the outer reaches of our solar system and then the uncharted waters of the cosmos, I had one main thought throughout; man, wouldn’t it be something?
I’m an incurable space geek. I grew up in the middle of the space shuttle programme, and I consumed anything and everything that had to do with the history of space exploration. I could quote the Apollo mission crews when other kids my age could quote football team rosters, I read about the moon landings, the unmanned space missions, the deep space probes. I watch the live feeds of the ISS crew swaps, I held my breath when Rosetta dropped Philae on comet 67P. I get goosebumps when I hear Carl Sagan extol our ultimate destiny. So when this movie says humanity’s future lies in the stars, I’m not so much on board as I’m strapped in the chair, helmet on, protein pills safely stowed in my pockets.
I thought Interstellar was great. Not The Prestige great, but still one of the best pieces of science fiction to be found on a cinema screen in the last few years. Oh, I have problems with it, make no mistake. But any issues I might have pale in contrast to everything this movie does right, in my opinion. I’m not even talking about the dazzling spectacle; there is a meal for your eyes to gorge on, and plenty of it, especially in the IMAX version. But in choosing to tackle this particular genre, the Nolans are telling a story with a fantastic, if not terribly original, message:
We are our own salvation.
This theme is carried throughout the film, and it influences how the world is presented to us, what the characters do, how the various threads end up tying into one another. It begins with one simple admission; we fucked up.
Some people have blamed the sparse world-building in Interstellar; why is the world in such a state? Where is the government? Who is keeping the peace? How does NASA still have funding? In fact, all this doesn’t matter, because there is only one thing we need to know about this world: we failed. We failed to keep our world alive, and we failed ourselves because we stopped growing. Cooper bemoans how the human race used to be “explorers – not just caretakers”.
The school meeting further illustrates where we are at the beginning of the film: the principal claims we “need farmers, not engineers; the world didn’t run out of planes and TV sets, we ran out of food.” The moon landing is taught as fiction, a piece of propaganda from a bygone era, not a scientific achievement. From the outset, this is not a world that’s looking forward or upward, it’s a world that’s keeping its head down, its only purpose to make it through the night. It’s a world that doesn’t value scientists, engineers, explorers; it’s just concerned about finding its next meal.
The Nolans are quietly (and not so subtly) raging against the current sentiment against science and progress that we are faced with, that is arguably holding us back in so many respects, exasperated at a humanity that refuses to embrace its potential. From climate change denial, to creationism being taught in schools as a valid alternative to evolution, to the anti-vaccine movement, to religious fanaticism, to the erosion of civil liberties and rights, to flagrant inequality; our species is hampering itself in so many ways it seems unbelievable we even got this far.
The answer, according to the film, is simple; we got ourselves into this mess, we’re gonna get ourselves out. The big “reveal” that humans will eventually evolve so far beyond our present scope that they become a superior civilisation, unbound by current concepts of space and time, and then reach back over the millennia to their past selves, us, is not a particularly original one in science fiction. Many creators have explored similar concepts in the past; Kurt Vonnegut was quite fond of stories where time ceases to be a straight line and characters glimpse all of history as a unified while, while Arthur Clarke explored the potential of a human race that reached for the stars. That same idea even came close to becoming the plot of the first Star Trek movie.
In Interstellar, the Nolans say that the human race will prevail in spite of all the hardships; we will evolve beyond our wildest imagination, we will conquer space and time, as we have been conquering the secrets of our existence for as long as we have been raising our eyes to the sky. And yes, we might need to reach back across the oceans of time and give our ancestors a little bit of a nudge forward, but there isn’t any way to do that if some spark isn’t already there. We can achieve greatness; we need only reach out, and make a grab for it. There’s a whole universe out there just waiting for us.
Isn’t that something.