*SPOILER WARNING: go watch this movie; it will make you want to go stargazing for hours afterward
At its surface level, Interstellar, as evidenced by the name, is about space exploration. The film is not shy about placing space exploration in contrast to coping with life on earth (specifically a farm not unlike an Iowan cornfield). Cooper, the former NASA pilot, reminisces on the front porch, “We used to be explorers and pioneers, not caretakers.” Some critics of the space program have argued there is a trade-off between colonizing and caretaking. Lynda Williams compellingly articulates in the Peace Review:
Life on Earth is more urgently threatened by the destruction of the biosphere and its life-sustaining habitat due to environmental catastrophes such as climate change, ocean acidification, disruption of the food chain, bio-warfare, nuclear war, nuclear winter, and myriads of other manmade doomsday possibilities. If we accept these threats as inevitabilities on par with real astronomical dangers and divert our natural, intellectual, political, and technological resources from solving these problems into escaping them, will we be playing into a self-fulfilling prophesy of our own planetary doom?
And sure, perhaps the easy answer is that we can both invest in colonizing another planet and preserving the biosphere of our own. But the ethical dilemma still remains: Is each dollar spent on life-sustaining plants one that could have been better spent on sustaining life on earth? And even more important, does the pull of the space frontier also disconnect us from the environmental conditions on the home front?
The film offers an almost poetic response to these critiques of space colonization as an escape hatch toward our own planetary doom. Newton’s Third Law is framed “You have to leave something behind to go forward.” Dr. Brand, the head of what is left of NASA, opines, “We’re not meant to save the world, we are meant to leave it.” Indeed, this post highlights interviews of the screenwriters that reveal their intention of portraying humanity’s ability to transcend environmental problems.
What the movie, and what so many frontier seekers and explorers, leave out is what happens after settlement. The location may change but the same destructive tendencies remain. Let us assume it was monocropping and soil deterioration, which allowed a crop blight to threaten humanity. When the new colony on the other side of the wormhole is farmed in the same way, will the explorers hop from planet to planet, leaving behind worlds of devastation in their wake? So, suspending plotlines, I wonder if the subtext of the movie even concedes the call to STAY. It is the imploring message in Morse code from the future father transferred through the young daughter to the present self.
The conceptualization of time also has some parallels with the go to space vs. stay on earth dichotomy. There’s a light moment later on in the movie when McConaughey jokes, “Neither one of us has time to worry about relativity.” But, in fact, it is the relativity components of space travel that provides the deepest explorations of time. For instance, ponder on this. One hour on one of the potential new earths amounts to seven years on earth. Maybe you knew that from a theory level, but to see Cooper losing decades with his family as water is drained from a spaceship is to actually relate to relativity.
Consequently, in a world where planets are judged by the potential of their resources to support life, time is the most prized resource. Similarly, so many fundamental resources – water, air, soil – permeate climate change discourse but time is the ultimate resource to be measured. We don’t have much time to act on climate and we act on climate because we want more time. Time is quantified in the 400,000 deaths from climate change ever year according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor report, which was a significant revision above previous estimates. As mentioned earlier, a civilization collapsing crop blight serves as the backdrop for the movie’s desperation. Interestingly enough, this revision to the 150,000 deaths per year figure from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007 was made to include effects of heat waves, crop losses due to pest increase, and other deadly diseases.
The movie oft quotes the Dylan Thomas poem, the first stanza of which reads:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage against the dying of the light.
Thankfully, in a pre-crop blight world, we do have time to rage against the dying of the light, to treat each hour as precious as seven years, and to realize the devastating implications of delay.
The movie is not perfect. Given his obviously vast imagination, Nolan could have found an alternative to American flags posted prominently on the new space colonies – a reminder that even in imaginary mid-apocalypse worlds, nationalism still reigns. There are plot holes, but in a movie with wormholes and black holes, shouldn’t we just accept that as an inevitability? Yet the most hard-hitting criticism attacks the movie as another cheesy love-conquers-all flick.
And I will admit that the phrase, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space” is a tad cheesy. But the presence of Dr. Mann, the most elite space traveler, elevates the rhetoric. Two lines in particular stand out: 1) Survival instinct is our single most important source of inspiration. 2) We can care deeply, selflessly for people we know, but our empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight. The counter comes from a more altruistic, collective call to love by Dr. Brand when he talks about space travel, “We must think not as individuals, but as a species.” The comparison to climate action applies here as well: the first two motivations are based on love of self and extensions of the self, while the third is a more encompassing form of love, one that extends to the environment, to the developing nations in the Global South, to the future generations that one will never see but would still drop into the abyss of a black hole for.
And why is it so bad to focus on love? Using a painstakingly scientific method for analysis, I found there were 35,581 quotes about love on Goodreads, 2859 about time, and only 365 about space (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes). There are more quotes about love than about life itself (23,567). Maybe it is the Thanksgiving spirit or the intense emotions after watching an epic movie, but I think the greatest stories are, at their root, stories about love. In our discussion about the final climate narrative projects, we have discussed the importance of conflict and character, and I think that emotions like love can really tie together characters and conflicts into coherent narratives.
And now these three remain: space, time, and love. But the greatest of these is love.