Interstellar (2014) is a myth against ecological limits. Since at least the 1960s, scientists and writers of different kinds have been trying to convince us that we have just one earth to work with. We need to avoid making it toxic and warping its climate beyond habitability. Since at least the 1970s, scientists and writers of different kinds have been trying to convince us that the oil must run out. However much might still be left, the exuberant bonfire will end—or perhaps worse, gradually slacken. In Nolan’s film, we watch Matthew McConaughey rage, rage against the dying of the light. That is, against this earthly pragmatism. The Dylan Thomas quote was not my idea; the film recites the poem without irony.
The light is manifest destiny. As students of American history know, manifest destiny is the nineteenth-century ideology of westward (and northward, and southward—but westward is the most cited direction) progress of the American nation. The imperial ambition was for the nation and the continent to be one. Manifest destiny continued the more general colonial ideology that imagined European nations to be the inevitable masters of the earth. In much science fiction, such colonial myths continue to run, repeating themselves like laptop malware. In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells reversed the hierarchy by having technologically advanced Martians invade late-Victorian Britain, the center of the largest empire in history. In Star Trek, earthly humans, mostly European and American, form a galactic empire that explores space and battles alien species rather than other races. In Interstellar, the dream is fading. There is nowhere left to go. Some climate disaster from before the beginning of the narrative has led to economic and population collapse. Americans keep on keeping on, but they struggle through dust storms and work hard to survive. The glory days are over; they eat popcorn instead of hotdogs at baseball games.
Matthew McConaughey’s character is disappointed with this fate. He is an astronaut who trained for space, but never got to go. He works on his father’s (John Lithgow) corn farm. His children are the first generation after the collapse, growing up in less ambitious times. McConaughey hates being a farmer. In a wistful but frustrated tone, he laments that “we used to be pioneers, explorers.” As a character, McConaughey combines three archetypal figures. He is a farmer, a figure tied to the earth like the symbol of the American citizen established by Thomas Jefferson and John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. He is an astronaut, bound to leave the earth behind, symbol of the future and apotheosis of cold war technology. But he identifies with the pioneer and the explorer, ambitious to carry on the colonial tradition, if only a frontier were available. In the film, the figure of the farmer can no longer be a pioneer, since the earth lacks fresh territory.
Early in Interstellar, we learn that the “final frontier” is closed. More than that, scholars have re-written the history of space travel. One of the most interesting scenes throughout is a parent teacher interview. McConaughey has a son (Timothée Chalamet) and a daughter (Mackenzie Foy). He wants his son to go to college. But his son’s teachers tell McConaughey that only a fraction of people can go to college. “We’re a caretaker generation,” the teacher tells him. His son should also be a farmer. “Caretaker” seems to refer to adapting to the limits imposed by the new climate. Meanwhile, McConaughey’s daughter is in trouble for bringing one of his old textbooks to class, a textbook from the twentieth century that describes the Apollo 11 mission as a real historical event. McConaughey looks at the teacher in disbelief. “You think the moon landing was a hoax?” The answer is yes. But more important than whether or not it was a hoax, she says, is that it was merely a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union. She says that the textbooks now describe the space program as just another bad project of the wasteful, earth-destroying twentieth century. As far as politics go, the parent teacher interview does the most world building. In Interstellar the United States seems to have shifted politically to some form of eco-socialism. The hegemonic ideology normalizes humility and care for the earth. This is what McConaughey can’t stand. He and his daughter seem to be the only ones around who think that “we weren’t meant to die here.”
Slight spoiler alert: At this point, the film enters what seems to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy on the part of McConaughey’s character. Strange inter-dimensional messages which I’ll leave out of this review (their origin is the real spoiler) tell him to go to the middle of a cornfield. In the cornfield, he finds NASA. In what feels like a reference to Field of Dreams, he learns that NASA has been operating there in secret. They want McConaughey to go to space after all, so he abandons his family to do so. They have also received messages; they have found ways to travel through wormholes to distant places, where viable planets might be available. But in order to learn the final secrets of interstellar travel, they need information from the inside of a black hole. McConaughey describes his ultimate mission to the black hole as a trip into the “heart of darkness.” Don’t read the next sentence if you want to remain in suspense about what Interstellar finds at the center of black holes, beyond the event horizon. It’s us.
The fact that we are stuck on the earth is the fourth narcissistic wound, which might be why many find it hard to accept. Freud coined the term “narcissistic wound” to refer to three consecutive humiliations of human self-importance. The first wound was that of Copernicus: the Earth is not the center of the universe. The second was that of Darwin: human animals evolved from other, “lower” animals. Freud modestly named his own discovery as the third wound, the wound of the unconscious. As conscious subjects, we cannot fully know ourselves; we are not at the center of our own psychic cosmos. Maybe the fourth wound is that there is nowhere to go that matters, that we’re stuck on earth until something destroys it. There are probably wonderful planets with life on them, elsewhere in the universe. They’re just too far away.
Are we stuck on earth? This isn’t the place to go over the debates and scenarios about the possibility of travelling anywhere significant. These debates and scenarios still play out. But even the possibility of colonizing planets and moons in our solar system depends on the idea of terraforming them or creating self-sustaining biospheres on them, which seems so unlikely. NASA scenarios and science fiction narratives are rarely clear about what sort of energy would fuel such operations—operations which would surely be even more energy intensive than the infrastructures we struggle to sustain on earth, at least if people are to settle in space in numbers. It would have to be in numbers if it were to be a question of doing anything more than creating habitat for tiny groups of super-rich people, elite scientists, and astronauts. I’m surprised how many people still believe that humans will live in space. When I ask around, people often say yes, which implies a future of continuous technological progress. Is Interstellar a symptom of clinging to this fantasy of transcending earth, a fantasy that gets more urgent the more dangerous and depleted the earth becomes?
What’s the point of NASA in an ecological crisis? The projected NASA budget for the next five years approaches one hundred billion dollars, and this is the reduced budget. The budget of DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is about one tenth that of NASA. The idea is that NASA research contributes to innovation in other areas, and that it has the potential to teach us about life on earth as well. Should we be happy with scraps from the table? More importantly, does the fantasy of going to space in numbers contribute to apathy and cynicism about terrestrial climate and energy problems? If everyone stopped believing in the frontier, would it make a difference? Is it possible to enter a new regime of technology, a regime about working with ecological constraints, rather than transcending them? Is it possible to abandon the colonial mindset and build long-term habitats on earth? Modernist technology is Promethean; like rockets and skyscrapers, its thrust is perpendicular to a tangent of the earth. Is a nonmodern technology possible, one that turns back toward the earth, modeled on the loop instead of the arrow? Could there be an equivalent of NASA, devoted to the high technology of habitat, with a similar budget?