Friday, 1 August 2014

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt"

The hype around Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is rather excessive for a film that isn't due out for several months. However, it's has all the makings of an interesting one. The plot is simple enough: astronauts travel through a wormhole into deep space in order to search for habitable planets. So far so sci-fi; however, there's a hint of desperation to the endeavour that very much speaks to our anthropocenic moment.

As the protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey, put it:
We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.
This is, of course, following on precisely from the sentiment of Gravity, where Sandra Bullock's protagonist fights tooth and nail to return to the life-giving dirt of planet Earth. There can be no more geocentric film than Gravity and Interstellar in its very title revives the imagined possibility of human expansion into 'the final frontier.' However, the ontological shift that these films both presuppose is obvious. Final frontierism is no longer the obvious logical consequence of a rational civilisation benignly rolling out into the endlessly fertile emptiness of existence; it is the final act of the desperate and depraved, a last frantic lunge into the improbable.

Of course, it's unlikely that we will be denied a happy, life-affirming ending. This is a Hollywood blockbuster, after all:
At Comic Con in San Diego last week, Nolan told the audience Interstellar was "about what it is to be human, and what our place is in the universe," adding: "The further that you travel out into the universe, the more you realise it's in [your heart]." Hathaway's astronaut seems to be saying something similar in the trailer: "Maybe we've spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space."
Nothing with that much schmaltz is going to be especially austere with its ultimate estimation of 'the human spirit,' etc. etc. Interestingly, the romantic kitsch is contrasted to the 'hard science' -- yes, there's something for all the family:
If that all sounds a bit gooey, there are hard science facts (or at least theories) at the centre of the movie, which is based on ideas about wormholes posited by the American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Nolan told Comic Con the conversations between film-maker and scientist were "intense" and even admitted: "It actually made my head hurt a bit. I actually said to Kip, 'Well, I don't want to understand this stuff too much because I have to be able to explain it to the audience.'"
Sit back and prepare to be explained to, kids (but don't worry, mum, there'll be a mushy love story too). And I imagine that at some point something will probably go !!BANG!!, in order to keep dad awake.

Regardless, the trend towards quasi-middle-brow, more-or-less geocentric sci-fi blockbusters is an interesting cultural development. In the past ecological issues cropped up in science fiction as a romantic or aesthetic tragedy -- 'alas, look what we evil all-too-humans have done.' Now we are beginning to see that it is a tragedy that is considerably more existential, mortal -- a tragedy that threatens not the pastoral beauty of a world that is meekly prostrate before our mastery but a thoroughly active and reactive world that may very well be preparing to extinguish us like the pests that we have become.

That is something rather different. To realise that the Earth will never be mastered and that we are simply earthbound organisms with overly high estimations of ourselves -- that is galaxies away from science fiction's past imagined futures.

To what extent Interstellar will follow that ontological detour of course remains to be seen. It seems likely that the power of love will overcome all and we'll all go home either enraptured or nauseated. (Still thinking in terms of AIME, this would be an interesting category mistake: it is as if [rel] could keep us breathing [rep]!)

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