Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Launched into the stars by their own bootstraps: The American post-imperial anxiety of Interstellar; or, The anti-Gravity

***Some minor spoilers in the following***
"Humanity was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here."
A little behind the curve, perhaps, but I finally got around to seeing Interstellar this week. First thing to say is that it’s a terrific piece of entertainment. The 169 minutes fly by in no time. Beyond that, it’s a really interesting film for a number of reasons; however, my impression of it differs from most of the reviews that I’ve read.

It’s a film that’s premised on ecology, set in space, sold on the basis of science and tells everyone that it’s all above love. However, my first reaction (second, if you count watching the trailer) is this: it is, quite unambiguously, a film about American post-imperial anxiety.

The quasi-ecological element is really just a narrative crutch; an external cause qua fig leaf; a reason for the empire’s decline that is entirely unattributable to the empire itself; a blameless (and, crucially, carbon-neutral) act of God that sets the wheels of the narrative in motion. The fact that the larger part of the film is set in space is really just a matter of genre. Its only importance in terms of the film’s subtext is that outer space is the only medium into which the (Final) Frontier can now be comprehensibly extended; the only direction in which there are still lands weak enough to conquer. (The lands beyond are fearsome and cold, but infinitely less so than the future of the irremediably dying Earth – it is in this precise sense that Interstellar is the anti-Gravity.) The early parts of the film doff their cap sufficiently to their physicist attachés to lend it all Nolan’s signature air of vérité and to partially placate imagination-phobic militants of ‘hard sci-fi,’ while locating it tonally (if not ontologically) within the zeitgeisty aesthetic footprint of Gravity. The film glorifies techno-science but this is hardly what it’s about. Likewise, although the somewhat overbearing quasi-spiritual message that it’s really all above Love that transcends time and space has been repeated time and again, this is really just a through-line that holds everything together. It’s only ‘all above love’ if you stay strictly on the surface and believe everything that you’re told to believe.

The film opens in a near-future, Midwestern USA where everything is pretty much exactly the same as the present, only worse. Every value, convention, pastime and social structure (besides capitalism) seems to be intact only now everyone’s poor, covered in dust, thinks that the moon landings were faked and are rubbish at baseball. The world has gone to hell but in a manner where everyone is more or less ‘in it together.’ We are told briefly and offhandedly of bombs being dropped on food rioters at some point in the past but no one in the film is morally compromised or, indeed, visibly malnourished. Just dusty. It’s a relatively soft-lensed dystopia; yet it is a dystopia nonetheless. Above all, though, it is self-absorbed.

At no point does the film show any interest whatsoever in the rest of the world. The closest we come to an international perspective is in the opening moments where the family McConaughey take down an Indian surveillance drone through Dad’s ‘last of his kind’ techno-wizardry. Although, for no apparent reason, all non-agricultural forms of advanced technology have been rendered obsolete due to crop-blighted mass hunger (surely, given all we know about the world from the past century, this would make military technologies more valued rather than less?) this drone has been circling under its own solar power for years. Despite the daughter’s plea to let it go – ‘it wasn’t hurting anyone’ – the drone is salvaged for parts. (Tellingly, this is framed in quasi-evolutionary terms as 'adaptation' to the external, unnegotiable natural circumstances.) But, besides all that character development, what could be more humblingly post-imperial than an Indian drone circling American skies for decades unchallenged? It may have landed softly but its impact on an already wounded hegemonic psyche is obvious.

Fear of imperial decline has been a mainstay of US political discourse since the 1950s. Its most heavy-handed iteration in this film comes in the continual references (through the medium of inset talking heads) to the ‘Dust Bowl’ era of the 1930s. This humiliating, regressive ‘return of the repressed’ emblemises the fallenness of the Great Power. When McConaughey repeats the film’s tagline ‘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’ he nearly spits his porch-supped beer on the grubby, only semi-fertile ground in disgust. Here this existential ‘geocentrism’ is to be understood as a tragic humiliation, a loss of all vitiating force, of all that would make life worthwhile; this is why I call it the anti-Gravity.

What way out of this? Nothing says ‘Space Age’ like the acronym NASA. Reduced to a rag-tag bunch of misfits and a few talking fridges though they may be, it is the ever benign (and now scandalously maligned) National Aeronautics and Space Administration that is the ultimate saviour of humanity. (Having said that ‘everything is the same, only worse,’ there is, as mentioned parenthetically above, no capitalism in this film. There seem to be three social categories: the ‘hard working families’ of goddarn, salt o’the earth farmer folk; the soft-handed but hardly well-heeled scientists in their middle-of-nowhere bunker; and, finally, the unseen remnants of state power providing the last scraps of techno-scientific resources to the would-be guardians of the human race. At least in the shreds of the world we are privy to, there is a certain ‘equality of poverty.’)

It is techno-science that is at the root of everything. If only ‘we’ could ‘dream big’ once again and not be so darned defeatist, the film seems to say, things will work themselves out. Optimism. Let’s launch ourselves into the stars by our own bootstraps! We need only one really, really smart girl/woman to solve just one equation and the universe is our oyster. Because science.

Finally, numerous commentators have pointed to the 1997 film Contact as a parallel to Interstellar, and for good reason. The important contrast that sticks out in my mind is that there is at least a semblance of internationalism in Contact in terms of how the single representative (and hence embodiment) of humanity is selected. Of course, that film operates in a benign state of civilisational non-devastation (and in a post-Cold War period when American power was perhaps at an all-time high and therefore needn’t be so jealously self-obsessed). Nevertheless, the contrast is striking. The candidate eventually chosen in Contact is, inevitably, American (despite being hilariously inappropriate for the role); nevertheless, at least there was some hesitation before installing the closed loop that would have American speak for Man as though this were the most obvious and natural thing in the world.

In short: there’s life in the Final Frontier yet. The subtext of this film could be readily summarised with the aid of Stephen Colbert’s brilliant book title America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never Weren't. Of course, this Hollywood film is far too politically correct (and mindful of its global audience) to ever explicitly frame ‘America’ as its collective subjectivity. Its ‘we’ is always an abstract ‘humanity’ that the cast of Americans (besides the somewhat out of place Michael Caine) just happen to embody.

We are all familiar enough, I hope, with popular humanism to see straight through this ploy. The future space colonies that the film ultimately envisages fly stars and stripes. Yes, yes – ‘it’s just a film’ and one can read too much into these things but I can’t help but experience this film as being something like the death throes of the self-image of American world supremacy in its popular cultural form, faced with its half-denied anthropocenic non-future.

It's a magnificent spectacle, and that's really the point. It takes some extremely bright lights to make a film that is as backwards looking as this appear as though it is facing forwards. (But, for all that, I like it.)