Contains spoilers for both Sunshine and Interstellar.
The religious allegory has long depended upon travelling as its strongest metaphor for life, as evidenced in both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey into the West (also known as Monkey) – the classic Christian and Buddhist travelogue allegories respectively. Two of the recent spate of non-religious allegories also build their plots upon an epic journey, namely Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Here, the mythic themes of traditional religion are replaced with contemporary non-religion, specifically positivism (which collects various mythos that have in common a strong trust in the sciences as our most reliable truth-givers). Other positivistic allegories in cinemas recently include Greg Motolla’s Paul (penned by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying, both of which descend into bigotry, the latter to a jaw-dropping extent. Of course, religious allegory is hardly immune to this: Journey to the West is about as racist towards Taoists as Paul is towards rural Christianity, for instance.
Interstellar and Sunshine are two peas in a pod: movies about scientists embarking upon an epic space journey to save the Earth from a poorly explained global catastrophe that – quite implausibly, in the case of Interstellar - can only be solved by physicists. Both movies have similar influences; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been mentioned by both directors, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris also deserves a nod in this regard. And both movies hired astrophysicists as full-time consultants – Einstein Medal winner Kip Thorne for Interstellar, and perpetual rictus-grinned Brian Cox for Sunshine. On the surface, this seems like a sensible consultation gig, although in the case of Interstellar the scientific themes go beyond mere physics and a broader consultation might have been sensible. The role of these physicist-advisors is as much spiritual as it is practical, though, as can be seen in Brian Cox’s conversion of Sunshine-star Cillian Murphy to atheism (i.e. a specifically atheological form of positivism) during filming. I suspect in this case that Murphy’s prior agnosticism was already positivistic in inclination, so the ‘change’ was more of denomination than of inclination.
Whereas Sunshine feels very much like Pilgrim’s Progress for those who put their faith in Science, at least before devolving into serial-killer-in-space, Interstellar seems a little more internally conflicted, but only just. Matt Damon’s hilarious cameo as evolutionary dogmatist Dr. Mann provides (sometimes unintentionally) some much needed humour in the frankly overlong movie. Mann has swallowed all of the Dawkins-esque dodgy metaphors about evolution without, it seems, accepting Dawkins’ own exultation to rise above this fallen state (a mythos Dawkins himself exports from Christianity, as others have noted). Similarly, John Lithgow has a few injections of grandfatherly wisdom that help leaven the oh-so-slowly rising bread: I giggled at his remark about Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘praying’ to his gravitational anomaly – far more apposite than perhaps even the Nolan brothers intended!
As spectacle cinema, Interstellar is a strangely effective mix of awe and boredom. But as didactic cinema, the Nolans shoot themselves through their collective feet. Christopher Nolan has stated that with this movie he wanted to rekindle interest in space travel after the disappointing termination of the space shuttle programme. But by its own internal logic, Interstellar is a massive argument against its own rhetoric. The problem springs from its energising mythos being that of the early twentieth century Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who responded to early rocketry by stating: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot live in a cradle forever.” In the film, this is delivered as “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here”, and Dylan Thomas’ striking poetry is repeatedly deployed to underscore this theme. This is a mythos I have dubbed “Flee the Planet” – and it is one of the most dangerous (in the Enlightenment sense) non-religious ideologies in circulation. As ground-breaking evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis remarked, it is a fantasy to think that space exploration is something possible solely through shiny metal technologies and not through messy biological partnerships. As a result, if we are to explore the stars, it is first necessary to fix our problems here on Earth.
This is the first way Interstellar’s message stumbles: it spends the entirety of the first hour painting its picture of a doomed Earth but never really manages to explain why that catastrophe is inescapable, or (equivalently) why super-physicists can save us by evicting us into space but super-biologists are powerless to save us on Earth. If it is possible, as the film’s ending posits, to create majestically perfect space colonies through the wonder of physics, why is it impossible to build (sealed) terrestrial colonies upon the Earth? Because frankly, being in space changes nothing here: if you can’t build sustainable self-contained colonies on the Earth, you’re not going to be able to build them in space either. The film may have got its physics ducks in a row, but its biology ducks are all higgledy-piggledy. We can still buy into conceit this because apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are so familiar to us now, but in this case we ought to be more sceptical about its premise, given the director’s intention to motivate viewers towards a specific way of thinking.
More egregiously on this front, Interstellar veers into very strange metaphysical nonsense in its attempts to neatly tie everything up too neatly. Behind its immediate mythos of “Flee the Planet” lies a more general mythos that philosopher Mary Midgley has dubbed “Science as Salvation”. But the sciences are utterly powerless to provide salvation in Interstellar, because its entire premise is based upon aid from unknown beings that McConaughey’s character insists (with a total absence of evidence – bad positivist, no cookie for you!) are five-dimensional future descendants of humanity. These beings open the wormhole and construct the tesseract that are the necessary plot devices for saving all of humankind in the story. This actually doesn’t make a lick of sense if you examine it too closely, but setting this aside the whole “Science as salvation” mythos fails if what actually saves you is a deus ex machina, or rather homo ex machina since we are supposed to believe that future descendants of humanity are the godlike aliens in this story. Thus if the film attempts to rekindle interest in space travel by suggesting that we’ll need to escape the planet to live after we kill the Earth, it contradicts its own didactic intentions by making such an outcome impossible to conceive without a thoroughly un-positivistic faith in superpowered future post-humans manipulating events like the Greek Gods lowered by a crane into the theatre that gave us the god-in-the-machine metaphor in the first place. As allegory, Interstellar is shockingly self-defeating.
When religious and non-religious allegories posture against rival mythologies, it is almost always ‘the best of us’ versus ‘the worst of you’ – which is (not coincidentally) also how the “Science versus Religion” mythos operates ideologically. In Journey to the West, the silly Taoists are never allowed to present their perspective, and problems within Buddhism never come to the fore. Of course, this doesn’t hurt the story at all! In Interstellar, however, there is a surplus of what I’ve called cyberfetish (blindness when judging our technology) that, unlike the magical battles in Wu’s narrative, undermines what the Nolans want us to make-believe. McConaughey expresses cyberfetish succinctly when he is enraged by his kids’ school adopting textbooks that say the moon landings were faked for political purposes (nice touch, that). He objects that there used to be a machine called an MRI and if they still had it, his wife wouldn’t have died. Maybe so. But isn’t grand scale monocultural farming facilitated by mechanized agriculture the root of the blight that threatens humanity with extinction in the film? Cyberfetish encourages us to see technology solely as friend and saviour – magical medical interventions, test-tube repopulation miracles, sassy robot friends, and galaxy-spanning spaceships. It blinds us to the ways that unfettered technological development has hastened the threat of our own extinction, and already brought about the permanent eradication of many of the species we shared the planet with until very recently indeed.
Interstellar is an epic thought experiment that seeks to persuade us into taking a rash course of action by eliding almost all the relevant information and making it seem that its way is the one true path. There is a nasty history of this in twentieth century moral philosophy, not to mention Medieval religious doctrine: we should not find it more palatable just because it indulges our valiant yearning to touch the stars. If humanity is to explore space, it will not be through the “Flee the Planet” mythos: as Interstellar inadvertently makes clear, this is a dangerous fantasy. Rather, our relationship must first and foremost be with our living planet in all its necessary diversity. “The Earth and then space” is the only mythology that might give us even a fleeting chance of one day travelling beyond our world, and even then we may have to accept (as Interstellar publically denies) that it is our robots that will have to be our proxies amongst the stars. Science fiction inspires us all – both religious and non-religious people alike. Let us ensure it inspires us to do our duty to our fellow Earthly beings rather than encouraging us to hasten our self-inflicted apocalypse by trying to sacrifice the planet in order to ineffectually flee into the heavens.
Interstellar is in cinemas now. For more on science fiction as positivistic mythos, see The Mythology of Evolution, and for more on cyberfetish and the moral dangers of thought experiments see Chaos Ethics.
Please note that this is not a review, but rather a philosophical critique. If you want my review of Interstellar it would be "see this movie if you enjoy attempts at serious science fiction with striking cinematography."