The Player Experience Conference

Interstellar as Self-Defeating Allegory

Contains spoilers for both Sunshine and Interstellar.

McConaughey Looking GormlessRecent decades have seen a rise in popularity for non-religious allegory films. But the latest, the Nolan brothers’ Interstellar, provides its own strong reasons for rejecting its message.

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."


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All movies have plot-holes and problems, and "pull yourself up by the bootstrap time travel" sci-fi has its premise as its first plot-hole.

Your issue that it makes no sense that we could create a viable biosphere around Saturn if we can't on Earth makes sense, and it's a plot-hole. But I don't see it as supporting an erroneous mythos, it's just a plot-hole.

Your issue that the movie presents physicists who can solve a problem but doesn't explain why biologists can't is simply unexplained in the movie. It might be a plot-hole, or it might be answered in "the book", who knows? It's okay to point it out, but hardly a failing of the movie.

Your issue that technology is presented as useful while glossing over that it was also a likely cause of the problem is answered similarly: it might be answered in "the book". Just because an already three-hour movie doesn't present a deep explanation of what caused a problem and why it can't be fixed doesn't point to a philosophical problem. It's a director's/screenwriter's prerogative to ignore these issues, just like it ignores other back-story issues.

It's a stretch to present the movie as presenting a philosophy - and then claim that the philosophy doesn't hold up. Other than the philosophy of "hope", "love", and "physicists can do some good", the movie doesn't claim to present much else. By claiming that it presents philosophy X, and then that it fails to present it well, you're using a classic straw-man argument. I might as well claim that the movie presents an argument for corn-base diesel fuels and then explain how the movie fails at this argument. Who says that the journey is an allegory of life? Who says that the movie is lauding technology as a panacea?


Hi Yehuda,
Thanks for dropping by to defend "Interstellar" - I appreciate the argument.

Many of your points here reflect the 'silly question' problem: if you buy into the movie, you can fix the silly questions. If you do not, you will not. I could reflect these issues back on you in respect of the Marvel movies, which you do not buy into and therefore excoriate. I think in such areas there is no basis for debate - we buy into some movies, and not into others. Which is part of the fun of them, really! :)

You say that the movie doesn't claim much other than "hope", "love", and "physicists can do some good", but you are forgetting the extra-diegetic elements here i.e. Nolan expressly intends the movie to inspire humanity back towards space travel. That is external to the movie, but it is not excluded from being considered in assessing the movie. My claim is presented in the context of that motive - which the movie does not provide good reasons for supporting. That's the core of my argument.

Regarding seeing it as a travelogue allegory, that is a tangential claim that helps put the film in the context of its worldview, namely positivism. As for who makes such claims - well me, for a start, but also New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott:

I think it's worth pointing out that for Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", the 'life' in the allegory was individual human life. The 'life' in "Interstellar" is all human life. But such is the difference of their respective groundings.

So I reject your 'straw man' defence because it is based on the assumption that I am incorrect in presenting "Interstellar"'s guiding philosophy. But Nolan has made this explicit in interview. Here, I merely critique the film in the light of his stated position. See:

So I reject that this is a straw man argument, and invite you to assess Nolan's stated motivations and then re-read my critique. I stand by it.

Thanks for the challenge! We become intellectually lazy when we are not confronted.

All the best,


I read the linked articles, and also the synopsis on Sunrise which I haven't seen.

There is a difference between your criticism of Interstellar and my criticism of Marvel movies.

In your criticism of Interstellar, which points out subtle plot holes - which I agree with, but did not notice until you pointed them out - you maintain that the movie suffers because of a philosophical gap. The movie aims to inspire space-travel, but because the problem that the movie uses to justify the characters' need for space travel could have been resolved more easily by having them build bio-domes, therefore he movie fails philosophically.

I think the argument is specious. Yes, the problem should have been written more rigorously, but that doesn't mean that it will fail to inspire young people who watch it to become astronauts. Early space adventure programs like Lost in Space and so on inspired astronauts and space exploration not because of the plot. per se, but because of a) the idea of viable, peaceful existence off-planet, and b) the heroic, smart, and good looking people who live there. These were the parts of Interstellar that mattered most, not the mcguffins that drove the plot.

While the movie had subtle plot holes (by subtle, I mean plot holes that I didn't notice until you pointed them out!), it didn't have plot holes so laughable or science so ridiculous as to make the unbelievability unwatchable, at least for me.

Which brings us to my criticism of Marvel movies. My criticism is not on philosophical grounds, and it's not on realism or sense (except for when it is egregiously ignored, like Thor's hammer, Iron Man's suit falling apart, etc). It's because the movies contain nothing interesting but action scenes. The movies are enjoyable and entertaining, because of the action, the costumes, and the humor, but they are Bad Movies, because they reveal nothing about humanity, contain no character growth, and have no interesting stories, have boring unrelatable characters. The only thing they might inspire are little kids to playact as the heroes and teens/adults to draw comic books. I don't think you can say that about Interstellar.


Hi Yehuda,
Thanks for continuing this. The core problem with "Interstellar" as inspiring future astronauts is that the 'interstellar' aspect of its premise is only possible because of a plot device - the homo ex machina, mentioned above - that permits trans-solar travel but which is certainly not going to happen. That's the nub of the problem: if it is selling itself as scientifically rigorous *and* intending to inspire us back to space travel, it has a serious practical problem in that it's promising the impossible. And if it only intends to inspire, what value in the claim to rigour? "Star Trek" would do the same job.

I see this as fatal to its intentions; I think your position is that I am applying a rigour to it that it doesn't need, and that may actually be unfair (the 'silly questions' problem). You may be right, but I don't see this as reducing my argument to speciousness. My argument remains valid. Furthermore, since I do not misrepresent Nolan's position, it's not a 'straw man' argument either. It's just that it's also perfectly possible to reject my premises, as you do.

As for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aye, I completely appreciate your problem - and as someone who is consistently bored with action scenes, I sympathise. What I get out of these movies is entirely megatextual i.e. my enjoyment comes from the cross-links to the comics I read in the 1980s and 1990s, and seeing how the stories have been reworked for the screen. It's low brow entertainment, to be sure, but it works for me in some minimal sense that most action movies fail for me. I think, perhaps, it's the patent ridiculousness of everything that helps.

All the best!


Since all time travel stories about "pulling oneself by one's bootstraps" have the same problematic plot device - the future you could only exist to assist the current you if you make it to the future, and you can't make it there unassisted - and since you find the movie uninspiring to Earthlings since it is some future "alien" versions of humans that do the assisting, try thinking of it thus:

When a story uses a "future self" to assist a current self, it's actually a metaphor. It is US (current humans) who must be that future self to pull us out of the problem. That's what the story is saying.

That future self is who we aspiring to be Right Now. The very fact that this future self is US is a metaphoric means of telling us that everything we need to survive is not some deux-ex-machina, but is ourselves; we already hold the key to solving our problems.

The metaphor tells us that we can't see it now, because we are full of prejudice, ignorance, and despair, but our future selves, who will have solved these problems, are looking back at us; we should not let them down. Our future selves will look back and say "You past selves, your problems were so important, and the answers right in front of your faces, it is a wonder that you didn't see it while you lived it. It is a wonder you wasted so much time on prejudice and ignorance. If only we could go back in time and give you our insight (or courage, or clarity)."

These stories, then, are a fantasy means of bringing the future back to our present in order to inspire us to get there.

As an example from Interstellar, try seeing that Murph did not get a message from a future Cooper; she acually had figured out the equations already, but she hadn't been able to bring them to the surface. All of the tapping of the books and the watch were just psychological boosts she imagined to unlock her mind.

Hi Yehuda,
Sorry for the delay in replying - I was going to be off blogging, but then I had to post something anyway.

I really like your reading here - I think this is consistent with Nolan's intentions; it's a view that any positivist-humanist is going to support. I still have my issues with it, of course, but I recognise that I do not have a 'master reading', only a critical reflection to offer.

Hope you had a great Hannukah!


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