Friday, 23 January 2015


Sometimes when I need to cheer myself up I watch speeches by John F. Kennedy, and especially the one about going to the moon, given on a very hot day on the campus at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The best part is when he says "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Watching Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014) brought that speech back.

What we as humans do is transient, and not all that important, and most people are probably content with merely surviving, and trying to have some fun while they are doing that, while a few others seem primarily interested in destroying, degrading or stealing. But for many just surviving and having some fun is not enough, they have dreams that go beyond that and act upon those dreams. They are often celebrated as heroes, while simultaneously ridiculed by others; others who ask "What was the point of that?" The action can take many forms. One, as was shown in the film Tracks (John Curran 2013), can be an Australian woman who walks through the desert with some camels and a dog, for no apparent reason other than that she wanted to do it.

Interstellar is also partly about that. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is not satisfied with just surviving; he knows that there is more to life, that there has to be more to life. But he feels that the human race have forgotten about that. "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 complains at one point, and he is right. When he goes to a parent-teacher meeting, the teachers want to discourage his children to continue to study or to have dreams, they are concerned only about what is practical and profitable. There is sense to this, the world is in a terrible state, as is our world today, but just looking down and carry on is not the answer. In the world of the film the textbooks have been altered and are now arguing that the moon landing never took place, that it was faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and to think otherwise is dangerous. Dreaming about going to the moon can get you expelled. In the first trailer for Interstellar, Cooper talks, in a voice-over, about these moments "when we dared to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known" but "we've lost all that." But he has not, that is still what is on his mind.

So Cooper is perpetually dissatisfied, this world is not his, he has no real place in it, and when he is given the chance to leave it he takes it, and not just once but twice. For me that is what the film is really about, and that is also what Christopher Nolan is really about. In his earlier Inception (2010), one character says to another "You mustn't be afraid of dreaming a little bigger, darling." but that is not something Nolan can be accused of, or his main characters. They thrive on dreams and ideas (while often going through a crisis of identity).

Some critics have complained about the film with the argument that it would be better to stay on earth and fix things rather than run away to another solar system. Is not Interstellar in fact imperialistic, or even fascist, for suggesting that we might have to abandon earth? Is not this "pioneer spirit" what got us into trouble in the first place, and is the cause of our wars and our suffering? You might however likewise argue that were it not for our wish to leave, to go further, to look beyond the horizon, we would still be living with the other animals in central Africa, hunting gazelles. That might not be so bad, we as well as the planet might be better off had that been the case, but it is not the case. If you complain about this "pioneer spirit" but are still happy with modern life and all its conveniences, then you need to ask how you would have that without the pioneers. As with religion (which I wrote about in the previous post), human history contains both good and bad and you cannot pick the parts you like and say "This is what matters, this is who we are." because everything that has happened matters, and we are good as well as bad.

But what about costs? Why should we pay for it all? Could not all that money, whether to make Interstellar or go to the moon, be put to better use? Maybe to build day care centres or shelters for homeless people or some other undoubtedly good thing. Yes, perhaps, but to do only that would be to diminish us humans and what we are, and what we need. In 2010 South Africa hosted the football World Cup, and many (not least people who were not South Africans) were upset with this waste of money, spending on football stadiums when people were poor and hungry. But many of those who were poor and hungry were rather thrilled about hosting the World Cup. It made them proud, that South Africa could do such a thing, and pride is nothing to sneeze at. If you have enough food to survive, sometimes pride might be worth more than an extra portion. Life is not all about measurable utility, there are intangibles too. There are hard materialists all across the political spectrum, many who decry "wasteful" spending, which for some is money spent on the humanities in academia, or the arts, or space travels, or football stadiums or whatever. They are people who look only at what they feel is most urgently needed right now for surviving, and forgetting about other values.

Last year ESA (the European Space Agency) landed a small robot, Philae, on a comet. It had been brought there by the probe Rosetta, and nothing like it had ever been achieved before. When the news was announced people were quite excited all over the world for this show of human engineering, wondering what we would find on the comet and where we might go next. Philae has its own Twitter account, with close to 400 000 followers (it is asleep at the moment though). Curiosity, the rover which NASA has landed on Mars, also tweets, and has 1.8 million followers, so the global excitement also extends to that world. (Philae is one of Curiosity's followers but Curiosity does not seem to follow Philae. It does however follow Lady Gaga.) These small machines, or robots, tweet in first person style, as if they were individuals. Here is a typical tweet from Philae: "Now that I’m safely on the ground, here is what my new home #67P looks like from where I am. #CometLanding ". The robots in Interstellar, TARS and CASE, are, as so often happens in science fiction, individuals with distinct personalities, and the humans in the film care for them, including them in their conversations and ethical thinking. But it is not just those two; other objects are also treated as if they had a life of their own. The Indian surveillance drone that Cooper and his children encounter at the beginning of the film is an example. The daughter, Murph, asks why it has flown all the way from India to the US and Cooper suggests that maybe it was looking for something. Then Murph says that "We should just set it free, it wasn't doing anything," feeling upset about them taking advantage of it, even though it is just a drone.

The humanity expressed in Interstellar, which is somehow related to the way the characters speak to each other, often in hushed tones, is one of the many things that makes Interstellar so great. The impressive acting, the grainy visuals on earth contrasted with the clarity of the images from space, the cross-cutting and Hans Zimmer's music are other reasons. The film is very intense, an emotional and exhaustive experience, even though its pacing is comparatively relaxed. There is a scene where a failed docking manoeuvre in deep space leads to an explosion, and every time I have seen the film in the cinema there have been a collective gasp in the audience, an overwhelming experience of a shared feeling, a feeling of both release (after a long and tense sequence) and shock, and such a shared feeling is also something you cannot put a prize on.

Interstellar is related to Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997), including the presence of McConaughey and relativity. Here is the extraordinary first shot of the film, a camera movement through the solar system and through time.


  1. A great, great post. You enclose my feelings on the topic.

  2. Nicely put, dreams and drive and the hopefully resulting pride are important. Still, I have a hard time understanding/sympathise with/perceiving (take your pick...) the absolute neccesity to restart the human race by genetics on some other planet when all other options have failed.

    1. You mean that there shouldn't be a Plan B; if hope is lost for the human race at present we should just accept that? I would be fine with that. In the film everybody seemed to think that Plan B was a bad idea, but at least some thought that the survival of the species might be worth such a desperate effort, and I can see how quite a lot of people would agree with that.

    2. I do too, I'm just not one of them ;)