12.10.2014

Reactionaries in Space

Interstellar celebrates American-style frontier expansion and retrograde masculinity. It’s an ideological monstrosity.

Ma_Co2013 / Flickr

Interstellar has been playing long enough that I think we can now clear the rapturous space fantasy vapors from our brains, look at the film with critical eyes, and recognize it for the ideological monstrosity that it is.

At a critical point in the action of Interstellar, as hot-dogging space pilot “Cooper” (Matthew McConaughey) attempts to do some crazily dangerous aeronautic maneuver likely to end in death and destruction, a terrified fellow astronaut yells at him to stop, because “it’s impossible!”

“No,” ripostes The Coop, “it’s necessary.”

As inane, macho non-sequiturs go, Zapp Brannigan, the strutting space captain in Futurama, couldn’t have said it better. That exchange gives you a taste of the surreal, comically dreadful logic governing Interstellar, in which human will overcomes all the forces in the universe, “love” is more powerful than gravity, and there is no phenomenon in existence, no matter how awesome, that can’t be attributed to the swaggering achievements of mankind.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, the director-screenwriter team, set up the film this way: planet Earth has been overwhelmed by dust storms for reasons that are left extremely vague, and humanity faces extinction. Cooper must part with his heartland family, particularly his beloved daughter “Murph,” in order to use his NASA training to blast off on a last-ditch space voyage to find another habitable planet.

Between hugs, he reassures Murph that when he comes back, after luging through wormholes and experiencing time warps, he may be exactly the same age that she is, and won’t that be great? The collective audience flinch at that bit of Freudian dialogue should’ve knocked Earth slightly off its axis.

On the long voyage, Cooper does a good bit of regretting that he ever left Murph, and various characters miss their assorted loved ones through the decades-long separations necessitated by wormhole travel. But for Cooper, and apparently for the Nolans, the planet Earth itself is a loss that causes no real regret. It’s merely the problematic third rock from the sun where humanity had gotten entirely too lazy and comfortable. That is, before the planet’s wholesale destruction gave us another chance to be all we can be.

The loss of our home planet promises to restore the supposed greatness of humanity, which is all that matters in this film. “Greatness,” represented in this ultra-American film, can only be forged in the process of rampaging around making yourself the scourge of some new territory. As Cooper puts it, “We’re explorers, pioneers! Not” — [shudder] — “caretakers.”

It would seem that Cooper’s fear is we’ve gotten too gentle, touchy-feely, inclined to tend the living things of Earth with love and attention, presumably because that’s weak and fussy and womanish. But not to worry! That’s never really been an American problem. The one character in Interstellar who’s inclined to be a “caretaker” is Cooper’s son Tom (Casey Affleck). He likes farming. He wants to stay on Earth as long as Earth lives, tending his corn crop, which is the last crop that will grow in the cataclysmic dustbowl conditions.

By the end of the film, he’s one of the main villains, shot in sullen, menacing close-ups that would be excessive in a portrait of a serial killer.

Celebrating the idea of the American as a perpetual pioneer makes sense in terms laid out back in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner. In his famous “Frontier Thesis,” he argues that the “dominant individualism” central to democracy and the American national identity was forged on the “continually advancing frontier line.” There the vestiges of decadent European institutions and practices that still clung on in the eastern United States were planed away.

According to Turner, the “closed frontier” represents a danger to democracy and the American character. In order for Americans to stay Americans, or increase our essential American-ness, we have to keep advancing our boundaries. For many, the doctrine justified American adventures in imperialist colonizing, along with the plundering of landscapes and oceans, driving other life forms to extinction. And projecting further, once the Earth is exploited to the tipping point of disastrous overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, and general destruction, Americans plan to head out into space, “the final frontier.”

Interstellar starts there, with a specifically Turner-esque insistence on the need for pioneering exploration that will reinforce the American character. The destroyed Earth, now frontierless, is represented as no great loss, beyond the trouble that relocation causes humanity.

I can’t remember an apocalyptic film that’s taken less interest in this planet as it’s destroyed. You might think there’d be a sustained tribute to the lost wonders of Earth, some mourning for the mass death of animals. Just think of the centrality of extinct animals to the dystopian logic of Blade Runner. Even a piece of rote crap like 2012 devotes a scene to saving some precious creatures from Earth, a dog, an elephant, a giraffe.

There aren’t any animals in Interstellar. Even if you presume they all died through some earlier blight that didn’t affect humans, no one mentions the fact. The main characters live on a farm and there’s no indication any animal life ever existed there, not so much as a dog or cat.

And they live on a flat plain in Middle America, so there’s no gazing out on beautiful trees or mountains, taking a last look before blowing dust blots them out forever. No one laments the lost lakes and rivers. No one looks at old photos of a green world. The Nolan boys don’t cast a backward glance — the Earth is unsalvageable and there’s no further point in trying to figure out how to live here. It had gotten to be a bad place for us anyway, in existential ways preceding catastrophic conditions. Good conditions made us too comfortable, soft, and decadent. We were practically turning back into Europeans again.

Far better to devote all scientific brainpower to a billion-to-one shot space adventure of maximum danger!

It makes a kind of gruesome sense that when at the end of the film we finally see the planet that’s going to be humanity’s new home, it’s an absolutely stark, featureless, dun-colored plain. Apparently nothing lives there but pioneer woman Anne Hathaway. If you like the way sci-fi films posit new worlds containing amazingly strange life forms, forget it. None of the planets the astronauts visit have any life. Tidal wave planet, ice-ball planet, featureless-plain planet, and not so much as a space insect is to be seen on any of them.

It’s important that the film stick to desolate plains, because they connote the hardship that’s good for humanity, and that allows Americans a chance to show off their pioneering grit.

You see the same logic in Westerns. The classic Western landscape is always a harsh dusty plain with some rugged mesas in the background. It looks uninhabited but for a battered little makeshift town in the middle of vast stretches of desert, and a stagecoach or a posse that occasionally crosses it. But guess what looms up in the foreground, more towering than the mesas, looking even bigger and brawnier in the flat wasteland? John Wayne. Or some other Western hero who can only appear as awesome as he does if the land is barren, bleak, and hostile.

There’s often a lot of talk in classic Westerns about the great promise of the land, but you can’t see it yet, because its richness will have to be wrested from the landscape by determined settlers battling the elements. The wilderness will become a garden eventually, generations later. You occasionally see a Western set in a lush landscape, such as Anthony Mann’s Bend in the River, and it does strange things to the workings of the genre.

All that flora and fauna looks too easy to live in, detracts from the fearlessness and gritty work ethic of the pioneers. Revisionist Westerns in the 1960s and ’70s, like One-Eyed Jacks, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, challenged the premises of the classic Westerns in any number of ways including moving into unconventional American landscapes, subverting our ideological investment in the harshness of the desert landscape as a showcase for the heroism of the Manifest Destiny migration.

The Nolan brothers also got the bright idea of paying tribute to American greatness emerging in a hostile environment in the form of direct borrowings from the Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl. Many audience members watching Interstellar might not realize that the interviews with elderly dustbowl survivors that begin the film aren’t actors performing unusually well, they’re real-life survivors of the American dustbowl of the 1930s.

That man-made disaster led to yet another Western migration when the so-called “Okies” headed West in search of a living. It was a harrowing odyssey through a Western landscape now harsh and deadly due to brutal local government policies, wholly inadequate federal intervention, abusive police forces, work camps run like prisons, dreadfully unregulated working conditions, starvation wages for migrant workers, and struggling working-class locals not prepared to feel any solidarity with sufferers from out of state. John Steinbeck’s thoroughly researched dramatization of America’s systemic failure in The Grapes of Wrath earned him the reputation of a firebrand communist. (Unfortunately, he wasn’t.)

Burns’s documentary makes sickeningly clear how government collusion with real estate profiteering combined with disastrous farming practices turned natural cycles of drought into total calamity. But in a recent Washington Post article, Burns approves of the way Christopher Nolan chose to obscure the root causes of the worldwide dustbowl conditions in Interstellar:

For Burns, it is actually more powerful to let audiences come to their own queasy conclusions about the Dust Bowl, and the kinds of problems that have humans looking sky-ward in “Interstellar.” “Everyone’s heard of the Dust Bowl but no one ever really understood its extent, or more importantly that it was a man-made environmental disaster,” he argued. “That’s the key. When you fully begin to accept your own culpability in this, as the people in the Dust Bowl do, they begin to reach out for help and solutions, which in the Dust Bowl, come from the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt.”

You see how Burns moves seamlessly toward what he regards as the lesson of his documentary, a lesson which plays no part in Interstellar: admit specific human culpability, drive toward immediate, homely, Earthbound solutions in the form of engaging with government for support and bold new policies (including returning to “caretaker” farming practices).

No one watching Interstellar is likely to feel encouraged to contemplate such things. But Burns seems to think that the gist of it gets across anyway:

Interstellar never explains the source of the blight and the dust storms that plague Earth’s remaining residents. But its characters do learn that while they initially thought a race of superior beings was intervening to save humanity, they alone are responsible for their own species’ survival.

Burns is right there — there’s nothing featured in the Interstellar cosmos that’s superior to humanity. There’s not even anything different from humanity. The mysterious forces that seem to operate in the world, the “gods” or “ghosts” or “aliens” who were trying to communicate with and possibly aid the characters early in the film, turn out to be just human characters from the future, maneuvering to redirect their past selves onto more favorable courses. In order to save humanity, see, Cooper has to go adventuring forward in time so his wiser future-self could come back and send Morse-code messages to Murph through the space-time continuum bookcase. Or something.

The Nolans have dreamed up an appalling anthropocentric cosmos in which, ultimately, no living thing, no force of any significance exists but the human. That’s my idea of Hell, by the way. But the Nolans have other views that seem widely shared — celebrating humanity as it enacts American-style “dominant individualism” all alone in the empty universe.