Pop Media Review: Interstellar

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This is the second in a new series of articles on popular media. We explore common themes among our media and how that affects our view of the economy and culture. See the first installment of this series, examining the myths of economic inequality with Thomas Sowell, here.

The movie Interstellar follows in a long line of films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, exploring man’s quest to conquer the “final frontier” of space. I found this movie interesting for several reasons. Spoilers included, you have been warned.

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The initial setup of the movie depicts earth after some environmental catastrophe had killed off a lot of the population. This is interesting because it dovetails in with the current level of the climate change discussion revolved around a collapse in sustainability in our society. This discussion is growing and is supported by a wealth of sustainability programs and new regulation aimed at changing human behavior towards the environment by our leaders.

The movie never really explains what the root cause of the catastrophe is and doesn’t appear to tackle the discussion of the science behind the disaster. We are left to our own imaginations to fill in the blanks, perhaps for the purpose of inserting whatever climate concern is du jour for the day and time in which one watches the movie.

The producers didn’t commit to a specific examination of the causes presumably to allow the movie to fit whatever ecological disaster model resonates most with the viewer. Whether that be carbon emissions, pollution, ozone layer, climate change, melting ice caps, or overpopulation. In any case, one has to suspend practical belief from the beginning in order to progress through the story.

The story is also very quirky in its depiction of this dystopian dilemma. Apparently, corn is what’s for dinner. Just about every other vegetable is unable to withstand the inhospitable conditions of the dust storms. Exactly why is not clear, such as whether Monsanto or some other large conglomerate had only been able to find a way to genetically modify corn to withstand the new growing conditions and not any other vegetables.

It doesn’t delve into the science of why potatoes or carrots can only be grown in space stations within restricted oxygen and sunlight environments, but not on earth in greenhouses specifically built to withstand the dust. If dust storms are the reason for the food collapse, would not industry have come up with a way to move vegetable production indoors?

One would think an earth bound greenhouse would be cheaper than the trillions of dollar is must have cost to move that vegetable production into space. Perhaps the corn industry paid for its product placement in the film, an idea for which I am only half kidding.

The film also trots out a few well worn tropes, such as the dysfunctional family following the loss of the mother figure. And the unreasoning (neanderthal) man who refuses to move his family away from a home which is causing very obvious sickness to his wife and child.

Of course, the setting is in the south, perhaps not only to focus on the farmer aspect but also the resurrection of the space program in Houston via a secret underground project by the remnants of NASA. No word whether any other world powers had done the same thing or had proposed working together. We have the typical USA southern renegade hero model popular in many American films. Been there, done that quite a few times.

It struck me that the plot of the film was designed with many of these commonly accepted American film devices for the purposes of quickly gaining audience acceptance. But in reality, I felt it handicapped the film’s ability to present a coherent argument for the need to man to make all of the sacrifices it needed to develop the space program and save human kind. And the plot holes were so annoying that the end of the movie became a “jump the shark” moment that I just couldn’t accept.

Fast forwarding to the crux of the story, NASA launches its very last rocket into space to jump through a wormhole conveniently formed in the middle of our galaxy in order to find other habitable planets. A selection of several other scientists had made the same journey years back, with each one’s role being to catalogue the planets they found and send data back.

Of course you get really lonely on a far away planet in another galaxy by yourself, so one of the original astronaut scientists fakes his data and tries to hijack the space ship to get back through the wormhole to earth. A lot of people die along the way to finding the one planet that looks like it will support humankind.

Along the way, the lead character finds some sort of tesseract-like, time and space formation, which allows him to transmit the answers humanity needs through both space and time back to his daughter, years before he actually left earth on his journey. And this was setup by some form of humanity deep into the distant future, that had somehow escaped our physical existence and “ascended” to a different form of ethereal being.

This is where I gave up on the film. The foregoing concepts have been used over and over in science fiction, from Star Trek to Stargate SG-1. There was nothing really new here in this film to explore about humanity and their journey to the final frontier. And given the device used to propel this great journey was hashed together and not well explored, I wasn’t either emotionally involved in this film nor convinced that we had explored some existentially important aspect of the human condition.

I should note that I have grown up a lover of science fiction, but have become jaded in my adulthood by it. The genre lacks cohesive arguments that provide support for the stories or propel humanity to their ultimate realization. And it is filled with humanistic sympathies that leave me feeling cold and alone, as this movie did. I felt no warmth from human accomplishment, but more the cold and empty feeling of an unforgiving, unrelenting, and unending vacuum of space.

For me to buy in any further on this genre of film and TV, several questions have to be answered.

  1. Why we are so worried about running out of room on earth when we have millions upon millions of acres that are not lived on or used in production of goods and supplies. It was recently estimated that only a few percentage points of the Earth’s surface is actively inhabited. One only need to look out their plane window at the vast tracts of wilderness and grasslands around the earth to conclude that we have not overrun it just yet.
  2. To be convincing, science fiction needs to base their stories more within fact. Include plausibility in their plot devices. Connect the dots between now and the future in a way that most of us can find reason to agree with.
  3. Depict a world in which if we are going to leave earth, we have everyone cooperating. Get rid of the hero tropes. In reality, it would be the collective efforts of all civilization needed to make it happen.
  4. Discuss the current issues with space exploration, and why humans are not made for it. Discuss more of what we actually have to develop in our world here to make living out there a realistic possibility.
  5. Change the weird, dystopian angle for scaring people out into space into a warmer, more colorful framework of ideas on why living out there, and colonizing another planet, leads to positive outcomes for the general person and their families. These movies are scarily lonely and aren’t going to get your neighbors to hop on the next SpaceX mission.

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