Debate about Christopher Nolan’s provocative new film Interstellar has primarily focused either on the film’s spectacular CGI-generated representation of cutting-edge theoretical physics or the equally speculative gravitational power of love to transcend the boundaries of time and space. While interesting topics in their own right, the film’s greatest impact, both culturally and cinematically, is likely to have less to do with Matthew McConaughey’s character, Coop’s time-bending journey to find a new habitable planet for the human species, or that of his daughter Murph to reconnect with her absent father, than with the far more haunting picture it presents of the condition of the earth in this not-too-distant future.
Projecting the most troubling anxieties our age onto the big screen, Interstellar opens with a sepia-tinted vision which might have been taken directly from Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” or Dorothea Lange’s powerful photos of Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930’s. Long before the film launches Coop’s crew and their robotic allies through mysterious wormholes in space/time in the search for a new promised land, the audience is visually confronted—possibly for the first time-- with a stark and potentially realistic picture of the planet we have already ruined—and which presumably has turned on us.
The overwhelming impression we’re left with is of victims of a massively changed climate struggling for a living in a deteriorating Midwestern environment beset by crop failures, incessant drought, monumental dust storms and the pending collapse of the world-wide food supply. Equally notable is the ominous contrast between an external world capable of manufacturing high-tech surveillance drones and robotic farm equipment and the decidedly low-tech lives led by the seemingly discarded and displaced human remnants left in this strange new world.
The filmmakers go to great and spectacular length to provide visual representation of the scientific and technological wizardry required to bridge the barriers of time, space and multiple dimensions. References to black holes, relativity and quantum entanglement provide modern audiences with familiar enough handholds to allow, at least, the suspension of disbelief. Perhaps the most easily recognizible thread connecting the story’s disparate elements, however, is the basic human need for relationship. Though in this case, the film’s characters find themselves separated not just by normal physical and emotional distance, as usual in Hollywood productions, but by the very laws of physics.
Science fiction is by definition imaginative and otherworldly, its drama derived from human confrontation with alternative realities and challenges to fixed assumptions. The best of the genre, however, like great art of any kind, open the door to previously unimagined possibilities, both technological and human. The appearance of a mysterious obelisk coupled with an ape’s discovery of the lethal uses of a bone tool in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” followed by the emergence of a dangerous, human-like mentality in Hal’s electronic brain, are images that have permanently reshaped our cultural consciousness and changed our perceptions.
From this perspective, the film's portrayal of alien planets consisting of either forbidding ice floes or endless seas subject to mountainous waves offers little hope or little that is new. Hints of mystical Fifth Dimensional beings and the wormholes across space/time they might open to help humankind survive are hardly substitutes for the elusive personal connections and roots human beings actually seek. Though Michael Caine’s space-fixated character (Dr. Brand) argues that “mankind was born on earth, but was not meant to die here,” the real “take away” from the movie is quite the opposite. If “Interstellar” has any lasting cultural impact, if any of its images live on to reshape our thinking, they are not likely to be those of dramatic confrontations on other worlds or in other dimensions.
They will, instead, be the unforgettable images of climate change refugees, packed-up and traveling like Okies in the 1930’s, through blinding dust storms, but headed nowhere. For ultimately, what we’re still in the process of learning is that there is no new California “out there,” and nowhere else to go, save on this one precious and vulnerable blue planet.