Friday, April 10, 2015

Earth or the Stars: Interstellar's False Choice

Interstellar, last year's science fiction theatrical film hit, was released on DVD at the end of March.  My main purpose in writing about it here is to relate it to concerns of this site, the soul of Star Trek.  But if you haven't seen it and don't want it spoiled, read no more of this.  Or if it means so much to you that any criticism would drive you nuts, that's another reason to give this a pass.

There is of course a lot to like about this movie. The film's scope and detail, the cinematic narrative, the acting, the technical accomplishments all carry us along in an adventure that uses past science fiction, especially in film, as a baseline, and then adds its own contributions.

 Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most obvious narrative, visual (and at key moments, musical) source and touchstone.  There are nods to Star Wars and other films of that era.  Since the 1970s and 80s, we've also seen a lot more very good imagery from real space launches and flights, and Interstellar makes excellent use of those images.  (I didn't have to be told that the launch was based on Apollo footage--I recognized it.)

There is much more that is reminiscent of past science fiction.  The exposition meted out as dialogue while in spaceflight is straight out of the earliest 1950s space travel movies.  What does a black hole look like? the pilot wants to know, just before he sees one.  Whereas real astronauts are thoroughly briefed on everything they will or might encounter long before they leave.

Interstellar even has a contemporary take on the basic characters of 1950s sci-fi and creature features: the Cowboy Hero, the Elder Scientist and the Scientist's Beautiful Daughter (When Worlds Collide, Them! etc.)  They're treated very differently, though. The Cowboy Hero as Dad is a more recent addition of the past few decades (The Day After Tomorrow, Speilberg's War of the Worlds, etc.)

Even some of the key ideas aren't new.  The future deliberately affecting the past, and the past sending messages forward to the future, have been done ( recently for instance in the Doctor Who episode Blink.)  An alien species that turns out to be future humans is as least as old as a 1940s Edmund Hamilton Captain Future novel.  And to a lesser extent, time dilation was dramatized in Star Trek: The Next Generation.   (Though the relative speeds of aging involved in space travel even without black holes are usually ignored in Trek and most other space stories.)

What is new is how well this film humanizes these concepts, especially the consequences of time dilation.  Matthew McConaughey watching 23 years of his childrens' lives he missed in (for him) a matter of hours, was a powerful scene.  There's some sense of its effects in those on earth, particularly in his son, who seems burdened with the plod of time from being left behind, as well with the realities of his hard life.  It is perhaps in this sense that Interstellar brings together technology and human feeling, as was the original theme of the early sci-fi film Metropolis.

It's the actors who make the characters believable.  I had no trouble in believing Anne Hathaway as a scientist-astronaut.  In particular her speech about science and love was pitch perfect, right down to her enunciation--I've heard that voice from real scientists. Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain were appealing as Murphy, a character that is more believable as a mythic figure than a person.  The most memorable acting I thought came from the unacknowledged Matt Damon, who created a thoughtful--and therefore believable--villain.

Much of what the film had to say moment to moment was about human nature. Most science fiction heroes since the 1990s have been motivated by love of their children, (lots of divorced fathers in Hollywood I guess) and it's true of this film as well.  The Michael Caine character represents a point of view on human nature --he believes that people won't work together unless their own survival and that of their children is at stake.  It's an interesting point of view given our current circumstances, but I'll get back to that.

The individual's survival instinct (as a parent, apparently, since according to the Matt Damon character, the last thing people see before they die is their children) is another statement on human nature, leading to something that should be familiar to Star Trek fans--two people who have traveled through space to another galaxy, having a fist fight.  According to Gene Roddenberry, the studio insists on it.

The film carries us along and into a fantastical ending that gets people who've seen it talking and arguing about what it means--which again is very much like the ending of 2001.

We see a kind of quantum relativity timey-whimey view that beings existing in the fifth dimension would see---essentially without time as a factor, all events just are.  (Which is how the Tralfamadorians see things in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Events in time are simultaneous, like peaks on a mountain range.)  We see father and daughter come to the same not exactly obvious conclusions at the same "time," so humanity of the very far future saves the past, which is the daughter's present.

It's to the filmmakers' credit that we believe all this long enough to enjoy a satisfying coda, in which the time paradoxes are humanized again--aged daughter sees young father before she dies, and he goes off to help Anne Hathaway's character set up her colony, because even though it is years later in the solar system, it's just  hours later for her.

So maybe it is possible for patterns in sand to be read as a binary code yielding map coordinates, and books dropped to the floor somehow represent dots and dashes in Morse code.  Not to mention translating complex numerical data into dots and dashes represented as ticks on a wristwatch.  Maybe it's possible and makes sense, but once again, accepting it is part of the ride.

What I really don't get is how humans survived into the far future in the first place, so they could construct the wormhole and become five dimensional beings and make things better in the past so they could survive into the far future. Unless it is a multiple paradox you have to be a five dimensional being to figure out.

But that's actually not what really bothers me about Interstellar.  The movie was promoted on the basis of scientific accuracy, with physicist Kip Thorne as an executive producer.  I'm willing to accept that the physics applied to black holes etc. is state of the art, even the stuff about gravity transcending time. But the same can't be said for the biology and chemistry of Earth. So let's go back to the premise of the movie.

As the movie starts, the Earth (not just Iowa, or the US Midwest) is in crisis from a blight that is killing food crops, beginning with wheat, and apparently the human population has taken a major hit.  The last crop standing is corn.  We see one effect of this crisis in the titanic dust storms.

The imagery of the dust storms was taken directly from photos and descriptions of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s that swept the western prairies, especially Oklahoma. The farm we see, despite modern computerized implements, is also taken from the 1930s (more directly from film depictions of the farm where Clark Kent grew up, originally in the 1930s.) Farms aren't like that anymore in 2015, especially when they farm corn.  They are huge industrial tracts, managed intensively with GMOs and pesticides, by corporations.  They don't include family farmhouses.  It's hard to believe the solution to a global food crisis would be left in the hands of individual farmers.

Maybe the filmmakers wanted the archetype.  And maybe NASA being out there in (presumably) Iowa is a nod to JJA's Star Trek in which Jim Kirk grew up in a 1930s landscape as well. All that avoidance, or denial of the contemporary world might be forgivable except for two things.

The first is the bogus crisis that threatens humanity.  A single blight that affects the world's crops of everything is mind-boggling enough.  But the film doesn't posit starvation as the ultimate.  The loss of these crops is supposed to snuff out the planet's oxygen, so people will suffocate.  In a few years.

But the science is off.  And according to experts, not by a little.  By like thousands of years.  That's what it would take to deplete the planet's oxygen by this method.

So why do this?

It's interesting that some people assume the basis of Interstellar's apocalypse is the climate crisis, because, well, apocalypse is what scientists tell us we're heading for if we don't address the climate crisis.  And truly, this movie had an opportunity--without very much fuss or bother-- to make the climate crisis the basis of its apocalyptic future, and thereby humanize that, make that real.

That would be something that might actually help us address the climate crisis and make the real future better.  But inexplicably they blew the opportunity.  I'd like to think it isn't because they got chickenhearted, afraid of offending that part of the audience that goes in for advanced physics but doesn't believe in the climate crisis.  Or perhaps the fossil fuel billionaires who materially encourage such sentiments.

I understand the "ticking clock" device of humanity about to suffocate, however bogus it is scientifically.  Surely a climate crisis that results in drought and starvation, the spread of insect-borne illnesses and so on could be made sufficiently apocalyptic to motivate our spacefaring heroes to hurry up.  How much better it might have been, even as a movie, to start with a real crisis that actually threatens the future, as a growing number of people realize.  It's a credible threat, because it is a real threat now.  How much better, dramatically as well as morally, to use it in this film.

The second major element I object to is related.  Very early in the movie, Dr. Brand, the Elder Scientist played by Michael Caine, asserts that humans are not meant to save the earth, they are meant to leave it.  No one in the room--including several of the major characters--disagrees with him.

 This statement is more or less paired with a scene in which a teacher explains that the new textbooks say humans didn't really land on the moon.  But her reason is not the fundamentalist and anti-science zealotry we might expect (since such things for those reasons are happening right now in our world.)   No, it's because space exploration wastes resources, and she represents a "caretaker" generation for the Earth.

So an either/or is stated and supported: either save the Earth or be explorers in space.  Is that the choice?  Certainly the allocation of resources and money is an issue.  But what does that mean?  Do we literally stop efforts to save this biosphere, this ecosystem to--do what exactly?

If we want bigger space programs and we need to save money somewhere, maybe we should look at the budgets of blockbuster films.  For it took more money to make and sell Interstellar than it took India to send a space probe to orbit Mars.  (Actually it took less for this space mission than the even smaller budget of Gravity.)

Compounding this folly is Dr. Brand leading an apparent effort to save much of existing humanity that he knows is a lie. He is using up immense resources on a lie, because he knows that the formula he is supposedly working on, that is supposed to make this possible, won't do the job.

Set aside for a moment that creating space habitats doesn't require mastering gravity at its basic level.  But apart from the genetic seeding of planets in the other galaxy,  in this movie all of NASA's eggs are in this one futile basket.  This doesn't pass my smell test, but if we grant it, as we grant a movie its own rules, we are still left, not with that "save it or leave it" choice, but the choice not to apply these resources to try to save the planet or humanity, but to spend them to support a great lie.  This is apparently raging against the dying of the light (the Dylan Thomas line that gets repeated several times.)

There is something profound hidden in this, which is that hope is a feature of the present, regardless of what the future holds.  But hope for its own sake is empty, and hope generated by a big lie is worse that empty.  It might even be called evil.

Once we leave the movie and apply this to the real world, the real trouble begins.  Starting with the either/or: Earth or the stars. The folly of believing that the climate crisis can be ignored and a space program advanced is nicely suggested by this real world recent event: that NASA has recognized that the only launchpads that now exist in the U.S. space program--at Cape Canaveral--are threatened by sea level rise, not in the future but now.

Doing all we can to address the causes of the climate crisis and battle its effects may be ultimately futile in some senses, but we don't know that it is.  So it is honest, and it infuses life with meaning.  It is enacting hope, because as far as we know we can still make a difference.

The Star Trek future begins with  21st century war and a societal return to the Dark Ages. The discovery of warp drive and first contact with another intelligent and space-faring species leads to a major change in how we view ourselves and life itself. There is no choice made between space travel and life on Earth.  If we would choose to abandon our planet in that way, we would simply be extending our history of ravaging each "new" place, of  wasting and destroying ecosystems, of war and empire, and of taking our fistfights to other galaxies. Because we don't value life, just ourselves.  That's not what happens in Star Trek.

For one thing, people who are consciously and deeply committed to life--of humanity but also of the Earth--have no trouble working to better the future for unborn generations, for life they'll never see.  That's what being rooted in this planet means, even as we take this ethic with us into space.

In our world today, we advance technology and explore space.  We also use the vantage we've gained to see our planet whole from beyond it, to help us address our biosphere's challenges.  We may (as some scientists suggest) find evidence of life elsewhere in a decade or two.  But we don't have warp drive, or worm holes for easy travel to other stars or galaxies. Right now we have no where else to go.

It also is entirely possible that humans cannot live anywhere other than Earth.  Human travel to the stars is at present a beautiful and exciting metaphor, an exercise of the imagination.  And it may remain only that.

Right now this is the only planet we've got.  Fittingly if ironically, our space program showed us this, showed us the beauty and fragility of our special planet in those first photos of the whole Earth that have become the emblem of our age. We can't allow our love affair with our technology to blind us to the reality that our lives are sustained by the life of this Earth.  It is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

We need to confront the climate crisis, both for generations now living who will suffer its first effects, and--in a way that Dr. Brand and the others didn't believe humans would do--we need to address the causes of the climate crisis for generations unborn. And for the conditions and diversity of life that support our lives, and the planet we know and should cherish.  That's our version of the conscious evolutionary step that humanity takes in Star Trek.

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