Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

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