“Clueless” Meets “Lost in Space”: Will Thomas on “Interstellar” (SPOILERS)

Will Thomas of The Atlas Society has just written a review of “Interstellar” that is clueless enough to make David Brooks’s commentary on the film seem like sublime wisdom by comparison. Thomas seems to belong to the Ideological Checklist School of Film Criticism, according to which a film’s aesthetic merits are reducible to its satisfaction of or deviation from a fixed and unimaginative set of doctrinal criteria. “Interstellar” seems to score something of a B+ on Thomas’s grading rubric, but the grade itself is perhaps of less interest here than the rubric.

“Interstellar,” we’re told, “shouts to the world that Americans should be achievers, but then it steals from them the ability to succeed.” There we have it, in one slovenly sentence: a film must have an ideological purpose; it must shout that purpose; if it features Americans, it must be shouting to the world about America; and its supposed aesthetic failings must be described as an offense against the Holy Grail of political economy, property. From a start this reductive and philistine, Thomas leaves himself only one direction to travel in aesthetic space—down. And down the aesthetic wormhole he goes. What follows are a few unexceptional (and unenlightening) paragraphs of commentary and plot summary. And then we get to “Interstellar film values.” Get out your checklist.

“Interstellar cheers for values an Objectivist can love,” we’re told. Is the purpose of art to function as cheerleader for moral or political values? Thomas’s avatar Ayn Rand didn’t think so: “Art is not the ‘handmaiden’ of morality,” she wrote, “its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 22). I’d infer that its basic purpose is not to “cheer,” either, but I don’t expect that lesson to have been internalized by the people responsible for “Atlas Shrugged Part 3.”

So what does the film “cheer” for? I have to quote directly here:

Interstellar cheers for values an Objectivist can love. The film several times explicitly and approving quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” with its refrain “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” In this and other ways, the film thus directly says that we should strive to survive, know, achieve, and live.

This is a tragic-comic interpretation of Dylan Thomas’s poem. The lines in question do not “directly say that we should strive, know, achieve, and live.” They don’t implicitly say that, either. They’re an irrational rebellion against death, and contrary to Will Thomas, that is how they’re depicted in the film. The character who repeatedly utters the Dylan Thomas lines lives an outwardly successful but actually aimless life in rebellion against the reality of death: he deceives people, drives them to insanity, and sacrifices them to a lunatic quest that masquerades as an act of striving, knowledge, achievement, and life, but isn’t one. It’s instructive that Will Thomas hasn’t grasped that it is a masquerade. I’d like to think that movement-Objectivists can still cheer for or at least discern the difference between achievement and its counterfeit, but optimism sometimes gets the best of us.

Death is what Ayn Rand calls a “metaphysical given,” and her view of such givens is that wholehearted acceptance of their reality is required for the serenity proper to human life: “To rebel against the metaphysically given is to engage in a futile attempt to negate existence” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 37). That’s exactly what the character in question does. “[W]hen no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely” (PWNI, p. 43, my emphasis). “Raging into the night” is anything but serene, and is the exact opposite of what Rand was prescribing. To get this wrong is to get both Rand and the universe wrong. But leave that to the self-appointed Objectivist “experts” at The Atlas Society.

So what does the film get wrong, according to our inquisitor?

But here’s the thing: for all their striving, the heroes are incapable of succeeding on their own. Instead, a deus-ex-machina rescue saves them at the crucial junctures. Cooper has no plan to fly again before a strange message delivered by gravitational fluctuations in some dust directs him to NASA’s secret project. And there would be no NASA project without the wormhole that someone (a being from the 5th—physical—dimension?) has plonked there out by Saturn. And this feature carries over into the climax of the film. The heroes cope and deal as best they can with what opportunity gives them, but we see that they could not solve their problems themselves.

That is a spiritually enervating betrayal of the film’s key themes. It says, in effect, “Pray, pray, for someone else to set things right.”

Suppose that I denied that I could solve all of my problems all by myself all the time—in the ridiculous sense of never relying on anyone besides me for help, and never conceding that the solution of a problem extended beyond my self-enclosed resources at a given time. Would that prove that I was advocating a resort to prayer, or would it simply suggest recognition of an obvious fact about the nature of human life—that we sometimes cannot solve our own problems in the envisioned way? Not a difficult question to answer, unless you’re in the grips of an ideologically-inspired fantasy that commands you to forswear the assistance of others, and then commands you to think ill of those who ask for it. Never mind that given the actual structure of the actual world we live in, the first group will actually solve the problems they confront, and the latter group will not. People in the grips of fantasies don’t notice things like that.

Perhaps that is why Thomas fails to notice that his summary of the film contradicts what actually happens in it. In fact, the heroes do “solve their problems themselves” in the relevant sense of that phrase. The small group of astronauts who blast off for the wormhole do not, it’s true, leap into space like Team America, fly to the wormhole, and fashion some facile derring-do technological “solution” to “the problem,” as you’d expect, say, in a very long re-run of Macgyver. But they do solve the problems they face in a way that entitles them to full credit for having done so, regardless of the help they seek: they get credit for seeking it, and for figuring out how to use it to their advantage, no mean feat under the circumstances.

Incidentally, I don’t mean to be denying that there are facile derring-do solutions in the film. There are some of those, too. But that only proves my point: a depiction of two sets of achievements can hardly be construed as an attack on achievement.  See the film for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

Far from being a celebration of achievement or reason, Thomas’s claims here are a slap in the face to the characters’ exemplification of precisely those values. What is spiritually enervating is not the film, frankly, but his one-eyed commentary on it.

According to Thomas, “[t]here are other, smaller betrayals of the reason-achievement theme as well.”

The Earth’s crisis, though never fully explained, is put down at least in part to human arrogance and industrial farming. No one seems able to engineer a response to the plagues, nor does anyone appear to be trying. Environmentalists will feel vindicated.

This is just a blatant misdescription of the film. What’s true is that the Earth’s crisis is never fully explained—full stop. It is not “put down to human arrogance and industrial farming.” It is just left unexplained. One character in the film attributes it to human arrogance, but his claims are never confirmed, and the film never suggests that his claims are right (or wrong). (And the film’s protagonist, Cooper, can hardly be called humble.)

It’s true that no one seems able to engineer a response to the plagues, but there is no way to infer from the film that no one has tried to; Thomas’s claim to that effect is sheer confabulation. Anyway, here’s a thought: what if a plague struck and no one was able to engineer a response to it? Thomas seems to imply that the suggestion itself requires some sort of indulgence in irrationality. Really? Why?

Elsewhere in the review, Thomas cheerily concedes the possibility that a spaceship could travel through a gravitational wormhole. Why then reject the possibility that we might lack a feasible engineering response to a plague that struck the planet? We currently have no response to the possibility of an asteroid strike. Does that mean an asteroid couldn’t strike the planet? We currently have no response to the possibility of disasters caused by sudden global warming. Does that mean that no such warming and no such disasters can take place? Can we assume, a priori, that we will have an engineering solution in place when the sun implodes? Bastardized Julian Simon dogmas aside, how could anyone know such a thing? Thomas seems to think that human technology (and by implication reason) can dictate terms to nature, and that a film that refuses this conceit has somehow betrayed reason. I’m afraid that isn’t the way the world actually works. For once the question can be posed without resort to metaphor: what planet is Will Thomas on? (On the topic of catastrophic events and possible responses to them, I highly recommend Richard Posner’s Castastrophe: Risk and Response.)

Thomas continues:

Another theme in the film, repeated at key moments, is that emotions, or at least love, allow us to form connections across space and time: they are lauded as a form of intuitive awareness transcending our three dimensions. In fact, the full arc of the story trades on this insight. When the most scientific people in the universe recur to this idea, the film paints reason as a hollow and insufficient exercise.

What the film is saying about love’s relation to reason is not entirely clear, but precisely because it isn’t clear, it’s susceptible of a more charitable interpretation than Thomas’s. We don’t need to infer that the film “paints reason as a hollow and insufficient exercise,” or that it claims that love displaces reason at all; perhaps the film suggests that reason cannot properly be exercised unless it does so alongside love.

If Thomas had read Ayn Rand with a little more care, he’d realize that in fact, she agrees with what I take to be the film’s account of love, not with his. What is the weapon one needs to fight the enemies of human flourishing? she asks in her 1971 essay, “The Age of Envy.” “For once, it is I who will say that love is the answer—love in the actual meaning of the word….love as a response to values, love of the good for being the good….What fuel can support one’s fire? Love for man at his highest potential” (The New Left, 1975 edition, pp. 185-86). An exercise of reason devoid of love is not an exercise of reason at all.

Keep that passage in mind as you watch the very last scene of “Interstellar.” Then ask yourself who’s gotten the film right. But whatever you do, don’t be dissuaded by Thomas’s ridiculous review from seeing it for yourself.

Postscript, December 9, 2014: This article, “A One-Way Trip to Mars? Many Would Sign Up” in today’s Science Times, is a perfect example of the psychological superficiality of discussions of space exploration and space travel (as alluded to in my discussion with Jurgis Brakas in the comments). Being “scientific” in the narrow, reductive, geeky sense, the article devotes about three columns to discussion of the logistical difficulties of getting a person to Mars, then spends a few incredibly facile paragraphs on what it would be like to live there–i.e., what it would be like to be a Martian.

Yet Mars remains a forbidding, frigid place, with an average temperature of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit and an unbreathable atmosphere just 1 percent the density of Earth’s and consisting largely of carbon dioxide. Colonists would live in artificial podlike habitats, grow vegetables in greenhouses and get their protein from insects. No pets, sorry. And if you plan on going outside — as you will, often, to repair infrastructure battered by the chronic Martian wind, or to wipe off solar panels encrusted with the ubiquitous Martian dust — you must wear your spacesuit at all times.

In short, a lifetime on Mars would be like a life sentence in an unimaginably lonely, cruel, and dangerous prison. It doesn’t take an expert in mental health to see that an environment like that would be a breeding ground for mental illness or insanity. But apparently such trifling considerations aren’t the fodder for serious discussion in science journalism today: psychology isn’t scientific, so it takes a back seat to discussions of other things. One enthusiast, an engineer, dismisses the psychological issues with a facile cliche: “We’re a species that explores and pushes our boundaries. By exploring our own planet, we’ve developed technology to make our life more comfortable.” He might want to read up a bit on the historiography of exploration on Earth to discover what else happened en route to that destination.  One supposed enthusiast, “planning to get married in September,” is “willing to leave her husband behind should a Mars passport bear her name”–for the rest of her life! Talk about devotion. It’s supposed to be amusing, but is it?

Unsurprisingly, the most profound comment on the whole thing is a side-bar excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

…and the men shuffled forward, only a few at first, a double-score, for most men felt the great illness in them even before the first rocket fired into space. And this disease was called The Loneliness.

Postscript, September 21, 2015: I was gratified to see this Op-Ed in the Times, adding some useful details to the anti-Mars arguments I made in the last postscript.

13 thoughts on ““Clueless” Meets “Lost in Space”: Will Thomas on “Interstellar” (SPOILERS)

  1. Man, you’re hard on Will, Irfan. I haven’t read his review, though (and don’t have the time to), so I can’t say whether it’s fair or not. As for the movie itself, I went to see it because so many people said it was really good. I found it to be annoyingly unintelligible and therefore meaningless–despite great cinematography, good acting, exciting moments and so on. On the other hand, I saw it only once and thought only so much about it. Still, it seemed like overrated junk to me.


    • I don’t think “Interstellar” is unintelligible. The plot is sometimes hard to follow because the science it’s based on is difficult to understand. But as I pointed out in a different post, the science itself has a basis. Maybe it all ultimately turns out to be false, but it’s not unintelligible as science fiction. The parts that aren’t hard to follow are profound. “Interstellar” is one of the few films I’ve ever seen that casts psychological doubt on the viability of interstellar travel. It asks: Is our nature really suited to it? The usual facile, giddy answer–Yes! Let’s go!–cannot survive a confrontation with this film. And a culture that idolizes Elon Musk’s Space-X enthusiasms is in dire need of such a confrontation.

      I’m as hard on Will Thomas as his review merits. His review is like a caricature of an ideologue’s night at the movies. He doesn’t bother to watch the film that unfolds in front of his face–he’s too busy asking whether it lives up to his ideological slogan, “the reason-achievement theme.” Having taken this approach, he concludes that the film “betrays” those values. A person who uses language like “betrayal” should be ready for some push-back, especially when his interpretation turns on getting as much wrong as possible–Dylan Thomas, catastrophe, love, the film itself…essentially every topic he manages to bring up. Will this give him or anyone else at TAS pause in describing themselves, embarrassingly, as “experts” on the subjects they discuss? No. But it should give others pause. If this is “expertise,” I’d hate to see ignorance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was afraid I’d that kind of reply from you when I was about to write my post and therefore almost didn’t write it: very informed and thoughtful. So that leaves me with two undesirable alternatives: [1] Brush up on my physics, see the movie again once or twice, and think a lot about it; or [2] leave a feeble reply. I won’t do all of [1], having other things on my plate, but I will see the film again when it comes out in blue-ray, since you think so highly of it, and think some more about it. (I also happen to be dipping a bit into the the film’s physics again, though for reasons unrelated to it.) So, there I am left with [2], and I’ll go ahead and jump in and make a few feeble remarks.

    Is it really good story-telling to leave the cause of the earth’s plight in the dark? Not a big deal, but that is one thing that annoyed me. Not known, leaves a “foggy spot.” Who or what left the wormhole near Saturn? Not known. WHY did they leave it there? Not known. Just what kind of creatures are these strange beings? Not known. Why did they help the protagonist make contact with his daughter near the end of the movie? Not known. Travel through a wormhole–i.e., a black hole? A stretch, but let that one go–I’ve suspended belief on that one for other sci-fi flicks. Travel into the past? Another hard one to swallow, but, OK, let that one go too. (Travel into the future, in a sense, is another matter.) I’m sure I’ll be able to think of more after I’ve seen the film again. So, for me–at least at this point–the film’s story moves in an interstellar fog of unanswered questions, leaving it–as a whole–unintelligble. That’s why I found it annoying.

    As for judging a movie’s merits on ideological grounds, I’m of course in complete agreement. When I was younger I read quite a few of Jack London’s works and loved them. There was one big exception, though, and it set me back on my heels when I read it–couldn’t believe it. It was one long propaganda piece for socialism (THE IRON HEEL, I think it was called), and it was god-awful for that reason–not because it was a propaganda piece for socialism but because it was a propaganda piece, of course.

    Liked by 2 people


      I didn’t really brush up on any physics to appreciate the movie, and I don’t think anyone who doesn’t understand the physics has to do that. I read a few journalistic articles and left it at that. My knowledge of physics is very poor (and didn’t get any better from reading three articles). All that was relevant was that mainstream physicists agree that what’s depicted in the film is broadly speaking possible. It may turn out not to be possible, but for purposes of science fiction all you need is a general sense that a scenario is somehow possible, rather than out-and-out fantasy.

      With one exception, I think the “foggy spots” you mention are irrelevant to appreciating what the movie is about. Why is Earth uninhabitable? Because of a plague. How did the plague come about? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it made the planet uninhabitable. Consider a parallel line of questions about different work of fiction: Did Howard Roark have siblings? What was the family dynamic in the Roark household? Etc. Many critics of The Fountainhead have complained that the novel is flawed because it doesn’t discuss Roark’s deep past, and because it doesn’t, Roark is not fully real to “us” as a character. But such inquiries miss the point. We know what Roark is like now, and as readers we start there and move forward. It’ll always be a mystery whether Roark fought with his older brother, had a bar mitvah, or went to his senior prom. But it doesn’t matter.

      As for the strange beings, it would be important to know something about who they are, at least enough to be able to differentiate them from some sort of supernatural entities. But here I’d recommend seeing the film a second time. It does explain that. Perhaps the explanation is confusing, but it’s there. They are not supernatural entities. They’re us in the distant future. That’s why they have a strong motivation to help us-in-the-past, and it’s why they’re not omnipotent.

      The real suspensions of disbelief in this film all have to do with time travel, forwards and backwards. But if one can do it for “Back to the Future” or “Groundhog Day,” or “The Time Machine,” the same applies here.

      I have a soft spot for any film that depicts either extraterrestrial or otherwise exotic entities (like future-humans-via-the-fifth-dimension) as benevolent. (Another example is “Contact.”) So many filmmakers assume that if there are extraterrestrial entities (or some approximation of them), they are apt to be more advanced than us, and if they are more advanced, they must be predatory. (The paradigm example is Independence Day, an essentially ridiculous film whose raison d’etre is the celebration of war.) The underlying assumption is that the more intelligent or rational a being is, the more it wants to eat you. Well that’s certainly possible, but it’s telling how insistently filmmakers harp on the theme. Meanwhile, on the other side of the same coin, when extraterrestrial visitors are benevolent, they have to be sent by God. Rand is right that recurrent themes of this kind in art indicate metaphysical commitments.What is (mostly) missing from the art of our day is a secularized version of the religious story: beings more advanced than us would be both smarter and more benevolent than us (or at least their benevolence would be larger in scope and more efficacious than ours).

      I find it interesting that Will Thomas says nothing about this aspect of “Interstellar,” despite the fact that even mainstream commentators have likened “Interstellar” to “Contact.” He focuses on such irrelevancies as the likelihood that environmentalists would feel vindicated by the film, as though the point of a film was to energize or alienate political constituencies. The sum total of the film’s environmentalist content is that Earth could be rendered uninhabitable. Does he mean that if you reject environmentalism, you must adopt the a priori conviction that it cannot be rendered uninhabitable, ever? But given obvious possibilities (an asteriod strike, the implosion of the sun), that is even less plausible than the idea of time travel. Time travel is hard to understand. So, yes, it’s mysterious. But the destruction of the planet is easy to understand. What is totally mysterious is the attitude of a person who says, “Don’t suggest that Earth could be rendered uninhabitable: environmentalists will like that.”

      It’s worth noting, by the way, that the suggestion that the Earth could be rendered uninhabitable is not unique to environmentalists: one person eagerly promoting the idea is Elon Musk. And yet Elon Musk is considered a hero at The Atlas Society. Why not say, “Environmentalists will feel vindicated by Elon Musk’s Space-X“? Apparently, when “Interstellar” suggests that Earth could be rendered uninhabitable, it’s a concession to environmentalism. But when Elon Musk suggests it, then it becomes an opportunity to embark on daydreams about moving to Mars. The problem here is an activist attitude that is so riveted by the minutiae of political partisanship as to have lost any sense of anything larger (and with it, any interest in coherence).

      I wouldn’t have written a post like this or comments like this merely to defend a film. My point is a larger one: it’s to expose what is so desperately wrong with Objectivist discourse today. The Objectivist organizations of our day have decided to fashion a discourse that is based on the least political common denominator of their potential audience. It is as though Gail Wynand had decided to run the Objectivist movement and set the terms of its discourse. ARI is insulated from reality by money and institutional power. TAS insulates itself by adopting a tribal mentality that declares its critics non-existent and wishes them away. But my point is: they can run, but they can’t hide. If this is their idea of cultural commentary, why should anyone pay attention to it? No earthly reason.

      As for Jack London, I once tried to read one of his novels. I didn’t succeed, and I don’t even remember which one. I think it was Sea Wolf.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Another thoughtful reply exhibiting a detailed knowledge of the subject-matter.

        My take-away from my involvement in this thread is: Don’t comment on anything unless you have a broad and deep knowledge of the subject-matter, have thought a lot about it and are willing to spend a good deal of time writing about it. Ergo, I shouldn’t have commented on your interesting post.

        I went to see the movie to get away from my desk and be entertained. That’s all. I spent as much time thinking about it as it took for me to drive home. However, I will definitely see it again. Perhaps a second viewing and a bit more thought will allow me to wring intelligibility out of it.


    • I don’t have a very detailed opinion of him. I’ve read a few of his books, e.g., Ultimate Resource 2. I’m sure his core argument has something to it. I’m not an economist, so I don’t have a specialist’s opinion on the details. What I’m referring to in the post is the bastardization of Simon’s arguments one finds among both libertarians and Objectivists: wealth is the best defense against disaster; hence if we establish free market capitalism, we need not think about or plan for disasters that would require a concerted response by government action. Human ingenuity under conditions of freedom will always find a technological fix to any problem we might face.

      The implicit assumption is either that disasters cannot happen under capitalism, or that if they were to happen, market-based responses will be sufficient. Combine that with a simplistic version of Rand’s “benevolent universe” premise, and you have a recipe for wishful thinking. Whether Objectivists and libertarians can admit this or not, we have to plan for the very real possibility that global warming has an anthropogenic basis and may or will have severe consequences. If so, our response has to take the form of legalized mandates on carbon emissions. A different example: asteroids and comets have struck earth in the not-so-distant past, and might do so again. An asteroid strike is not a rights violation, but has to be handled by government action, because a response to it might require weapons that only a government ought to have. That would strike any non-Objectivist or non-libertarian as nearly self-evident common sense, but say it in Objectivist/libertarian circles, and you meet resistance.


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  4. Another story which plays around with similar themes is the video game, Bioshock. The villain/tragic hero falls for the same “Interstellar Travel trap” (ie. he thinks an extreme living transformation will work because he is in love with big ideas).

    In short, Andrew Ryan seeks to build a quasi-Objectivist utopia city, but he fears that no matter where he builds it, governments will eventually take it over to steal the city’s wealth and technology. So he decides to build the entire city at the *bottom of the Atlantic Ocean* Ryan then proceeds to invite tens of thousands of people to leave their comfy surface homes to live in air-tight, claustrophobic steel bubbles miles below the surface, and nowhere near anything else resembling civilization. On top of all that, Ryan bans communication with and travel to the outside world to protect the city. Despite the city’s residents all being ardent believer’s of the city’s cause, many fell victim to severe psychological degradation, and became mentally ill. The city’s population eventually imploded, at least in large part due to its citizenry losing their minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks–I’d never heard of the “Bioshock,” but now I’m going to have to see it. I’m not much of a sci-fi buff, but that description makes it sound interesting. There is a tendency among Objectivists and the like to fixate on the utopian features of Galt’s Gulch and to forget that the triumphant climax of Atlas Shrugged is about “going back to the world.” Too little has been said about what that means, and why it’s important. John Galt regards his retreat to Galt’s Gulch as a temporary and regrettable expedient, not as an attempt to start his own civilization from scratch. Galt’s Gulch is more a club than a society, and Rand thought, correctly, that we flourish best within established societies–unless those societies are ethically irredeemable or politically totalitarian (or both). The rush to abandon established societies–or abandon the planet itself–strikes me as quixotic at best.

      If you want to read something from exactly the reverse perspective, I’d suggest Wilfrid McClay’s and Ted McAllister’s essay collection, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. It’s written from an essentially conservative perspective, and one can’t agree with everything in it (to put it mildly). But it’s a useful corrective to the kind of wild, rationalistic, utopian-in-the-worst-sense thinking I see among radicals of both the left and right. And they blend: you find both left- and right-wing radicals who want to abolish the police, or think that it’d be really cool to leave this planet and find another one, or in the case of transhumanists, leave our humanity behind and develop a new species identity. I used to admire Thomas Paine’s statement, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.” But it’s so easily misinterpreted that I’ve come to take a dim view of it.

      Liked by 1 person

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