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.)
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.