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Some thoughts about Interstellar

Interstellar 1

I know I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but I finally caught a session of Interstellar last week, and before it gets away from me I thought I might jot down a few (slightly spoilery) thoughts about it.

For those who haven’t seen it, it’s Dark Knight and Inception director Christopher Nolan’s new magnum opus, a science fiction epic that marries contemporary anxieties about societal and environmental decline to a nostalgia for the vision of the future’s possibility that drove the space race (and, not coincidentally, also underpins Kubrick’s 2001, a film to which it owes a great deal). Set a generation or two from now, it centres upon Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and trainee astronaut. Now widowed, Cooper is eking out a living as a farmer with his two children when a gravitational anomaly in his home leads him and his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), to what turns out to be a secret NASA installation.

Reunited with his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper discovers two things. The first is that the Earth is dying, and will soon be uninhabitable. But knowing that, Brand and his daughter, Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) have been  studying a wormhole that has appeared in orbit around Saturn, and which connects our solar system to another galaxy. Having sent several scientists through twelve years earlier, Brand is now planning one last mission aimed at establishing whether any of those scientists found planets capable of sustaining life, and, by extension, of saving the human race.

Persuaded to act as the mission’s pilot, Cooper travels through the wormhole on NASA’s last spaceship, the Endurance, with Brand and two other scientists. At least at first his focus is on completing the mission as quickly as possible so he can return to his family, but before long their hopes of returning to Earth begin to fade, as relativistic time dilation severs them from their families and various misadventures, including a run in with a dangerously unhinged survivor of the first mission, Wolf (Matt Damon), cripple the mission, until, in the film’s final reel, Cooper is offered a glimpse of the temporal paradox he inhabits.

Nolan is often described as a cerebral director, but the truth is he’s not, unless the handwaving of Inception is your idea of philosophy. What he does have is a brooding visual style (especially when teamed with cinematographer Wally Pfisterer), and a line in the sort of speechifying that sounds deep but doesn’t bear too much close examination (“the human race was born on Earth, it wasn’t meant to die here,” etc etc). Given all that (and the reviews) I went in expecting Interstellar to be titanically stupid, but in fact despite one truly risible speech by Brand (apparently love is a force, like gravity, that transcends time and space, which we’d all know if it weren’t for the fact scientists haven’t discovered it yet) there’s surprisingly little of the overtly stupid philosophising that mars films like Prometheus.

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Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway)

None of which is to say Interstellar is a smart film, or even a particularly slick one, but if you try not to think about it too hard it does have its own daft poetry. Some of that poetry is in the effects: the initial ride through the wormhole (and indeed the wormhole itself) is gorgeous, as are the waves on the first planet the crew visit, and there are any number of extraordinary vistas and images. But it’s also in its peculiar rhythms and weird, slightly dopey high-mindedness, even if it is marred by its absurdly intrusive soundtrack (which sounds like they commissioned the Abominable Dr Phibes to compose a series of variations on Philip Glass and then play them really, really loudly).

Of course you have to try pretty hard not to think about it too much, because as soon as you do the questions start multiplying like a game of whac-a-mole. Why does it take Endurance months to get to Mars yet once the ship is through the wormhole it suddenly becomes possible to fly between planets in no time at all? How come they need a multiple stage heavy lift rocket to get off Earth yet they’re then able to take off and land on other planets unassisted? And where is the sun in the system they visit? Surely it’s not the one that’s being consumed by the black hole? And (and I’m afraid this one’s a biggie) in what way is colonising a solar system with an enormous black hole in it a long term survival strategy? And that’s all before you begin wondering about things like how they could possibly not notice Wolf’s story about a surface with breathable air and organics is bunk (given they’ve seen the planet from orbit) or or how it is the spaceship technology hasn’t changed in a century despite the development of technology allowing us to construct vast space colonies. Or indeed why despite the dire warnings at the film’s beginning the threat of suffocation doesn’t seem to have transpired by the time Murphy figures out the riddle of gravity.

What’s interesting is that despite the film’s constant exhortations to go outwards and beyond, to remember a time when we invented things and embraced possibility, it’s not really about those things at all. Instead at some level its real preoccupation is loss and, more deeply, time.

In a way this isn’t surprising. Despite the glitter of the technology that surrounds us we live in a cultural moment in which we are beset by loss. A large part of that is environmental, something the film acknowledges in the opening sequences and the dust storms and blight that are slowly poisoning the Earth. But it’s also about a loss of faith in the future, a sense that we no longer know how to think about what comes next.

The factors behind this are complex. In part it’s a function of the failure of so many of the narratives of progress that have driven our cultures for so long. But it’s also at least partly a function of the triumph of capitalism and its capacity to crowd out the idea there might be alternative ways of structuring society. In this regard it was interesting to hear Ursula le Guin reversing the polarity of Frederic Jameson’s remark about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism when she said “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings” at the National Book Award ceremony last week.

INTERSTELLAR

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)

But whatever its origins, this sense of grief pervades contemporary culture. You can see it in films like Interstellar, in TV shows like The Walking Dead, and in many, many novels.

What’s interesting to me is less the grief, which seems the only sane response to the conflagration surrounding us, but the fact trying to talk about it seems, almost inevitably, to lead us to a consideration of time. This is obviously the case in Interstellar, which plays overtly with the idea of time, relativity and the deep future, but it’s also also visible in a novel like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (a book I think has been roundly misunderstood by most critics), which despite its cast of murderous immortals and journeys toward the land of the dead, is really attempting to find a way to talk about deep time and survival.

It’s possible I’m a bit obsessed on this last point – loss and time and how we think about them are written deep into the fabric of my new novel, Clade, which is out early next year – but I don’t think I am. Because finding the emotional and intellectual tools we need to think our way out of our current predicament clearly requires us to find new ways of thinking about the future and own relationship to it.

What’s surprising about Interstellar is that despite its desire to map out a space for this kind of thinking, its solutions are unreflectively technological and technocratic. This unreflectiveness is visible in NASA’s back-up plan in case the Endurance’s mission fails, plan that will see tens of thousands of human embryos hatched and then auto-raised by computers, allowing a new society to be built from nothing. As Abigail Nussbaum has noted in a slightly different context, it’s a plan that’s nothing short of grotesque, but it’s also of a piece with the film’s suggestion that the solution to Earth’s environmental problems will be to leave Earth and live in orbital colonies.

As Nussbaum points out, neither of these are plans that hold up to any real scrutiny. They’re also contradicted by the film’s unintentional subtext, which is that even allowing for the intervention of extra-dimensional beings with the power to control space and time, space doesn’t want us, meaning we really have no alternative but to find ways of living here on Earth that won’t ruin the planet.

In the end though, these science fictional elements are only really window dressing, because at its heart Interstellar’s real nostalgia is as much for another era of filmmaking as another era of human possibility. Its debt to 2001 is large and explicit, and many of its best bits (the ride through the wormhole, the long sequence in the infinite library, the talking computers) are borrowed from Kubrick’s masterpiece. Yet where 2001 deliberately denies the viewer the tools to interpret what they are seeing, forcing them to find their own meaning (in a very real sense the film of 2001 is the monolith, and it is our own reflection we see in it) Interstellar is a  more gimcrack creation, one part homage, one part digital masterpiece, one part awkward, almost naive high-mindedness, a combination that lends it moments of surprising beauty and even power, and which almost allows it to transcend its own absurdities.

World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

Walking Dead Webisodes

I’m not usually a fan of webisodes, but this series made to promote Season 2 of AMC’s stunning zombie show The Walking Dead are a very honourable exception. Certainly the two minutes-something of Part 6 had enough brutal energy as many full length episodes. Sadly nobody seems to have strung them together into a single loop yet, but if you’ve got time to watch the one by one they’ll more than repay the investment.