The Insulting Parts of Interstellar

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This is not a review of Interstellar. The film is thrilling, emotional and big fun. Go see it. It has some astounding special effects and amazing sense of wonder concepts.

No, what I want to write about is the philosophical implications of the science fiction as presented in Interstellar. The film makes a great touchstone to contemplate the nature of science fiction. Science fiction reflects our collective ambitions about exploring reality and the future of mankind. At the deepest level of desire, science fiction fans want to travel into space, especially to the stars and other worlds. Interstellar even travels to other galaxies, something seldom seen even in the most ambitious science fiction stories.


Science fiction also reflects our desire to control reality, and sees us as the master of our own fate. Science fiction is a rejection of the metaphysical, which believes humans are the minions of divine beings. Science fiction is hubris at its best (or worse, depending on your belief in God). Science fiction is the ultimate expression of human powered evolution.

The trouble with science fiction is most of humanity doesn’t buy into the dream, they prefer metaphysical fantasies. In Interstellar, NASA is a forgotten aspect of the government, and schools teach that the Moon landings were faked. The movie suggests that the human race gave up on the idea of the final frontier, and that it’s not until humanity is about to become extinct that we finally discover our next stage of evolution is to travel to the stars.

I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar as an entertaining movie, but some of its philosophical implications rankled me. It suggests that humans are destined to use up the Earth, and when we do, abandon it like an old computer sent to the landfill. The movie makers suggest the savior for our species is to travel to the stars with the help of higher dimensional beings. That smacks of guardian angels to me.

I want humans to travel the stars, but not because we selfishly used up our planet. Besides, I want to colonize space now, and we need to find real reasons to do so. Positive reasons.

In the film, no one campaigns to save the Earth. The conflict is between our descendants who endure our legacy, and those who want to run away. That idea sucks big time. I’m sure the movie makers thought it was just an easy justification for the plot, but I find it offensive. Yet, their attitude is not uncommon. Republicans pretend our sins of self-destruction aren’t ours, while the Democrats are perfectly willing to accept we’re to blame, yet do nothing to stop us from destroying ourselves.

Interstellar sees Earthly humanity expiring and says, “Let’s go to the stars” to start over. Now, here is where I get into spoilers by explaining how we’re saved. One part of the solution involves New Age mumbo-jumbo, and the other part involves 1930s style super-science mumbo-jumbo, the kind found in books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Neither solution will save us, nor are they philosophically appealing. They each say we need the help of higher powers. Bullshit.

We already know the science to save our planet – we choose not to. Abandoning Earth for the lifeboats is not an ethical solution. It’s about as noble as the Republican’s head in the sand plea of denial, or the Democrats mea culpa “The buck stops here but I ain’t going to do anything about it because the Republicans won’t play fair” whine.

I also find it offensive that the story in Interstellar suggests we need the help of super-beings. That’s one reason I don’t like religion – it shirks responsibility. We don’t need some divine daddy or fifth dimension super being to save us. If we can’t save ourselves then we deserve to go extinct. The movie cops out on its cop out, but I don’t like it’s philosophical solution either.

To me, the science fiction in Interstellar wimps out. Real, hard-core, science fiction is about humanity pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, using real science we discovered. To a degree the movie does that, and that’s exciting, but the ending of Interstellar is much like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I also found philosophical insulting. Arthur C. Clarke in his two most famous stories, 2001 and Childhood’s End suggests we need outside help getting to the next stage of existence, and that help involves superpowers that are damn close to metaphysical. I find that really distasteful.

I’m a believer in evolution, which doesn’t allow for outside helping hands. You either climb up out of the slime on your own, or you go extinct.

Colonizing space or traveling to the stars is a great ambition, but we need to go on under our own steam, and after we become good caretakers of the Earth. I think if we’re going to destroy everything we touch I imagine our alien neighbors, higher dimensional beings and the gods would prefer we just stay home.


11 thoughts on “The Insulting Parts of Interstellar”

  1. >> “The buck stops here but I ain’t going to do anything about it because the Republicans won’t play fair”

    It’s a reality that far-right Republicans control the House and have no intention of supporting any legislation to do any of the things that obviously need to be done. Until that changes, nothing useful can come from Washington.

    It’s not a mea culpa. It’s an acknowledgent of political reality. Any effort to “save the planet” needs to begin with an effort to reduce the GOP to permanent political impotence.

    1. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of the GOP anytime soon. And we need to stop thinking of doing away with the opposition. We need to education the right. They’re doing everything they can to educate us. Somewhere in the middle is a solution. The solution to climate change requires us to cooperate. The left can’t just give up. They have to be as active as the right in promoting their ideals, and I don’t think they are.

  2. I didn’t really see the whole “using up the Earth” idea as anything particularly offensive given that has been the rallying cry of conservationists and environmentalists for as long as I’ve been alive. Doesn’t seem to be wholly impossible to believe that with farming practices, etc. being what they are that at some point in the future we would strip the land of its ability to produce food. I also, personally, didn’t see it presented as much as the idea that we had used up Earth so much as that Earth was rejecting us. There was some line in the movie that posited that we, humans, were always arrogant in thinking that the Earth was there solely for us (wish I could remember it more clearly), but that gave me the perspective throughout the film that it was not necessarily some political statement about climate change, etc, which I appreciated, but that it was more the idea that the Earth was perhaps getting rid of a pest, us, so we better go find someplace else to live.

    Just my take on what I experienced in the film. I did, personally, very much appreciate that there wasn’t some detailed explanation about why humanity/the Earth had gotten to this point. I felt by doing so Nolan was able to keep the movie from being a message movie about climate change so that the focus could be where it needed to be, which was largely on the relationship between a father and daughter.

    1. It’s actually a story about two fathers and two daughters. And there’s a whole lot of psychology there to explore, especially if you consider those relationships metaphors for other things. I could probably write a dozen essays about this story.

      The movie doesn’t go into detail about what has happened to the Earth, but it does imply we desperately need to find a new home. That suggests we have used up the Earth. There was no mention of climate change, but they used dust storms effectively to show change. They essentially copied the dust storms of the 1920s and 1930s to show the doom, and very effectively too. People living through the dust bowl often felt it was the end of the world.

      I believe the core story is the main father daughter story, and how relativity affects time. Everything else is secondary. Science fiction writers tend to make up things quickly to get their characters where they want them to be for the story. In this case, the Earth is used up, so the only way to save mankind is to move to the stars. My objection is to that. I’m saying is we destroy one planet because we were stupid, we’re too stupid to deserve another. But my object doesn’t affect the main story.

      Heinlein wrote a wonderful book about the time dilation of relativity called Time for the Stars. His gimmick was to have twins with telepathy. One goes, one stays. One ages must faster.

      1. You are correct there. Loved the casting choices, by the way.

        I don’t have any objection at all to your thoughts on not deserving another planet after destroying this one. It is presumptuous to think that once we got to the new one that we would suddenly start doing things right for a change! That being said, I do think it is not entirely far-fetched to believe that the only way we would ever explore space with any real commitment was if the threat of the Earth no longer sustaining us was imminent.

        And I’m with you in finding that offensive, in large part because growing up with Star Trek (reruns), Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica I had hoped our space program would have been much much…MUCH….farther along by this point.

        I do think there is some hope if private individuals and companies can continue to thrive financially in the efforts they are making to get us “out there”. Governments may never commit the funds necessary to jump start the space program unless compelled to do so by the threat of war or extinction…and perhaps that isn’t something we should entirely fault them for given all the things money should be spent on right here on good ol’ Earth (I’m not entirely willing to let them off the hook though). But I do think governments should do what they can to make it viable for the private sector to keep the dream alive.

        I’m not sure if I have Time for Stars in my basement collection. If not I’ll have to add it.

        I did my “review”, of sorts, on Interstellar today and I linked to your post.

    1. Thanks Carl. I saw that article on Zite and filed it away on Instapaper to read later. Wormholes are going to be doubtful subways to the stars. On PBS Nova a few years ago I remember a scientist saying, and I’m sure I’m quoting incorrectly, but it was something like this, to keep a 1 meter wormhole open for 1 second would take converting the mass of Jupiter into energy. I doubt anyone travels faster than light, even far future 5th dimensional beings.

      Like most SF movies, the science in Interstellar was iffy. Why go to a galaxy far far away to find worlds no better than the three presented in the film? The space probe Kepler has found us plenty of planets much closer. But even if we do have quick access to another world there’s a whole host of problems about colonizing any world that has evolved biology. Building space habitats, like the one we see in the film, are probably better lifeboats. It’s funny, but the film doesn’t mention that such a habitat might save a few tens of thousands, but all the other billions on Earth would perish. The .001 percent get to survive, and the 99.999% die.

      What would have been tremendous fun if they had gotten twelve directors to film Interstellar, each writing their own story about the end of the Earth.

      1. Did you ever see the film Paris Je Taime? Paris in Love. (Not the lesser New York, I love you). It was a similar concept, with a bookend story that had several short films in between. I thought it was fantastic and it would be great to see a similar concept done with a science fictional premise. And the end of the world would be a good premise to use.

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