Interstellar and the Arrogance of Sentiment

Posted: November 28, 2014 in Uncategorized
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I finally saw Interstellar. On the whole, I enjoyed it very much. It’s ambitious, takes the time it needs to tell its story, and is stunning to look at. The scene of the arrival at Saturn is one of the most awe-inspiring sights of recent SF cinema, and is a moment where Interstellar is in closest sympathy with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There have been many comparisons drawn between the two films. Well, you lucky people, here’s another. Spoilers follow.

I think it may have been Jake Horsley who said that if Alfred Hitchcock had no heart, Stanley Kubrick had no soul. He did not mean this as a compliment, but my reaction has always been: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Indeed, one of the great strengths of 2001, for me, is its coldness. Interstellar goes out of its way to be the anti-2001 at the emotional level, and I think it winds up suffering for this decision. As glorious as many of its scenes are, its resolution finally blocks it from reaching the same sublime awe as 2001.

In Kubrick’s film, the aliens are truly alien, their motives for manipulating our evolution never really explained. The film’s sense of mystery, of the universe being overwhelming huge and beyond our mental grasp, never lets up. It leaves much unexplained.

Interstellar, by contrast, explains everything, and becomes more and more prosaic as it approaches its conclusion. And the explanation is disappointingly familiar: human exceptionalism. Maybe we screwed up the Earth (though the film remains somewhat coy on the reasons for the blight), but cosmic manifest destiny will see us evolve into five-dimensional gods.

Blecch. I love 2001 because in its universe, we are specks, and Kubrick’s vision of a future where humans are emotionless technicians and only a computer has feelings is more interesting to me than Nolan’s love-is-a-measurable-power sentimentalism. That sentimentalism is integral to the exceptionalism — it fuels it, and this vision of human destiny, of Just How Special We Are, is colonialism by another name.

(Self-serving aside: This is one of the things I so enjoy about writing Warhammer 40,000 — the xenophobic, genocidal heart of exceptionalism and its fallacy are clearly exposed.)

So I do wish Nolan had spared us that resolution, but the striking visual beauty of the film, working with that magnificent score, are enough to make me want to see it again.

EDIT: In terms of recent releases, Godzilla stands in stark contrast to Interstellar in that it systematically eliminates the agency of its characters. Its Square-Jawed Hero accomplishes next to nothing –as far as the main conflict is concerned, his only contribution is to open up a gas main, and everything else he attempts fails. This is pretty unusual in American cinema, and especially in blockbusters. Interstellar goes in the opposite direction, where the apparently helpless humans become more and more and more powerful until divinity is promised over the horizon.

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    Now I so wish you had been in on the podcast. Among other things, we wrangled the question of the aliens/future humans but from a time travel perspective and the problems their existence causes.

    As always your thoughts show why you are a solid member of our team 🙂

    • Thanks, Paul. I wasn’t crazy about the time-travel stuff either, but it felt to me as a symptom of the larger problem — it was the mechanism to reach that destiny.

      And I sure do love being part of the team! 🙂

  2. Robert J. Sawyer has given the best theory about 2001 that I’ve seen — the aliens are AIs, and they manipulate evolution to produce more AIs. In other words, the aliens want to meet HAL.

  3. lock_vogell says:

    Interstellar is maybe one of the more controversial films in the last years. I red about many people who just hate that film because of that sentimental cheese, and many people are saying it is on par with films like “the godfather” or “fight club”.
    I am sort of in the middle… I think it is a pretty good film, one I might purchase as a steel box, but still it is not as good as the top 20 or so movies.
    But I am not so sure about the problem with the “excwptionalism” you mentioned, because I think if any alien race would observe us and sees what we are doing to our planet, killing our selves in wars… Do you really think they would not just eradicate us for being so “stupid”, or would just watch us going down like we would have in interstellar without the worm hole?:P

    So if ANY help would reach us, the only logical explanation could be it comes from our selves.

    In the end this picture is a stunning movie with exceptional and fairly good researched scenery, which just looks super awesome (I so hope for a possibility to watch it in 4k60p on my tv), but it still remains a fairytale.

    The message of this movie could be in an eco documentary too… Do not blow our planet, live democracy, preserve knowledge… But I think I like it better to be taught such a lesson in a cool SciFi movie… 😀

  4. Good points, and I think my overall sense of the film is not that far removed from yours — on the whole, I liked it, but I had my reservations too. You have me thinking with regards to the alien intervention. I agree — their saving us could be even more unsatisfying. Perhaps I was hoping (fairly or not) for the mystery “intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic” (to misappropriate a line from Wells) as in 2001.

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