This hasn’t always worked out for the best, but it got me where I am today and when it comes to watching a film or reading a book it can be useful. I’m going to start by saying if you are not a fan of Nolan’s work you probably won’t like this movie. It is in many ways formulaic and explores territory explored by others but it is also the most important movie I’ve watched in a very long time. Let me get this out of the way, Checkov’s gun and magical realism are in full effect here. While some aspects of space travel are presented in a pretty realistic way even my vague understanding of physics knows when reality is being sacrificed at the altar of creativity. So, if you are a hard science fiction fan who is hidebound to absolute realism this isn’t for you but if you are someone who loves science this is something you should probably get behind.
Saying that, this is where my two talents come in to play, within five minutes I knew the end of the movie. Not the details but the broad brush strokes and the getting there was, but the general colour and shape was defined for me fairly easily but before I get in to that let me say we’ve seen this movie before. It was first published in 1985 and then adapted in to film in 1997. That story was called Contact, funny enough also starring Matthew Mcconaughey. When the story was published in 1985 I was 11, when the film was released I was 23. Some reading this may not really understand the world that this was released in to or the man who created it.
Carl Sagan born this day in 1934 was an author but more importantly a scientist and a communicator. His show Cosmos introduced a generation to science in a way that inspired hope and wonder. Still in a Cold War haze in 1985 NASA was flush with funding but as the Cold War was drawing to a close Sagan saw the writing on the wall. The space program was staffed by dreamers like him, interested in exploration and discovery but it was funded by generals and hawks. From the first paperclip placed at a desk this was always the way to dress war in a sheep's clothing. Once the Soviets collapsed that died and so too did the interest in space at the government level. He saw this and the story in Contact was very much a clarion call, an attempt to inspire wonder and the spirit of discovery. In 1997 we were in the Clinton years, a period defined by the realities of absorbing and recovering from a recession. The Hawks without an enemy didn’t repurpose their swords in to plowshares; they simply left them to rot in a field under the watch of a man who idealized the president who sent us to the moon. Sagan’s book and the film adaptation were to help inspire us to question, to wonder and to strive.
Flash forward, it’s 2014 and 18 years since Sagan’s finding the answer to the final riddle where we have a world once again recovering from a crippling recession and tainted by fiscal policies that are not just short sighted but self-serving. Nolan creates a world where the “skeptics” have won, not the good kind though, the chemtrailers and moon hoaxers, the truthers and birthers, the anti-vaxxers and the climate change deniers, the people who simply don’t believe because they are so caught up in their own problems they fail to see the see the scope of the world and when the facts don’t fit their reality they simply rewrite the facts. Technology has created a world where there are too many humans and not enough food and things like education, science and even health care are luxuries we can nary afford financially or intellectually. Unfortunately blight is striking the crops and wiping them out and stuck in the little picture we are dooming ourselves to extinction which juxtaposed to climate science stating if we have not already passed are close to passing the point of no return this is especially poignant.
It is against this setting that Nolan lays out his story, it’s laden with paradox and ambiguous story lines that at times defy logic or explanation but that’s not important. There’s enough science in there to cause us to wonder “what next” or “could we” and most importantly “when”. In the end the greatest achievements are realized and wonders untold are opened to us. Elements of Contact and 2001 are interlaced with Nolan’s filmic language to create a story that for some will be pleasant and visually pleasing and for some entertaining but what is also important is it inspires and reminds us that if we ignore the stars above we ignore our potential just as much as if we ignore the earth below our feet. He is trying to do, with his language, what Sagan attempted to do 29 years ago and then again 17 years later with the film. He’s trying to remind us that we have to dream, we have to explore and expand our reality and we need to push the boundaries of science but we can do so without giving up love, without forgetting our emotional attachments for these are the very things that bind us together and make us human and are our greatest gift that we can bring to the stars, the gift of wonder and compassion.
Interestingly, this is not a vacuum from which this sentiment arises. Interstellar has been notorious for its long fuse as something percolating in the mind of Nolan for years with a development cycle that was so secret for years all we saw were the vaguest of hints and even in to the last minutes of the last trailer released before the film it was never entirely clear the structure or the thrust of the story. Even with this secrecy Doctor Who (an equally fantastical and plot hole riddled story telling platform) released a story with an almost identical underlying thesis, humanity needed to stop looking at the ground and embrace the wonder of the stars once more if it hopes to thrive. This isn’t a single voice, this is many, the concern I have is this is a message that the people who need to hear it will not care for it. They will ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. We can only hope their children are more receptive.
When I was a child there was still talk of men going to the moon to build, we were still talking about not if but when we would go to Mars, Science was something to be honoured and appreciated not riddled with scorn and discarded as useless when it doesn’t provide monetary gain. We now live in a world where most nations depend on a despot to get their materials aloft; private enterprise is filling a void in discovery but only where there is profit and scientists are muzzled and shackled based on political agendas and faith in feelings not facts. Even Sagan’s legacy, the television show Cosmos, making its successful return to television was backed in to the corner of being the shrill respondent defending its ideals and not the bold dreamer asking us to engage our imaginations and join in a journey of discovery.
That’s what Nolan does here, he asks us to once again look up at the stars and journey together as a people, as a species, and as a community to a future not defined by pessimism and opportunism but by hope, love, and the ultimate adventure discovery.