Saturday, 17 January 2015

THE GAPS BETWEEN THE STARS: THE SEMANTICS OF "INTERSTELLAR"

The ever-popular astronaut and bookcase theme.


By now most of you will have seen Christopher Nolan's latest movie Interstellar, or decided not to bother, so spoiler alerts are no longer an issue. It is fairly well-written, ably-acted, and stylishly executed. There is plenty of interest and much provocation of thought, so I don't regret the money I spent to go and watch it.

But what is the message?

Is it, as some claim, a great invocation of the fucked-up Faustian spirit of European man? Is it a Nietzschen opus of man slaying his Last Man avatar and becoming his own Prometheus? Or is it simply "damn it all" escapism from the complex and daunting challenges we face here on Earth?

There are elements of all three outlooks and more, with the mix between them determined by whatever mood you're in. Yes, almost any movie or myth can serve as a Rorschach blotch, giving you the messages that you want. But, if we desire to be a little more objective, we have to pay close attention to the actual architecture of the story-line and the essential messages, whether heeded or unheeded, that this sends out.

This is the heart and soul of any movie – its semantic centre – from which its truth can be most reliably extracted. If the good guy triumphs, it's a movie that promotes being good. If the hero has his ups and downs, part of the message is "life is not simple." There is a fundamental meaning in the raw narrative architecture that is occasionally distorted, obfuscated, and overlain by stylistic, editing, casting, and dialogue choice, but which continues to stubbornly emit its message, like radio waves from a quasar.

So, looking closely at the semantic centre of Interstellar, what is this much talked-about sci-fi opus actually about? What is it saying, apart from "the Earth is doomed" and "let's go into space," which are simply the devices to launch the story?

Where's HAL when I need him?
The most interesting but also the most absurd part of the plot line is the fact that super-advanced beings from the future, whom I will refer to as "Futurons," are, in effect, going back in time or projecting their influence there to help humanity in the 21st-century escape from its fate of extinction. We never see these invisible benefactors, but we are led to believe that they are future humans and our extremely distant descendants.

They help our near contemporary protagonists by (1) creating a wormhole for them to travel through to reach new worlds suitable for colonization, and (2) by channeling their super advanced understanding of physics through the unlikely combination of (a) an astronaut sucked into a Black Hole but somehow kept alive, (b) a pan-dimensional bookcase, and (c) a feisty female scientist dramatically engaged in a crop burning and kidnapping at the moment of her eureka.

The lady scientist, after deciphering the pattern of books falling out of the bookcase and thus learning the key to anti-gravitational technology, is then able to design space stations capable of carrying humanity into space. We are 'jumped' into believing that conditions on these space stations are a lot easier than here on Earth, although with their limited room, lack of resources, exposure to cosmic radiation, etc., this seems to be wishful thinking. The Earth, even with plant blight and a changing atmosphere, still seems a more sensible and resource-rich location on which to base any space-hopping society.

Other technological details of humanity's survival – like how they successfully generate oxygen, water, and food, while also creating the industrial materials needed for their space stations and interstellar craft – are simply skipped over, as is the possibility that a great many people may not have been able to book their tickets on the new space stations.

I won't dwell too much on the paradoxes and absurdities thrown up by a close rational critique of the movie's details, because even the best movies will often appear stupid under such a cold light. Despite its aura of scientific pretension, Interstellar is, after all, simply a piece of entertainment. So, setting aside the inherent absurdity of explicit and implicit premises and plot devices, let us instead consider the symbolism of the story line. What are the main semantic messages that this cinematic sci-fi concoction sends out?

I detect three major ones:

  • Fragmentation of Unities
  • Open Source Attitude
  • Inter-Generational Parasitism

(1) Fragmentation of Unities


The creation of a large number of separate space communities, no longer anchored to the Earth and its gravity, and no longer polluted by a common environment, can be read as the post-national and post-modern atomization of America, the West, and the World in general into smaller, self-defined, free-floating communities.

The movie offers little information on how these communities are organized politically, but the implicit anarchist symbolism speaks for itself. In other words, the shape of the movie is secessionist, and, in line with that, reflective of the general breakdown in unified entities that characterizes the post-modern dynamic.

(2) Open Source Attitude


A possible Futuron: believers in 
pan-temporal knowledge communism.
The protagonists in the movie don't triumph by their own efforts, wits, and scientific discoveries. They essentially rely on wisdom (and wormholes) freely and generously given by others, namely the mysterious "Futurons."

The readiness with which Nolan pushes the story along this groove seems to reflect the “open source” attitude to knowledge and software that is the inheritance of Millennials.

It is felt that everything, even expertise from the future, such as anti-gravitational devices and the secrets of inter-dimensional travel, should be universally available under a free license – even if the method of distribution involves sucking an astronaut into a Black Hole in which a pan-dimensional bookcase exists! 

This idea, of simply getting things on a plate, reflects the sense of entitlement, the taking of things for granted, and the lack of genuine gratitude that people today feel for the accumulated knowledge and technology of centuries, as well as the races, cultures, and civilizations that created them.

(3) Inter-Generational Parasitism


The most striking aspect of the story line is the reliance of the 21st-century humans on the efforts of the "Futurons," their own distant descendants, whose remoteness gives them the aura of ancestral rather than "descendral" spirits.

The generation of people associated with the destruction of the Earth and its own doom is saved by a far-distant future generation. Although the generations in this case are extremely spaced out, analogies could be drawn with the pampered and thoughtless way that today's boomer retirees have lived and continue to live the good life at the expense of subsequent generations, whom they have saddled with massive financial debt, a depleted environment, a degraded and morally eviscerated culture, and enormous social costs, which will be a burden for centuries to come.

***************

Looked at in these terms, Interstellar is less a vision of an inspiring future for mankind amid the star-spangled heavens and more a reflection of where the West has been recently, where it is now, and the blind cusp of the next hill in its heedless journey. It is a message replete with the short-sightedness and selfishness of our present age, and the probable feebleness of our society if and when faced by a genuine challenge to its existence and survival.

Needless to say, such a society would ultimately be incapable of ever producing the higher civilization, which in this movie reaches back in time to save it.

Textbook drawing of a science parasite.

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