Tag Archives: movies

Interstellar Politics: Impartiality and Partiality

SPOILER ALARM! for those who have not seen Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been taking it hard in the press. Some people want to fault the science, but with the extensive assistance of physicist Kip Thorne, that seems implausible. Most reviewers accurately identify the screenplay as the problem: the uneven pacing, the unnatural dialogue, and the problematic plotting. I thought it was pretty implausible that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers the secret NASA installation and then becomes their last-best-hope pilot. In movies, you’re only allowed one coincidence in the plot. That’s too many coincidences. Overall, Christopher Nolan is a far better director than he is a writer, and it shows in the contrast between the beautiful shots of space and alien worlds on the one hand and the weird way the characters spoke on the other.

Also under the microscope are Christopher Nolan’s politics. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse to criticize Chris Nolan for his politics. The Dark Knight Rises was a distressingly fascist parable, where Occupy Wall Street are supervillain terrorists and Gotham City needs a billionaire dictator dressed in a bat costume to save it. In the case of Interstellar, however, I think the political implications are more ambiguous.

Sady Doyle at In These Times writes that “Christopher Nolan Disease” involves stories of sad men whose wives are dead (that seems accurate) whose “sadness… fuels his life’s grandest endeavor: The blowing up of cool shit.” Nolan isn’t known for his explosions, I would think. She also claims, like many reviewers, that Nolan does not how to write for women. That’s not fair – he doesn’t know how to write for anyone. Doyle, in particular, claims that women in Interstellar serve no purpose other than to motivate men. Murph Cooper (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain) only exists to motivate Cooper to save the world. Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is only there to fall down and “derail a mission so she can visit her boyfriend”. These sentiments surprise me because the women in the film seem like the heroes of the tale.

Emotional decision-making is the core of Interstellar. Cooper succeeds not because he is motivated to save humanity, but because he is motivated to save his family. Likewise, Amelia Brand’s emotional decision to want to see her lover, Dr. Edmund, is, as we find out, the correct decision. Cooper pushes her to visit the world scouted by Dr. Mann, which is the rational, but incorrect, choice. Indeed, that’s the role of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) in the film. When our heroes find Dr. Mann on his world, he has been driven insane by his isolation and lied about the suitability of his world for colonization. His dedication to humanity in the abstract is intended to be a sign of his insanity. He shares the outlook of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Amelia’s father, that the survival of the species is all that matters. Brand has even “sacrificed his humanity” by lying to his daughter on the prospects of saving Earth’s population.

So on the one hand, we have our heroes Cooper, Amelia, and Murph, who are driven by their deep, emotional connections to their loved ones. When they make decisions based on those connections, they make the best decisions. On the other hand, we have Mann and Professor Brand, who make decisions based on an impartial devotion to humanity in the abstract. Brand is ultimately wrong, and Mann is crazy. The heroes succeed because they trust in their connections. The women, along with Cooper, are heroic for the their emotional decisions, because “love crosses dimensions” (barf). In the end, Murph, whom Doyle presents as having daddy issues, is the savior of humanity because she has the rational mind to unify quantum mechanics and gravtiy, while retaining faith in her long-lost father.

The distinction reminds me of Equality and Partiality, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. As Nagel says, justice demands equality, or impartiality between persons. No one is more important than another. But of course we are also partial to some over another. Some people will always be more important to us than others. Nagel concludes that this tension will remain in human society.

Interstellar comes down for partiality – our emotional connections to others will be the salvation of humanity. Damon’s Mann represents impartiality as an insanity, as he self-righteously pontificates about saving the species while trying to kill his fellow astronauts. Is this a sign of Nolan’s “crypto-conservativism” that she sees in The Dark Knight Rises (calling it “conservative” seems a bit gentle)?

The film is less ambiguous about its technological optimism, which is about as loony as you can get. In one of McConaughey’s monologues, he says human beings are “explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” The reason for the interstellar journey is the collapse of agriculture on Earth, due to some implausible blight killing crops. Curing the plants seems like a far cheaper and easier task than colonizing a planet in another galaxy. It would probably cost a fraction of what secret-NASA is spending on sending astronauts to die on another planet.

For some reason, the film sets up some division between “exploration” and “caretaking”. In the real world of a changing climate, we won’t be able to explore and colonize the universe if we don’t take care of where we live. It’s far easier to solve climate change than develop the ability to live in space. But that requires civic engagement, trusting our fellow citizens, and putting ourselves out there politically. Somehow, that’s become harder than colonizing space. As George Monbiot writes of the movie, the technological optimism of such science fiction reflects a lack of political imagination and will. “Just as it is easier to pray for life after death than it is to confront oppression,” he writes, “this fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life of Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics”.

The incredible challenges to humanity that we face cannot be solved by being motivated only by our personal connections. We have to yoke our reason to a more universal social motivation to solve climate change, end war, and abolish poverty and slavery. (If real life were like a Nolan movie, I would blow up in an airlock before I could end this sentence.)

Skyfall: A Political Review

You are his target

James Bond returns to the theaters!  In Skyfall!  This time, the beloved serial murderer for the lawless British state has to take down one of his own.  Critics are saying that this is the best Bond movie ever.  I have no idea, having yawned through only a handful of the previous Bonds and his formulaic shenanigans.  I have to admit that the recent crop of Bond films, starring Daniel Craig as the titular state assassin, are much more interesting than the old goofy ones.  For one, the Craig movies are themselves much less outright propaganda for the lawless National Security State.  The previous Bonds’ adventures were consequence-free sex-and-murder romps through foreign locales.  Craig’s Bond is more obviously a sociopath who personally suffers the consequences of the blowback against the violence of the National Security State.  But you should still be glad that he pointlessly kills for you!

[Note: Spoilers for Skyfall follow] read more »