Monday, December 22, 2014

Intergalactic Planetary: Interstellar and the Duality of Everything. Philosophical Bifurcation at Its Finest

Excellence, or the perception thereof, is the kind of knife that can cut both ways.  On the one hand, it drives forward, inspires the same in others, and garners accolades from the layman and master alike.  It also elicits a higher degree of scrutiny and larger scale of criticism because the statues of heroes lining our Hallowed Halls must not be commissioned without due cause lest the bar be lowered and standards be plundered.  Either way, blood will be drawn.  To be held up as a paragon in any field requires a significant blood sacrifice: first willingly on the part of the potential candidate and second painfully at the hands of the gauntlet.

In the world of film, Christopher Nolan is no stranger to these grotesquely beguiling cultural rituals and is perhaps one of the best examples of the costs required for entry into the fellowship.  It is, perhaps, small comfort that these sadomasochistic cultural tendencies mirror elements of life for which there is no safety word.  Nolan's films have been subjected to increasingly rigorous critical analysis, and his latest opus, INTERSTELLAR, is no exception.  While it's sometimes frustrating--even infuriating--listening to never-ending criticisms of the most minute details of Nolan's work, a level of scrutiny usually reserved for lawyers, smarmy British food critics, and war crimes tribunals, it's also a sort of validation.  Movies made by Michael Bay, par example, don't receive the same amount or quality of criticism because it's generally accepted through historical precedent that there's nothing really substantial there to critique.


Here we have it, the pharmakon: the cure and the poison all in one.  We crave that duality because it is an extension of that revered truth that nothing is without its cost.  We tend to see humanity, first and foremost, as a free-market animal in the existential, universal sense.  The archetype of the troubled genius is compelling because it appeals to a sense of a cosmic economy in which no gains are made without sacrifice.  It is perhaps all the more compelling because it so often turns out to be true.

INTERSTELLAR is a movie marked by this sense of duality, both in form and in content.  It starts out on old, familiar Earth, a pale vision from the not-so-distant future, old, tired, and sick.  Once life-giving, She is now (or then) death-taking, leaving a list of now-untenable crops except for corn, the only seed that the worn-out soil will take and disease will leave alone.  For now (or then).  This is an exaggeration of an old dichotomy, for the Earth has always served a dual purpose: She gives birth to us, imbuing us with life, and She accepts us back into her bosom, serving as our tomb.  (Of course, while potentially compelling, the conceptualization of the vagina as an image or metaphor for the grave may be one of those things best explored through art and dealt with through years of exhaustive psychotherapy.) Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the pilot turned farmer turned pilot, our hero, ponders this very thing:  

"This world's a treasure, but it's been telling us to leave for a while now."

We are Her children, but the most loving parent will recognize that point of no return in her offspring and set them free to fly or fall on their own.  We live in a universe of cause and effect, of consequence.  Just ask Lindsay Lohan.  In INTERSTELLAR, humanity has been sheltered, protected and nurtured by this loving parent (unlike Lindsay Lohan), but the time has (will) come when we are left to face our consequences and either accept or deny.  Whatever the choice, it is ours to make.  There is great power in this, but also risk.  As the value increases, so too the price.

Like our Mother, humanity, too is bound up in duality.  A special pharmakon of its own.  Within us is the power of our own salvation and the key to our ultimate destruction.  Again, the choice is ours to make.  INTERSTELLAR presents a view of a world where truth has been traded in for lies in service of an ideal.  Aspiration to explore the boundaries of our own potential has been bartered for stoic pragmatism in the hopes of acquiring some greater good.  School textbooks have been changed to stymie dreams and boost production (landing on the moon was not a fact but propaganda designed to misdirect the energies of that old, Soviet foe).  People are bounded by what is instead of what could be:

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."

Cooper's lament is not only that of a frustrated pioneer but of an anxious parent.  On a metaphorical level, the familial imagery of children is often used to represent the future and parents the past. Cooper tries to explain to his daughter before he must depart on a mission to some dark corner of our universe that "Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future."  What he must do, he must do not for himself, but for his children, the future.  Humanity has the tendency towards stagnation but the capacity for progress.  We are all (currently) caught living life in the present moment, but we can still turn our gaze towards the future.
The greatest scientific inaccuracy in INTERSTELLAR was
the
Endurance's crew not making fake Darth Vader breathing
noises when they were in their space suits, something no
human can resist.

A message in gravity and dust leads Cooper to the remnants of NASA, still ever hopeful of meeting that final frontier head on.  An old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), tells Cooper that, like Rocky Balboa, the death knell for humanity's hope has not yet been rung.  A mission is being launched--perhaps the very last--with two objectives.  Plan A: Seek out a new, habitable planet, a refuge for the weary children of Earth that can be repopulated via mass-evacuation in giant space dildos.  Plan B: Should all else fail, take a giant scientifically harvested wad of human genetic material and begin anew on this New Eden.  Once again, INTERSTELLAR presents two diverging paths: save those that exist or ensure the existence of those yet to come.  (It's also worth noting the irony in appropriating the title "Plan B" from the contraceptive of the same name (AKA the Morning After Pill) and using it to name the plan that would result in the creation of an entirely new human colony of hundreds if not thousands.)

The catch is that for any hope of mass migration from this great planet to the next requires spacecraft fuelled by untapped mathematics.  This part of Plan A Brand the elder takes upon his shoulders while Cooper goes with Brand the younger (Anne Hatheway) to lead this pilgrimage across the stars, including two robot veterans, TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart), whose design at first seemed as clumsy and inefficient as could possibly be imagined.  Basically, the robots of INTERSTELLAR looked like obelisks composed of independently movable rectangles and I was not impressed until one of them went into asterisk mode and beat a path to save the younger Brand that I realized their true, horrifying physical potential.  (Their potential for humour and honesty already having been established somewhere around ninety percent.)    
I'm not sure exactly how my vibrate setting is relevant to this
particular mission.

A wormhole off the rings of Saturn with origin unknown serves as conduit for these intrepid travellers in a spaceship aptly named Endurance (but only because Humanity!  Fuck Yeah! was already copyrighted).  They follow in the footsteps of twelve giants who went before them, leaving clues to three new candidates for a new planet.  To their dismay, they find a wrinkle in their plan as well as space-time, for these unexplored celestial orbs orbit a black hole, that maddening dark abyss from which nothing--not even light itself--can escape, like a gold-digging divorcee revelling in the absence of a pre-nup.  Most troubling is that time itself is bent to its unfathomable will, turning minutes into hours, hours into days, and years, and onward towards eternity.

These intergalactic Goldilocks find the first planet to be too wet, and lose one of their own, Doyle (Wes Bently), to a tidal wave of massive proportions and in hour lose twenty-three years in a race with Earth to the bitter, somewhat dusty, end.  Cooper's daughter, Murphy (Jessica Chastain), is now fully grown and hard at work with Professor Brand to solve the formula unlocking the secrets of Mighty Gravity on our dusty, old planet still trying to cut us loose.  As the crew scans through decades' worth of familial messages, Cooper endures the bitter-sweet brew of all those tales from his son, Tom (Casey Affleck), and one single message from his daughter, sick with resentment for Cooper's departure but still clinging to hope for his return.  A poignant reminder that time can be the worst of foes, a companion to be eyed warily at best.

Two more candidates for New Eden remain, and Brand the younger advocates for the planet where Edmund, her old lover and one of those first twelve pilgrims, may be waiting to hold in her arms again, folded up in hope.  Cooper, though, worries that Brand's judgement may have lost its firm foundation in this matter, and she rebuts his criticism with passion:

"Love isn't something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space."

Cooper wisely rejects Brand's arguments, for though emotion and instinct have their place, they must not be allowed to usurp the throne rightly left for the twin kings Logic and Reason.  Here, again, the dual nature of humanity is laid bare, and though love may be a powerful force, it is--along with its counterpart, reason--an effect and not a cause.

The second planet visited by our now-reluctant heroes is home to Dr. Mann (Matt Damon--surprise!), lost forever (or so he thought) in cryo-sleep when he thought no more help would come.  At first he seems a welcome addition to our team of adventurers and his planet seems to hold the answer they so desperately sought.  When old Professor Brand's deception is revealed, he also proves himself purveyor of harsh wisdoms that, though unpalatable to Cooper and Brand, still ring with painful truth.  Through the magic of space email, Murphy sends a message to Brand informing her of her father's death and looking for clarification on a few of the finer points of his deathbed confession about Plan A, the safe evacuation of every living human on earth, was basically a big load of bullshit to try and properly motivate them without the requisite help from the Emperor and his apparent lack of forgiveness.

Both Mann and the late Professor Brand explain the reason for the deception being that in light of the particularly desperate circumstances surrounding humanity's plight that everybody involved in the project, both at NASA and aboard the Endurance, they would have to find new ways to motivate them.  Professor Brand reasoned that nobody would be willing to work towards a solution if there weren't some hope that either they or, if they had them, their families had some hope of being saved that they either wouldn't work at full capacity towards a collective solution or work at all.  Professor Brand never had even the slightest hope that Plan A would work, but he suspected, and as it turns out based on Cooper's reaction rightfully so, that nobody--or at least very few people--would be able to set aside personal biases and work towards the greater good.

And while basically all of the main characters of INTERSTELLAR condemn Professor Brand's deceptive strategy, the fact is he's not wrong.  Cooper's reaction alone all but proved Professor Brand right.  Altruism doesn't come as naturally to humanity as self-preservation.  Professor Brand himself said early on in the movie that in order to make this thing work, they'd have to start thinking as a species.  In fact, I think that he said it right to Cooper's face, but oftentimes we tend to hear what we want to hear, even when it's wisdom dispensed from Michael Caine.

But when push comes to shove, it's a tough sell to get people to think on the scale of saving the species versus preserving one's own existence or the existence of one's own family or tribe.  The truth is most people are too selfish.  Even our heroic Cooper decides to jump ship and hurry back to see his kids the minute he finds out that Plan A is nothing more than the fevered dream of a madman.  Under normal circumstances, this would seem like a very self-sacrificing thing to do, but in the context of saving the entire fucking human race, emotional catharsis with his children seems kind of inconsequential by comparison.

Ironically, it's Dr. Mann himself who provides the counterpoint and shows how Professor Brand could have gone about things from a different angle.  Just before he goes all space-nuts from years of isolation and a black-hole-sized messiah complex and tries to kill the old Coopster, he delivers an (admittedly chilling and ominous in retrospect) philosophical treatise on how our biological drives toward a very limited familial circle of familial self-preservation:

"You know why we couldn’t just send machines on these missions, don’t you Cooper?  A machine doesn’t improvise well, because you can’t programme the fear of death.  Our survival instinct is our single greatest source of inspiration.  Take you for example, a father, with a survival instinct that extends to your kids.  What does research tell us, is the last thing you’re gonna see, before you die?  Your children. Their faces.  At the moment of death, your mind is going to push you a little bit harder, to survive."

So on the one hand, that kind of biological drive to preservation of one's own genetic stock tends to blind us to larger concerns on the scale of ensuring the continuation of the species, but on the other hand that same biological drive can help us to hold on longer and push farther than we otherwise would be inclined to.  The fact that this insight came from a certifiably insane Dr. Mann doesn't detract from its impact or veracity.

Yeah, Jason Bourne could kick Batman's ass.  Sorry, what were you saying
about saving humanity or whatever?
It's yet another dichotomy from perhaps the most dichotomous character in the entire movie.  Dr. Mann's name is a fairly dead giveaway as to his philosophical significance in the film.  He is literally a stand-in for humanity.  Dr. Mann was described early in INTERSTELLAR as being "the best of us" and the main driving force behind the original mission serving as an inspiration for the eleven others to follow him into a wormhole on what was generally considered to be a suicide mission even if they were successful.  But then he gets all space-crazy and almost ends up killing and/or marooning Cooper and his posse and then fucking up the entire mission during a docking procedure gone horribly awry.

Dr. Mann is depicted as simultaneously as the finest specimen humanity has to offer and the single greatest obstacle to its ultimate salvation.  This sentiment echoes the volta in SUNSHINE where Captain Pinbacker shows up and rains down shit upon the crew of the Icarus II.  This was somebody who, again, was entrusted with humanity's salvation, but also had the capacity to bring about the end of the world as we know it (but still feel fine).  While the character's naming in INTERSTELLAR may be a little bit obvious, it still gets the idea across that, much like Charlie Sheen, we each embody the capacity for our own redemption or damnation.

(For some, apparently, there was some confusion as to Dr. Mann's motives a la killing/marooning the crew of the Endurance.  Besides the fact that he was space crazy from years of isolation facing his own mortality, there was a twisted method his madness.  He was built up as the literal saviour of mankind, a shining example of humanity, which is an insane amount of pressure to put on a single human being, more so because in Mann's case he seems to have bought into his own hype.  It turned out that he wasn't nearly as saviourly as he was made out to be, and sent out a false positive on his planet knowing that it couldn't support human life just so he would be rescued, which is kind of selfish, but also kind of understandable.

However, he still feels that burden of saving the entire human race from complete and total annihilation, plus he feels the sting of pride fucking with him.  So when Cooper decides he's going to return to Earth, from Mann's point of view Cooper is A) diverting resources away from the main mission to which Mann had dedicated his life and B) quite possibly going to tell everybody back home about his cowardice and sully his otherwise perfect reputation.  And Mann does not like those apples.  He does not like them one bit.  And what's more, any living crew member and/or robot represents the same potential not just to divert resources but also, and probably more importantly to Mann, to tell everybody back home what a royal asshole he turned out to be and threaten his legacy.  Tarnish the old brass apple, if you will.)      
Yeah, no, they are impressive, I'm just not sure that your balls are the best
way to explain how a wormhole works.

But despite Mann being the biggest dick in the whole movie, he also serves as the primary catalyst for enlightenment in the film.  It is only once Dr. Mann succeeds only in virtually destroying all hope by butt-fucking the mission to save humankind so royally (Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass?) that the human capacity for resilience in the face of the abyss is given the chance to flourish.  For here INTERSTELLAR touches upon another truth about dear old humanity: we are never able to truly understand what heights we can reach before we are in danger of being dragged down into the abyss.  Only in the face of catastrophe can the potential for self-sacrifice and endurance truly be attained.              

It is finally during the heart-pounding docking scene with the out of control Endurance that the truly transcendent force is revealed in INTERSTELLAR: human potential.  Here is the antithesis to the urging of undead Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke to "use the force" to lay low the Death Star's empirical regime.  INTERSTELLAR is the counterpoint: the tape recording of Obi-Wan, long gone, encouraging him to use his targeting computer or, barring some malfunction, sheer determination and human grit.

And it is this very transcendence that is further reinforced once Cooper is pulled inside the black hole after sacrificing himself so that Brand can complete the mission and visit the third and final viable planetary candidate.  In the centre of the clack hole, or maybe slightly off-centre, Cooper and TARS find themselves inside what they refer to as a tesseract, which is a fifth-dimensional zone where time is represented as a spatial dimension like length or width (And Leon's getting larger!).  They postulate that some intelligent force was responsible for saving them from the typical annihilation that would normally await anything and everything that enters a black hole, possibly some super evolved humans.

Here, Cooper is revealed to be the "ghost" that sent the earlier messages to Murphy including the one that led them to NASA in the first place.  He also embeds the data needed to complete Professor Brand's gravity equation and start saving humanity in an old watch that held special significance for his him and his daughter.  She, of course, returns to her childhood bedroom and, despite her resentment and anger at her father for leaving her as a young girl, her love for him wins out and she takes the watch, discovers the message, and gets busy living instead of getting busy dying.

But, ultimately, it's not about love.  It's about the human potential for improbability.  In the Watchmen  comic, one of the most poignant scenes is when Jon "Dr. Manhattan" Osterman decides to return to Earth to try and save humanity:

"Thermodynamic miracles... events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.  And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg.  Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."

But that potential, to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, doesn't end with conception.  When the Endurance is spinning wildly out of control and Cooper plans to dock with it regardless of how impossible it appears, CASE says as much, but it is Cooper's response that sums up the entire heart of the movie:

CASE: It's not possible.
Cooper: No, it's necessary.

Even when confronted by the absolute certainty that the probability for success is virtually zero (Never tell me the odds.), we have the ability to persevere and push through those boundaries.  That's why the final meeting between Cooper and Murphy when Cooper is finally shit out the other end of the black hole nearly one hundred years Earth time after he originally left is especially poignant.  It's not just the catharsis of Cooper finally returning and reconciling with his daughter, or even the fact that an aged Murphy in her little remaining time in the land of the living will ensure the tragic reversal of a parent outliving his child.  It's the fact that Cooper overcame boundaries that, by all reasonable accounts, shouldn't have been able to have been traversed.  Both he and Murphy were able to find that much-coveted oasis in the desert of the impossible: Murphy in solving the gravity equation that lead to the mass evacuation of humanity from planet Earth into the safety of the space cylinders and Cooper in keeping his promise to his daughter to come home.

It's also why the ending of INTERSTELLAR is so moving.  As Cooper and TARS set out to find the marooned Brand (who found her lover dead and is now burdened with raising an entire generation of space babies all by herself) it doesn't matter whether or not the wormhole that had originally allowed for the missions to save humanity a galaxy away to take place had closed or not.  It didn't matter that time and space themselves seemed intent on preventing Cooper and Brand from reuniting.  What mattered was that Cooper was still willing to throw himself into the unknown to try and do what to other people might seem impossible.  While the rest of humanity had escaped immediate doom, they had apparently become complacent again living on their space stations not actively looking for a new, more permanent planetary solution.

Complacency or progress.  Stagnation or growth.  As always, the choice is ours.  So too, the cost.

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INTERSTELLAR felt like the the spiritual successor to movies like SUNSHINE and CONTACT: that is to say, the best kind of science fiction which utilizes the fantastical to explore the incredibly intricacies of human existence.  Once again, Nolan does not disappoint.  INTERSTELLAR is a 9/10 = One Head Spinning Towards Unconsciousness in an Attempt to Save Its Kids


2 comments:

  1. Once again, great post. You've shed some light and expanded on the fog of my thoughts on this brilliant film. Calling it a spiritual successor to Contact will make that happen...and yes, I now have to go re-watch Sunshine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Right on, brother. Interstellar was such a great film and can't wait for the Blu-Ray release. Definitely felt the same thread of human potential that it shared with Contact and Sunshine, which should be rewatched, and often.

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