Lost in Space With Christopher Nolan

Regular readers of my film reviews are probably aware that my focus is on works that follow in the humanistic tradition of classics such as Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy or Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”. As such, I generally have little reason to write about the typical Hollywood blockbuster except toward the end of the year when I have a responsibility as a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) to vote on exactly such films.

For NYFCO, something as crude as a Michael Bay movie would never pass muster. But like most film critic societies that are tied by umbilical cord to the Hollywood studios, there is a place at their table for something like “Gravity” that received best director and cinematography awards in 2013, even though it was nothing but Michael Bay adapted to the carriage trade.

Since I have a suspicion that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” that is opening at theaters everywhere this week will have the same sort of middle-brow appeal as “Gravity”, I thought it was worth my time to attend a press screening a couple of days ago. Since the film was being screened on IMAX, the medium that Nolan considers optimum for the sort of thrills he seeks to impart, it would be my introduction to an experience that like 3D seeks to substitute sensationalism for sensibility.

As I sat before the immense screen at the AMC Lincoln Square being assaulted by the loudest sound system I had ever encountered in a theater, I was reminded that no amount of technology could replace an intelligent plot and character development. If there is anything that Christopher Nolan represents as a filmmaker, it is the belief that technology trumps just about everything else.

While there has been some interest in Nolan’s ideology, especially as an unwitting purveyor of fascism in “The Dark Knight Rises.“, I have found myself much more exercised around the question of his filmmaking skills rather than his politics as I stated in my roundup of 2012 films for CounterPunch under the category “Bailed out after a few minutes”:

The Dark Knight Rises: I was curious to see if this film really put forward a fascist message but it was so incomprehensible that I lost the patience to see if this was true or not. For my money, Christopher Nolan is the worst director on the scene today—pretentious to a fault.

This time I stuck it out through the bitter end of this elephantine 169-minute movie that cost $165 million to make. I was determined after having been exposed to a number of Nolan films, either partially or in full, to have my say on both his art and politics.

As will be obvious from my recapitulation of the plot, “Interstellar” is an attempt to exploit the good will accrued to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (deservedly) and “Gravity” (undeservedly). Set sometime in the future, the planet Earth is dying. Some sort of food crisis has left corn as the only sustainable crop—a sort of contradiction in terms if you’ve spent any time studying soil chemistry, as the screenwriters evidently have not.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut who has been reduced to planting corn. After a vicious dust-storm (CGI on steroids) leaves a mysterious GPS type location in binary code written in sand on the floor of his farmhouse, he and his young daughter get in their truck and drive to the indicated location, which is barred from entry by a chain-link fence with strict warnings to stay away—a scene that will remind you of so many others in the far more intelligent if technologically underdeveloped X-Files television series.

While using his bolt-cutter on the fence, Cooper and daughter—a latter day Mulder and Scully–are picked up by soldiers who spirit them away to the place behind the fence that is sitting on the GPS bulls eye, a secret NASA bunker where an immense spaceship is being built under the direction of Professor Brand, played by Chris Nolan fave Michael Caine.

Brand and his cohorts intend to send the ship into outer space in search of a new planet to live on, in kind of a reversal of the traditional science fiction movie in which scary aliens invade Earth after their own planet has been ruined, either because of cosmic forces beyond their control or through their own misuse of natural resources.


Since such planets are light-years away, if they exist at all, the only way to reach them before a crew dies of old age is by hitching a ride on a wormhole that is conveniently located near Saturn, just a stone’s throw away from Earth. Nearly the entire film consists of extremely geekish scenes familiar to anybody who has seen “Gravity”, such as circumnavigating potentially hazardous objects in space or repairing damaged parts on a rocket ship. Frankly, all this sort of thing was done with more wit and panache in the “Star Trek” of William Shatner vintage than in either “Gravity” or “Interstellar”.

When not preoccupied with matters such as safely docking on a damaged space station, the crew is subject to the transcendental thrills of first zooming through a wormhole and then through a black hole later on. These scenes are heavily derived from Kubrick’s “2001” but will never achieve match the original, especially when it comes to the musical accompaniment. Kubrick had a brilliant talent for using exactly the right score to create the right mood, such as those moments in the firmament when György Ligeti was the perfect choice.

Nolan by contrast relies on a film score by Hans Zimmer that never shuts up, not for a single minute. In all the years I have been reviewing films, I have never run into such an intrusive score that telegraphs to the audience what it should be feeling as if it were a bunch of dunces (well, maybe he got that right). It is not only manipulative; it is dull.

As befits Nolan’s gargantuan appetites, the press notes I received in the lobby of the theater were 51 pages long, more than any I have ever run into. Of those 51 pages, there was almost nothing about the ideas of the film. Instead, they were focused on the technical challenges—just what you would expect from a director more interested in gadgets than in character development. Typical was this business about how they set up the dust storm that occurred in the beginning of the film:

Nolan knew he could never achieve a great enough degree of grit and immersion through CGI, so he turned to special effects coordinator Scott Fischer for ideas. Fischer’s answer was C-90—a non-toxic, biodegradable material made from ground-up cardboard that is safe enough to be used as filler in certain processed foods and lightweight enough to achieve the hovering effect Nolan sought.

My reaction: who cares? What I really wanted to get out of the film was some explanation of what was causing the dust storm, a phenomenon that Nolan settled upon after seeing the Ken Burns PBS Dust Bowl documentary according to the press notes. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, where we are exposed to the apocalyptic future facing the planet, there is not a single word explaining its cause. For a film so committed to being scientifically accurate, there is no foundation for the extinction hypothesis being put forward. Global warming? A demise of the honeybee? Desertification because of the exhaustion of underground aquifers? Your guess is as good as mine.

There is less interest in coming to terms with how the human race got into such a predicament than there is in the need for an escape to another planet. Given even the slightest pretext, Cooper rails about the focus on sustainable agriculture rather than space exploration. It appears that resources are being diverted from NASA into growing crops. The press notes put it this way:

McConaughey describes Cooper as “a dreamer and a man out of time. He’s not supposed to be a farmer. He’s supposed to be out there—that’s where he lives.” But in “Interstellar,” the world needs farmers, not pilots. After a blight has decimated the food supply, civilization has turned back to the earth and clings to the only viable crop left—corn. “Life has become about growing food and having clean water,” the actor continues. ‘We don’t need any explorers; we don’t need any astronauts; we don’t need any bright ideas. But Cooper is trying his best to live in this world, and to hold things together for his children.”

Besides “2001”, Nolan cites “Wall-E”, a 2008 Walt Disney/Pixar animated feature, as an inspiration. This is another film in which the earth has become uninhabitable—this time due to the saturation of its surface by garbage produced by a megacorporation named Buy ‘n’ Large. I wish that “Interstellar” had an explanation for extinction half as plausible.

The film’s ideas—such as they are—derive from the thinking outside the box of 74-year-old physicist Kip Thorne who has written articles about using wormholes and black holes to defy conventional time-space limits including going backwards in time, just as Cooper does in “Interstellar”. Thorne was the executive producer of “Interstellar” and worked closely on the screenplay with Jonah Nolan, the director’s brother.

Like everybody else involved with this project, Thorne has a gee-whiz attitude toward space exploration, especially involving man-piloted craft that the ruling class has largely dispensed with. There, of course, are some exceptions, including Virgin CEO Richard Branson whose commercial spacecraft just went kerblooey. Branson has little scientific interest in the enterprise, mostly hoping to capitalize on the strange yearnings for some of the superrich to get the ultimate joy ride.

Then there is the execrable Jeff Bezos who seems to understand that space exploration might be necessary down the road given the capitalist system’s self-destructive tendencies. In 2000 he created a company called Blue Origin that was committed to commercial space exploration, including the possibility of needing an exit strategy. This was something the 18-year-old future entrepreneur once considered according to the August 10, 2013 Washington Post:

In an interview with the Miami Herald after he was named class valedictorian, he said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit.

“The whole idea is to preserve the earth,” he told the newspaper in 1982.

The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park.

I think that Bezos’s project should be encouraged but not exactly for the same reasons. Given capitalism’s rapidly accelerating self-destructive tendencies that could lead to a Sixth Extinction, something widely accepted by scientists, ordinary human beings will potentially reach anti-capitalist conclusions that will lead to a transformation of society culminating in one based on human need.

Given the bestial behavior we can expect from the superrich bent on destroying just such a rational system, there will be a need to quarantine the Koch’s and Bezos’s of the world. What better place than a colony in outer space where they can live in comfort and be of no possible danger to the rest of us?

In 1953, the old Trotskyist militant James P. Cannon wrote an article titled “America Under the Workers’ Rule”. While it is filled with the customary sectarian formulations, I still treasure Cannon’s solution to the threat posed by a vengeful bourgeoisie. Just substitute “space colony“ for Catalina and you’ll get the idea:

The little handful of recalcitrant capitalists who don’t like what is happening will not have to stay and watch if they don’t want to. The workers’ government of rich America could easily afford to give them an island or two, for their exclusive habitation, and pension them off and get them out of the way. How big is Catalina Island here? That might be just the place for them. It will not be necessary to kill them off. Just send them to Catalina. Let them take their bonds and stock certificates with them—as mementos of bygone days—and give them enough caviar and champagne to finish out their useless lives, while the workers go on with their work of constructing a new and better social order.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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