Watching Interstellar with Wendell Berry
by Peter Augustine Lawler
For those who long to explore where no man has gone before, these aren’t good times to be alive. Spectacular technological advances still occur, but they involve information and the Internet, not space travel. “Measured purely by altitude, the human race peaked fifty years ago,” says the screenwriter Jonathan Nolan.
Nolan and his brother Christopher wrote the blockbuster Interstellar to explore this issue—to assess what Jonathan calls “the current state of human ambition.” Their science fiction film restores the case for NASA and searching the cosmos—not to discover extraterrestrial intelligence but to secure an indefinite future for humans, the one species not bound by nature to our planet.
Interstellar challenges the traditionalist orientation of agrarian conservatives such as Wendell Berry. According to Berry, we should take our lead from the “stickers,” who devote themselves to the community that develops in a particular place and who are tied to the land of their small part of the planet. Opposed to the stickers are the “boomers,” who are never satisfied with what they have and exploit particular communities and parts of nature for money and power. For Berry, the most destructive boomers are the engineers, who transform human places rather than cultivate them.
Interstellar, rather like Berry, presents people as divided into two types: engineers and farmers. The family at the center of the film is made up of two engineers by nature—Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter—and two natural farmers, Cooper’s son and his father-in-law. That’s two brilliant, bookish, and restlessly inquisitive explorers and two stay-at-home family men with good hearts who readily accept their world’s and their own limited horizons. But the explorers aren’t Berry’s displaced parasites; they, too, are moved by personal, familial love.
The Dying of Whose Light?
At the opening of Interstellar, the agrarian orientation dominates the world—but not by human choice. A crop blight has produced ruinous food shortages, dust storms, and raging fires. The fact is that the human species faces imminent extinction on earth. But NASA scientists are the only ones who know this truth—and they deliberately hide it from the farmers and everyone else. They go so far as to feed people the blatant lie that NASA was always useless, even that the moon landing was faked. Meanwhile, they work in secret to save our species from what seems to be its natural fate.
The head NASA scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), recruits Cooper, the world’s last experienced (and singularly excellent) pilot, to lead a mission to save humankind. Because this world has never been enough for him, Cooper readily accepts the idea that, although we were born on this planet, it’s not our destiny to die here. The world’s last top engineer, taking his lead from the world’s last top theoretical physicist, will graciously provide the farmers with what they cannot provide for themselves.
Professor Brand says that it’s nearly impossible to be completely open with anyone; emotional beings such as ourselves can handle only so much of the truth. He employs this approach even in recruiting Cooper. He presents the pilot with two possibilities on the “we” to be saved. The ship will carry five thousand human eggs, which will be enough to start up our species anew on a different planet. But Professor Brand says that he can make the theoretical breakthough that will allow us to break the hold gravity has on us on earth, so they can instead transfer all the people alive right now to their new home. Brand assures Cooper that he will have solved that puzzle well before the astronaut returns from his mission.
But Professor Brand already knows that he can’t get the data required to complete his theoretical work. In other words, the people alive on our planet now can’t be saved. Brand lies because even Cooper, by nature an engineer, is held by love to particular persons—his children—and he won’t abandon them unless he believes his mission will save them from their earthly fate. That’s the “glitch” in human evolution: although we’re supposedly hardwired to serve the species, we’re not (or most of us aren’t) capable of caring about more than ourselves and those we know and love.
Professor Brand attempts to inspire his team with the words of the great poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Brand directs his own rage, apparently, against the dying of the species, but he knows others won’t share his perspective. The human survival mechanism is deeply personal; it’s the dying of my light that’s the issue. But the poem is also relational: the poet addresses it to his father.
The poem addresses our irreducibly personal and relational concerns. That’s why, to save the species, the scientist has to lie about the absence of personal hope.
Deus ex Machina?
One key insight of Interstellar is that as much as the farmer or even the engineer can care only for particular persons, the scientist as scientist is moved to perpetuate our singular species as a way to guard science itself—our wondrous knowledge of the way things are.
But the film concludes with something of a deus ex machina, a romantic fantasy that allows viewers to leave the theater without having absorbed this insight. Cooper emerges in a fifth-dimension “tesseract” to discover that people who have transcended the confines of time and space have, in fact, saved particular persons on earth, including Cooper’s children.
The fantasy allows the filmmakers to suggest that they don’t embrace the imperative to preserve the species at all costs. The knowledge that frees us from gravity’s planetary hold is part of a new birth of scientific progress that allows particular persons to flourish on space stations that replicate perfectly small towns on earth. This new wisdom, we can say, combines what engineers and farmers know about who we are. The film doesn’t end with rage against “the dying of the light” by particular persons. Time, death, and personal (especially familial) belonging remain essential features of what makes a loving life worth living.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and blogs at National Review’s Postmodern Conservative.