Why I hated Interstellar, or why maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer

I’m not one to do movie reviews usually, but I’ve been churning the movie Interstellar over and over in my head ever since I saw it. Maybe that makes it a good movie. If it’s good enough to make me think this much about it, then it’s gotta be worth the dime and nickel I paid to see it. Then again, a really bad movie can be worth money if you’re just wanting to watch a really bad movie.

The truth is, for a good chunk of the movie, I felt my high school science teachers had just failed me miserably, and that was why I couldn’t wrap my mind around the depths of Christopher Nolan’s commentary on general relativity. I kept wishing Neil deGrasse Tyson would be sitting by my side going, “That’s good stuff, but it’s not really accurate! You couldn’t survive getting that close to a black hole!” …though, honestly, it’s not going to make-or-break my movie-going experience when a film defies what we know of science for the sake of creativity. At least, so long as there’s a decent explanation provided, I’ll be okay. Y’know, something like, “We’re using a special kind of metal that won’t break apart when it encounters a dense star with an event horizon!” I mean, okay, even that explanation is dumb and annoying, but I can get with the program if you show me you’re trying. (Although, one big gripe I have: if you know the gravity of a black hole is powerful enough to affect time on a planet that’s a candidate for a second Earth, you should already know the planet won’t work as a possible Earth. Duh. Just saved everybody 23 years. This one scene just about ruined the whole movie for me.)

All that is to say, something about Interstellar tried too hard. And still managed to fail. The movie was ripe with explanation after explanation to a fault. Little time was given to character development – which had to be sacrificed for the sake of making sure we were following the philosophy of science that had been set up. More so, the philosophy of science managed to be a kind of new age mythology, and I find that especially frustrating in a world where we’re (rightfully) critical of religious fundamentalism, but then we manage to trade in our criticism for another extreme of sorts, for a mythology of science and reason. It just seems laughable when we’re willing to shriek that God doesn’t exist but we’re still afraid of ghosts. We’re a species obsessed with a need for the mystical, but in the postmodern world, we sure do try hard not to admit that. And I wish we could handle that a little more honestly.

I digress. Wait, no I don’t. I’m still on this soapbox: I guess I found it silly the way religion was tossed around in the movie like a mythology from the past we finally progressed beyond only to discover that all the “ghosts” and gods were us. I found it disappointing to imagine some advanced version of us as “better,” or even godly in their ability to manipulate space and time. I certainly don’t think humans in 2014 are “better” because of technological advances than, say, humans of the past. More equipped, healthier, wealthier, longer-living, perhaps, but better off? Spend some time living among the poor in some of the poorest places, and your notion of “advanced” will be greatly challenged. I know – I sound like some crazy curmudgeon who is anti-technology, and that’s not the case at all. If we can go to the stars and colonize other planets, we should be investing in that. But not at the expense of hoping to trade in our humanity for technological advance. That is, I agree with Nolan that we can’t just be a planet of caretakers; we also have to explore; that is part of our nature. But we haven’t even gotten care-taking right yet!

To view some “us” made into gods and goddesses by the advances of technology, I don’t take to be a statement about a hopeful future. I take it to be a statement about our present narcissism. “Look at all we can do!” is a scary way of handling religion or science. Yet, I guess on some level, there’s a truth to it worth commenting on pertinent to the present. Religion today, after all, is steeped enough in idolatrous language that when Nietzsche says, “God is dead and we have killed him,” there’s the sense that what’s been killed off isn’t the Sacred “God above God,” but rather our inadequate language and theology for whatever that is. Surely some of that needs to die off! But when Nolan suggests it’s just some advanced us, when the “magic” is stripped away, the way it is by young Murphy, I don’t hear the progress of science in that. I hear desperation: we couldn’t figure out who we were as a species, so we made ourselves into gods and goddesses via technology and black holes to give some inkling of sense to our lives and save what we called humanity.

But the gods and goddesses they manage to create should scare you! Humans with the ability to manipulate space and time?! That might be the thing I liked least about Interstellar. The movie is steeped in a kind of science fiction Calvinism. “Whatever can happen will happen” is a form of predestination in a way. Pulled back into some fifth dimension where you can manipulate time, the implication that there is no past, present, or future makes us into robotic beings manipulated by some advanced us. When everything that will happen has already happened, it’s scary to think some us was overseeing all of that. And we’re supposed to leave the theater going, “Wow, what a great movie.” Cooper gets it right the first time when he sends the message, “Stay.” Care-taking isn’t all that bad. Even if it costs us everything.

I know, I know. I’m just a Debbie Downer, and you could argue I’ve missed some overarching message of the movie about love and the way love – like gravity – is the missing piece of the equation. Really? Cause, yeah, no one has ever done anything awful in the name of “love.” But yeah, all that is to say, I hated Interstellar, and now I think I finally know why.

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