Friday, November 21, 2014

Not a Review of Interstellar

by John Popham
I went to see Interstellar over the weekend.  Interesting movie. If The Grapes of Wrath and 2001 A Space Odyssey had gotten together and had a baby it would probably look something like Interstellar.   But I’m not here to review Interstellar.   Instead I want to talk about the larger science fiction story lurking beyond the edges of Interstellar.

As you’ll know from various reviews, the central premise of Interstellar is that Earth is on the verge of becoming so inhospitable to human beings that the species is faced with the choice of moving off-world or becoming extinct.  Of course, humans have never had the lift technology needed to send even a fraction of our population into space, and aren’t likely to develop it in the future.  And even if we did, Earth is so far out in the galactic boondocks that any potentially habitable planets are beyond our reach.

Happily for humanity, some anonymous fifth dimensional benefactors have apparently detected our plight and opened up a wormhole out near Saturn.  At the other end of this wormhole are, not one, not two, but three planets that look at least marginally habitable. Early on in Interstellar, we are told that scientists are working on two separate plans for using this wormhole to save the human race from group suffocation.

Plan A involves mucking about with gravity (using insights gained from our fifth dimensional friends’ bending of time and space) in order to lift some really, really massive space stations off Earth.  Once in space these city sized craft would gravitate their way out to Saturn, through the wormhole, and on to humanity’s new home on the other side.  Of course Plan A depends on Michael Caine cracking the physics of gravitational manipulation in order to succeed. To that end he remains on Earth, writing out reams of equations while a crew of intrepid explorers travel through the wormhole to select humanity’s destination.

Now, it is possible that the secret to manipulating gravity is beyond even Michael Caine’s awesome intellect, and Earth’s human population is be doomed to perish in place.  In that case humanity’s future will depend on Plan B.   Our intrepid explorers have brought along with them a large cryo-bank of fertilized human eggs (and, one assumes, the means to bring them to term without Anne Hathaway having to carry all the maternal freight for the first few generations).  In the event Michal Caine’s calculations fail, Plan B calls for the team of astronauts to establish a colony on one of the three candidate planets, and there birth and raise a smallish generation or two from the egg bank.  Those generations will then birth and raise increasingly larger generations, until a self-sustaining population with sufficient genetic diversity has been established.

At the end of Interstellar, both Plan A and Plan B have been executed.  At least some of Earth’s population has been lifted from Earth in massive space stations and these stations gravitate merrily about the Solar System.  And yet, while enough time has passed that a few generations have been born and raised on the stations, no one on Earth's side of the wormhole seems terribly interested in traveling through to the other side and establishing a new home on a new world.  The Earth-born seem content with their nomadic lot.  There is baseball on the stations and, we assume, all the cultural comforts that it implies.  Perhaps, having barely avoided extinction on Earth, they are reluctant to trust themselves to the hardships and uncertain mercies of planetary life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wormhole the astronauts, believing Plan A to have failed, have fallen back on plan B.  The cryo-bank has been deployed and the first generation, we assume, are merrily gestating their way toward birth.  A new human race, which has only the most tenuous connections to Earth, its cultures and human ancestors is underway.

So there we are: Two parallel human civilizations separated not by mere terrestrial geography, but by a nigh untraversable expanse of galactic real estate.  Their only means of contact is through a wormhole, and humanity’s friends from the fifth dimension have given no indication as to how long that interstellar emergency exit will be held open.  It’s entirely possible that the two human civilizations could be separated for tens of thousands of years if not forever, without contact.  The Earth-born might never know of their lab-born kindred, and the lab-born would only know stories of lost Earth through tales passed down across the generations, those tales becoming entwined with and indistinguishable from that culture’s own unearthly myths and legends.

Interstellar sets the stage for the opening act of an Homeric science fiction saga that looms in the shadows just beyond the end titles.  Given the rich story-telling possibilities inherent in the film’s end position, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated when the lights came up.  It was as if the filmmakers had filmed a prologue and left the story proper, the story I really wanted to see and hear, on the cutting room floor.

Failure of imagination? Possibly.  Or a matter of artistic temperament. Christopher Nolan’s movies turn inward rather than outward, tending toward the claustrophobic spaces of an individual’s dreams, memories and illusions. Or Gotham City.   Even Interstellar, set in the vastness of space, has a somewhat closed-in feel, maintaining as it does a largely inward focus on a few characters and the small spaces they occupy.  Nolan rarely pulls the camera back to let the audience take in the larger view.  Even if he were mindful of the larger story he'd set up, grandeur and sweeping epics are not his idiom. 

I tend to call these abandoned or ignored bits of narrative 'found science fiction'.  You see them all the time once you start looking for them. Every story occurs within the context of a larger narrative, and stray plot lines, walk-on characters or roads not taken by one author are fodder for the imagination of another.

As I left the theater that night some new characters were murmuring in the back of my mind, and new plot lines began to unfold around them.  I walked the cold streets of DC with my head down, lost in thought, spinning stories.

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