Interstellar and the Post-Post-Apocalyptic Genre

Interstellar does in fact make sense — if it is viewed under the lens of Freudian dream logic.

In Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, he argues that the disasters in Hollywood blockbusters are in fact subsets of the “secondary” romantic plots between the lead characters. The catastrophes in the films are better understood as metaphors for the personal flaws which keep the two lovers apart. Once the psychological issues are confronted and vanquished the role of the monsters shifts to mediator and the disasters vanish as soon as their real purpose— the production of a hetero-normative couple— is achieved. For example, in Jurassic Park (1993), the dinosaurs represent the inability of the two paleontologists to have children. The monsters function as a mediator, convincing the reluctant Dr. Grant to be a father. This reading explains many mysterious moments in the film— like why the movie opens with Grant using a sickle-shaped raptor claw to pretend he is eviscerating an obnoxious child. Later on, once he is reconciled with children whom he must protect from the dinosaurs, the claw (a symbol of his revulsion for children, but at a more basic Freudian level, a symbol of his castration fears, that a child would play a Cronus to his Uranus) drops from his belt. The magical result: the next morning Grant is awoken by peaceful, herbivorous dinosaurs representing his new attitude toward fatherhood.

Likewise, Christopher Nolan’s new sprawling space epic, Interstellar, can more easily be read with this “secondary” romantic plot as the primary one. In the film, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a restless former NASA test pilot whose dreams are deferred when a blight wipes out most of mankind, forcing the adventurer to become a farmer along with pretty much everyone else on earth. Terrified of the excesses of the 20th/early 21st century which wrought the disaster, his neighbors (and we assume the rest of mankind) exist as practical and austere but fearful luddites in a neo-Depression era America.

However (spoiler alert), Cooper’s dreams are soon revived when his young daughter Murphy (the name meaning, the films explains, “what can happen will happen”) discovers a “ghost” has manipulated gravity in her bedroom to spell out a mysterious set of coordinates. The coordinates lead our hero back to NASA where his former co-workers convince him to travel into outer space to find a new home for humanity.

To explain all the strange idiosyncrasies of Interstellar’s plot, let’s look at it as if it were not really about “saving humanity” but Cooper’s own interpersonal romantic problems— here an incestuous desire to sleep with his own daughter. (Zizek argues this is also the theme of the space epic Deep Impact [1998]). The desire is symbolically introduced in the first few moments in a strange scene that is otherwise unrelated to the rest of the plot. While in the midst of changing a tire with his daughter and son, an enormous phallic symbol in the form of an ancient drone flies over Cooper, interrupting an ordinary day of family routine with the fantastic. Cooper is seized with a wild desire to chase the object through vast swathes of fresh corn, ramming his battered and broken truck through the green crop in a raucous euphoric action sequence that reads if anything like an absurd wet dream. The adventure ends when the truck careens to tilt over the edge of a cliff— his sexual desire, threatening to destroy himself and his family. But here, literally teetering on the edge of the void, he gains control of the phallic object and through the technological medium of his laptop, invites his daughter to manipulate and control the phallus on the mousepad, allowing her to bring it in for a safe landing on green verdure.

After this, through various supernatural efforts expressed through the “ghost”, Cooper and his daughter try and separate from one another. The ghost (who we later learn is Cooper himself) commands Cooper to go away, but his daughter surreptitiously follows him and he is unable to escape her.

Soon, Cooper decides to flee as far away as possible, to fling himself into the remote regions of space, insisting that his daughter cannot accompany him. While his son is more or less indifferent to this idea, his daughter is deeply disturbed, leading to an emotionally intense scene in her bedroom in which Cooper promises that one day he will return and when he returns, because of relativity, they “might be the same age”.

Likewise, his journey through space is filled with agony. He is torn between the immoral desire to return to his daughter and risk reproductive disaster (what the NASA scientists call “Plan A”) and a normal relationship with the fellow astronaut Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her pods of viable reproductive hexagons (“Plan B”). The “destruction of the human race” is here code for Cooper’s inner struggle between the two women.

This reading explains the strangest element of the film— the fact that the mysterious center of black hole (in a film that prides itself on scientific fidelity) turns out to be peephole into Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom, allowing him to watch her at every moment for all time. (Why not, for example, her laboratory instead?) The very limits of space itself cannot separate Cooper from his desire. His effort’s to get away from his daughter (to deny it) eventually find him trapped, confronting his obscene fantasy.

Finally, this interpretation explains an even more perplexing scene at the end of the film, in which Cooper, ejected from the literally perverted space of his daughter’s bedroom, finds her dying in bed, a decrepit old lady. Lacking any purpose, he asks his daughter what he should do with his life now that he has finally returned to her. Strangely his daughter tells him to go to a remote planet and pursue Amelia, the female astronaut, and enjoy a normal relationship with her— this, despite the fact that Murphy knows that her father and Amelia have just spent decades together in a spaceship. Somehow she assumes (or knows) that the two have not already entered into a sexual relationship.

But if Interstellar is about incest, why? To answer this question we must first recognize that the film is the latest entry in a new Hollywood genre, the post-post-apocalyptic film which includes such efforts as Oblivion (2013), The Hunger Games (2012–2015), Cloud Atlas (2012), Divergent (2014), and After Earth (2013). What distinguishes the post-post-apocalyptic movie from the simple post-apocalyptic offering is that we do not see humanity struggling to survive in the wake of a disaster as in The Day After (1983), but rather, the disaster has long since passed. The story begins well after society has re-organized into something new and all the pangs and trials of our present era are long since forgotten.

For example, in Hunger Games II: Catching Fire (2013), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Laurence) again volunteers to replace her younger sister as a gladiator who had been selected by lot to compete in the eponymous contest. Like other P-P-A films, Hunger Games II: Catching Fire revels in the fantasy of undespoiled nature. When we first meet Katniss— before she is called upon to slay her fellow teenagers— it is among the green rushes and mists of the forest, a Diana figure, stalking game with her bow. Meat and food are scarce. She hunts out of necessity, dutifully returning the animals to her mother and sister to prepare a simple repast.

The narrative insists these hard-scrabble facts about her life are negative. The characters treat them as if they are unfortunate circumstances they must overcome. They are poor. Their house is shabby. They do not have enough to eat. The hunger games (not the film, but the contest in the film), if anything, offers a promise of material wealth out of which her family can rise out of squalor. Except it’s not squalid. We do not see Katniss, say, (as we do in the real economically devastated landscape of 80s Detroit in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me [1989]) snapping the necks of bunny rabbits then stripping the skin off them, breaking their bones, and scooping out their entrails. Nor do we see Katniss living in a mud-smeared hut, defecating into old plastic buckets. Rather, their home is like the houses of our present-day rich— that is to say, free of Ikea, made with real materials. The spaces she occupies don’t resemble our offices and homes, there’s no molded plastic or cheap modernity. It’s all stuff only found in nature or a vanished past— gleaming hardwood, worked leather, polished glass— not pressboard, duct tape, shipping containers, and plexi-glass.

Interstellar’s setting is the same. Cooper’s farmhouse is all burnished oak beams and shaker furniture. His existence is down to earth; he lives off the land, watches little league, and shops on main street as if he lived in 1920. The troubling and ugly excesses of consumerism are eradicated. There are no more shopping strips, McDonalds, and suburban malls— these are replaced by nature and an austere reverence for resource management.

In other words, the films are lying to us. The narratives claims they are showing us something bad (Katniss and her family suffering poverty in a remote backwoods, Cooper struggling to live off the land), when in fact, through their filmwork, costume work, and other visual art, they invite us to indulge in a lovingly polished and complete fantasy. The Hunger Games wants us to covet Katniss’s existence, not pity it. Why this double speak?

In earlier more utopian visions of the future like the Star Trek television shows in the 60s and 90s, the implicit assumption is that civilization is on the right track, we just need to keep going to improve. Star Trek’s “Star Fleet” is the United States purged of its obvious faults— namely materialism and capitalism. Western civilization’s best features are preserved and embellished— society is tolerant, pluralistic, gender-neutral, democratic, and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Star Fleet is an idealized vision of how America saw itself then— a defender of freedom, an enemy of tyranny who vanquished first fascism and then the Soviet Union, a civilizer, an innovator, a protector. Moreover, our scientific progress and the lattice of order it creates helps other societies. Just as the U.S. Navy sails around the world to provide disaster relief or medical aid though the technological marvel of its fleet, so too, the starship Enterprise (meaning our enterprise, that of the human race) alights from planet to planet fixing similar problems.

By contrast, the underlying assumption of the post-post-apocalyptic genre is the exact opposite— namely, our present society is fundamentally rotten and flawed at the core. Thus the only way to fix it would be for the inevitable collapse to arrive so it can be wiped away and we can begin again anew. This vision of America is like that of The Hunger Games’ Capitol “Panem”— an industrialized center greedily sucking away resources (including the young Katniss herself) from the rest of the globe which remains in squalid third world poverty.

Here a more modern viewpoint is reflected: we in the west are hurting not helping other societies. Perhaps like the denizens of Panem (or the over-consuming Americans who caused the blights in Interstellar), we are standing on the top of an enormous, teetering, unsustainable, broken societal structure that despoils resources to benefit a few (us) at the expense of the majority (the rest of the world).

This terrifying idea, however, does not galvanize us all into action— rather it simply paralyzes us with fear. It is something we acknowledge but feel powerless to change in any fundamental way. What exactly is the correct course of action? Change our carbon footprint? Move to a commune? Quit our job in our office? Invest in ethical stocks? Buy American? Don’t own a cellphone? Perhaps the system is too massive, too entrenched, too confusing, to change? After all, we are literally clothed and fed by it. It scratches against us on the label of our shirts and pants. It makes our “fair trade” coffee less bitter. And so the shift is slight— our outward actions don’t change— we still drive cars, work in offices, and become fractional owners of anonymous corporate conglomerates through our 401Ks. Only our doubt grows larger— our certainty that we are doing any good or living in a way that truly benefits other people.

This is the reason we see Katniss hunting in her green glade or Cooper harvesting his corn— these images show us something we wish we could have— knowable and self-reliant supply chains. These characters have the luxury of knowing they aren’t harming someone in some distant impoverished place simply by earning their living. Moreover, in these worlds we no longer need wait with nervous bated breath— the looming disaster has already come and gone.

This new post-post-apocalyptic fantasy is inherently incestuous. Cooper’s inward looking perversion represents the basic modern view on which the genre is based, that of an inevitable self-consuming perversion (via science and technology) of the natural order which we cannot escape. It’s the environmental warning we know we don’t heed: we must go farther afield to find more sustainable resources because exploiting the one’s close at hand (like fossil fuels, Cooper’s daughter, or the earth itself) is unviable in the long term.

But also, on a grander scale, the film’s incest theme is about the twisted nature of our own fantasy. We indulge in these films to imagine living the full-blooded outdoor life of the poor absent the trappings of technology, when in fact, ironically, we are doing the opposite. We, like Cooper, are not looking far enough afield, we are literally trapped in our distorted “tesseract”, helplessly looking in on another dimension (here the two-dimensional world of the film) in which our absurd wish is made manifest through the very technological means and corporate interests we are trying to escape. And so, like the cooped-up Cooper, what we see is ourselves cooped-up. We are watching ourselves become trapped in an infinitely telescoping hall of mirrors, not really wanting to see any of it come true— or else why wouldn’t we just actually be outside rather than in the theater?