Interstellar’s Vision of Cosmic Hope

Images of young planetary nebulae (NGC 6302 and NGC 7027) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope; images courtesy of NASA. Dr. Brand’s quote from Interstellar added by Barry Vacker.

Love, science, courage, the universe, the sublime—these are key concepts that convey Interstellar’s vision of cosmic hope for the human species. It’s a vision of hope to complement the paradox of our great discovery and intellectual achievement—we have discovered a vast and majestic universe that also renders us insignificance and possibly meaninglessness. Like its predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar takes on the great philosophical challenges we face as a species—the specter of cosmic nihilism amidst the sublime immensity of the cosmos.

Released in 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the greatest philosophical space film of the 21st century. Like 2001, Interstellar is not dumbed down to placate the masses, the faithful, or the studio execs worried about the bottom line. The film is filled with big ideas and big challenges for science and the human species. The following passages are from my forthcoming book, Specter of the Monolith (April 2017).

Star-forming regions in vast nebula, Hubble Space Telescope, image courtesy of NASA, 2009. Interstellar quote added by Barry Vacker.

Looking at Stars and Dirt

In an early scene in Interstellar, Cooper laments: ”We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” This world-weary observation follows a long tradition of humanity looking up at the starry skies in awe and wonder but also feeling fear and terror, triggering one to look away from the stars, down into the dirt of Earth. Thus another key existential theme of Interstellar centers on the contrast between stars and dirt as guideposts and endpoints for human destiny. In the film, we experience the awe of wormholes and black holes (central to human survival) yet face the terror of our possible annihilation in an ecological apocalypse that renders us extinct beneath piles of blowing dirt. (…)

Space Spores

Are the astronauts in Interstellar the equivalent of spores launched into space to avert extinction? At the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union and the United States launched rockets into space at the same time the human species faced the atomic annihilation of its civilization. Was the Apollo moon program a subconscious survival strategy for a species facing oblivion? In an analysis of Apollo 11, anthropologist Loren Eiseley suggested this possibility:

“It is a remarkable fact that much of what man has achieved through the use of his intellect, nature had invented before him. Pilobolus, [a] fungus which prepares, sights, and fires its spore capsule, constitutes a curious anticipation of human rocketry. The fungus is one that grows upon the dung of cattle. To fulfill its life cycle, its spores must be driven up and outward to land upon vegetation several feet away, where they may be eaten by grazing cattle or horses.

“When a pressure of several atmospheres has been built up chemically within the cell underlying the spore container, the cell explodes, blasting the capsule several feet into the air. Since the firing takes place in the morning hours, the stalks point to the sun at an angle sure to carry the tiny “rocket” several feet away as well as up. . . .

“The tiny black capsule that bears the living spores through space is strangely reminiscent, in miniature, of man’s latest adventure. Man, too, is a spore bearer. The labor of millions and the consumption of vast stores of energy are necessary to hurl just a few individuals, perhaps eventually people of both sexes, on the road toward another planet. Similarly, for every spore city that arises in the fungus world, only a few survivors find their way into the future.

“It is useless to talk of transporting the excess population of our planet elsewhere, even if a world of sparkling water and green trees were available. In nature it is a law that the spore cities die, but the spores fly on to find their destiny. Perhaps this will prove to be the rule of the newborn planet virus. Somehow in the mysterium behind genetics, the tiny pigmented eye and the rocket capsule were evolved together.”

In our quest for space exploration, are we war-mongering and planet destroying humans little more than space spores simultaneously avoiding and leaving behind apocalypses? Was Apollo the most successful spore launch in human history, paving the way for future survival efforts in the event of an Earthly apocalypse? These are, in fact, the very questions Interstellar attempts to answer. (…)

Destiny in the Voids

Like the black monolith in 2001, the black hole in Interstellar symbolizes the philosophical void into which humans must hurl themselves in the quest for cosmic meaning and destiny. Upon entering Gargantua, Cooper exclaims, “Heading toward blackness. It’s all black. It’s all blackness!” Rather than turn away from the void in fear, Cooper hurtles himself into directly into it, not unlike Dave following the monolith toward the Star-Gate. In fact, the final scene of 2001 occurs after we pass through the blackness of the monolith and into our destiny as a space-faring species.

Two of the key existential observations in Interstellar are offered by Romilly and Dr. Brand. Pondering the vastness outside the Endurance, Romilly remarks to Cooper, “This gets to me, Cooper. This [gesturing toward the exterior skin of the Endurance]. Millimeters of aluminum. That’s it. And nothing out there for millions of miles that won’t kill us in seconds.” The cosmic nothingness may “get to” Romilly, but he and the Endurance crew have the courage to venture into the voids. Of course, human survival is at stake, but it still takes massive amounts of courage to hurtle one’s self into the cosmic and existential voids.

Is Nature Evil?

After discussing the loneliness of the astronauts’ journeys into the wormhole, Dr. Brand and Cooper have the following exchange:

BRAND. Scientists, explorers, that’s what I love. You know, out there, we face great odds. Death, but not evil.

COOPER. You don’t think nature can be evil.

BRAND. No. Formidable, frightening, but not evil.

Dr. Brand’s comments counter just about every science-fiction space film since 2001, wherein the future in space is scary, filled with monsters (Alien), evil empires (Star Wars), and mass destruction (Gravity). In Interstellar, there are no monsters or evil empires, only humans struggling to survive in a vast cosmos via science, technology, and the courage to take risks. According to Jonathan Nolan (coauthor of Interstellar’s screenplay), cosmic nihilism is central to meaning of the film: “The antagonist is the void of the vacuum that we live in.” That’s why Interstellar is not a mere survival tale, for it also implies a quest for meaning amid the cosmos. Indeed, the universe is formidable and frightening and perhaps renders us meaningless, but it is also knowable and understandable via reason, art, science, technology, and — yes — even “love.”

Love and Evolution

As personified by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), evolution is often portrayed and understood in simplistic notions of “survival of the fittest,” meaning that humans will kill to survive into the future. While he is trying to kill Cooper on the ice planet, Dr. Mann (surely symbolizing “mankind”) explains how the fear of death in the evolutionary instinct drives individual survival and thus the perpetuation of the human species. This is fear-driven evolution.

It works for individuals and species collectively: Adapt and evolve, or die and become extinct. Of course, this is true. The apes in 2001 show this, as does the history of human warfare and extinction events on Earth. But 2001 also shows that evolution operates on multiple levels for our species, including our consciousness and the human cooperation necessary to build a technological civilization — the monolith inspires the bone technology that leads to space technology and human exploration of the cosmos. In addition to fear, love also drives human evolution. After all, the apes were soon caressing the monolith, as if in love with the mysterious sleek object and what it might represent.

Dr. Brand is correct when she says, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something. . . . Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.” I think we trust love in our evolutionary process more than we realize, for it is our love of ideas and things of value — like art, beauty, science, discovery, wonder, nature, architecture, hope for the future, and so on — that propel us forward, individually and as a species. It is love — love of life, love of existence, love of people special to us — that also fuels the evolutionary extinct and the quest to overcome the annihilation of our significance. Of course, there is craving for pure sex, sheer greed, utter gluttony, and total narcissism, too. But we must love things other than mere survival and sheer hedonism, otherwise most of the artifacts of technological civilization would not exist. Fear and love reside deep in the human psyche, side by side, especially when confronting the cosmic sublime and the annihilation of our significance and outmoded narratives. (…)

Interstellar: Here’s What We Can Hope For

1) In the short term, our ecological-intellectual futures are bleak.

There is no better expression of this dystopian and apocalyptic vision than Professor John Brand’s declaration, “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” This suggests there is no hope for protecting the planet’s ecosystems, no hope for cleaning up the oceans and environments, and no hope for a sustainable civilization. As symbolized by educators denying that Apollo missions landed on the moon, the future for science and life on planet Earth looks hopeless.

2) We face our possible extinction.

Due to the blight-caused apocalypse and to anti-intellectualism, billions of humans have died off and the human species faces its possible extinction event. Given that human narcissism and consumer society may be causing a sixth extinction, it seems fitting that we might perish, too. The trash and remnants of our civilization will become fossils studied by a future species.

3) We can make the impossible possible.

Humans can be audacious risk-takers capable of achieving great things with art, science, and technology. Without doubt, Interstellar presents a vision of heroic scientists and astronauts who risk everything to save the human species, made possible by love, vision, courage, creativity, technology, and an overall rationality and commitment to science and evidence. NASA’s plan to go through the wormhole is audacious, as is Cooper’s seemingly impossible quest to retrieve the quantum data in the black hole. Both examples serve as powerful metaphors. Interstellar seems to be retrieving the vision of Apollo, where the impossible was made possible for the world to see via reason, science, technology, and a risk-taking spirit.

4) We likely have a lonely journey into the vastness of space.

In one conversation during their journey to Saturn, Dr. Brand explains to Cooper that the twelve previous astronauts had embarked on “the loneliest journey in human history.” Given that there is no sign of intelligent life in our tiny part of the Milky Way, our initial journeys into space will require the astronauts to be more alone than any other humans have been.

5) There is no exit from existence, no exit from the future.

Throughout Interstellar, it is clear: To save the human species, we had to follow the laws of the universe. There is no exit from this responsibility, or there would be no escaping the extinction event. To save us, there is only us and our brains, with no Creators, no prayers, no miracles, and no raptures. As symbolized by Cooper inside Gargantua and the Tesseract, there is no escaping the universe, no escaping the future. But it is a future of our making. While on the space station and recovering from his journey, Cooper muses: “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started. I want to know where we are, where we’re going.” Later, Murph advises Cooper where to go: “Brand, she’s out there. Setting up camp. Alone, in a strange galaxy. Maybe, right now, she’s settling in for the long nap. By the light of our new sun. In our new home.”

6) We have the courage to venture into cosmic nihilism and the cosmic sublime.

The Endurance as a tiny speck next to Saturn and Gargantua signifies our physical insignificance, yet it is a testament to the power and sheer bravado of the human species — to use the laws of the universe to venture that far into the cosmos. In the quest for survival and meaning, we will find our destiny. We need a philosophical launch to accompany the spore launch. (…)

That launch is outlined in Chapter 4 of Specter of the Monolith and I have posted excerpts here in Medium.

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The above passages are from my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here.

You can follow me on Facebook and at my new Twitter page.

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Illustrated essays presenting a new space philosophy for the 21st Century. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey with excerpts from Barry Vacker's epic book "Specter of the Monolith." Though the essays date from 2017, the "Explosion of Awareness" page was started in July, 2018.

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Barry Vacker

Barry Vacker

Theorist of big spaces and dark skies. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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