Interstellar’s Heart of Darkness & the Dust Bowl

I like to go to the cinema to escape the gloom of a Sunday evening and what better escape than Interstellar? An epic journey to other worlds. It begins in a rural America devastated by environmental disaster. Real survivors of the Dust Bowl describe their memories of the dust storms, as we watch the dark clouds swirl again. Only the laptops in the farm kitchen tell us that this is some kind of déjà vu.

Our hero leads a mission to find a new planet to colonise to save mankind from a dying earth. NASA has been operating in secret after the government ended its funding. So why do so many people hate Interstellar so much?
Scientist Dr Adam Rutherford told me via Twitter: “It hates humans. That we have not enough faith in engineering or exploration. That NASA is a secret?”

In an early scene former NASA pilot Matthew McConaghey is called into school over his daughter’s thought crime. She’s challenging the rewritten school textbooks that say NASA faked the moon landings as a successful Cold War strategy to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
The self-pitying suggestion that liberals have destroyed America’s pioneering spirit is unsettling, as is the film’s portrayal of the benign power of a “science clergy” led by grandfatherly Michael Caine. Significantly the film comes 3 years after NASA ended the Space Shuttle programme and buried the dreams of manned space flight of a generation of 40 somethings (like director Christopher Nolan).

But the idea that only an escape into space can save us? Major spoiler alert here. As Adam Rutherford observed: “It shows no faith that humankind is even capable of looking after itself without the help of 5th dimensional charity workers. Plus the fact that in conclusion, 7 billion people must die for the species to live.”

Yet for all its flaws Interstellar struck me as a truly humanist film. Notably its view of a godless universe in which people faced with terrible odds have a choice. Some commit acts of evil to survive. But others choose to do the right thing.

On the first planet the crew visit there is a terrifying moment when McConaughey realises those aren’t distant mountains, but a giant tidal wave; hundreds of feet in height and heading straight for them. It reminded me of novelist Joseph Conrad’s words in 1897 when he described the universe as a kind of indifferent organic knitting machine: “It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.”

Conrad was the NASA astronaut of his day. As a sailor at the height of 19th century Empire he saw up close the heart of darkness in the manmade cruelties of slavery and colonialism. But he also saw how the code-bound cameraderie of a crew on a ship; on a mission – could be a powerful human force in the face of indifferent nature.

In 1951 the Dustbowl and the Nazi death camps were recent history and people were living with the new terror of nuclear bombs. Yet they flocked to the cinema to see When Worlds Collide in which, like Interstellar, scientists plan for a lucky few to escape Earth and start again on a new planet. Unlike Interstellar, and indeed the isolated protaganists of Melancholia, it showed emergency meetings at the UN where politicians and scientists agree to build escape ships and choose the passengers by lottery. Mass panic ensues and the latest Hollywood special effects are lavished on showing you the apocalypse.

Perhaps we’ve just got soft. Even Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s magnificent Contact didn’t avoid a wallow in sentimentality with an alien encounter on a tropical beach.
For Ken Burns, whose documentary The Dust Bowl was the source for Interstellar’s survivor interviews there was a lesson about the power not of 5th dimensional charity workers, but responsible democratic government. “Everyone’s heard of the Dust Bowl,” he told The Washington Post recently, “but no one ever really understood its extent, or more importantly that it was a man-made environmental disaster..That’s the key. When you fully begin to accept your own culpability in this, as the people in the Dust Bowl do, they begin to reach out for help and solutions, which in the Dust Bowl, come from the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt.”
The biggest challenge of climate change is getting shortterm-focussed politicans and corporations to take longterm responsibility for saving the planet we’re stuck on. I guess fantasizing about flying away in a rocketship can seem a lot easier.

Further reading/listening

Ken Burns interview on The Roosevelts and his documentary filmmaking Front Row (Oct 2014 BBC R4)

How the Space Shuttle broke my heart and left me on the gantry of broken dreams (Independent 2011)

The development hell of Contact (Entertainment Weekly)

Why Contact is even greater than I thought (Roger Ebert 2011)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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