Sunday, May 03, 2015

In "Interstellar," the future is as corny as Kansas in August

Imagine that humankind gives up its dreams of space travel to farm corn in Kansas full-time.

That’s the kind of boring future imagined by Christopher Nolan in the film “Interstellar.”

Humans no longer shoot for the stars. An unnamed blight is killing all the crops except corn – and even its days are numbered. Dust Bowl-style storms blot out the sun and everything (laptops included) is coated with a fine layer of dust. Unemployed astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) farms corn with his two kids, an irascible father and a fleet of robotic combines. His daughter gets into trouble at school when she writes a paper contending that the U.S. did land on the moon as “corrected” textbooks proclaim that we invented our space triumphs to bankrupt the Russkis. The new reality is not to “look to the skies” but look down at the dirt as humans try to save a planet that’s beyond saving.

A fascinating conceit for a movie. We make fun of conspiracy nuts who contend that the moon landings were invented on a Hollywood soundstage. In Nolan’s universe, scientists are the kooks. Waste money on rocket ships when the earth is dying? No sirree bob -- not with my tax money.

NASA’s scientists have been driven underground. They are busily at work launching space probes to find other habitable planets to screw up. They recruit Cooper to join other astronauts to explore those likely places to resettle the populace. As we know from the Kepler telescope observations, earth-like planets exist but they are 100-plus light years away. The solution: fire a rocket through a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn. “They” put it there, whoever “they” are (their identity is revealed by film's end).

Will the scientists find a new home for earthlings? That’s the question that involves the viewer for most of the movie. Great special effects, as befitting the CGI era (no streams of flashing lights as in “2001”). The robots are cooler than HAL, equipped with wit and sarcasm. The main robot threatens to shoot one of the crew through the airlock as happened in the pivotal scene in “2001.”

Woven through all this are complicated human relationships. In the end, that’s what motivates humans – their relationships with others of their kind. Cooper would not leave his beloved family behind, especially his daughter Murph, unless he could save them by jaunting off into space. Turns out that Cooper’s colleague in space, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), has a love interest who was on an earlier space probe. It is love that motivates humans. As the Beatles sang, “love is all you need.” Not bad when you can wrap up a sci-fi epic with a sixties melody.

What else is there? What makes us distinctive among known life forms? Any big-brained chimp can plant corn or build a space ship. But it takes love for a wife or daughter or father to motivate us to reach for the stars. Humans are a mess, for the most part. But we are always offered a path to redemption that is as mysterious and complicated as the physics of a wormhole.

Love is all you need…

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