'Interstellar's' Rejection of Climate Change Hysteria

America's sweetheart saves humanity
November 14, 2014

Spoilers for Interstellar below.

Earlier in the week I joked with a couple of friends in separate conversations that, based on a few observations about plot points and names in Interstellar (which I'll get to in a bit), I wanted to write a semi-trollish post arguing that the movie was an esoteric denunciation of climate change fearmongering. You know, something along the lines of "Elysium is actually an anti-Obamacare parable" or "Star Trek: Into Darkness is actually pro-drone strike."

But then I started reading Interstellar's script, and I realized it wasn't actually a trollish idea at all. Screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan seemed to have had the idea of climate change hysteria firmly in mind while working on the screenplay.

"We're sort of in this moment in which humans are obsessed that we'll prove our own undoing—that we'll poison the planet, we'll destroy ourselves, and all these things," Jonathan says early on in an interview that accompanies the screenplay. "But I thought it would be more interesting to find a slightly less personal Armageddon, or the idea that the universe obliterates you or the planet turns itself toxic because it doesn't care about you and me because we're an accident in outer space." (Emphasis mine.) Later on, he drives this point home: "That's the fascinating question of why is it that humans are so obsessed with not just the idea of their own Armageddon, but their own culpability."

As Christopher notes later on in the interview, man's obsession with his own self-destruction is, at least in part, a function of ego. "Every generation believes they're the last generation on Earth. Maybe one generation will eventually be right. I certainly hope it's not ours," he says. Interstellar rejects that idea. "It's about the way in which human beings adapt and transcend natural movements—apocalyptic type movements." (Again, emphasis mine.)

That "apocalyptic type movement" in Interstellar is the blight, a crop-killing disease that has ravaged the planet. Alyssa Rosenberg* argues that the rather explicit references to the dust bowl and Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl—the film literally reuses documentary footage of people speaking about the dust storms to drive home the blight's effect—"provides a fascinating window into what the director is trying to say about human actions and environmental responsibility." But it's worth remembering that the dust bowl was not solely a man-made disaster. Poor farming methods combined with a prolonged, devastating, and decidedly non-man-made drought to bring it on. From both the interview and the film itself, it seems clear that the Nolans are far more interested in the non-man-made aspect of that disaster.

If Interstellar were a parable about the dangers of global warming, as some have argued, why would Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) explicitly note that the blight feeds on nitrogen—an element that comprises almost 80 percent of our atmosphere and one that we have had little role in producing—rather than, say, carbon dioxide?

Consider also the following (admittedly esoteric**) reading of Interstellar's second act. Early in the film, we are informed of the Lazarus missions, an effort undertaken by a dozen scientists to travel through a wormhole and explore a series of planets that could, theoretically, sustain human life. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told the mission was led by "the remarkable Dr. Mann." No first name is given, to the best of my knowledge. After visiting one planet and finding it unsuitable for life, Cooper and his crew head out for the planet settled by Dr. Mann.

Dr. Mann is prone to speechifying about the importance of saving future generations of humanity. Indeed, he claims he is willing to sacrifice the current crop of humans to make sure life goes on, justifying a horrendous lie told by Dr. Brand to Cooper and his crew under the theory that it needed to be told for the good of humanity. "He knew how much harder it would be for people to come together and save the species, instead of themselves," he says, emphasis in the original. "Or their children. ... Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier—we can care deeply, selflessly for people we know, but our empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight." It turns out that the remarkable Dr. Mann is a horrendous liar in other ways and is willing to kill everyone in the film to save his own hide.

In the real world, there's another famous Dr. Mann: Dr. Michael Mann, noted climate scientist and father of the controversial "hockey stick" graph that shows man is warming the planet at crazy-fast rates. Mann, it's worth noting, has come under fire from some on the right who have claimed that he is misleading people about the dangers of climate change in order to spur action.*** And the speech given by Interstellar's Dr. Mann seems awfully reminiscent of the arguments made by those who think climate change will lead to the death of us all: We humans are simply too selfish to make the sacrifices demanded to stave off the existential threat posed by man-made global warming, so deceptions and non-democratic decision making is totally acceptable. For the good of humanity, of course.

So, to recap, the Nolans—who are skeptical of the idea that man will destroy himself, couching the idea as little more than mindless egotism—have sent a Dr. Mann to an ice (rather than, say, an overheated) planet, branded him a liar with delusions of grandeur, and, here's the kicker, cast in his role noted environmentalist Matt Damon.

Pretty interesting, no?

*One of the friends with whom I had discussed this post.

**When I said I had envisioned this as a rather trollish post, this is the bit I had in mind. But I'm rather convinced there's something there. 

***He strenuously denies these charges.