It has been said that all 20th century novels are about the historical progress of the 20th century; they refer, however subtly, to ideologies and great wars and seismic shifts in material and prosperity. Exceptions that seem “timeless,” like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, are noticeable in their exceptionalism and vulnerable to accusations of insensitivity.
Similarly, films of the long 21st century, beginning with The Matrix, frequently concern themselves with the new cognitive conditions of this century and the difficulty of making further historical progress while we struggle with them. That is certainly true of Interstellar, the new three-and-a-half hour space opera by Christopher Nolan. Characters are always shouting incomprehensible things at each other over engine noise and tornado winds. You soon give up listening.
In any case, it is obvious from the storylines what kind of thing is being shouted. These storylines include family drama, a shipboard yarn, a race against the clock (measured in years), and a ghost tale. All are subordinate to the main drama of a space mission to find a new home for the human race after Earth is ruined by climate change, signified as crop failures and dust storms. The choice is a Grapes of Wrath style death or a Northwest Passage through a black hole. No other options are presented.
To save the world, the crew must follow trails of lost predecessor explorers and develop a theory of physics integrating classical mechanics, relativity, string theory, and love. Yes, that’s what they said. Extraordinarily, scientists seem to have praised the physics in the film and slated the climate science. Interstellar is incoherent in a coherent way, and watchable in an all-out Bollywood way, with Matrix-style infinite landscapes and cyberscapes taking the place of musical spectaculars. The effects are reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier marathon exploration of inner space, Inception.
It also unexpectedly recalls the Wizard of Oz. This tornado picks up Uncle Henry and leaves Dorothy behind. He marches off to explore new worlds with a set of doughty but flawed companions, one made of metal, and one of whom personalizes failure in no-win situations. He receives a message from a wizard that there is no man behind the curtain, and adjusts his understanding of the maxim that there is no place like home. Unlike Baum’s Oz, however, all the aliens encountered on the yellow brick road come from the same midwestern branch of NASA. Colonialism and multiculturalism in space? That belongs to an age without boundaries. These days, wherever you go, there you are – a little older, a little more confused.