Anti-gravity: Interstellar and the fictional betrayal of place

by Todd McGowan

One of the basic truths of modern science is that there will come a time when humans will no longer be able to inhabit the Earth. Either the Sun will cease to provide heat and light, the Earth will no longer grow food, a meteor will eliminate breathable air, or some other calamity will portend the end of humanity on Earth. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) addresses one of these scenarios with a portrait of humanity on the verge of extinction. In doing so, the film confronts one of the pivotal questions that philosophy has engaged since the birth of modern science: What is the subject’s relation to its place? Interstellar envisions the possibility of an emancipation from Earth and thus from place, and this depiction of emancipation gives the film a philosophical significance that is not immediately apparent.

Science fiction shares with philosophy a speculative basis, which is undoubtedly why science fiction films commonly intervene on philosophical questions. Though there are science fiction films that don’t really concern themselves with such questions, the genre as such tends in this direction. The speculative basis of science fiction leads directors like Nolan, whether they aim to or not, to wade into philosophical waters. Though Nolan indicates in his discussions of the film he has much more personal interest in the science of Interstellar than its philosophical implications, he nonetheless pushes the film in a direction that raises issues that he may have not intended to confront explicitly.

As a result, making sense of the film’s implications requires grasping its philosophical rather than simply its narrative trajectory. Interstellar shows that the place in which we are situated is confining and constraining; as a result, we must try to free ourselves from our rootedness in a place. But our inherent attachment to our rootedness renders this freedom almost impossible to achieve or even to imagine. The film must depict the path to freedom: it centers around the apparent impossibility of humanity’s escaping Earth to live elsewhere. Yet it also shows that to achieve this impossibility requires constructing a fiction—the fiction that the impossible is actually possible. The characters in Interstellar who cling to the fiction and invest themselves in it are able accomplish the impossible by transcending the limits of space and time. And the film presents this as an ethical contrast with those who attempt to take up a position outside of any fiction and to refuse its distortion.

Within the film, fictional distortion is not a retreat from reality but a way to engage in its transformation. In this way, the film takes up an ethical position linked to that of Hegel, who rejects the purity of Kant’s morality for the sake of adhering to a distorting fiction. One must embrace one’s distorted perspective rather than trying to eliminate the distortion. If participation in a fiction defines the ethics that the film advocates, the ultimate ethical position is that of the interpreter. Indeed, the film concludes by advocating interpretation as an emancipatory act that finally frees the characters from place. By taking up this critique of place, Interstellar aligns itself firmly on one side of a philosophical struggle that runs through the history of Western thought but comes to a head in the contrasting philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Hegel.

Kein Blut und Kein Boden

The fundamental disagreement between Heidegger and Hegel comes down to the status that each accords to place. For Heidegger, the disaster of modernity occurs through the loss of our rootedness in place. The great metaphysical error that modernity doubles down on is that it considers beings without regard to their place. We think of objects theoretically as present-at-hand (vorhanden) rather than in the act of using them or as ready-to-hand (zuhanden). As Heidegger puts it in Being and Time,

“In the ‘physical’ assertion that ‘the hammer is heavy’ we overlook not only the tool-character of the entity we encounter, but also something that belongs to any ready-to-hand equipment: its place. Its place becomes a matter of indifference.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

The danger of the failure to understand place isn’t just that we won’t properly conceive the hammer but that we will forget ourselves how to dwell on Earth.[2] Place is constitutive for objects and for us, and without a sense of place, we are simply cast adrift.

Hegel has a much less sanguine view of place. In Hegel’s thought, place is a natural, contingent determination that one must leave behind. Through distancing oneself from one’s place, one becomes estranged but in the process gains freedom.[3] In short, estrangement from place is the price of freedom. As a consequence of this idea, Hegel celebrates the modern failure to dwell rather than lamenting it in the way that Heidegger does. Dwelling may provide a sense of rootedness, but this rootedness is the emblem of a complete unfreedom. And unfreedom is not the end of the story for the subject. Unlike the stone that simply is where it is, the subject has the capacity to emancipate itself from its place; this emancipation occurs through its ability to distinguish itself as free from its place. The subject can gain freedom from rootedness by constructing a fiction that inaugurates the break from it. This freedom must initially be fictional because the subject is tied to its place. The subject exists in a context, but it constructs a fiction of itself as independent from this context and thus autonomous.[4] Without constructing a fiction of freedom, no actual freedom is possible, and this is why Hegel argues for the primacy of the false in relation to the true.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel details the central role that the fiction—what he calls there the false—plays in the project of creating distinctions. Without an initial fiction that creates a distinction where none otherwise exists, we would have nothing to know and would remain the prisoners of place. As Hegel puts it,

"To know something falsely means that there is a disparity between knowledge and its Substance. But this very disparity is the process of distinguishing in general, which is an essential moment [in knowing].”[5]

Without the fictional creation of distinctions, there is no knowledge at all, and this leads Hegel to see the logical priority that the false has relative to the true. The fiction is the origin of freedom, and freedom is always freedom from place.

Though all of Christopher Nolan’s films address the priority of the fiction and thus situate themselves within Hegel’s line of thought, Interstellar (2014) is the first to illustrate the fiction’s uprooting power, its role in emancipating the subject from its place. The film depicts a future Earth devastated by blight and on the verge of being unable to sustain human life. The loss of food sources portends humanity’s extinction. Against this backdrop, Nolan focuses on a former pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who discovers a secret NASA base where plans are underway to rescue humanity by leaving the planet rather than conserving it.[6] Cooper pilots the spaceship that seeks out a habitable planet in another galaxy accessible through a wormhole located near Saturn. Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) accompany him, along with two robots, TARS and CASE. The key to the film lies in the identity of the creators of the wormhole and in humanity’s fictional response to this opening that makes the voyage through it possible.

When Cooper first hears about the wormhole at NASA from Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the father of Dr. Brand, Professor Brand cannot provide any details about its origin. He tells Cooper that NASA assumes that some alien beings—entities he labels “they”—have put it there for the purpose of saving humanity. But subsequently the film reveals that the wormhole is not the creation of an alien race or of some deity looking out for us but the creation of future humanity. Here, Nolan plays out the most important idea from Hegel’s philosophy: the otherness of the beyond is never beyond but always part of the subject’s own self-displacement. In fact, the task of philosophy, as Hegel sees it, involves tracing the different figures of the beyond as they move closer to the subject. The gap in which the subject envisions the beyond is a gap within subjectivity itself. This is not to say that otherness does not exist. Instead, the implication is that one cannot await salvation from the beyond but recognize how one gives possibilities to oneself. The situation for revolutionary change comes from the agent for revolutionary change, which means that this agent cannot wait for a propitious situation but must create that situation through her or his own act.[7] Hegel’s conception of change sheds light on Interstellar’s paradoxical narrative structure and reveals its appropriateness.

The possibility for change comes from the subject’s own self-displacement (from his/her own future), but in order to take up this possibility and break from its rootedness, the subject must respond to possibility with by creating a fiction. This is the initial transformative act, according to Interstellar. If one approaches the possibility directly, it would seem impossible because it portends the destruction of the symbolic world that the subject inhabits. No one would agree to this destruction without a fiction that would make it palatable. The possibility—the wormhole, in the case of Interstellar—requires constructing a fiction in order to orient desire toward it.

Professor Brand is the author of the fiction that orients desire toward the possibility that the wormhole offers. Brand, who is the chief researcher for a reconstituted NASA, heads a team of scientists attempting to save humanity through relocation from Earth. In order to do so, he devises two plans for saving humanity. Plan A involves solving the problem of gravity and using it for propulsion in order to transport all of humanity through the wormhole to another habitable planet, while Plan B sends a small group through the wormhole to populate the new planet with embryos designed to recreate humanity while abandoning the rest of humanity to die on an Earth devastated from blight. Plan B saves the species while sacrificing all existent individuals of the species, which makes it a much less appealing option for the participants. Without the idea of Plan A, they would refuse to sign up for the project. Plan A is not just, as Professor Brand says, “a lot more fun.” It is also the sine qua non for participation in the project, which Professor Brand himself recognizes, which is why he keeps the non-existence of Plan A secret.[8]

On his deathbed, Professor Brand reveals to Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) that there is no Plan A. He soon realized that he could not solve the problem of gravity and enable all of humanity to escape. He continued his research while knowing that it was in vain because he understood that humanity needed the fiction of individual survival in order to work toward the survival of the species. As the film presents it, only Professor Brand and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), a scientist who went on the original mission seeking out a habitable planet, know that Plan A is a fiction. One might imagine that the film portrays them heroically for taking up the burden of knowing the fiction, but they end up receiving a near-total condemnation for how they comport themselves relative to the fiction.

The film does not condemn Professor Brand for his lie about Plan A—the lie is necessary to create a desire for the interstellar voyage—but for his failure to believe in it. He treats the lie cynically, and this cynicism earns him Murph’s condemnation and ultimately that of the film itself. As the author of the lie, Professor Brand adopts a position that sees through it and grasps the hard truth that the lie obscures—the sacrifice of everyone alive on Earth. He believes that he alone is capable of thinking beyond his own individuality and “as a species.” In a conversation with Murph just before the professor’s death, Professor Brand’s laments humanity’s inability to think like he can, and yet his supposed exceptionality is what makes him a reprehensible figure.

Professor Brand’s favorite poem—“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas—becomes ironic given his sacrificing all humanity living on Earth. The poem seems to have a solemn importance in the film. When the astronauts leave Earth orbit, Professor Brands narrates the poem’s most famous lines. He says, “Do not go gentle into that good night; / Old age should burn and rage at close of day. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But even as he says these words, Professor Brand has accepted “the dying of the light” for Earth’s populace.

The difference between Murph, the film’s hero, and Professor Brand is not that Murph reveals the lie while Professor Brand hides it. It is rather that Murph takes the lie as the path to truth rather than just accepting it as a lie. Just after she discovers the lie, her partner Getty (Topher Grace) asks her if she is going to reveal it to the public. Murph responds negatively out of fear of massive panic, and Getty accuses her of being just like Professor Brand, whom she detests. Murph then articulates the difference. She says, “Brand gave up on us. I’m still trying to solve this.” Confronted with the impossible that only a fiction can circumvent, Murph sees a possibility in the fiction even though she understands its fictitiousness; in this way, she separates herself from the cynicism of Professor Brand. This is the ethical position that Interstellar advances.

Murph is the ethical center of the film because she insists on pursuing the fiction. The different relationships that Murph and Professor Brand take up to the fiction differentiate them. Murph’s breakthrough stems from her belief.

The test of impurity

If the fiction is necessary for the subject to emerge out of its place, there is no possibility of a pure subject. The subject depends on a structuring deceit in order to become a subject and separate itself from its context. That is to say, impurity is constitutive for the subject, and this impurity manifests itself whenever the subject acts. The subject’s desire will inflect each decision that it makes. Recognizing the necessity of this fundamental impurity is what Hegel calls the absolute, a recognition of the role that the distortion of desire plays in all knowledge and action. The absolute isn’t the overcoming of all distortion and the attainment of a pure knowledge, as most think, but the conclusion that the obstacle acting as a barrier to one’s knowledge is simultaneously the condition of possibility for that knowledge.

There is no neutral knowledge or action because the distortion of desire informs the very origin of the subject who knows and acts. The subject strives to get beyond the barrier of this distortion, and yet this barrier is itself the source of the striving. Philosophies of infinite striving, like those of Kant and Fichte, fail to account for the role that the distortion of desire plays in inaugurating the subject’s striving to overcome that distortion. This is why the recognition of the necessity of the distortion is absolute.[9]

Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy imagines that one must strive to overcome the distortions in one’s desire, but he doesn’t recognize that these distortions constitute the very possibility of morality. J. G. Fichte developed Kant’s morality and made infinite striving the center of his philosophical project. The Hegelian morality of Interstellar takes a position opposed to both Kant and Fichte.

In one sense, Professor Brand understands the necessity of the distortion of desire when he constructs the fiction. He knows that no one will devote themselves to Plan B without the fiction of Plan A and its illusory promise. But his great failure resides in his inability to apply this understanding to himself. He places himself in the position of pure neutrality looking on the survival of humanity without regard for his own desire. He assumes, along with Dr. Mann, that he can act on behalf of the universal without the recourse to his own individual desire. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann believe in their own purity, but Dr. Mann’s actions when he finds himself marooned on a desolate planet give the lie to this self-image and reveal the impossibility of any neutral universality untainted by the individual functioning as the vehicle for that universality.

Nolan initially establishes Dr. Mann as an irreproachable subject, an exemplar of humanity. During the voyage, Dr. Brand describes Dr. Mann to Cooper as the most ethical and intelligent human being. But when the Endurance finally arrives at the planet where Mann has landed, his impurity soon comes into view. Instead of showing himself to be “the best of us,” he acts like the worst. He signaled back to Earth that he had discovered a viable planet when in fact he had landed on a frozen wasteland that could not sustain human life. He did this just to give himself a chance of being rescued. Rather than sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity’s survival, Mann has put humanity’s existence in peril just for the chance to preserve his own life, as becomes apparent during his interaction with the other astronauts. Even though he propelled himself into the void of space with only a small chance of surviving, he tells Cooper when they are alone, “I never really considered the possibility that my planet wasn’t the one.” His desire inflects his universalism and renders it completely pathological. When he and Cooper go together to explore the supposedly habitable surface of the planet, Mann tries to kill Cooper in order to cover up his crime.

After he breaks Cooper’s helmet and leaves him to die from breathing the planet’s poisonous atmosphere, Mann walks away, unable to watch the suffering that he has inflicted. Not only does Dr. Mann endanger the survival of humanity to save himself, but he also can’t even look at Cooper as Cooper dies, thereby fully earning the appellation “coward” that Cooper applies to him. But Mann nonetheless wants to comfort Cooper, so he tells him that he will continue to talk so that Cooper will not have to die alone. Dr. Mann then begins to recite the Dylan Thomas poem that Professor Brand narrated to the Endurance crew as they left Earth. This is also the poem that Professor Brand cites as he dies just prior to Dr. Mann’s treachery with Cooper.

When Dr. Mann has recourse to this seemingly defiant and even heroic lyric, the status of this poem undergoes a dramatic shift that began to become visible on Professor Brand’s deathbed. The film reveals the significance of the poem formally through its placement within the narrative structure. Instead of being a plea for struggling to survive and refusing to accept death, it becomes a means for avoiding the trauma that one has inflicted. Dr. Mann’s recitation of the poem retroactively transforms the spectator’s understanding of the poem’s significance when spoken by Professor Brand and completes the spectator’s revaluation of the latter. (22)

As Cooper suffocates from the planet’s poisonous air, Dr. Mann recites “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to him, which aligns Dr. Mann with Professor Brand and changes the significance of that poem in the film. The poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” becomes a sign of the corruption of the character speaking it. This becomes clear through Dr. Mann’s use of the poem as a salve to his own conscience while murdering Cooper.

During its first appearance in the film, Professor Brand uses the poem to give the astronauts courage for their difficult journey. But when Dr. Mann employs this same poem as he leaves Cooper to die on a hostile planet, its role becomes clear. Rather than inspiring someone to defy the risk of death, it acts as a palliative in the confrontation with death, and it allows both Professor Brand and Dr. Mann to avoid facing their own acts. Dr. Mann begins to speak the lines from the poem after he turns away from the dying Cooper and after he tells Cooper that he thought he would be able to watch him die but cannot. Though Dr. Mann claims that the poem will comfort Cooper, it is clear that he turns to it in order to comfort himself. By placing the poem in the mouth of Dr. Mann just as he tries to kill Cooper, Nolan shifts its significance for the film. The poem, which seems to act as something like the film’s anthem, does so only in a negative sense. It becomes an index for the individual corruption that resides within universalist pretensions.