PhotoThose eagerly anticipating Interstellar as a possible “serious season” addition to the genre of cli-fi had plenty of company. But while often beautiful and sometimes compelling, Interstellar is closer to climate skepticism than it is to climate fiction. So eager is director Christopher Nolan to make the case for the return to space that he effectively accuses nature of neglect, if not outright abuse. Humanity must look elsewhere, the film seems to argue, because Earth is no longer a reliable provider.


Stacking Dust Bowls

True, Nolan’s evocative depiction of a new dust bowl offers evidence of adverse climate change— he actually uses interviews from Ken Burns’ documentary about the 1930s as if they were recollections of his own on-screen drought. But because researchers rarely attribute his historic reference point to rising CO2 levels, that evidence doesn’t implicate humans.

The closest the authors of a recent article on the 1934 drought year come to any suggestion of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is “dust aerosal forcing.” Unsustainable farming practices may have increased soil erosion and thereby contributed to the dust storms that worsened the effects of the drought. Nolan does not concede even this. Rather, in the Dust Bowl interviews, he has an elderly woman explain “You didn’t expect this dirt that was giving you this food to turn on you and destroy you.”

The essential vocabulary of contemporary climate science — greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, global mean temperature — is never used in Interstellar. By fitting one dust bowl inside the other, without any critique of farming practices, Nolan makes Earth the agent of his characters’ misfortunes.

The adult Murphy (Jessica Chastain) observes crops being burned to prevent the spread of blight.

If Earth Is Their Home Then Why Don’t Humans Breathe Nitrogen?

At its heart, Interstellar is the story of two families. A former NASA pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), wonders how, with yields diminishing as a result of spreading blights, he can keep the family farm solvent. And even if he succeeds, what will this mean for his two children, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)? In the course of solving his daily quota of problems, Cooper dismisses a series of “anomalies” until he confronts a clearly unnatural pattern that has formed in the dust blown into his daughter’s bedroom. He eventually recognizes the pattern as binary code for the geographical coordinates of a place not too far from their home.

At that location, Cooper and Murphy discover a hidden NASA facility managed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), one of Cooper’s former teachers, and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). The secret facility, Brand explains, is a missile launching station. As Cooper was led to it by one anomaly, Brand now wants him to pilot NASA’s follow-up mission to another anomaly, a wormhole that has opened up near Saturn. The goal: find another habitable planet.

Michael Caine plays the role of Professor Brand.

Shouldn’t that energy be put into saving our home planet? Cooper asks. Brand challenges Cooper’s assumptions about humanity’s relationship with Earth.

Earth’s atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen. We don’t even breathe nitrogen. Blight does, and as it thrives our air gets less and less oxygen. The last people to starve will be the first people to suffocate.* . . . We’re not meant to save the world; we’re meant to leave it.

To save humanity, Brand’s group is simultaneously pursuing two plans: Plan B, search for habitable planets on the other “side” of the wormhole; Plan A, create a space station, a sort of ark for some of those still left on Earth. For Plan A to succeed, however, Brand must solve a fundamental problem regarding the relationship between gravity and energy; otherwise they will never get the station into space.

Advanced Bootstrapping — or Hyper-Lomborging

Brand persuades Cooper to pilot the mission. The scene of Cooper trying to make peace with his daughter Murphy before he leaves is the most heart-wrenching in the film. Cooper explains that he does not know how long we will be away — for two reasons. The first is the uncertainty involved in any long trip. The second is the fabric of time itself. His time will be slowed by the high speeds of space travel and by the gravitational fields he will traverse. Two years for him may be a decade or more for her. Cooper and his daughter do not part well.

Many reviews of Interstellar have explained the conundrums Nolan plays with in this part of his film. They have also pointed out, sometimes gleefully, the errors and impossibilities in his tale. (Nolan neglects to provide a Sun to account for the energy that warms and illuminates the habitable planets that Cooper and the younger Brand visit.) More distressing from the environmental perspective attempted here is the exotic bootstrapping revealed — spoiler alert! — at the end of the film.

In a creatively visualized sequence, viewers learn that Cooper himself is the author of the anomalies he observed earlier. More, the wormhole near Saturn, the one Cooper and his colleagues used to reach the habitable planets, was placed there by the distant descendants of those now living on Earth. Humanity’s future selves found a way to get through the present impasse.

Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg has often argued that the hard work of substantially reducing CO2 emissions should be left to inevitably richer future generations. Nolan has done him one better. When the time is right, the solution for humanity’s problem will be sent from the future by g-mail — gravity can be shaped, Cooper discovers, to deliver messages through space-time.

It’s on this basis that Nolan invites viewers to get over their troubled relationship with Earth. Cooper himself never returns to Earth. Instead he is found outside the wormhole near Saturn by a routine patrol from the space station his now elderly daughter successfully floated off Earth.

The Faked Apollo Moon Landings

PhotoThe warped science of Interstellar comes with some strange politics. A grumpy discontent pervades the early scenes on Earth, the result of the economic dislocations created by the blighted crops and the declining population. “We used to look up to the sky and wonder about our place in the stars,” Cooper complains, “now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” “We were meant to be explorers,” he whines at another point, “not caretakers.”

By far the strangest example is the exchange between Cooper and the principal and counselor at his childrens’ school. Murphy fought with some of her classmates, the counselor explained, after refusing to admit that the photographs of the Apollo moon landings in his (Cooper’s) old textbook had been faked. The new corrected editions explain that the Apollo Program was an elaborate ruse to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Now, however, the enemy is hunger; everyone must focus on meeting the immediate needs of the nation.

For some on the right, Nolan’s depiction of such arch-political correctness makes him an upstanding conservative. “Interstellar breaks with the left’s pessimism,” wrote an op-ed columnist for the New York Post. But other conservatives have been puzzled by these odd scenes. “Just what are the politics of Christopher Nolan’s new film?” asked James Pethokoukis of National Review. And who should be affirmed and who disturbed by the fact that Nolan’s two “leading” scientists in Interstellar — Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, the leader of the earlier missions through the wormhole — both falsified their results? (Is the “Mann” just a coincidence?)

One possible explanation for these odd scenes is that they reflect the iconoclasm of Nolan’s own beliefs. Another and perhaps more likely explanation is that big budget films cannot afford to be clearly identified with any political position. Nevertheless, strong emotional reactions sell tickets; so red flags are waved at both ends of the political spectrum.

Stellar Campaign Loses to Animated Hero

In the weeks leading up to its release, Interstellar was the subject of more than 90 reviews and a number of prominent feature stories, including cover stories in Time and Entertainment Weekly. The film did reasonably well on its opening weekend, bringing in roughly $50 million, aided in part by the higher price of its IMAX tickets.


But Interstellar was not the box office winner that weekend; it was Walt Disney’s animated feature, Big Hero 6. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffmann explained the results this way: “Christopher Nolan’s SF juggernaut was no match for a giant cuddly robot — probably because the Disney film made sense and wasn’t three hours long.”

Should climate change communicators be relieved that Interstellar’s anti-Earth message was edged out by a “giant cuddly robot”? Or should they be depressed that Americans were almost equally captivated by two utterly improbable, if not impossible, stories?

Perhaps instead of either they should highlight the one practical piece of advice inadvertently delivered by Interstellar: Don’t stop worrying about the global environment until a functioning wormhole arrives somewhere in the solar system.

*None of the science-checking articles on Interstellar addressed this odd claim. An evolutionary biologist contacted in preparation for this article said he thinks local levels of oxygen might be affected by the rotting vegetation afflicted by blight, but not global atmospheric concentrations.

Coming Next Week: (What) Do We Learn from Cli-Fi Films?

Also see:
Download the 5-Part Series: A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema…Past and Present
A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema … Past and Present (Pt. 1)
Ice-Fi: The Motion Pictur-Ice-sque Legacy of The Day After Tomorrow (Pt. 2)
The Long Melt: The Lingering Influence of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (Pt. 3)
(What) Do We Learn from Cli-Fi Films? Hollywood Still Stuck in Holocene (Pt. 5)

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...