Interstellar: Not cosmic

Spoiler red alert: this is an assessment, not a review, of

Interstellar. A film in which:

Michael Cain is revealed as cinema’s least convincing science-genius. Retire already!

Matthew McConaughey pushes his grufflo-whistly-voice into the red zone. McConaughey’s character, Cooper, also undergoes total consistency fail to make sure we get to Act V.

Jessica Chastain channels steely-beauty energies in order to overcome abandonment and solve the “problem of gravity”. A lone genius scribbling on a blackboard.

Anne Hathaway claims that love is empirically verifiable. That’s science, don’t you know: methodical, logical, emotionally void. Like Hathaway’s acting.

Matt Damon appears. Impersonates Bourne gone loopy. Re-enacts classic fight scene from Arena. Why, oh why?! Don’t wake him up!

He's behind you!
He’s behind you, Coop!

The robots, TARS and CASE, don’t go mad. They save the day. Multiple times. They totally steal the show.

Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland
Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland

Interstellar is not original. It’s not a homage to 2001. It’s a mish-mash of The Fifth Element, Close Encounters, Contact, ET, Solaris, and 2001; a dash of Prometheus, Alien, The Tree of Life. Most of all it reminded me of Danny Boyle’s much under-rated Sunshine, and the 60s family show Lost in Space. Interstellar is a high-brow wannabe girded with lashings of sentimental twaddle.

The low point: When they arrive at Saturn’s black hole, and the science guy explains to Cooper that faster-than-light travel “is like folding a page”. Argh! As if ashamed at their clichéd exposition, the producers decided to make the black hole a sphere. “A sphere? I thought it would be a hole,” says Cooper, speaking on behalf of the dumb audience members. Science guy slaps forehead: “4D, man, 4D!”

The low, low point: When they wake up Dr Mann and its Matt Damon.

The low, low, low point: more physics exposition. I half expected Brian Cox to enter stage left and start bumbling on about how this or that new planet was billions and billions and billions of light years away.

As with all Nolan’s films, aggressive sound pummels you into submission. Like a giant, all-encompassing dust-storm, the score waxes so loud it fills all plot holes, corrodes all lumps in pace, suffocates all shonky dialogue, and forces you to retreat to the deepest recesses of your cinema seat. Noise power can be exhilarating – the post disaster docking sequence is genuinely awesome – but it is also obvious and tiring.

The low, low, low, low point: the Final Act. Deathbed scene with your decrepit daughter? That’s just base sentimentality worthy of Hanks/Spielberg.

Still, Interstellar looks good

I don’t get why critics call this film incomprehensible. Its obvious.

George Monbiot’s analysis is totally on the money: “This fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics.” He is so right it leaves little to say. Except that the film isn’t about life beyond earth. The film never even gets that far, really; it just transmutes space exploration into ‘love dilemmas’. Dear Mariella, I’m one hundred and thirty years older than my daughter due to a temporal anomaly, what should I do? Dear Mariella, my boyfriend crash-landed on a planet, but I don’t know if its habitable – should I call him?

Interstellar doesn’t explore the cosmos – it retreats into heteronormative, US small town, family drama.

Item 1: The team are all American. Small point, but it flies against the internationalism of, say, Sunshine, or the post-national techno-asceticism of 2001. They are also obviously American – the old school NASA logo, the corn-farm as ground zero. And all the humans going to be saved in Plan A, or in the eugenic-tastic Plan B are – we can only presume – American. Just as Dr Bland describes the arch-pioneer of the first mission as “the best of us,” we can only assume that this American embryo bank represents the best of us too.

Farm with veranda? Check. Dust? Check. Pickup truck? Check. Interstellar coordinates confirmed: US Midwest, the centre of the universe

Item 2: The robots steal the show. The human characters are totally shackled to Earth by the messy ties of love, unable to think about the cosmic importance of their mission. Coop bleats on about his children, who he sort of liked but are estranged and annoying (and billions of billions of billions of miles away anyway). Brand Jnr is prepared to alter the mission to chase after her squeeze – it takes Coop to remind her that ‘love’ is not generally an acceptable parameter in hypothesis formulation. I’m not quite sure whether Dr Mann (Matt Damon) is trying to save the mission or himself.

By contrast the robots are faster, stronger, smarter. They are able to crack jokes (even if they are weak sf-homage/rip-off ones about setting the auto-destruct sequence they bring much-needed levity…). They save people on multiple occasions.

Why was the mission not run by the robots? Matt Damon tells us that this is because they “can’t improvise.” But since all the mission problems come from people improvising and changing their minds having a few more robots around might have been a good idea! The real clincher is the way that TARS and CASE are prepared to go into the singularity to collect data (Coop’s motives make no sense here). The robots are still doing science long after the best of humanity have descended into dribbling sentimental idiots.

The final Acts reveal that instead of dwelling in deep space and infinite time, we are caught in claustrophobic, recursive loops: love, love lost, love regained. That isn’t uplifting. It’s boring, because it’s a drivelly kind of cinema schamltz writ cosmic.

The only wormhole traverse here is Nolan’s yearning for a parochial, apolitical, happy-family mythic world that can’t exist. It’s a retreat, a surrender in the face of a challenge to do good science fiction.


Geoengineering: Earthmasters vs The Colony

What do the public intellectual Clive Hamilton’s best-selling Earthmasters (a scathing critique of geoengineering) and a run-of-the-mill film, The Colony, (released to absolutely no acclaim in 2013) have in common? I shall explain.’s argument is simple. The 400-year Enlightenment project of progress, which has relied on rational techno-science, having created climate change, now reaches its high point in geo-engineering: the deliberate modification of planetary systems.

Geo-engineering is the Promethean dream of scientists like Ken Caldeira and David Keith to ‘fix’ climate change. Instead of reigning in the reckless subjection of the planet to [a historically and geographically specific subgroup of] humanity’s ends, we enter into that appropriation more fully – to proclaim mastery of the planet. Earthmasters concludes gloomily that when the temperature racks up and climate change threatens not just the livelihoods of the poor, but also the shopping options of the rich, entrenched power will look to all means at its disposal to shore itself up. And that means geoengineering is depressingly likely.

The Colony’, meanwhile, is a mediocre post-apocalyptic flick. The northern hemisphere has been turned into something like Greenland. We are shown a claustrophobic world: a tunnel-dwelling group of survivors, barely holding on, their society slowly unravelling. The film serves up the requisite decay, mould, and light-flickering desperation, but its all a bit Budget Motel. Even filming in the defunct NORAD aeropsace defence  base in Ontario, Canada, doesn’t really help.

The inhabitants of the Colony eat lots of rabbits. Tragically, the bunny population is declining, which leads to the film’s one decent line:

“You know you’re screwed when even the rabbits won’t fuck”.

They have sketchy communication with other outposts, but their survival is threatened by the common cold: in Arctic Earth, the smallest sniffle is a killer. The real threat, though, is Mason, the hotheaded upstart. He wants to shoot people at the first sign of a runny nose: frogmarched outside, your brains shot out, staining the snow. Other group members hanker for a more civilised response. Anyone with an infection is put into quarantine. But if they don’t get better after a few days, then it’s a “long walk” into the icy wilderness.

What has the Colony to do with geoengineering? Well amid the snow are giant skeletal ruins, funnels pointed skyward – “weather-modification towers” built before the freeze.

the-colony06The grunts that inhabit the bunker world don’t know what went wrong: “The truth is, one day it started to snow and it never stopped”. These machines started, recorded history stopped; all else, after, is mere survival. This is to my knowledge the first Hollywood film to use geoengineering to frame its disaster.

The film then takes a serious nose-dive, switching genre to survival horror. A badly choreographed fight with a rampaging horde of posthuman mutants, crazed for blood. Yawn.

The stakes in this fight are thus: the Colony’s scientist has a hypothesis that, if the weather modification schemes can be turned back on, she can reverse the global freeze. But only if our manly hero can safely defend her from the rampaging mutant crazies!

No spoilers here. In fact, how about an anti-spoiler: Probably don’t bother watching the film.

So what do Clive Hamilton’s critique of geoengineering, Earthmasters, and The Colony have in common? The answer: Enlightenment techno-science and progress is both the cause of, and the only hope of redemption from, apocalypse.

In The Colony, the weather machines that snuffed out civilisation with a snowy apocalypse turn out, in fact, to be the only way to save life once more. The heroine tells us that We just need to work out how to turn them back on, but in reverse… We have nothing left, in the snowy cold, but a reflexive grasping back at the wonders of science. Of course they don’t really don’t know if it’ll work – the dwindling band of survivors returns to the weather controls more out of hope than self-belief.

Hamilton, too ultimately has nothing to offer but a belief in Enlightenment rationality. This may seem a perverse claim, given that his book indicts the hubris of the geoengineers. But he wants his scientific cake and to eat it. He dislikes the part of climate science that gives us geoengineering; he likes the part that gives us climate scenarios and models of future environmental change (a bit glibly he calls the good scientists the Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety/deliverance, in contrast to the Promethean geo-engineers). But these are two sides of the same project. Hamilton hopes that our rationalism, informed by proper climate science can prevail.  Science for Hamilton appears at once as a secular authority to ground his political claims AND as a great evil about to embark on a ridiculous gamble with earth systems. Science, for Hamilton, is to be used for political ends: it cannot be political itself.

That said, Clive Hamilton’s book is the best popular overview of geoengineering you’ll find. The Colony is rubbish. Not so similar after all.

Animals and apocalypse, part one

This post reflects on a few recentish post-apocalyptic films, but in particular on the role of animals therein…

As a great, great many people have noted, apocalyptic imagery, narrative and revelry are circulating with a certain dull, frenetic energy: it’s hard to get away from zombies (figuratively anyway), zoonoses, or environmental collapse. Apocalypse is a rejoinder to the pervasive risk management of late modernity, in which the future becomes something mouldable through action in the present: all this management won’t do any good, apocalypse implies; accounting and governance are not sufficient to avert disaster, nor are they the proper response. As the old man in The Road, Ely, puts it:

“Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do”.

Of late, it’s the post-apocalyptic that is in the ascendency. In such fictions the world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but continues interminably on, in slow entropic decay. Post-apocalypse abandons traditional narrative form – no story, no prospect of a conclusion, instead we have a fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes.  This is a vision which offers no ‘cosy’ after-fall gathering but instead a slow, uncomfortable, and above all gloomy future.

If the light of modernity was about highlighting our own animality that we might better manage it, in order to become political beings, that light was acquired from the sun. Since the sun bequeathed us oil, and in turn fossil fuels made possible the Anthropocene and carbon humanity, then the sun must also, to follow Timothy Mitchell, set its limits. That is to say, the anthropos of the Anthropocene is not a self-sufficient subject – it has been made out of a willing together of flows of geology, biology, materials and energy

Thus the absence of the sun in The Road (which while a bit old now [2009] was such an instant classic that it is still impossible to ignore), brings the dark animality of North American humans into the light. Thrust from deadening routine and habit, from their pre-fall introspective bubbles of egotism and meek supplicancy to capital, post-apocalyptic life on the road forces its characters (and us) to affirm what they want to live for – to affirm their (and our) desire for something positive. Not to be cannibals. The Road’s moral lines are starkly drawn: do they eat babies? This question becomes the basis for a new ethics for the Child in a world with no justice, no accounting or law, just interminable survival. Throughout The Road, the Man looks back to his past, a past the Boy cannot share – the Boy’s burden, meanwhile, is the future, carrying forward the ‘fire’. Thus what lurks on the far side of apocalypse is our own animality, let loose from a political subject constituted by geological networks of fossil fuels. There is a new project of on-going enlightenment (small E) in which the challenge is not just to survive, but to surpass that which we were before.

The Road - bug

But while the film version of The Road is largely faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, there is one striking addition: a bug. The bug of course embodies that weird combination of fear, instrumentalism, disgust and fascination, but above all radical alterity, so wonderfully traced by Hugh Raffles. The Boy discovers a beetle in a metal container, which flies heavenwards into dark cloud. On one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to recoup some possibility for redemption – that not all animals did die, and that other beings, too, struggle towards a precarious future. Life continuing is a supposed consolation against pain and loss of certain beings. But the bug does not show that nature has survived the Fall after all, for it too will surely die. Instead, it heightens the feeling of loss, showing how we recognise, belatedly, that the absence of non-human others limits our own possibilities of becoming with. But at least its final flight takes the film beyond an anthropocentric tragedy – we are robbed of allies for world-making loops, denied the ways of being human-in-connection, through companion species of all kinds, be they commoditised forms of life, domestic critters, or ingested food. This reading of the Road still leaves us, however, in a landscape where the line is drawn too simply, with non-humans as victims.

In other films animals are behaving more oddly, and more interestingly.

In The Life of Pi (which is not properly apocalyptic because we assured of a happy outcome by the Hollywood flashback) Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a (CGI) tiger, with seemingly no possibility of co-existing peaceably. Life of PiHowever, a moment of connection is made, but not until the boat’s life-sustaining processes have been exhausted and the pair face imminent death – it is only then the tiger rests its head on Pi’s lap. After the pair are miraculously saved, however, the tiger just wanders off into the jungle without looking back, without saying goodbye, rejecting any chance of friendship or shared kinship. Similarly, in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s horse seems to refuse to carry on when they come to a bridge – it seems to be the first creature in the film to realise that the planet is going to hit the earth after all (as suggested by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures).

A horse is also a key character in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 146-minute epic The Turin Horse – a gruelling film shorn of the sentimentalism of The Road and which replaces McCarthy’s natural theology (typical of American apocalypse and largely absent in this and other genres of apocalypse – these will be the subject of post no.2!) with a bleaker cosmic un-making.

The Turin horse - horse

The Turin Horse describes six days on a wind-swept, dusty farmstead. After the first opening scene, a mesmeric close-up of the journey home from the village, which seems to stress how family and horse are bound together in suffering to a blasted scrap of land, the horse is packed away in his damp stable. The old farmer and his daughter begin their daily routines: they stare out the same windows, eat the same meal (one boiled potato) each day. On day two however, despite being whipped, the horse refuses to move. On day three a neighbour warns them of the encroaching final darkness, and on the fourth day the horse refuses to eat or drink, or to respond to the woman’s entreaties, and then the well runs dry. The farmer and daughter try to escape. They load up their possessions on their cart and disappear over the horizon, the daughter pulling the cart, the horse following meekly. But they are forced to return, even more desperate and exhausted than before. The horse is shut away again, and does not reappear. On the sixth day, the wind and storm has ended, but a great darkness has descended; their lamp can be lit, but only for a short while before it gutters and dies. The film’s closing shots are of the man desperately clawing at a raw potato; although we don’t see the final breath, the end is inevitable.

The Turin Horse - the horse

On one level Tarr’s film is an all-too human Nietzshcean vision in which the farmer and daughter fail to break out of their lives and drown in repetition, even as the cosmos slowly slides back to its dark origins: “What is all this?”, the woman asks, “I don’t know, let’s go to bed,” the man replies. By the time they realise what they have to do they cannot leave – change comes too late. But attending to the horse takes us further. The farm’s residents are a companion species knot bound together on a journey into darkness. The horse, their more-than-human ally in farming and with whom they inherit a shared history stretching back to the Eurasian steppe, although it shares unequally with humans in the suffering of a hard life, seems to want to go it alone. But it is far from the dumb beast of burden who can only accede to demands, as described by Nietzsche. Instead, the horse becomes more than that, it betrays the man and daughter and embraces the inevitability of decline and death. Crucially, it is when the horse refuses to eat that any possibility of escape is extinguished. The final terror here is not any historical calamity; the final terror is that that ‘we’ are deserted by our non-human allies.

Bestiaire and the boredom of zoos

I have always been obsessed with zoos. Like many obsessions, I think this one goes back to childhood. I loved family trips to ‘Old’ Belfast Zoo, even though really it was mostly grim concrete and iron hugging a damp hillside. Visits to the zoo were one of the few occasions we ventured off the M2 to enter North Belfast. The Cave Hill slopes were at the edge of my 1980s Protestant map – there be cougars and Catholics. But even as a naïve five-year-old I felt that elephants needed more than a tiny room with bars and a bed of faecal-brown straw.

Tina the Asian elephant in Belfast in 1967, orphaned and alone.

Like most other Western zoos, the Belfast one has since been reinvented. It is now a ‘tough love’ haven for refugees from the banal violence of planetary capital. These lucky delegates from the quieting ‘natural world’ now live in more subtly landscaped enclosures called things like ‘Spider Monkey Island’. They enjoy regular ‘behavioural enrichment activities’, and their lives matter for more than mere entertainment (mainly keeping life circulating around the international zoo animal trade network).

Still, everyone knows zoos are bad. For

It is a strange and harsh apparatus of love that, in perverse mimicry of the nature it has extinguished, exposes to confusion, suffering and death the very endangered creatures that it breeds. (Chrulew 2011)

But my obsession means I get very excited by a whole film about zoos. Most excellently, this one I recently watched, Bestiaire (2012, dir. Denis Côté) doesn’t even have any voice over. Or indeed dialogue. The film follows the animals of a down-at-heel Quebecois zoo/safari park through a snowy winter, and into a peak summer season when the human hordes arrive.

The film’s opening shots pan from animal to animal (well, from bird to mammal) – ostrich, bison, ungulate, chimpanzee, rhesus monkey, ungulate. We see them pacing, swaying, staring into the camera, eating with fervour. We see hooves, heads, antlers – bits of animal, never enough to begin to anthropomorphize. Or connect. A lone elephant ambles about, looking frankly very depressed. The unexpectedly moving zoo footage is intercut with shots from a taxidermy workshop. I guess this must be some kind of side-line for the zoo, a neat way to extract surplus value not just from living bodies, but from resurrected undead labour. These workshop guys are a far cry from the hipster reinvention of taxidermy: they’re more about repetitive, assembly-line labour than affective-art-statement-intervention.

Bestiaire’s soundtrack is a-rhythmic banging, clanging, snorting; there is also some shearing, a few snippets of words. Outside, aircraft drone overhead, sirens doppler past in the background, and seagulls argue.

From Bestiaire

Surely the point of zoos is to make the leap through the bars, empathetically speaking (animals do bite), to some zone of mutual recognition? (or at least mutual incomprehension, as Berger put it in Why Look at Animals?). The logic goes that this helps us (re)connect to the world’s other beings and ipso facto, save biodiversity. If so then the zoo in the film is clearly a ‘bad zoo’.

But Bestiaire is much smarter than mere zoo bashery. It seems to be twisting Peter Singer’s words to ask not “can the animal suffer?” but “can they be bored?” The film’s real genius, however, is in extending this question from the animals to the humans.

The camera follows bored keepers as they toss fruit into gaping maws, hose down floors, or sit staring. Underpaid, under-motivated, don’t care. Visitors, too, are as routinized, bored and overfed as the animals; scratching themselves, touching each other, compulsively texting – mostly, ignoring the animals. The most memorable scene for me was the drive thru safari, where zebras grazed the long queue of 4x4s and big cars, chomping fruit from the windows and ground. The seagulls wheeling overhead speak more of a rubbish dump more than a scene of uplifting human-animal encounter. The keepers, animals and visitors are trapped in a listless economy of boredom.

Snow leopard, Edinburgh Zoo

The film seems to be a project of disenchantment. The zoo is behavioural enrichment for Quebecois consumers and a business in terminal decline.

Perhaps instead of being about uplifting connection, the zoo has become an elegy for a deadening world. My partner cried when she saw the snow leopard sitting on a rock in Edinburgh Zoo.

But the problem with this way of thinking about zoos is Freud: because of him we tend to think mourning is about getting back to normal, about coming to terms with losing something ‘out there’. We end up internalizing the other, putting them away ‘in us’. At the other end of the pole, though, not to mourn is bad faith too. Perhaps in Bestiaire – and in zoos – we should be mourning not the future loss of animals but the state of our being together. That is has come to this. That this is the best either of us can do: bound together in boredom.

And yet there are some small glimmers of hope in the film. In one scene, as Spring thaws the Winter snow, deer lollop across a field. In another, a rhino seems to shuffle with sensual pleasure as her keeper soaks her skin with a hose. Life exceeds its production. And the geese seem fairly happy. But they, unlike the teenagers mopping out the stalls, are not so bound in bored body and soul to this machine of concrete and steel-protected love/profit.

And Tina, the Belfast Zoo elephant, is still alive. Now 46, she lives in a ‘sanctuary’ with three other females. One of them is retired from the international zoo network’s libidinal economy; another from the circus entertainment complex, and the third from the Burmese logging industry. Tina – still living on a damp hillside in Belfast.

Tina, Belfast Zoo, 2012.