Interstellar, Civilization’s Fall, and the Noble Lie

Interstellar came out last week, and I watched it. I have a lot to say about it. There’s a “but”, though. That “but” is that we’ll have to do a lot of backtracking to get to the present, and to my critique of Interstellar. Let’s begin, shall we?

Leo Strauss – philosophical guru to perennial neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, among other less known but equally influential names – argued that the economic and political elite should employ “virtuous” or “noble” lies in civic discourse and rhetoric; that they might be protected from the public, and the public might be protected from itself. He believed that the wise few must rule over the common, vulgar rabble of the general public, and, to that end, the public must be deceived into supporting the aims of the elites who rightly lord over them. Strauss advocated a magnanimous front, behind which tyranny should be masked, but never abandoned. He taught that a ruling elite need not believe any of its virtuously fallacious rhetoric; only that those presentations must be effective tools in mobilizing the public to the support elitist ends. Strauss was the very embodiment of cynicism in political philosophy.

The idea of the noble lie has a long history, tracing its direct origins as far back as Plato (Thrasymachus; 427 BCE), moving through Niccolò Machiavelli‘s too-often-taken-way-too-literally cold satire The Prince (1513), all the way to such condemnatory dissections as Alan Moore’s The Watchmen (1986). However, a perfectly succinct example of this dichotomy can be seen in the poem The Grand Inquisitor, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. In the poem, we find a returned Jesus, having been imprisoned by The Grand Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, participating in a philosophical discourse with the titular figure. In the poem, Jesus is told by the beaming tyrant that the people need to be ruled with deception, and the elite of the church are the only ones worthy of the burden of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor claims that he will martyr himself in secret for the human race, that they may continue to live on in ignorant bliss, while in truth living under the boot heel of the church, justifying this with the words, “anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him”. Jesus leaves The Grand Inquisitor with a soft kiss on the lips, not giving him the satisfaction of a true reply, or the reader the satisfaction of knowing what Jesus truly thinks of this strategy; that Satan may be invoked in secret, such that the people will obediently follow the representatives of God on Earth for their own good.

As the always amazing Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. (Greg Edwards) pointed out not too long ago, this very motif is repeated in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), to a T. In the film, the Joker (Heath Ledger), in his mission to reveal and exploit the fragility of civilization, succeeds in totally corrupting the proxy-Jesus figure of Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two-Face. To shield the public from the truth of what Dent has become in the end, Batman (Christian Bale), martyrs himself by donning the mantle of blame for Dent’s crimes. That is to say, Batman makes the most cynical choice he can, in order to preserve a noble lie; the elite are hope; those who rule are virtuous; the world is sane; existence has order; go home, there’s nothing to see here.

Moreover, within Nolan’s body of directorial work, this subversively cynical, socially conservative, elitist philosophy is not limited to The Dark Knight. Nolan had his feature length directorial debut with 1998’s Following, but most people were introduced to Nolan’s work through his critically acclaimed, career-making film Memento from 2000. This movie has maybe the most condescending version of the noble lie trope in Nolan’s oeuvre, up until 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. In Memento, we meet Guy Pearce’s very well executed, but entirely problematic Leonard. If one treats the short-term memory loss problem that Leonard suffers as the obvious device that it is, it quickly becomes apparent that the protagonist is a metaphor for the common man, searching for the truth of his own existence. Leonard truly is just a simple stand-in for the perspective of the common human, a la a ponderous extrapolation of Plato’s Cave, as Nolan sees it. Unfortunately for Leonard (and us, I suppose), he is never able to pay attention long enough, or to retain enough information at once, to synthesize a complete picture of his predicament and, thus, the truth of his being (sound familiar?). Further, the more he tries to discover the truth of his condition, as symbolized by his murdered wife, those who are actually in-the-know are constantly attempting to distract him away from realizing that truth. On top of this, these agents of the reputable fibbery keep redirecting him to serve their ends, often touting the virtue of their intentions. When he finally does discover the truth of his existence, as such, it is revealed as both an existential and an actual horror, and that although those who were attempting to keep him from the truth were dishonest, maybe he was better off not knowing. Again, in the end, Leonard is us, the general public, and the moral is that the public is better off not knowing the truth of their lot, or the reality behind the intentions of those who govern them.

Even though aspects of Insomnia (2002; a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name) and Batman Begins (2005) follow along these same lines, it isn’t until 2006 with The Prestige that we see another crisp and clear vision of Nolan’s thematic muse. In The Prestige, we see an allegorical representation of two elitist public figures vying to most effectively and ultimately manipulate the masses, no matter the personal cost. Here, deception is brought into its most noble frame, and celebrated as a virtuous end, unto itself. Like trained craftsmen working wood, it is the beauty of their art which is enough to exalt their actions. These two mavericks of anti-Enlightenment classicalism do not search for any enduring truth, beyond the ability to manufacture a convincing yet false totality for the audience. The figures, played by Hugh Jackman and Christain Bale, could just as easily be switched into the roles of advertising executives or political campaign managers, but Nolan chooses the relatively innocuous profession of magician for our competing protagonists. Even here, we the audience are misdirected, so that a pernicious morality can be more easily delivered.

The ante is upped steeply for Inception (2010), a very thinly veiled metaphor for the moving parts of film making, itself. Here, the focus is on constructing a grand lie in perfect balance, so that the ideology of the finished piece can imperceptibly and painlessly implant itself in the hearts and minds of the consuming masses. Here, the protagonist himself, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fever-brained Cobb, finds himself martyred by his own deception. In becoming the greatest practitioner of his art, The Grand Inceptioner falls victim to his own methods, believing that the lie of dramatic closure’s promise in fiction can necessarily exist in real life. The audience, meanwhile, is left wondering what that might mean. Here, there is no banality of evil, as things in the public consciousness require the comfort of narrative arcs. As with Leonard’s failure to be a properly ruled sheep in Memento, Cobb fails to be the proper magnanimous tyrant and virtuous deceiver here, in that he believes the false ideal of his own noble lie. As the top spins, the tail truly wags the dog. It does not matter whether or not we see the top fall, we know that Cobb’s end is false, simply by the nature of his profession.

In 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, the philosophy of the noble lie is the very life’s blood of the movie. The obvious point to illuminate is that of the identity deception concerning the true antagonist of the story: the audience is first led to believe that the master villain is Bane (Tom Hardy), only to later be shown that it is in truth Bruce Wayne’s halfhearted romantic interest, Miranda/Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard). That’s simply the rind of this rotten orange, however. The truly clever deception is the narrative spun about the ruling elite and their charges (the police), and their collective victimization at the hands of Bane, his criminal mob, and (we are led to assume) an incensed general public. Here, we see a police force that is duped into exile, unable to perform their law enforcement duties, and seemingly rejected and abandoned by the public. Meanwhile, kangaroo courts, made entirely of freed criminals, are formed to persecute the moneyed affluent of Gotham’s high society. Nolan is very deft in promoting a totalitarian agenda here; one that not only exalts the noble lie within the lives of the film’s characters, but one that transforms this device into a full-on tactic against the audience’s perceptions about what it means to be a civic entity within a city and a nation; what it means to be a citizen. Throughout the scenes of upheaval, we are never truly witness to public participation in the riots that lead to the removal of police authority from the chess board, and the subsequent sacking of Gotham. Rather, the audience is shown the escaped convicts, Bane’s hammily evil orations and machinations, followed in short order by visions of desolate and deserted streets. We are not shown human beings willfully occupying [giggle] their commons or continuing their personal lives. Conversely, we are repeatedly shown how much the police are put out by their exile, and how the rich suffer in the absence of law and order. Even Bane’s criminal plot is a deception against the absentee civic body; he claims out of one side of his neck that he represents a people’s revolution, while in truth, he is dead set on cleansing the Earth of the sin that is Gotham (which can easily be seen as Nolan’s views on the true outcomes of liberalism, Socialism, and/or direct democracy – let us not forget that this movie was being filmed in the wake of the 2008 crash and during the beginning of Occupy Wall Street). Beneath the omissions and misdirections lies a bold and insidious message: the common rabble – the vulgar public – do not truly exist; that is to say, via the lens of The Dark Knight Rises, we do not exist. Common people do not exist in the movie, because it’s a morality play aimed directly at common people, that refuses to sympathize with common people. In this way, a proxy representation of “we, the people” would simply be distracting from the film’s agenda. The whole movie is a competition of noble lies, wherein both the fictional and actual public are purposefully denied any voice of truth, and any attempt at freedom from elite rule can only result in wholesale destruction of civilization at the hands of misguided and criminal zealots.

Then, there’s Interstellar. [sigh]

Now, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this critique has seen the film already, or that you don’t give one shit about spoilers. I’m not going to waste your eyes with some needless rehash of the plot that’s been sanitized of spoilers. I’m also going to skip over most of the Earth-side stuff, because it’s pretty lame. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, or read a summary from some establishment outlet that gives fucks about such commercial chicanery. That, or there’s like, Wikipedia or something.

Anyway, I had initially hoped that this film would be a kind of love letter to space exploration, with a strong dose of reality, and maybe a touch of positive romancing of hard science along the way (as with Poul Anderson‘s wonderful novels The Star Fox (1965) and The Avatar (1978)). I was further hoping that the subject matter would diffuse the typical Straussian messaging and generally classical conservatism that Nolan’s previous films have all had in common. And really, the only reason I held these hopes was that I knew I’d end up paying to see the damned thing in the theater, one way or another. Unfortunately, even from the trailers, woo-woo magical thinking and ideological misdirections seemed to be creeping in around the edges. That said, what I found upon seeing the film did surprise me, sometimes in positive ways, but more often with philosophical and conceptual horrors that shocked and appalled me.

One could be entirely reductive and state that Interstellar is simply a repackaging of Luc Besson’s epic 1997 goofy science-fantasy The Fifth Element in self-serious, hard science fiction drag (similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012) being different rehashes of Planet of the Vampires (1965)). One could do that, and they’d be correct in that action. But they’d also miss the larger point of the film, not to mention the very different, but equally baffling visual achievements of the film. One could also say that Nolan pulls a bit of a Shyamalan here, borrowing elements from many of The Twist Master’s filmic shit factories. They wouldn’t be wrong there, either. But again, they’d be missing a lot.

As with just about all of Nolan’s previous films, Interstellar is visually lush, tactile, and downright gorgeous. You can see the money on the screen, in every detail of production design being executed, every piece of framing, every lighting choice. And the acting, though a bit odd in some spots, ranges from serviceable to damned good. All in all, even if you don’t agree with his ideology or his aesthetic sense, Nolan’s authorial intent is undoubtedly manifest on the screen. That’s no small feat, especially with such a fucking huge movie.

Yet, again, as with many of Nolan’s previous films, we see clumsy allusions to great literary works of the past, such as John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (“the blight”, and all the plot externalities that go along with it), Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness (Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann), and likely a few others. Unfortunately, unlike Peter Jackson or Alan Moore, Nolan is either willfully missing the point of many of the works he refers to (such as his ham-handed nod to Charles Dickens’ A The Tale of Two Cities (1859) in The Dark Knight Rises), or he’s an overgrown boy too busy kicking sand to argue in good faith against said works. Either way, there’s not much to say about that element of the film, beyond that it exists, and that it’s clumsy, and that I noticed it for what it is.

So, even before we get to the meat of the movie, it’s a mixed bag of stupendous highs and the oddly mediocre. Then again, that’s something else you see in nearly all of Nolan’s previous works. [shrug]

Unusually, for me at least, unlike the previous films I’ve discussed in Nolan’s body of work, I was fully along for the ride for pretty much all of the first act. Despite some incredulity at the prevalence of combustion engine vehicles in a declining civilization, amongst other things, I was willing to forgive some of the stupid (even if, unlike say, Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), it wasn’t explicitly asking me to). The spaceship stuff was great. The wormhole scene was so damned cool that it hurt a little. Killing off the creepy American Beauty guy with a giant wave was kind of badass. I even found the Swiss Army robo-blocks to be both compelling and charming (interesting that they have a truth setting, eh? Eh?).

Then, Anne Hathaway’s Brand opens her mouth about “love power”.

She then attempts to conflate love with theoretical physics, which starts what may be the weakest debate in the history of sci-fi cinema. In an attempt to defend her “scientific” belief in love’s trans-dimensional properties, she drops this rhetorical bomb: ‘Why do we continue to love people after they die? What utility does that serve to evolution or human survival?’ (paraphrasing) This snappy comeback stumps the previously stolid and practical mindset of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper.

In the ensuing moment of silence, I didn’t miss a beat, answering the question for myself, in my head; “We humans continue to love and remember those who are dead so that we can maintain the knowledge of what their life and death taught us, especially if that person died from disease or other ailments, and doubly so if they lived a rich life, full of achievement. Memories are also tied to our motherfucking emotions, whether we like it or not. It’s in the wiring. We can even discover people who are dead, who we never knew in life, and fall in love with the idea of what they represent, as it tends to say something about ourselves and the world we inhabit. You’re an idiot. I bet that you think that ants feel emotionally articulate pain. Asshole.”

There was a shark that got jumped. A ‘fridge that got nuked. The movie suddenly achieved the impossible feat of actually contracting a congenital defect. And it happened in that moment. I continued watching, as self-delivered nut punches are something I’m totally into.

Pretty soon after that we meet Nolan’s answer to an outer space version of Heart of Darkness‘ Kurtz in Matt Damon‘s Dr. Mann (a more transparent metaphor doesn’t exist than this fucker’s name – extra consonants don’t hide a damned thing). Mann is what happens when someone lives according to pure reason, does not console himself with love, and looks the abyss right in the taint and that abysmal taint looks back; as per Nolan’s vision (sort of, we’ll get to that later). Day-Mann is a lesson to the rest of us: scientific exploration of outer space cannot succeed without spirituality to guard us against the pain of the very real possibility that we may fail and fade away. When Dr. Matt Damo-Kurtz-Mann finally reveals that he’s long ago lost his shit, attempts to commit a shitton of murder; only half succeeding at that, but fully succeeding at accidentally offing himself because he lost all of his astronaut training to Space Madness, it’s the proof in the punch that the rational animal is not good enough to survive without the lie of civilizing hope. Don’t be deceived, though, because, like, Nolan is totes an atheist, or something. “The horror! The horror!”

Speaking of which, here’s where the first of the obvious noble lies kicks in. It turns out that Big Daddy Professor Brand (Michael Cain) was lying about his prospects for solving the gravity equation that would save all of the earthbound hoo-boons. He had solved it years ago, but the answer revealed that the only chance to save ’em would be to get data from inside a black hole, which is beyond problematic. People get angry. People cry. Well, when all of the harrowing business of salvaging what’s left of their spaceship is done and they’re ready to go, Cooper and the robo-blocks fib to Brandthaway about how the rest of the mission is going to shake out. Cooper follows the more talkative robo-block into a nearby black hole(?!). Somehow, neither of them spaghettify, because love or something. Instead, they end up in a tesseract, where time operates like space, and Cooper and the yappy bot figure out that future humans created the thing, and that Cooper was the person sending ghost messages to his future-/present-genius daughter, and a watch, and tapping, and LOVE POWER!!!!

The tesseract scene is visually beautiful. But seriously, fuck this movie.

Here’s the thing: I highly doubt that Nolan believes in what he’s preaching in this movie. Remember all of that noble lie stuff? Yeah, it’s already happened in three or four obvious ways in this movie, and it’s the backbone of all of his previous work. But this time, we have a new low; Christopher Nolan is trying to lie to us, for our own good.

Now, I love the idea of space travel, and I honestly do think that it’s the best way to develop revolutionary technologies that can, yes, potentially save the human race from a lot of the impending dooms on the horizon (a future dust bowl being just one them thar dooms). And you know what? I’m fairly certain that Nolan believes this, too. He might even be so optimistic as to believe in the potential of space colonies. Yeah, sure. Do you know what he likely doesn’t believe, though? That love can transcend dimensional barriers and manifest convenient Deus ex Machina in real life . . . inside a fucking black hole (fuck, that black hole was cool).

No, what Nolan is doing here is telling the audience a comforting, virtuous, and noble lie, for our own good. He knows that the public does not give a single shit about space travel, and most Americans, Brits, and other first world cracker nations can’t be bothered to think, much less do anything about, the various encroaching dooms that our species faces (let alone the Chinese – shit, Earth be like a toilet to them fuckers). What Nolan is doing here is giving us a piece of romantic cinema as agitprop in favor of space exploration in an attempt to make us feel all good about it. He’s created this giant piece of pro-space propaganda, not for people who already love science, the notion of space travel, and are actually worried about the outcome of our species over the next century-or-less. Again, no, he’s made this film for the majority of people who are checked out, because he thinks that a fancy lie is more convincing than a baldfaced, objective truth.

Admittedly, I’d be angry about the woo-woo crap, even if I didn’t think it was a Straussian deception. But the added insult of it being a structural element that insults the general public as being idiots makes it that much worse. Even if the general public are checked out, under educated morons who can’t get their heads out of their cushioned tombs, it’s the principal of the thing. An uncomfortable truth is always better than a pleasing deception, because the straight dope gives people the ability to have true agency. And that, amongst all of the other high ideals involved with the possibilities of the human condition, are what being a self-actualized person is about. When someone purposefully attempts to subvert that, even when fueled by the best of intentions, they’re being a grand master douchebag of the highest order. And even though that’s a sort of amazing achievement, in a way, it’s horrible. That’s what Christopher Nolan’s whole career is based around: actively exploring ways in which to enshrine noble lies. And his latest film is the most insulting product he’s released, to date, in that regard.

Here are two quotes from Leo Strauss. Compare them with what is revealed by taking a sidelong look at the messages in Nolan’s movies, especially Interestellar, then get back to me.

“No bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint.”

The City and Man, pp 5 (1964)

“Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them anymore… In order to live, we have to silence the easily silenced voice of reason, which tells us that our principles are in themselves as good or as bad an any other principles. The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism…”

Natural Right and History, pp 6 (1953)