Hunter-Gatherers in Space
by Michael Palumbo
At the surface, Interstellar (2014) is an epic film that tells the story of a family torn apart by the space-time warping effects of a supermassive black hole. However, Interstellar is unique in that it offers a subtle commentary on the consequences of famine resulting from an overspecialized population. By juxtaposing cliché thematic digressions on the triumph of the human spirit with repeated failures to suitably cultivate the Earth, Interstellar posits that food (and not physics) is the future of humanity.
The opening credits of Interstellar evoke imagery of Dust Bowl America. An old woman speaks to the camera: “Oh, I was a farmer, like everyone else back then. Of course, it didn’t start that way.” The camera pans over a field as the same woman continues: “The wheat died. The blight came and we had to burn it. We still had corn, we had acres of corn. But, uh, mostly we had dust.” The woman describes the dust storms as we see the protagonist Cooper (“Coop”) and his family wipe the dust off the kitchen table of their dilapidated farmhouse. The imagery of fields and the soft, rustic lighting give the illusion of 1930s America, until Coop opens a futuristic laptop, shattering the rural atmosphere the cinematography had established. A few minutes later, in a meeting with his son’s high school teacher, Coop is angered to hear that she will not recommend that he attend college to become an engineer. Instead, she recommends he learns to farm. “We didn’t run out of television screens and planes,” the principal adds, “we ran out of food. The world needs farmers.” In the opening five minutes of the film, we are given a picture of an emaciated humanity, racing to produce enough food in spite of the deadly blight that is making crop after crop inviable.
As the film progresses, Coop stumbles upon the remains of NASA, which has since learned that the blight is unstoppable. Humanities only hope is to leave Earth. Coop, having served as a pilot before his retirement as a farmer, is chosen to pilot the Endurance, an interstellar ship designed to travel through a fortuitously placed wormhole to another galaxy. Leaving behind his family, Coop pilots the Endurance with a suite of other astronauts, exploring a planetary system with a black hole at its center. Due to the merciless effects of Einstein’s General Relativity, Coop’s children surpass him in age. Eventually falling into the black hole, Coop is able to relay the gravitational data to his now-adult daughter, who decodes the force of gravity, allowing a generational ship to leave the Earth. Rescued from deep space, Coop is brought aboard Cooper Station, the generational ship named for him, to greet his daughter dying from old age. Displaced in time, Cooper travels to his old home, which has been preserved as a museum on the ship. The narrators from the beginning of the film speak again, revealing themselves as interviewees from a documentary on the last days of humanity’s life on Earth. In the final scene, we see Brand, Coop’s fellow astronaut, breathing without her helmet alone on the world Cooper Station has set out for. Yet, despite the Endurance’s supposed victory, this new world is quietly barren and un-Earthlike.
The closing scenes of Interstellar together construct a double-edged sword. Humanity has solved the force of gravity completely, allowing it to escape the dying Earth for the stars. Yet, as evidenced by the museum made of Coop’s home, it has left behind agriculture. The cultivation of the Earth, the failing of which initially spelled doom for humanity, was left behind yet again in the technological race to leave the Earth. While humanity has found a potential new home, it is unclear how they will be able to cultivate it. In leaving agriculture on Earth, humanity has not taken the next step in its evolution, as the film would initially suggest, but has rather regressed to be nomadic hunter-gatherers, hopping to a new world as the previous one is left behind, depleted.
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan, Perf. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. Paramount Pictures, 2014.