Monday, November 17, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Interstellar and the 2014 Midterm Elections
by Matt McKenna
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar may have been advertised as a science fiction blockbuster set in the vast nothingness of outer space, but the message of the film is clearly directed at more terrestrial concerns. While Interstellar attempts to distract its audience with riddles about space, time, and the nature of reality, the movie simultaneously drives home a critique of American politics and in particular the 2014-midterm elections. In fact, it's been rumored that the film's release was pushed back to November 5th--the day after the midterm elections--just so the movie wouldn't be viewed as a brazen attempt to influence voters.
How can a movie about saving the world via space travel be so political? Well, consider that the primary conflict in Interstellar involves the principal characters considering how long humanity can struggle on a dying Earth before being forced to colonize a new planet and ensure the survival of the human species. As you can imagine, most members of the audience will find the parallels to the recent midterm elections a bit obvious in that these characters are clearly meant to represent American voters who were asked to consider how long their government can struggle in a dying political environment before being forced to break up the toxic two-party system and ensure the survival of democracy in the United States. Well, the good news is the film is pretty optimistic, but the bad news is that maybe it shouldn't be.
Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is Interstellar's quiet-talking protagonist and renaissance man: he is a fabulous engineer, an incredible spaceship pilot, and by the time the film's plot begins, also an excellent agriculturist. This battery of skills comes in handy for Cooper as he is respected by both farmers and scientists for his breadth of knowledge which includes the intricate details of growing corn during the ongoing global blight and the incredibly specific skill of how to reprogram a wayward Indian military drone. It is therefore by fortunate happenstance (or is it?!) that Cooper ends up following a spookily transmitted message to a secret NORAD facility where he learns that Earth will soon become uninhabitable. Cooper is told he must fly a spaceship through a wormhole and locate a new planet to either 1) send the people of Earth or 2) grow a bunch of test-tube babies and reboot the human species.
At this point, you're probably rolling your eyes over the overt political parallels. And yes, even from the very beginning of the film, Nolan drops hints of the politicized nature of the story.
First, he separates the characters into Republicans and Democrats. The science-fearing teachers and farmers, for example, are clearly Republicans. Their positive qualities include earnestness and pragmatism, but their negative qualities include gullibility and a penchant for dogma--they no longer believe in science because they myopically focus solely on growing enough corn to feed their communities. The astronauts in charge of finding new a new habitable planet, on the other hand, are obviously Democrats. Their positive qualities include a strong motivation to save the human race, but their negative qualities include extreme cynicism--nearly all the astronauts believe they must give up on the humans currently living on Earth and instead restart humanity on another planet.
Nolan makes it clear the he likes neither of these two camps and, through the flaws in the film's partisan characters, he describes why elections like the most recent one are so fractious and unhelpful in improving the quality of our government. Cooper's son, played by Casey Affleck, epitomizes the defects of Republicans: Towards the end of the film, he stubbornly refuses to listen to a doctor who warns him that if doesn't move his family to a new location, the dust on his farm will kill his children. This character's mistrust of scientific consensus mirrors Republicans' mistrust of scientific consensus, which caused the party to unfairly discredit Obama's handling of the United States' response to the Ebola epidemic. Similarly, Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, epitomizes the defects of Democrats: A major plot point in the film revolves around Brand's obfuscation of his own research on gravitational waves. Brand's obfuscation of his public research mirrors Jonathan Gruber's obfuscation of the details of the Affordable Care Act, a policy pushed mainly by Democrats. Through these unmistakable nods to the current public policy debate, Nolan makes the point that, in the American two-party political system as in Intersteller, the incentive to defeat the other side overwhelms the obligation to represent reality with any sort of fidelity.
It is indeed a sadness that just as the humans of Interstellar's Earth must master travel through five-dimensional space in order to survive the blight destroying the planet's ecosystem, the citizens of real-life America will require a breakthrough at least as mind-blowing in order to bust free from the cycle of partisanship that is destroying our republic. For crying out loud, we live in a country in which Congress has an approval rating of barely 15% and yet 95% of incumbents are reelected. How can it be that voters continually elect the same people and parties they say are doing a terrible job? The answer is that our elections, like Interstellar's corn, are being destroyed by blight. The blight in American elections, however, is the inexorable allure of identity politics, and the major criterion for our vote is no longer a prediction of how well the candidate will perform in office, but rather if we think the candidate is on our side of a semi-random debate about tangential issues.
So what does Nolan think we should do about our frustrating political situation? Clearly, he believes we'd be a lot better off if we looked at the problem of politics the way Cooper looks at the problems of his life--as individuals who belong to neither side of the debate but are instead interested in making things better. Heck, maybe this even means voting for a third party. And without giving away further spoilers, let's just say the film makes the case that Americans will be able to make the transition from partisan zombies and problem solvers. But then again, the movie isn't all that great, so perhaps we shouldn't trust it.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:05 AM | Permalink