Is cosmic sense-of-wonder incompatible with humanism?
I recently saw Interstellar, the SF film by Christopher Nolan, and the reviews repeatedly compared it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The comparison raises a question, however, and suggests an innate limitation to SF film itself.
Like 2001, Nolan’s film has visual outer-space grandeur and encounters with overwhelming phenomena: other planets where humans are dwarfed by the environments, a black hole magically used for ultra-light transportation, and the disturbing relativistic effects of time dilation in heavy gravity. Because of the time dilation alone the movie warrants its “cosmic” designation; it depicts realms more complex, peculiar, and “transcendent” than what we normally experience on Earth. 2001 did the same with its inexplicable messages from aliens, undefined confrontation with galactic “others,” and a transformative experience at the end of the film.
But there’s still a big difference.
Interstellar is memorable not for its interstellar grandeur but for its emotional tie between an astronaut father (Matthew McConaughey), whose life passes at a slow rate because of acceleration and gravity effects, and his rapidly aging daughter back on Earth (played, throughout the movie as she gets older, by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn). Indeed, the relationship is so strong that it transcends the vast space and time between them. The human connection triumphs over the horrendous distances between the stars.
Yet the emotion in 2001 comes from the gosh-wow effects of big space and big cosmic powers, of moving into an area which is different from what we can know and control. Humans are almost out of place here; they botch the meeting with the aliens by relying too much on a self-programming (and unstable) computer, and they make no decisions once whisked away and “remade”—if that’s what happens at the end, and our not being able to pin a label on what does happen indicates the point: it’s beyond human understanding.
Such emotional responses to the cosmos are suggested in Interstellar too—the big scenes of Saturn, that huge tsumani that engulfs people, the brooding icefields of the dead world, the gossamer chandelier of the black hole. But the film’s viewers connect more to the relationship between the father and daughter: her hatred of him for leaving her and his unflinching determination to return (even though he’s losing the daughter he knows as she ages past him), and the attempts to communicate between them when stellar communication is impossible or “garbled.”
I’m not saying one emotional response is better than the other. It comes down to which you prefer. What I wonder, though, is whether you can ever have both responses in one film. Are they maybe incompatible?
2001 was criticized for its lack of particularized and interesting characters, a claim they were too sterile or trivial. Interstellar has characterization and feelings galore—it’s a love story between father and daughter, and there’s love between the Anne Hathaway character and the lone astronaut on another planet, and we also see the brutal effects of confinement and isolation on the Matt Damon character who goes berserk. But 2001 hardly cared about such things (the only father-daughter talk is about birthday gifts, telephones, and the mother who went shopping—more materialistic than emotional, and the deaths that do occur are almost icily clinical—“Life Functions Terminated”). What’s important for 2001 is the alien-spawned Star-Child at the end, and we never learn how “human” it really is! Indeed, the most emotion in the movie is shown by the computer—which indicates just how far from humanity its characters are.
Meanwhile, Interstellar lavishes in pulling heart-strings and sharing lamentations, to the point where the characters hardly care about how grand, incredible, or overwhelming that black hole (and the universe) really is. The father just wants to know whether it will get him home to his daughter.
One film is cosmic and ultimately post-human. Its sole surviving human character is made into something other at the end—which says little for a human-controlled future, given the power of the alien interventionists. The other film is so human that anything cosmic becomes secondary. Its protagonist is hardly transformed by his experience of outer-space wonders and terrors—at the end of the movie, he still wants exactly what he wanted at its start; he follows his single-minded devotion and ultimately meets again with his daughter.
2001 is so focused on galactic wonders that it maybe trivializes humanity, while Interstellar is so caught up in its human viewpoint that maybe it trivializes the universe.
And so the question I raise: are human experience and galactic experience incompatible?
Or is this just a film phenomenon? Prose science fiction has been criticized, and defended, as a genre where characterization is often generalized to cover the whole human race, where a protagonist might be a “representative” human being to confront and provide reaction to a changed future or incredible galactic events.
But some classic examples in prose of compatible successes do come to mind. Like “Nine Lives” by Ursula LeGuin, which uses cloning to demonstrate how humans are ultimately alone: a member of a cloned “family,” whose members live together intimately and almost telepathically, suddenly has all his “sisters” and “brothers” killed in an accident, and he’s alone, which he’s never experienced before. As the other humans in the story suggest, now he knows what humans always feel. And Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris gives equal weight to both the “inhuman” story of the sentient planet (with its mimoids, symmetriads, and other bizarre phenomena that evade human understanding), and the “love story” between a terrestrial male and alien-created reproduction of his dead wife, where he tries to treat the relationship as “normal” and finds it impossible. (Note that the Steven Soderbergh film version of Solaris did not even try to tell the “inhuman” part of the story—the weird surface activities of the planet are not presented at all.)
Ultimately, I raise the question more for debate than to offer any conclusion (for, to be honest, I don’t want humanism and the universe to be incompatible, in film or otherwise). I’m sure that defenders of Interstellar would argue that humanism doesn’t trivialize the universe but presents it as a formidable opponent, to show just how strong and precious human love can be in its triumph over any distance and time. And the defenders of 2001 would say that if the universe is to be presented with any authenticity at all, then humanism has to succumb to its overwhelming power, to be flattened by it in order ultimately to be moved and transformed by it.
And both arguments make sense.
Maybe the word “cosmic” means exactly what’s implied here: everything that’s incompatible with humanity.
And maybe always will be.