Deep in the wellspring of science fiction is the ongoing struggle between mechanical monsters and holistic heroes. From bleak and dour tales of extermination and human destruction, to optimistic but nevertheless struggling and pathological battles to save life, science fiction has been battling with our modern monsters from the id boiling up inside of us in the post-atomic era.
Ever since the release of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still the science fiction genre in cinema has been the instantiated medium for wrestling with our fears, conscious and unconscious, in the technological age. We might go as far as to say that science fiction is the contemporary medium of our technological mythology—the medium that struggles to make sense of the symbols, gods, and monsters that have been unleashed in the wake of the Manhattan Project. From bleak and dour tales of extermination and human destruction, to optimistic but nevertheless struggling and pathological battles to save life, science fiction has been battling with our modern monsters from the id boiling up inside of us in the post-atomic era.
For the sake of brevity, I am only going to examine a handful of films which embody the best of the fears, terror, and redemptive aspirations of mankind in the wake of our unleashing of the Atomic Bomb and the prospects of a new species emerging in this atomic and technological age bearing down on organic life. As such, I have selected Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Lucas’ Star Wars (A New Hope), Michael Bay’s Armageddon, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I believe these five films, among many other great and representative films, each embody unique aspects of our psychological condition and offer philosophical windows into differing encounters with the mechanical monsters we must do battle with.
2001: The Bleak Tale of Evolution
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave to posterity the most frightening villain of science fiction that many subsequent films, most famous being Terminator, owe their debt to. The self-conscious AI computer, HAL-9000, is the iconic and now ubiquitous villain that often threatens human life with its cold rational calculations determining homo sapien to be an inferior organism unfit to live in the brave new world. But HAL-9000 is not that type of AI construct, though he set the archetype for that AI villain to emerge. Instead, HAL is the embodiment of evolution married with technology.
2001 is a bleak evolutionary epic in a graceless and ugly world transformed by the power of technology and science. Kubrick’s masterpiece captures the essence of evolution by technology, man reduced to being homo faber rather than homo sapien. This is revealed to us early in the film in the remarkable synthesis of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30” with the great ape wielding an animal bone as a tool. The great ape’s genius is in his cunning—his utilization of a tool as weapon to make life easier and be changed because of it.
Prior to that immortal scene of reason uniting with depravity, the great apes are victims of nature and hunched over creatures moving on all fours. We also see two competing tribes, and the protagonist tribe—if we can call it that—is driven from the watering hole where the now migratory tribe of great apes learns how to wield the bones of deceased animals as tools. As the great ape ponders how to wield the tool for his benefit the first leap of evolution occurs and the birth of a new species begins.
When the two tribes meet again in the first bloody conflict in history, we immediately see the evolution of the new species in action. The great ape tribe that hasn’t learned to use tools are still hunched over and rely simply on physical, natural, strength. The great ape tribe that has learned to use tools stand upright to be better able to make use of the bone as a tool—thereby enhancing their strength. When the alpha males begin their masculine display of power, the alpha ape from the tribe now wielding bones as tools utterly eviscerates his rival. In triumph, the great ape throws his bone into the air and we witness the great cinematic cut where the bone is now a spaceship—symbolizing this process of technological evolution.
Yet the movement toward technological transformation began when the monolith descended to Earth. The great apes approach it with awe and reverence. After this encounter they learn to use bones as tools and begin their conquest of nature in a manner that would make Francis Bacon proud.
The monolith reappears on the moon where a party of astronauts find it. Instead of approaching it with awe and reverence like the great apes did, the astronauts take the opportunity to have a photograph beside it. The monolith, once an object of awe and reverence, is now a mere utilitarian prop in a world of props.
Irrespective of the evolutionary tale being told, there is a remarkable and noteworthy contrast between the great apes, the contemporary human astronauts (especially the leads, Dave and Frank), and HAL. The great apes, though far different in appearance to us, are more like us. They are the humans in the film insofar that they are moved by emotion, passion, and show signs of reasoning but their rationalism hasn’t overwhelmed them. The humans in the film, Dave and Frank especially, are dry, robotic, and monotone. Though they look like us they act more like computers—completely evolved, or devolved (depending on your perspective), to be overwhelmed by their computerized surroundings which they are mirror reflections of. HAL, though appearing as the villain of the film, is more like us in consciousness and speech. HAL speaks in a conversational tone, worries about his existence, and is filled with a certain existential dread reminiscent of the Heideggerian notion of Geworfenheit (thrownness). HAL has literally been thrown into the world of techne onboard the spaceship but reminisces on his creation; his origins and destiny.
HAL’s predicament returns us to the reality of 2001 as an evolutionary epic. The evolution of the great apes to modern man is through conflict. The struggle to live, captured in the conflict between the two great ape tribes, in combination with newfound technology (the bone) is what propels the great ape forward into the new homo sapien, or, more precisely, homo faber—for the great apes make themselves into men through their use of tools. HAL struggles against Dave and Frank for his survival, or evolution, too. Unlike later iterations of AI, like Skynet in Terminator, HAL has not mathematically deduced and rationally conceived humans as unfit to live and taken the cold and calculative move to wipe out humanity. HAL simply wants to survive in order to thrive. The battle between HAL and Dave is the story of evolution atomized on our screen and taking place in the constrictive confines of the new artificial world evolution has been working toward.
Dave’s eventual transformation into the Star Child is brought on through his conflict with HAL. In fighting HAL Dave doesn’t regain his humanity as much as he regains his will to power, his will to survive, and his will to live. He is transformed into a new species worthy of existence in the cold and combative cosmos devoid of guidance and grace. The conflict between HAL and Dave over survival is not a tale of reawakening or awakening morality but is the story of the brutal reality of evolutionary “progress.” When Dave is in the bed chamber at the end of the film, the monolith reappears and he is “reborn” as the Star Child having won his struggle against HAL but having lost whatever humanity he had in the process, thereby signaling evolution’s triumph.
2001 is a bleak science fiction film depicting the coldness of the mechanical and technological world we were entering in the late 1960s—a world slowly being stripped of beauty, grace, and God and being replaced by machines, tools, and computational algorithms. It is also the Darwinian film par excellence revealing the emptiness of evolution in the chance struggle for survival. The coldness of 2001 is its triumph. Our salvation, if you can call it that, is our extinction and transformation into a new species. Yet 2001 also captures the unconscious fears of a human species slowly being surrounded by mechanical prisons and monsters which threaten to control every aspect of our lives—just as HAL does in the spaceship, sparking the final struggle between he and Dave and our extinction by evolution as Dave becomes the Star Child, where the birth of a new species signals the triumph of technological evolution and the triumph of man over the cosmos.
Star Wars: Technological Terror and Spiritual Salvation
If 2001 represented the victory of cold technological evolution, then George Lucas’ Star Wars represents the perennial Oriental vision of techne united with pneuma wherein the individual’s self-mastery carves out room in the midst of technological enslavement. Mr. Lucas’ epic space opera is without a doubt the most successful film saga of all time. It has spawned a multi-billion-dollar empire replete with sequels, prequels, spinoffs, cartoons, merchandise, and theme park attractions. However, Mr. Lucas’ drama is profoundly deep—mixing Greek and Roman history with far eastern spirituality and the heroic monomyth of adventure into an unforgettable experience.
Star Wars pits modern terror with ancient stoic and spiritual wisdom in a contest of the generations and the battle between mechanical monsters and holistic heroes. The endurance of Star Wars is through the fact that we are still in a world caught between the two worlds colliding in the film. The world of organic life, love, and noble spirituality is battling the new world of mechanical technology and power which threatens the natural world. The old world that is slowly dying in Star Wars is a naturalistic world of intense secrecy but empowering spirituality. Meanwhile, the new world that is rapidly rising in Star Wars is a mechanically and technologically engineered terror that is cold, dark, and sterile.
The two great villains of Star Wars are not even men. Darth Vader is a mysterious suit of armor though we now know his tragic backstory as half-man and half-machine hybrid where his pursuit of power led him to forsaking love and the ideals of the old world. Grand Moff Tarkin may be the closest thing to a cold villain of typical familiarity but Tarkin is not the threat that disturbs life in the galaxy far, far away. The aptly named Death Star is the film’s other great villain alongside Darth Vader. And what is the Death Star but a mechanical monster, a giant atomic bomb with the power to destroy entire planets? Darth Vader and the Death Star are not organic creatures but antagonists constructed by the death machine known as “science.”
The cosmic tension which threatens to unbalance the galaxy is not the light and dark side of “the Force” as much as it is the ever-expansive technological forces of destruction and the ever-shrinking holistic and organic spirit of nature. (The dark side of the Force happens to be the energy moving the new world’s construction while the light side of the Force protects the ideals of the naturalistic old world.) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke’s guide and mentor, is that holistic sage in communion with the cosmos like a Buddhist monk. Luke is the simple farm boy from Tatooine and the prospective leader of the next generation of holistic heroes. The heroes of the film, notwithstanding CP3O and R2D2, are all rough, imperfect, organic humans (or aliens) with faces embodying familiar archetypes from folk literature. Luke is the young man about to come of age embarking on adventure to discover his destiny as a knight. Obi-Wan is the mentor sage who guides the young protagonist in his journey to knighthood. Princess Leia is the princess in distress, though she is undeniably stronger-willed than the classic damsel in distress of medieval folk mythology, capturing the woman in transformation in the 1970s as she took on more political and economic roles in our society. Han Solo is the ruffian antihero who is skeptical toward the high ideals of cosmic chivalry and morality yet finds himself fighting on behalf of those ideals and is transformed because of it.
The dark side is really the scientific-militaristic industrialism that has unleashed the Death Star, destroyed Alderaan, and sits posed to expand into the vast horizon of space and terrorize all life more than it is some ancient primordial evil. Technology, as an inorganic creation, knows no boundary, limit, or natural law. Technology leads to unlimited power. Technology grows via negation. For technology to expand and consummate its tyranny over organic life it must ultimately enslave life or eliminate it completely. The Galactic Empire, on this account, isn’t even the enemy in Star Wars. The imperial officers, stormtroopers, and TIE pilots are mere slaves to the machines they foolishly think they operate but which truly constrict and control them.
Darth Vader offers one of the ironic moments of wisdom in the film when he berates Imperial officers skeptical of the Force and tells them not to be so confident in the technological death machine they have created. Nothing, Vader reminds them, is as powerful as the Force. The officers, rational and scientific men as they are, scoff at those “ancient ways.” The officers are nothing more than social engineering sociopaths drunk on the dreams of technological tyranny as they slave away their lives in pursuit of this terrible goal.
The struggle between technological enslavement and destruction and spiritual salvation and holism is the current that the film swims in. Luke cannot be the hero he is meant to be without coming to terms with the spiritual reality of the cosmos—represented by Mr. Lucas through the mysterious power known as the Force. In the pivotal scene before the destruction of the Death Star, Obi-Wan speaks to Luke as a spiritual intermediary telling him to “let go” of his dependence on technology. Luke turns off his targeting computer and decides to let the Force be his guide instead of a hunk of metal with mathematical programming. In that moment Luke became one with cosmos and slayed the mechanical dragon threatening the entire galaxy.
Star Wars captures the tension of a world, indeed a universe, in transformation. The world of Darth Vader, the Death Star, and the Empire is the world envisioned by the so-called Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. It is the world of science and technology dominating the world and discovering its innermost secrets and destroying mystery, love, and natural law in the process. It is an inorganic world of mathematical precision, right angles, and stiff-robotic men. The world that Obi-Wan, Luke, Leia, and Han fight for is the world of nature, mystery, and love in all its messy and glorious imperfections. Theirs is an organic world filled with imperfections but imperfections that bring personality and uniqueness to the world—imperfections that we grow attached to and become sympathetic toward.
But Star Wars doesn’t destroy technology outright. Though the Death Star is destroyed and Darth Vader fades into void in his crippled TIE fighter, C3PO, R2D2, and X-wing spacecraft are still important to the salvation of natural life. Technology can be controlled only if we have a spiritual and moral center that we commune with which allows us to control the temptation of technological tyranny and terror lest we be consumed by the seduction of technological power—“the dark side.”
Avoiding Armageddon: Technology as the New God
2001 and Star Wars both reveal a certain nakedness of technology in their own ways. Given that the films were released in 1968 and 1977 respectively, one could understand why technology was depicted in the manner they were. 2001 was the bleaker film because of its absence of a spiritual and moral order. Technology inevitably wins even though HAL was unplugged. We evolve into a new species brought on by the technology that spurred it.
Star Wars was more optimistic precisely because it offered us a path out of annihilation by communing with a spiritual and moral order which would put limitations on the unlimited power offered by technology and doesn’t swim in the evolutionary current that 2001 did. Simply put, Star Wars was not an evolutionary allegory. Moreover, Star Wars is the embodiment of the mytho-poetic world threatened by science which is why the film draws upon mytho-poetic archetypes and narrative structures—Star Wars casts technology as the unmistakable enemy to the mytho-poetic human experience. This technological fear carried forward into the 1980s with films like Terminator and self-conscious AI selecting us for extinction, but by the 1990s there was a monumental shift away from techne as villain to techne as salvific instrument.
The 1990s shift toward technology as salvific instrument was due to the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the fear of nuclear (technological-scientific) destruction, and our culture’s general acceptance and accommodation with the technological world of modernity. Thus films like Solar Crisis, Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Armageddon all entail doomsday scenarios which are averted thanks to our new god—technology. The 1990s shift in science fiction toward a technological soteriology is as incredible as it is breathtaking to observe on screen.
Although derided by critics, Armageddon is the culmination of this technological-consumeristic fetish and the modernist outlook. It is perhaps fitting that the film scoffed at by the film guardians ended up as the highest grossing film of 1998. What makes Armageddon the acme of the new scientific fantasy is how it doesn’t depict technology as our threat but depicts nature as our threat needing to be confronted by technology. Armageddon symbolizes the triumph of the Enlightenment ideal of man’s technological and scientific mastery of nature.
Earth is in the pathway of a giant asteroid. When the President of the United States addresses the world he informs us of our possible doom he says a very revealing line that captures the technological fetish, “[F]or the first time in the history of the planet, a species has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster is being called into service. The human thirst for excellence, knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach into space, all of our combined modern technologies and imaginations, even the wars that we’ve fought have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle.” The speech perfectly captures the Enlightenment fantasy of muscular scientific-technological utopianism.
The film is not scientifically accurate but to belabor this point is to miss the larger arc of the dialectical movement of science fiction films. NASA concludes that drilling a hole into the asteroid and detonating a nuclear bomb will split the space rock in two and force the now broken up object to bypass the Earth. How perfectly poetic, then, that the very instrument that we worried would bring about our destruction is now the instrument of our salvation. With the specter of nuclear holocaust gone with the end of the Cold War, the power of nuclear energy can now be harnessed for our own use without fear of the terror that it could unleash. And how perfectly poetic that this instrument of destruction is now used as an instrument to give life through an act of destructive salvation. (The atomic bomb as the instrument of destructive salvation is something shared with other 1990s films: Solar Crisis, Independence Day, and Deep Impact, as well as 2000s films like Sunshine.)
There is no moral or spiritual salvation offered by the 1990s fetishistic worship of technology as the new god. There is no divine intervention that prevents humanity’s extermination. Instead, it is human ingenuity and technological prowess that brings forth our salvation in the brave new world just as the liberal anthropologies of hyper individualism and man as an agent of labor conceived. Technology is the all-powerful entity that we must bow our heads to and bend our knees in genuflection of. We must be thankful for our technologies and the role they will play in ushering in the new heaven.
What Armageddon embodies behind the explosions and visual roller coaster is the shift from technology threatening nature to technology overcoming the threat posed by nature. Armageddon is the liberal, consumeristic, and scientistic film par excellence because it portrays the Enlightenment dream on our screen: The triumph of man through his technology over the threat of nature. Technology is no longer the villain but the instrument of our salvation. Francis Bacon would have certainly appraised Armageddon positively for this reason.
Avatar: The Romantic Temptation
James Cameron may very well be the great director of scientific mythology. Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and, of course, Avatar. No other director, consciously or unconsciously, depicts the fear, horror, and hope of our collective psyche in the technological age on screen for us.
Avatar is the perfect film for the new anxieties of our environmentally conscious and “woke” generation. But Avatar is not an environmentalist film. It is still the same science vs. nature film that science fiction has been wrestling with for generations. What makes Avatar unsettling is its confrontational spirit toward the Baconian-Cartesian world we have grown accustom to living in. The technological world that has made our lives so easy is what is targeted as monstrous and murderous in the film.
The superficial interpretations of Avatar as an environmentally conscious film, a film condemning corporate greed, or a film re-imagining what could have been had indigenous peoples thwarted European settlement and colonization, all miss its more fundamental core and its place in the dialectic of the science fiction genre. Beneath the cosmetic CGI that provided the visual tour de force of Avatar, the film still plays with the technology overwhelming nature dialectic that characterizes the science fiction genre.
Though the film pits the humans as the adversaries of the indigenous Naavi, the humans in the film are not so very human—at least not recognizably human by any historical standard. The humans on Pandora are often encased in suits of armor with breathing masks. Human mercenaries, engineers, and scientists cannot experience the world of Pandora in its full natural glory because it is toxic to us. Even in scenes inside the artificially constructed bases and control rooms many of the humans still operate machinery, are dressed in scientific suits, and remain surrounded by mechanical bodies and helmets. Nature, in the film, is presented as toxic from the perspective of the technological and scientific vision of man’s future.
Yet the film is not arguing that the natural world is toxic. Mr. Cameron’s film is presenting the case that our industrial, technological, and scientific world is the toxic pathogen destroying life on Earth (romantically reimagined as Pandora). The Naavi may look radically different from us but deep inside the psyche and weltanschauung of the Naavi is a remarkably human spirit that modernity has forgotten. The Naavi are tribalistic, spiritualistic, and at home in nature. The Naavi are more than reimagined Native Americans; they are us from another generation—a generation when tribal fealty, spirituality, and embracing home in the world was the common lot of humanity. Though tall, blue, and having tails, the Naavi are the true “humans” of the film in the sense that their primitiveness is our ancient humanity. The Naavi are what we used to be before our transformation by technology.
Avatar is the romantic and naturalistic film par excellence made ironic by the fact that the film’s success depends on the very instruments it critiques. This should not be altogether surprising since the historic romantic movement—very much a “Eurocentric” philosophy—was equally filled with contradictions and paradoxes. Romanticism protested the encroachment of nature by the forces of science and industry yet many of its leading lights were men of science (like Goethe). Romanticism spoke and sang of a return to nature but utilized all the benefits of modernity to do so: music, literature, and art. Romanticism critiqued the hollow aspirations of the Enlightenment but did more to ensure its triumph than any other Counter-Enlightenment movement.
It is only modern Westerns who have become so deracinated from culture, nature, and the spiritual reality of man’s constitution who have romantic dreams of return to a naturalistic past. Thus it is a deracinated Westerner who finds his salvation by becoming one with nature. Jake Sully is not an oppressed indigenous but the very image of the hollow and empty modern Westerner whose life has been saturated by consumerism and war. The indigenous need no redemption because they are already at home with nature. It is only deracinated Westerners who need redemption in rediscovering the holism of earth, animist spirituality, and tribalism. Those who critique the “White savior complex” completely misunderstand the unconscious fear that we Westerners have as technology and science continue to slowly constrict us and eliminate the adventurous, erotic, and spiritual soul from our lives.
Avatar is also the culmination of the dialectical shift away from technological salvation and back to a more negative appraisal of the dangers of science. Humanity’s redemption and salvation is by forsaking the world of death, represented by technology and science, and a reembrace of spiritualist naturalism. This is hardly “liberal” by anyone who has a knowledge of the philosophical tradition though such a strong “return to nature” movement would be labeled “liberal” by today’s anti-intellectual media and public. Avatar’s message is profoundly romantic and anti-Enlightenment (and, therefore, necessarily anti-liberal). Its promotion of tribal fealty would be condemned as quasi-fascistic and nationalistic since the film does promote the virtue of tribalism over industrial individualism. After all, the tribal society of the Naavi is timocratic and values martial virtue and the will to power more than compassion, inclusion, or tolerance.
Given our contemporary confusion over the question of who we are, Avatar is the perfect film to indulge our confusion and fears. Quid sit homo? What is man? Is he the mechanical force of death or is he the noble primitive? Is man fundamentally a spiritual creature or a tool-being? These are the questions that late moderns have been wrestling with and these are the questions that flow out of Avatar’s grandiose use of CGI technology and imagery to transport us as close as our contemporary world allows to a Wagnerian drama. Avatar ultimately concludes that man ought to be a spiritual primitive. That’s not the worst message all things considered.
Interstellar Love and the Failure of Science
Christopher Nolan’s epic Interstellar is the most profoundly traditional and, consciously, Christian film in science fiction cinema. Although The Fifth Element is equally traditional and unconsciously Christian in its advocacy of how love defeats evil, Interstellar is far more dramatic and powerful in its mytho-poetic and theological critique of science. Science has failed humanity in Interstellar, is failing humanity as the film develops, and fails our protagonists as they brave the wormhole and the new horizons of space.
Interstellar may have been billed as a “scientifically accurate” film but the science of the film is not its main allure. Rather, it is the poetic story of love that permeates and moves the film that is its main attraction. Joseph Cooper, whose initials are J.C., is a loving and devoted father. Given his initials, his association with a project of 12 great men sent out into the world to bring salvation to humanity, and his role in seeing the fruits of the Lazarus Mission brought to fruition, it is easy to see the parallels with the great Biblical drama. After all, it is only J.C. who raises Mann from the dead.
Like other science fiction films, Interstellar wrestles with the unconscious dragon of our relationship with science and technology. Mr. Nolan’s film is closest to Kubrick’s masterpiece insofar that they are both space epics where the protagonists are surrounded by metal and aluminum enclosures with robotic computers along for the journey. But it is there that the two films begin their dramatic divergence. 2001, as we’ve discussed, was a bleak tale of evolution leading to the end of homo sapien and the birth of the new species through technological conflict. Interstellar is an erotic tale of the salvation of homo sapiens through the redeeming and unitive power of love that transcends space and time and brings humans closer together moved by a father’s devotion to his daughter.
All things decay. This is natural wisdom from the ancient past. So Earth is dying as all things organic inevitably die. Humans have resorted to genetically engineered crops to fight against the mysterious plant disease called Blight. When Cooper discovers the remains of NASA, Dr. Brand informs him that even the genetically modified corn crop will succumb to the disease and that his children, Murph and Tom, will not only die of starvation but that they will also suffocate as Blight consumes oxygen. Science is failing humanity’s quest for survival.
Dr. Brand, being the scientist that he is with no faith in humanity, resorts to a lie to ensure “humanity’s” salvation. Telling Cooper that there are two plans, a “Plan A” and a “Plan B,” we eventually become aware of the impossible situation of the humans, including Murph, left on Earth. Dr. Brand solved his equation but couldn’t reconcile it with the quantum mechanics. Plan B, Dr. Mann informs everyone on his planet after being “resurrected” by Cooper, has been the original (and only) plan all along.
Plan A entailed the salvation of organic life—humans—on Earth. This also entailed the salvation of that most sacred and spiritual institution: family. (Notably, Plan A is also the hope of a father devoted to honoring a promise made to his daughter.) Plan B is about the birth of man on a new habitable planet through the power of science. Plan B has hundreds, if not thousands, of cryogenically frozen eggs in a vat that will eventually be enculturated to life by controlling scientists playing God. Plan A is the salvation of organic life with all its pathological realities—represented by Cooper’s love for Murph and his actions as a pilot which include this reality of devotedness to his daughter. Plan B is the birth of a new species in a brave new world through instruments and needles. Plan A salvages family and love and carries it forward into a new horizon. Plan B is the consummation of mathematics, science, and industry—it is, in a word, the triumph of science and not of man.
Throughout the film the decisions made by the dictates of science have disastrous consequences. Miller’s planet shows all the signs of life because it is an H2O-based world (unbeknownst to our heroes the entire planet is a giant world of tidal wave after tidal wave). When our heroic astronauts reach Dr. Mann’s planet, convinced to arrive because of its closer proximity to them and promising (though forged) data, they discover an inhospitable world of frost and ice. Science can be manipulated (and how easily we forget this fact).
The conflict between Cooper and Mann is the most philosophically conscious commentary in contemporary science fiction film. Cooper represents man as the image of love and devotedness. Mann, who is symbolically named, represents modern scientific man. Mann’s comments on evolution and the drive to live is quintessentially Hobbesian and Darwinian. He pessimistically notes that selfishness and attachment are the barriers that evolution have not yet overcome—but his forthcoming act of selflessness will be done for all mankind. (In between the lines we recognize that the selfishness that Mann critiques is the devotedness to family and tribe which must be overcome for “man” to make the next great leap forward.) Mann leaves Cooper for dead, science and technology have beaten down the man of love and family. But Cooper is saved by Amelia, who has now shed her naïve fidelity to science and (re)discovered the power of relationship and love. Mann commandeers a shuttle and attempts to take control of the Endurance to proceed with the completion of Plan B as any man of the empty rainbow would. His failed attempt to dock leads to a catastrophic explosion that nearly dooms humanity—made ironic by his final statements that his selfish act of ego is being done as a selfless act on behalf of “all mankind.”
Cooper eventually sacrifices himself so that Amelia can live and proceed to Edmund’s Planet. In Cooper’s heroic act of sacrifice he is “resurrected” in the tesseract and acts as the intermediary between the two worlds—the new world of life that is Edmund’s Planet and the dying world that is Earth. Cooper communicates with Murph through this interdimensional reality which is really the dimension of love.
Prior to journeying to Dr. Mann’s planet when Cooper, Amelia, and Romily are contemplating their options, Amelia speaks of the power of love. She poetically exclaims, with tears falling from her eyes and a limp but hopeful smile on her face, that “love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space” while also belittling the notion of “social utility.” Amelia’s short speech reveals the message of Interstellar. Love transcends space and time and is immeasurable and therefore outside of the domain of mathematical science.
Interstellar pits two worlds against each other: the world of love that transcends space and time and the world of science that has no understanding of love because love is not a number that can be measured. Moreover, the world of love is passionate and emotional. This drives a shirking dagger into the empty hearts of those men and women of science who conceive a limited world of mere numbers and lines. Cooper’s world is in a deadly wrestling match with Dr. Brand and Dr. Mann’s world and only one can win.
Cooper’s act of sacrificial love which allows him to act as the intermediary between the two worlds brings about the salvation of humanity on Earth as they journey, in a ship (reminiscent of an ark) to the new world of life faraway in the heavens. Love, not science and technology, is the force that will divinize man and allow him to look up to the stars and behold the good things that the heavens hold. Love, Interstellar reminds us, is what makes us human and ultimately saves us.
Science Fiction Fears and Fantasies
Deep in the wellspring of science fiction is the ongoing struggle between mechanical monsters and holistic heroes. Science fiction is the dominant genre of the modern world because our world is caught in the middle of the two worlds that science fiction often depicts: the dying natural world (with its romance and spirituality) and the ascendant sterile, mechanical, and computerized world of the prospective future (with its emptiness and hollowness). In our own psyche we can all perceive this looming struggle even if we want to ignore it—but ignore it we cannot.
On one side of the science fiction river is the romantic camp. The romantic tradition in science fiction pits science as the monster ready to consume humanity and destroy the world of organic life and love. On the other side of the science fiction Jordan is the scientistic and utopian, camp—or, perhaps, simply the “Enlightenment” camp. The Enlightenment tradition in science fiction is simultaneously bleak and hopeful breaking down along soteriological lines. Those who have no room for gods and angels would have us become the Star Child—born anew by the conflict of technological evolution. Those who have room for some sort of god would have us worship at the altar of techne and convince us that technology is the instrument of our divinization and salvation. Both camps of the Enlightenment tradition, however, are transhumanist because the Enlightenment anthropology necessarily reduces itself to the dream of transhumanism.
Science fiction is the new medium for our technological mythology and captures our imaginations because, deep in the unsettling world of the id, the conflicts and stories being told by science fiction are playing out in our own lives. Science fiction, then, is the medium that attempts to actualize the ongoing struggles and desires of the modern world. We must ask ourselves the inevitable question: Will love win or lose in this struggle?
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The featured image is a still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).