Andy Warren gets negative about a film before he’s seen it and takes a quick look at the history and themes of Hollywood science fiction cinema and their parallels in the real world

Interstellar: yet another misanthropic view of humanity

Interstellar: yet another misanthropic view of humanity

It is perhaps foolish to base too much on a film’s trailers. However, Hollywood generally can’t help but leak the key points. So I think I’ll be fairly safe. Once I’ve watched it I’ll write an update.

“We’ll find a way … we always have,” says Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper. “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”

These quotes sound inspiring out of context – in the moody voice over. The reality is, I expect, rather uninspiring.

Recently released Interstellar (November 2014) will deliver the latest dollop in what I call the “humanity is doomed unless…” genre. The genre that likes to market itself as highbrow science fiction but which in reality manages only “we’re suddenly doomed but that brilliant man will save us – hey what does that lever do?” with as much glossy scientific credibility as the production can afford.

Interspersed with footage reprising the dust bowl depicted in The Grapes of Wrath (Depression-era US Midwest “bread belt”), farmer-but-also-engineer-and-brilliant-pilot McConaughey (the brilliant guy) is torn from his down-to-earth farming life (“good people”) because he is humanity’s only hope – the hope that we can find a new habitable planet elsewhere in the universe.

Judging by the sheer quantity of thrillingly impossible action sequences and dramatic moments in the various trailers I’ve watched, this film will have no choice but to quickly dispatch with its main justification and cut to the core of it’s mission – dressing up a basic dystopian morality message with special effects and bite-sized wisdoms delivered in McConaughey’s otherwise enjoyable slow, thoughtful Texas drawl. Yet another environmental story is dressed up in a relatively new and exciting form – this is the goal of the marketing machine’s influence on script and storyline. The environmental theme by now needs no introduction – the work has been done by dozens of previous Hollywood productions and the earnest bleating of the green movement. If the film has been done well, we might see some truly breathtaking space travel. I genuinely hope so.

About those Dust Storms…

John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath: “And then the dispossessed were drawn west – from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.”

Steinbeck was describing life for farming families driven from their farms by a period of intense drought which hit them on top of the Depression and a rapaciously brutal banking industry – subsequently bailed out by Franklin Roosevelt and the 1933 Emergency Banking Act – a forerunner of the US Congress appetite for bailing out Wall st on a more regular basis today.

Where Steinbeck based his work on brutal reality, Interstellar draws on the imagined reality that appeals to enviro-zealots and doom mongers. What Bjørn Lomborg, a professor of statistics, refers to as “The Litany”  states variously that earth is overpopulated, the oceans are acidifying, the forests disappearing, the deserts encroaching, poverty worsening, the climate is warming and so on – insert here every environmental claim you have heard.(1) Lomborg argues that the Litany is problematic because “overly pessimistic claims are made and bad policies are implemented as a result” (2).

Lomborg is a specialist in the collection, manipulation, and presentation of data – including data used to justify the claims of the environmental movement – in particular the claims published annually in The State of the World by the WorldWatch Institute – a hugely influential document. Much to the displeasure of the environmental movement, Lomborg gathered a group of his top doctoral students and invested a considerable amount of time and effort critically assessing the claims comprising the Litany. He found that things aren’t actually that bad, and, further, that the reason these quite serious reports can get things wrong is basically bad methodology producing claims which are seldom checked, and consumed by either uncritical journalists or people with unshakeable belief regardless of the facts.

The Litany

Fundraising Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) making up the green movement, typified by the likes of Greenpeace and The World Wildlife Fund, are massive institutions with huge payrolls, lobbying costs, power and influence. Their revenue depends on the sanctity of “The Litany”. They are large enough to achieve internal cultural inertia such that no challenge to their founding (funding?) principles and daily function can be tolerated. They hated what Lomborg and his research team had to say. Unsurprisingly, Lomborg’s claims were subject to “a number of criticisms”. Lomborg found himself in the company of Holocaust deniers – as an environmental and climate skeptic. Being skeptical about scientific claims is normal practice as long as it doesn’t put you in conflict with the popular “truth” – such as the still unproven theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

The Litany is generally popular – in the way that black is popular with goths and emos – along with depression. It is popular in the neighbourhoods and cafes where Hollywood screenplays are hatched. People with the least to worry about often worry the most – about things that don’t actually directly affect many people in the broader world. People who can afford to pay their power bills without a second thought, are attracted to clean energy and fresh air regardless of the cost to the poor and impoverished of the world. Environmentalism and Climate Change are the new religions of the comfortable Western middle class. Any suggestion that the world’s environmental problems are merely technical and should be assessed and dealt with rationally starting with the worst problems is anathema to people who want to weep over retreating glaciers. The starving poor or bombs raining on the Third World are old hat and unattractive. Instead, these types prefer to lavish their attention on problems that don’t talk back – such as glaciers and polar bears. For most environmentalists a political campaign by Walmart workers for the minimum wage is “so last century darling”- a campaign to install windfarms to save the carnivorous Patagonian Giant Snail is much more attractive.

The environmental movement has some fundamental problems, not the least of which is the “what we say goes” mentality – which they perhaps inherit from the US government. Implicit in much of what passes for environmentalism’s care for “gaia earth mother” is actually a reborn white man’s burden.

And like the phenomenon of “climate denial” – problems with western assumptions about what is wrong with the world don’t generally get much coverage – popular news sells papers after all.

Environmentalism and Climate Change drive massive activism and fundraising industries. These institutions are compromised by their reliance on the popularity of the Litany – like a scientific theory which must be supported by the “evidence”.  The Litany is believed, and undoubtedly, for those believers with their hands on the keys of the biggest Hollywood typewriters it is both a duty and an attractive proposition to spread awareness, and also connect investors with profits from well-marketed films containing easily-recognised political snippets.

Steinbeck’s stark reality is seldom attractive to Hollywood scriptwriters who typically hanker after the cinematic delivery of an ideological vibe – amorphous, indistinct and profitable. Hollywood works with culture-by-numbers and carefully manages basic recognisable elements in acceptable ways. Dust Storms symbolise an a-historic doom. There is no history. Don’t mention the Federal Reserve or the word “bailout”. The Road (2009), an intensely depressing extinction/road story, also doesn’t discuss the disaster itself.

Interstellar

Contrast Interstellar with a relatively small budget production such as Moon (2009). Science fiction plot elements, in the form of a lunar mining base in the near future, provide the framework for an examination of identity and memory for cloned employees of a greedy corporation which will happily kill to protect itself. The “sciency” elements provide context without the need to literally smother the film in dystopian cliches, neither the plot nor script needing the “recognition insurance” relied on by big budget productions. Apart from the cloning, the story could arguably take place in any isolated location. The story, script and themes are all strong enough to succeed on their own merits – enhanced by good cast, acting, design, and production. It is often the case that smaller productions enjoy more control – if the right investor allows creative freedom – and the result is often a better film (See Monsters, 2010). But better doesn’t mean popular. And popular means money.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a big budget production with a shining light at the helm. It promises to feature breathtaking visuals and extremely “accurate” (ie., to the best of current available knowledge) science content. This is arguably strange given that a non-expert audience would happily accept any slick portrayal of wormhole travel. How did the BBC cope producing Dr Who? Why is scientific accuracy so important? Is it indulgence? Is a scientifically accurate but crap story still ethically worthwhile? Can an awful restaurant meal be saved by friendly service?

Another recent big budget film is Prometheus. Sadly, the big budget, first rate production team and the skill of Ridley Scott produced a story in which “a massive corporation spends billions of dollars to send a group of fuckwits across the galaxy” (to quote what I think is the most accurate review of it). In other words, it is a good example of big budget and impressive visual design producing mediocre results due to a bland, clichéd story. So Interstellar is quite possibly another amazing film. Or not. I have grave concerns, having seen the trailers, that even if it does a good job of portraying interstellar travel and desperate exploration, its whole raison d’etre will still be flawed.

For Hollywood, popular or recognisable ideas are bankable plot elements. The production process includes mechanisms which combine these elements to maximum effect. Interstellar‘s profitable idea is that humanity’s hubris has led us to the brink of environmental destruction – and in this film so much so that, like teenagers abandoning a dirty kitchen after dinner, we have to leave and find somewhere else to live. As well as the gratification of a successful box office launch, and the revenue, Hollywood investors want films to be recognisable contributions to popular shelves in the video rental store or online service – the bulk of the film’s revenue being generated by private rentals in the years after its release. Marketing and test audiences inform script and plot to maximise a film’s appeal.

So, for some reason Earth is kaput and humanity is doomed. Did I miss something? Assuming this is a contribution to the extinction and human ark genres – is there a sufficiently-established audience expectation of environmental apocalypse to justify the bulk of the film? From what I’ve heard the exact nature of the problem isn’t discussed. So it must be acceptable to film execs to shortcut the explanation visually, based on a safely-established codified meaning. Cue wind, dust, dying crops.

Well then – how the mighty ideas of space exploration and “bravely going where no man has gone before” have been replaced by barely recognizable timidity and hopelessness!

Is this the same society which only a century (or so) previously was opening its mind to the limitless possibilities of unfettered development under capitalism?

What happened to “boldly going” that it became “only just escaping”? Could Michael Caine’s voice be enough to make it sound feasible? I think I’ll prefer The Italian Job’s “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” to Interstellar’s “go out there and save them!”.

Clearly while the human race is unable to feed itself it has nevertheless managed to develop interstellar transportation capable of using wormholes to travel the vast distances to the nearest known habitable solar systems. As a race we’re idiot savants with uncontrollable talents for technology and destruction. Reminds me of teenagers.

Human extinction

Obviously desperation adds cinematic edge to humanity’s efforts at finding a new home. Rather than exploration driven by bravery, scientific zeal and adventure – which are much less marketable motives currently – we are driven by the big current audience puller: human extinction. Various searches on Amazon currently return some interesting titles, including such forward thinking examples as
The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction
Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress
• Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
• Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning

The seeds of the idea of human extinction were sowed by the Cold War and nuclear armageddon. Astronomy has added the possibility of the “Extinction Level Event” (ELE) where the impact of celestial bodies such as meteors and comets cause humanity to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs – nuclear winter. The truth according to some commentators is that we are facing a growing nuclear threat once again – extinction due to geopolitics rather than climate problems. Some even point to an emerging new cold war. Extinction, however, whatever the reality, is a thriving industry. Survivalism and “prepping” have grown into a massive industry – estimates of 3.7 million Americans spend hundreds of millions on weapons, bunkers, and supplies.(3)

Portrayals of disaster scenarios are pornography for many. Natural disasters on a large scale – earthquakes, plagues, meteors – all involve the destruction firstly of existing civil institutions and the emergence of scattered survivor groups feeling their way into a militarised hierarchical (rarely democratic) survivalist society. The psychological aspects of this appeal likely include distrust of corporations and institutions, a disengagement from civil society, atomisation and isolation and perhaps a romantic desire to reconnect with the pioneering values of self-reliance and ruggedness that apparently built America (don’t mention the barbaric violence and insatiable greed). Various films – The Omega Man (1971), Damnation Alley (1977), Waterworld (1995), The Postman (1997),  I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), The Road (2009) – have portrayed individuals, families, “rag tag” groups putting into practice survivalist preparation as friends, neighbours, co-workers, even family, become enemies in a desperate bid for survival. Bereft of “those wonderful institutions” humans for some reason quickly revert to base animal motives – with scarcely a hint of the thousands of years of history, thought, philosophy and art that preceded it. Without capitalism we are clearly nothing!

Various metaphors for the awful horror of the masses liberated by disaster from the daily drudgery of capitalist servitude have been employed in Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to name a few.

Cultural themes in cinema find their basis in the fortunes of concrete economics and broader society as well as other cultural production. Culture reflects reality rather than the contrary argument that, for example, violent films or computer games cause violence in society. Hollywood cinema is good at drawing on cultural themes to produce recognisable portrayals of the ideas they contain so the films will attract audiences.

How has Hollywood cinema selected and portrayed themes alongside the decay of capitalism? How have we got to the point where a potentially exhilarating story of space exploration has to be packaged in the incredibly depressing context of human extinction? I believe Hollywood knows what it is doing.

The end of optimism

Despite the optimistic triumphalism of the Paris World Expo in 1900, the unfettered early confidence of capitalist ideologues expressed less of a confidence in humanity’s future than an almost carnivorous excitement for the capitalist class as it assessed the freedom it had to exploit and profit on a vast scale – especially in the newly-opened North American continent and many colonies. While things are going well for capital things are, by capitalist logic, going well for humanity. Possessing at least a shred of self-respect, rubbing hands with glee was kept for private gatherings of like-minded rich and powerful respectable folk. In public society we saw the smiling face of fearless entrepreneurship. The message was “stick with us and we’ll really go places”. With plenty of money too for the fine art of propaganda, these ideas found purchase and were reinforced by rapid expansion and growth – albeit at vast human and environmental cost.

Conversely, when success (profit & growth) doesn’t come so easily, we’re told how bad things are for everyone – how difficult it is to run an economy, that all we can expect is the odd bit of sporadic comfort, since life (and the economy) are chaotic and defy all attempts by the best minds to explain their inner workings. (In A Beautiful Mind, for example, the Nobel Prize-winning ideas were the product of a very sick mind indeed – happily embraced by economic thinkers at the time as good explanations of human nature).

The regular news that the latest recession has kicked in is signaling that, in fact, capitalists are fine but their government bureaucrats will unfortunately need to tighten the screws so they can carry on making obscene profits.

No longer champions of progress at these times but, rather, cynical manipulators of spin as they rape and pillage the economy, the message they run with has become one of low expectations, innate hesitancy, and, ultimately, humanity’s foolishness, hubris and doom. Added to this mixture of apology and rationalised greed is the bloody trail of brutal war and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people – a track record the capitalist class hoped to bury behind the facade of the United Nations. Since WW2 they have, as we know, continued unabated, killing and maiming with impunity, raining millions of tons of conventional explosives on SE Asia and the Third World while most of us spent the Cold War worrying about nuclear weapons.

This catalogue of embarrassing capitalist disaster, seldom acknowledged publicly, is rationalised as simply being due to the dirty reality of human nature. Far from the idea that the chaos of capitalism and the brutally-satisfied greed of capitalists are the problem, apologists claim, in a roundabout way, that this is all we can hope for. That the nastiness is in all of us, just like sin, and, as religion previously explained, we have to take the good with the bad and stick with the programme – it’s the best we’ve got.

So it strikes me as remarkable then, that such pathetic creatures as we appear to be – violent, aggressive, greedy – find ourselves wrapped up in an interstellar spacecraft capable of exploiting the black magic of quantum physics to travel to galaxies and shores distant.

Is this not a vexing dichotomy? An almost contradictory bifurcation? Are we a scientifically and technologically-advanced civilisation which can’t solve a few basic environmental problems? I’d be more convinced, I think, by the nuclear Armageddon scenario as a reason for abandoning earth. Nuclear winter and fallout are well-documented phenomena (ask the residents of Hiroshima) and we are, once again, poised at the brink of nuclear nastiness – not that you’d know it from a reading of mainstream media. Environmental and climate catastrophe, however, are at the same time dominant and well overblown. For audiences I expect it won’t be a problem that there is no discussion of the exact cause of environmental collapse. The legitimacy of the expectation that something bad is going to happen is almost unassailable. Hollywood knows this.

Progress

I sit writing this on a laptop comprising technology barely imaginable only a century ago. I have, this week, had an MRI scan, and beside me sits a smartphone capable of connecting me to the internet and sending photographs and words to another person via invisible magnetic radiation. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the biggest, most complex piece of machinery ever built by humanity – capable of granting physicists a glimpse of the behaviour of the fundamental building blocks of matter itself – and it has no financial or economic purpose! How can the mood of society be so negative when at the same time our ingenuity and science are achieving incredible developments?

Are these ubiquitous technologies strange gifts from the gods or some ancient forerunner civilisation? In Footfall(4), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote of an expansionist interstellar imperialist civilisation using technology they hadn’t developed themselves – instead they had inherited the instruction manual from an ancestor super-race (now mysteriously absent) and had used it relatively successfully to invade other planets until they encountered humankind; backed into a corner by sheer human grit they threw their toys. Humanity has never been handed anything on a plate – no gifts from the gods, we’ve always done it the hard way. Here’s an alien civilisation capable of interstellar invasion falling victim to our ingenuity and determination.

The theme of disappeared super race is a form of the theme “technology won’t save us”. Weren’t we once promised lives of creative leisure – liberated by technology which made repetitive work and long hard hours a thing of the past? The reality has been increased exploitation. Not only that, but technology has turned out to hold the keys to our destruction rather than our liberation. Technology, and its progeny – progress – are just bad news. So much so that the question is often asked “what will an alien race deduce from the ruins of human civilisation?” (after we’re extinct).

Conversely, what might humanity do were it to discover ancient advanced technology? Forbidden Planet (1956) warned of “Monsters from the Id” – the dark nature hidden deep in our psyche which will ultimately corrupt even the greatest potential. On planet Altaire IV, an advanced civilisation, the Krell, mysteriously disappeared 200,000 years earlier leaving a vast underground machine with an inexhaustible nuclear power source. The formerly human mind of Dr Morbius, hugely augmented by an alien learning tool, is able to use the machine to create whatever he wills – good or evil. The human crew barely escape the monster he unconsciously creates, and when confronted he realises the massive potential is simply too dangerous to be in human hands and detonates the planet. We can only assume that the Krell befell a similar fate.

Not so long ago, science fiction, as a genre, was seen as a vehicle for a broad range of themes mostly revolving around an examination of the outer boundaries of human experience, invention and capability liberated from the plot constraints of contemporary society on earth – typically men, for some reason often accompanied by scantily-clad buxom damsels. Reading between the stoneage bikinis and hounds-tooth tweed, the stories gave dramatic form to the corresponding capitalist ideas of entrepreneurship – the capitalist receiving just reward for brave investment decisions – the explorer getting the girl as well as fame and fortune.

Jules Verne is famous for Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; written in the 1800s these exhilarating adventure stories are still firmly at the heart of literary culture. They describe explorers capable of rising above circumstances, enduring hardship, thinking on their toes, fighting with their bare hands and any number of affirmative clichés from this era.

Later, spanning the turn of the century, and a gradually changing capitalist outlook, H G Wells’ War of the Worlds described intergalactic invasion in which the saviour wasn’t human bravery or ingenuity but microscopic life – doing nothing other than reproduce and feed. We were saved by organisms with no knowledge of humanity’s dire circumstances. In The Time Machine, credited as an early example of the “dying earth” genre, Wells describes an inventor who, via his fantastic invention, witnesses the slow, brutal death of human civilisation and its evolution into a horrific class society comprising the underground-dwelling Morlocks who farm and prey on the simple, primitive Eloi.

Brutal class society

In the interwar period, Fritz Lang’s famous Metropolis (1927) used science fiction cinema as a vehicle for a highly political examination of brutal class society – as well as the theme of artificial intelligent life.

Interestingly another of Wells’ early works, The First Men in the Moon (1901, film adaptation 1964) described a sophisticated insectoid race , the Selenites, who recognise humanity’s capacity for aggression and hence break off contact – a theme more or less revisited in The Day the Earth Stood Still fifty years later.

Wells, also a Fabian socialist, was to live through the bloodiest period in industrialised history – as the nations who had once championed progress convinced workers to slaughter each other and their civilian populations – hundreds of millions dying in two world wars. The bloody suppression of the Bolshevik revolution by the White army – and ensuing civil war – cost the lives of a million of the most politicised Russian workers and plunged Russian society into the chaos and oppression of the Stalinist era in which millions died. For a short time, the Bolsheviks had represented the victory of freedom over capitalist oppression and European nationalism and militarism. The global capitalist class responded by plunging the world deeper into barbarism. Sixty years of world war, anti-communism, suppression of Third World national liberation movements and the spectre of nuclear annihilation was the result.

The end of WW2 was quickly followed by the descent into new hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War justified by the existence of the Soviet Union. The space race – a codified drive to produce the weapons of nuclear Armageddon – focused domestic attention on science and technology as the tools of a free society striving to triumph over ‘Communist totalitarianism’. Where most people who had experienced world war had seen our capacity for evil first hand, Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek saw mankind once more “bravely going where no man had gone before”. Culturally this gave expression to the relatively profitable American capitalism of the 1950s, mixed with resurgent nationalism as anti-Communism (the Klingons).

With nuclear proliferation now a growing problem, When Worlds Collide (1951) described the desperate scramble to escape earth as a rogue star approaches on a collision course. A lottery is used to draw a list of survivors who will attempt to establish life on a newly-discovered planet which will hopefully support human life. A number of similar apocalyptic films examine the mechanism by which a human “ark” might be populated ahead of impending disaster – whether by lottery or individual merit: 2012 (2009), Deep Impact, (1998). The ark is represented variously by fleeing space ships – Titan AE (2000), When Worlds Collide (1951), Wall E (2008); nuclear shelters or underground cities – The Terminator (1984), The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003); or orbiting habitats (Elysium, 2013); Silent Running (1972) featured agricultural arks.

With blood on US hands through association with WW2, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) portrayed the suspicion and military aggression of the US when an alien ambassador delivers an ultimatum from the civilised nations of the galaxy. Humanity (the US) is told it must change its ways and find peace – or be destroyed. With humanity on the brink of developing the capability of space flight, rather than welcoming this ascendant technological civilisation it was clearer that humanity would become a threat to the other peaceful galactic civilisations. Peaceful exploration and adventure were no longer seen as human nature. Instead, the only outcome of humanity’s technological achievements were assumed to be negative. The facts attested to this – US economic hegemony was achieved only at the vast expense of the destruction of WW2 and they succeeded in exporting not economic prosperity but only imperialist war since then.

The fear of invasion of Wells’ War of the Worlds saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) cast this as invasion from within: instead of aliens the enemy was humanity itself, the alien society of ‘communist Russia’. This was a more direct expression of specifically capitalist fears – the fear of a non-capitalist society and ideas. The idea of capitalism as a natural and inevitable expression of human nature had unraveled through its association with the barbarism of global war. This was resolved by a general discrediting of humanity and human nature itself. In John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), protagonists had to fear themselves, not to mention each other. A highly-evolved and aggressive alien cellular life form (able to exist at the cellular level rather than simply as scary monsters) can slowly take over a human host from the slightest contact. The mechanism that saved humanity in War of the Worlds is now capable of destroying us. This theme of insidious, invisible invasion, now pervades the disease-epidemic disaster genre: The Andromeda Strain (1971), Outbreak (1995), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Contagion (2011)  – the entire zombie genre, World War Z (2013).

Outbreak and Contagion examined the spread of virus through the banal everyday activities of coughing and touching door handles. Vast teams of experts once more must mobilise to protect the masses from their own stupidity – our tiniest personal actions meaning potential death. A slow motion 3D demonstration of droplet infection in a cinema would keep many people from ever attending another cinema screening. Research into droplet infection on public transportation suggests that it is almost pointless to try to avoid this incredibly effective transmission mechanism.

Such was the pessimistic Cold War mood that even our own technology was cast as both villain and superior intelligence. Collosus: The Forbin Project (1970) saw human efforts to produce the perfect deterrent – an immensely powerful, unbeatable computer system armed with the US nuclear arsenal would convince the Soviet Union that it could never win a nuclear exchange. Upon detecting its secret equal in the USSR, the two computers hold humanity to ransom – threatening to launch missiles unless they are physically connected and able to communicate. The two systems then achieve super sentience and humanity finds itself slave to its own implacable, coldly-calculating creation. Earth has become The Forbidden Planet.

Supercomputer threat

This theme was seen again in the malfunctioning of the HAL9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), widely held to be the most scientifically accurate film ever made, and the Skynet computer in the Terminator movies.

The supercomputer threat was combined with artificial humans to give us the android or cyborg – running amok in Bladerunner (1982) and Terminator. At least as dangerous as the alien “mimic” threat in The Thing, androids are a human creation – stronger, faster and more intelligent than their creator (5). In The Matrix, self-awareness becomes the ability to self-reproduce and enhance, humanity being relegated to a mere energy source in an insectoid hive nightmare vision – a metaphor for the conflict between all powerful dehumanising corporations and the atomised, isolated individual human worker. The Matrix also examined consciousness and propaganda, contrasting the “awakened” survivors in their underground city with the sleeping battery humans who are fed a simulated existence while being milked for their electrochemical energy.

As an expression of nihilism and pointlessness in the post-war nuclear apocalypse period, arguably none surpass Neville Shute’s The Beach (1959) which portrayed mass human suicide as the preferable alternative to waiting for inevitable death from the radiation drifting southwards after an accidental nuclear exchange. After all its historical struggles and achievements, humanity is wiped out by the cleaning lady. Far from “out with a bang” it seems we’ll achieve barely a whimper and a pleasant radioactive glow. Humanity’s remains will have a long shelf life!(6) As mentioned previously, a perhaps grimmer contemporary portrayal is found in The Road.

Two world wars and the threat of nuclear holocaust were rich breeding grounds for themes of doom and apocalypse. Futurism was no longer about progress but instead the deserts and violence of Mad Max, or the quiet, polite death of When the Wind Blows. Themes of human strength and leadership had now shriveled to bedside comfort for the dying and suicide for the lonely last survivors (Stephen King’s The Mist, 1980; The Day After, 1983).

The massive global nuclear arsenal became a thing in its own right – external to humanity – an artifact of decisions long forgotten, like the term “recession”. The removal of this human causation from portrayals of humanity’s destruction mirrored the capitalist subjective desire to be exempt from blame and a corresponding shift in economic and political discourse to chaos and irrational obfuscation. Something bad is going to happen.

Disaster, disaster

The disaster genre (Volcano, Earthquake, Avalanche, Killer Bees, Swarm and Meteor) drew on this theme of doom with no human causation. Characters with little or no explanation of the why, must merely cope and hopefully survive. At best we function in the shadow of Mother Nature or the Universe. Economic theory, frustrated by relentless recession, found solace in chaos theory – a branch of mathematics discovered accidentally and turned to good use by economists keen to explain away the failure of their “scientific” discipline to tame or direct the destructive tendencies of capitalism. (To be fair, Chaos has, however, been a rich area for mathematics research). When human fortunes are governed by chaos there is no point attempting to change society.

Milton Friedman’s Chicago School discovered instead the worlds of dictatorship, torture and subversion and happily applied these to Indonesia and central and south America with enthusiastic US government backing. The imperialist onslaught against Third World nationalism saw an increasingly confident and brutal capitalist military training covert militias and arming dictatorships across the globe.

The Cold War fears of the 1950s and ’60s degenerated into a generalised dystopian view in the form of post apocalyptic or brutally-dehumanised societies governed by massive corporations  as in Bladerunner (1982), and Alien (1979):

“One of the key fears in science fiction is the prospect of dehumanisation. Alien deals with that fear in two ways. Firstly, the alien threatens to absorb humanity by incorporating humans into its reproductive cycle. The human subject becomes a surrogate mother to incubate the alien. This represents dehumanisation by interspecies rape and monstrification. At the same time, the crew are threatened by the forces of capitalism. The crew work for a corporation called Weylan-Yutani, which is ominously referred to as ‘the Company’. This is a huge multi-national corporation like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner and once again humans are being sacrificed for profit. Corporate paranoia was a major preoccupation of the 1970s. This was the decade of disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The China Syndrome, which all depicted malevolent companies that put private profit before people. This was culture’s way of working through the anxieties surrounding huge global corporations.”(7)

The implosion of the Soviet Bloc ended the Cold War to muted claims of capitalist triumph. The threat of nuclear Armageddon apparently diminished but the theme of a ravished earth persisted via environmental disasters such as Chernobyl and the continued impoverishment of the Third World.

However, with doom safely disconnected from capitalism but firmly embedded in the popular future outlook, humanity could safely re-enter as the evil purveyor of environmental decay and destruction. Capitalism happily casts us as the main problem facing the earth, which must be saved as all costs – as long as capitalism can continue unmolested.

Constructing the myth of the Ebola “pandemic” has been easy with the “truth” already well established by disaster movies such as Contagion, Outbreak and the zombie apocalypse genre. Mere mention of epidemic or pandemic is enough for the mainstream news channels to have people reaching for their survival kits and shotguns.

Once special effects and scientific fact checking combine with script and action, the audience is left with an often extremely compelling presentation of various “facts” whether known or new. Subsequent productions can refer to or use the same ideas with confidence they will be recognised and trigger the expected meaning.

Time travel is a ubiquitous story element. It liberated science fiction authors to investigate new territory with few time-line constraints. The scientific “facts” however, relating to time travel, are highly transitory as the background science remains contentious. With time travel firmly established a romantic yearning for the past as the only place to solve contemporary problems can be used to paint the future as a bad place with few solutions to our problems.

In Minority Report (2002) – based on Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name – time travel takes the form of chemically- and genetically-augmented visions from the future which allow a special police division to arrest people for – rather Orwellian sounding – “future crime” before they have committed it. As well as an excellent contribution to the dystopian noir genre alongside Blade Runner and Judge Dredd, the film examines themes of free will and determinism in the context of a person’s future actions. This does make me think of Edward Snowden and the NSA’s vast dragnet surveillance infrastructure, capable of storing a record of your activities for re-targeting in the future. When even the most saintly individual can be capable of “future crime” – in the NSA present we are never free from suspicion.

Both Terminator and 12 Monkeys present a disastrous future where the only hope is to fix the past via time travel. It’s “Game Over” and we must go back to the beginning and try again.

Hollywood is one facet of cultural production – highly commodified and controlled by powerful interests. Where the experience of Bolshevism and the early days of the revolutionary Soviet Union, and later various national liberation movements, stimulated cultural production with human liberation, equality, and progress as central themes – under capitalism, cinematic cultural works have mirrored and developed themes of decline, absolute limits, human hubris, victimhood, etc etc.

Historically the word – and idea – “disaster” in literature and cinema, has mirrored the word – and idea – “risk” in economics and politics. As the national economies have resisted all efforts at management by the various short term infatuations, discussion has turned away from direct management to chaos and simply mitigation of risk.

The premise of Interstellar is simply wrong. The possibilities of interstellar travel are fascinating and a good film about it could be great entertainment. Sadly this film (I expect) instead packages it in a highly pessimistic context, possibly the most pessimistic context. Why is this?

The films and themes I’ve looked at illustrate that portrayals of humanity in Hollywood science fiction have parallelled changes in the way humanity sees itself over the course of the last century. As capitalism has decayed to its decrepit current state, so too has the set of ideas that justify its continued existence. Far removed from any rational outlook, popular ideas characterise humanity as flawed, earth overpopulated and the environment doomed.

The new bogeymen are the latest pseudo-scientific catch phrases – the planet is about to reach a “tipping point” and “feedback mechanisms” will accelerate the slide into climate doom and environmental destruction. In the meantime, while not a single person or polar bear has died from these apparently terrible cataclysms that appear to be always just around the next corner, hundreds of thousands continue to die every day from easily preventable political causes – poverty, disease and conflict.

Identifying and tackling the problems of humanity

Is it reasonable to expect that anyone genuinely committed to fighting humanity’s problems would surely take their lead from any of the many publicly available measures of human quality of life in various parts of the world? If the biggest killers in some area are tuberculosis and malaria, wouldn’t you make that the focus of your opportunities for campaigning afforded by your relatively comfortable western lifestyle? If we are poised on the brink of a new nuclear cold war, wouldn’t you be lobbying to end proliferation? If trillions of dollars are being spent bombing Third World countries wouldn’t you be protesting the intervention and hypocrisy of your government and the funding of the arms industry? If we are poised at the moment in medical history when many diseases will be treatable but research can’t get funding while trillions are spent on stealth bombers, missile “defence” systems and NSA surveillance, wouldn’t you be out on the street demanding democratic and sane allocation of resources?

The uncritical and unchallenged assertion that destruction of our earth environment is the greatest problem facing us is ridiculous. It makes a mockery of the real problems faced by the majority of the world’s poor. Most importantly, it fails to understand that the structural contradictions of capitalism are the root cause.

All problems faced by humanity have a solution. To solve them we simply assess each one and prioritise them based on cost-benefit analysis and available technology. However, try saying this to an environmental zealot and you’ll see what “emotional investment” is – rather like, if you said it to a big capitalist, you’d find out what financial investment is. The need for gratification cannot allow logic.

Barriers to the simple solution of our most pressing problems are political rather than scientific or technical.

It is no surprise that relatively comfortable western lifestyles give rise to the most political campaigns per capita in the world. It is also the case that, relative to the massive availability of information and relative political freedom, ideas about humanity are also most distorted in these countries. This is symptomatic of the massive historical defeats suffered by workers in the industrialised west.

Living in the safest countries in the world – free from the daily struggle to survive faced by people in war-torn or impoverished Third World countries – westerners are terrified in their homes. About what? Foreigners. Strangers. Islamic fundamentalism. Ebola. Illegal immigrants. The list is long.

Instead of struggling to find enough food to eat, they are obese. Instead of struggling to get medical care, they attend energy-healing clinics. This list is long too.

Western stay-at-home mums drive this year’s super-safe Volvo – once they’ve visited the air-conditioned supermarket – to protest the placement of a cell phone tower near their child’s school. Presumably they call their friends – other stay-at-home mums – on their cell phones to encourage them to help “fight the power”. Contrast this with the Third World where just one cell phone tower anywhere would have an incredible effect on easing the daily struggle.

I recently watched the documentary Zapatista – which reports the brutal treatment of a marginalised section of Mexico’s rural population following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). What would be at the top of their list of pressing political problems? The fact that the US government is training and arming the Mexican army to suppress their freedom struggle? Yes – highly likely. What about concerns over fluoridation of drinking water? Unlikely – they don’t generally enjoy reticulated water. And how about Carbon Dioxide pollution? (aka “Climate Change”)? You guessed it – they would frown and smile and wonder if westerners are mad.

If these poor people take time out from their subsistence farming to oppose the government it means they aren’t working on the land to produce food to eat. Their consciousness of what constitutes a problem and what it means to struggle to solve it is quite different to the self-obsessed nonsense that informs the outlook of people in western countries with nothing better to do than assuage their vague feelings of political frustration by getting involved in the nearest campaign that provides emotional gratification. For most campaigns there is no actual need for any outcome at all. Take Kony2012 for example: a small number of people became rich thanks to a short-lived and naive populist campaign that simply disappeared.

This is where the term “First World problem” originates. Environmentalism turns it into “what we say goes”.

Ideological defeat

Environmentalism is symptomatic of the defeat at the level of ideas. It results from the failure to champion and maintain an independent, rational ideological tradition in opposition to capitalism. It has been absorbed and has become a mainstream institution – part of capitalism itself – a key component of its cynical self-justification.

The environment is obviously critical. There is no doubt. It’s a no brainer. But it’s also not on the verge of destruction. Even if it was, there is no way reformist environmentalism will achieve anything without the overthrow of capitalism – the institution which now relies on it. Environmentalism is far from being a programme capable of saving humanity (by first saving the baby seals and Amazon basin). It is, in fact, a key component of efforts to prevent social and political change and prolong capitalism.

In fact humanity has an incredible potential for unprecedented scientific and technological progress and social development. The earth is far from over-populated and could easily support many times the current population; most areas of the earth are empty space. The environment is in general not about to collapse and cause our extinction – analysis such as Bjorn Lomborg’s suggest that things are improving.

The “precautionary principle” says basically “let’s do something about this problem even though we’ve not demonstrated it is a problem.” This thinking is behind much western middle class justification for the environmental movement and climate change.

Hollywood has commodified a set of truths and delivers an emotionally gratifying experience which reinforces this negative characterisation of human potential.

While the teenagers are abandoning the kitchen, it’s up to the adults to show the way forward by exposing these ideas and championing human ingenuity, equality and progress free from the constraints of capitalism.

Now, I’m off to actually watch the movie.

Notes
1. Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge University Press, 2001
2. Wikipedia: The Skeptical Environmentalist
3. John C. Ogg, “Industries Making the Most Money on Doomsday Preppers”, 24/7 Wall St: http://247wallst.com/special-report/2013/08/19/industries-making-the-most-money-on-doomsday-preppers/
4. L Niven & J Pournelle, Footfall, Ballantine Books, 1985
5. Elon Musk, “Artificial intelligence is our biggest existential threat”, The Guardian, October 27, 2014
6. Rachelk Nuwer, “Forests Around Chernobyl Aren’t Decaying Properly”, Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/forests-around-chernobyl-arent-decaying-properly-180950075/?no-ist
7. Alien: A Critical Analysis

Further reading:
David A. Kirby, Lab Coats in Hollywood – Science, Scientists, and Cinema, MIT Press, 2014
Monica Martin, “A World at Risk: Unreliable Media and the Culture of Fear”, Cinemascope, Issue 17: http://cinemiz.net/cifj/?p=1381

Further reading on Redline
Dr Who: the degeneration of a time lord
Science and the Retreat from Reason
Science, capitalism and human liberation

 

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Comments
  1. badcop666 says:

    Well. The film is as ridiculously depressing as I expected.
    The soundtrack is mostly a depressing, Glassian dirge – an emo soundtrack to pain, death, suffering.
    The investment in scientific accuracy delivers nothing in the context of its awful, self-obsessed negativity.
    The clumsy environmentalism for dummies is as rational as KKK racism or fire-and-brimstone religious zeal but without being as interesting.
    The blackhole scenes draw strongly on 2001: A Space Odyssey but instead of leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions, a handy android companion gives Cooper comforting news and perspective. Wow, he can play the past like a huge harp. “That’s, like, so cool”.
    Neither the suggestion of advanced alien civilisation helping us, nor the paradoxical “it’s us” in the far future sending ourselves helpful hints from the fifth dimension – are uplifting or thought provoking – they’re boring attempts at coughing reproducing much better scifi ideas from other authors.
    The gushing reviews and coverage of this film aren’t the directors fault – but no doubt he loves it. The parasitic media industries which live off Hollywood output are no doubt desperate for something good to report – they fall into the reviewer trap of keeping the studios happy and wanting to snuffle in the trough of positivism and concern with everyone else.
    I give it 4/10 for visuals only. Which puts it into company with Prometheus.

  2. Tim says:

    That is an epic rant that raises alot of salient points. It is more of a critique of capitalist dooshbaggery and the ongoing subjugation of the proloteriat, than a review of the movie, but is well worth the read. You make a very good point in your review regarding the subversion of the left away from fighting for the betterment of the lives of the workers, something it can do something about, to environmental hand wringing. This, along with the atomisation of society (this is forshadowed by Thatchers comment “there is no society, there is only people”), had allowed the capitalist classes to reverse many of the gains of the 20th century.

  3. EWI says:

    Quoting Lomborg – associate of Richard Tol – at such length damages your own argument. This, after all, is the individual who the Danish scientific standards body found guilty of serious misrepresentation of the facts about climate change but who escaped censure as not actually being competent to know better!

    • Andy W says:

      Hi EWI. Well I’m sorry but I don’t feel ‘damaged’ at all actually. I stand by what Lomborg set out to do, I stand by his characterisation of “The Litany”. I suggest you might need to expend further effort in the area of scepticism both towards individual pieces of research as well as the behaviour of institutions – in extremely politicised times. I urge you to read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Skeptical_Environmentalist#Accusations_of_scientific_dishonesty if you haven’t already, which would surprise me, as there are a number of points pertinent to your criticism of me which perhaps you have failed to include in your reasoning?

      I have a scientific background in computer science and statistics. I am qualified to interpret scientific papers in areas directly related to my formal training. As a freelance journalist with nearly twenty years experience, I also *believe* I am reasonably experienced and relatively well-placed to interpret and comment on scientific discussion and publications on a broader range of disciplines. The often trundled out criticism that a commentator is unqualified to comment is a good example of “ad hominum” – especially when what is said is unpalatable.

      The University of East Anglia Climate Unit (UEA CU) was “cleared” by the “official investigation” – but cleared they aren’t I’m afraid. Similarly, Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” turned out to be a massive act of professional deception. Applying your rule uniformly then, perhaps Climate Alarmists should feel as “damaged” by association with these “scandals” as you think I should be by association with Lomborg?

      Of course they aren’t though. These scandals don’t exist in the Climate Alarm narrative – they’re conspiracies by satanists in the pay of “big oil”. The Science, after all, is “settled” – another quite amazing claim relative to the entire history of science.

      You mention “the facts about climate change” – when in fact there is only *evidence*, generated by a highly immature and highly politicised discipline taken up zealously by vocal environmentalists and “scientists” who should know better than to allow their axe grinding to influence their thinking. At the extreme we find people weeping over retreating glaciers. While the bombs continue to fall on the third world. Right. Yes. I can see how important those glaciers are!

      I’ll draw your attention to another example of discredited “science” – the claim that 97% of Climate Scientists agree that Climate Change is man made. I suggest you read a little further into the unpalatable truth of that little gem of happy self-deception. It’s a claim which is, interestingly, very similar to ad hominum – only in reverse. The self-deception that one’s rigorous scientific training leaves one immune from the political world one inhabits. Incredible that such “scientific professionals” could be so naive? Incredible but true.

      My main point, besides the satisfaction of venting against enviro-zealots – who, increasingly, I despise, is that I’m not disagreeing with specific rigorous findings of individual researchers (in quite fascinating areas). I am drawing attention to the political and intellectual fabric that connects them and their claim that, taken together, this represents the biggest threat to human existence.

      A claim that showcases an incredible level of conceit and ignorance.