Interstellar as anti-environmentalist trope?

**Spoiler alert: This post will contain detailed information about the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read about that, please stop reading here.**

I went to see Christopher Nolan’s newest film Interstellar this past week, and one of the first things I did when I got home was to Google search whether Nolan is a climate change denier. I’ll explain in this post why the movie caused me to question that and why I think it could be interpreted as being an anti-environmental and climate change denying film.

Don’t get me wrong—I liked the movie a lot. If you want to see an engaging film with beautiful special effects this is your movie. The use of theoretical astrophysics is fascinating, and at its heart the film causes its audience to question what the value of the human species is. Not bad, even if it takes us almost three hours to get there. Nolan (director and shares writing credits with his brother) has produced something worth watching. 

For all its merits, however, I left Interstellar feeling a bit unsettled. We’re confronted right away with a world in crisis in the distant but not too distant future. The world is gripped by a modern Dust Bowl (they even used interviews from Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary “The Dust Bowl”).

But how did the Earth get like that?

This was one of my first clues. I was shocked that there isn’t a single line that might hint at how the planet got to such a state even when there are other lines of dialogue and context clues that help us understand the current situation. First off, it’s farfetched that the whole planet would be gripped in another Dust Bowl. But more than that, you don’t want to tell us it was anthropogenic climate change? Or nuclear war? Or SOMETHING? Instead we’re presented with a “dying Earth” model (in some ways fitting the Gaia hypothesis). The planet is dying just because it is. It’s not necessarily (as far as the viewer knows) because humans did anything wrong.

Color me skeptical.

Well at least humans are trying to fix the planet and that’s a good thing, right?

Wrong. At least in the movie’s worldview. Our ruggedly handsome protagonist, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), let’s us know early on that the folks trying to take care of the planet are anti-science and don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart.

Cooper’s daughter gets suspended from school because she brought in one of her father’s old textbooks that showed the moon landing. Her teacher then explains very matter-of-factly that everyone NOW knows that the moon landing was faked to bankrupt the Soviets during the Cold War. Teaching anything other than the new standards is hurtful. The next generation needs to keep its eyes on the ground, not the sky.


Cooper’s daughter Murph (played by three different actors), in many ways the real hero of the movie, rebels against her teachers and studies physics, eventually saving the world. We’re to believe that her calling to study physics and Cooper’s desire to be a pilot again are somehow better and more important than farming.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a pilot or study physics. Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to farm and take care of the Earth either (in real life, not in Interstellar).

"We're explorers, pioneers; not caretakers."

The textbook incident at school causes Cooper to intone the above line in his honey-thick Southern drawl. It is the most powerful line in the movie by far. It’s also a bit nonsensical. 

Cooper presents a false dichotomy. Why can’t people be both pioneers and caretakers? Why can’t some people be pioneers and some caretakers? And what’s wrong with taking care of things?

Perhaps this is some latent (or not so latent) sexism. The movie is overwhelmingly white and male (I disagree with Neil deGrasse Tyson here). Or perhaps Nolan means to vilify an environmentalist or conservationist mindset that sees protecting the Earth above all else as worthwhile and valuable.

The caretakers are also anti-science. In addition to the moon landing chicanery above, we are told that the Lazarus project has to be ultra-secret because if normal people (presumably the caretakers) found out about it they would be outraged that money was being spent on space exploration (a stand-in for science in general). Agronomy is more-or-less unmentioned in the movie, and the one scene where it is depicted we are led to believe that the discipline is impotent and unable to counteract the blight in any way. For a movie that glorifies science so much why can’t agricultural science also be lauded?

Climatologists are the Villains?

When Matt Damon makes his appearance about two-thirds of the way through the film, it is eventually revealed that he is a selfish villain who, though he proclaims to care about the survival of the species, in the end only cares about his own survival. What is his character’s name? Dr. Mann.

While some may question whether Mann is meant to stand in for humanity (“man” or “mankind”), I immediately wondered whether this was an allusion to Dr. Michael Mann, perhaps the world’s most well known climatologist. Mann is best known for his work in developing the “hockey stick curve,” likely the most common iconography associated with anthropogenic climate change.

Could it be a complete coincidence that the biggest threat to the mission to save humanity has the same name as the most influential climatologist? Very possibly. But it would be a heck of a coincidence. I think the name is intentional. Nolan sees Michael Mann as a villain who is hurting humanity’s chances at survival and portrays him as a lunatic. At least he gets played by a good looking actor.

Technocratic worldview

The biggest piece of evidence why the movie is an anti-environmentalist trope is the technocratic or techno-scientific worldview that it espouses. We are led to believe that the only people who can save the species are the scientists (not normal people changing their lifestyles, not political agreements, not taking better care of the planet, etc.).

Moreover, the lampooned “caretakers” are not terribly intelligent. Are we really to believe that some mysterious “blight” has destroyed everything but corn? And only one varietal of corn at that? Perhaps this is part of an anti-Monsanto trope. The rest of the movie, however, portrays to us that it’s more likely ineffective management by those trying to take care of the Earth. The caretakers aren’t just misguided; they’re idiots.

Moreover, while robotics technology has advanced enough to create sentient beings, agricultural science and technology seem to have regressed to technology and methods available at the end of the twentieth century. If agricultural production was as desperate as is implied, it seems most plausible that research and development resources would have been poured into food production and soil conservation. That did not happen, however, for some unknown reason.

On the other hand, the physicists are the real ones who can save the planet. By the way, I think it’s not coincidental that the science PhDs who have most vehemently argued against anthropogenic climate change (and used their credentials as “scientists” to do so) have been those with PhDs in physics. Hmm.

I don’t have a problem with showing physicists as heroes. The movie does a marvelous job of showing how interesting and, frankly, cool astronomy and astrophysics are. Kudos. But presenting physicists as the heroic foil to the antagonist “caretakers” is, at best, problematic. 


 In the end, Interstellar’s message is simple: it would be really bad if humans destroyed the Earth so much that the entire planet turned into another Dust Bowl, but if that happens scientists will help lead the way and find a solution. That solution may even be ditching the planet for something better!

 Could all of this be coincidental? Perhaps… but with so many data points that seems unlikely. We could quibble about most of these points, but taken as a collective they are difficult to dismiss. Nolan seems interested in telling a tale where those interested in taking care of the Earth are holding back the species and one where science and technology can overcome any environmental problem. It even goes far enough to make me question whether Nolan is a climate denier.

 Ultimately, Interstellar is a wildly entertaining movie. I just wish its message was equally as thrilling.

UPDATE (11 Nov 2014): Neil deGrasse Tyson and I completely agree on this: fixing the Earth seems much easier than going through a wormhole to find a new planet.