Welcome back to Green Screen, where Grist writers put on their proverbial cinephile hats to talk about movies, television, video games, and any heretofore undiscovered media on two-dimensional surfaces. This week, a star team of Gristers turn their sights on Christopher Nolan’s new semi-cli fi movie, ''Interstellar'', which opened in movie halls worldwide this week.
The basics: In the near-ish future, thanks to humankind’s excess, the Earth becomes a waste of Dust Bowl-era desolation, with multiplying crop blights that apparently threaten to outcompete humans for atmosphere to breathe. THE THEME SHOULD HAVE BEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND AGW BUT NOLAN AND THE STUDIO CHICKENED OUT, FEARFUL OF RIGHTWING CLIMATE DENIALIST REAX. SO WE'RE STUCK WITH THIS SCI FI WET DREAM. Obviously, the only thing to do is to take a spaceship through a wormhole in search of habitable planets in other galaxies. Obviously.
Why it’s green: When it comes to spectacle, climate change can leave a lot to be desired (Al Gore giving a powerpoint? Polar bears looking vaguely disgruntled? Ice melting?). That’s why we were SO PUMPED to see the ringleader of spectacle, Christopher Nolan himself, take on a version of anthropogenic climate change as supervillain of his newest, splashiest, most space-tastic film yet. BUT ALAS, IT WAS NOT TO BE! SEE ABOVE!
Well, climate change and also the uncompromising absolutes of space and time. And admittedly, there is much more spectacle to be had from the latter, whether from glorious mind- and time-bending singularities to epic surfing of massive alien waves, while back on Earth all we get are some flaming corn fields and a few ominously looming dust storms. Nice and doom-y, but everyone knows that’s not really what you’re here to see.
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures
Eve: I walked into this movie thinking: Alright, if Matthew McConaughey is going to be playing a LITERAL ROCKET SCIENTIST who talks about climate change [NOT] and is a sensitive father and says everything in the kind of Texas accent that should have melted the ice of one of the godforsaken planets he landed on, I am just going to be enthralled from the get-go. Game over. This movie was made for me.
I was wrong.
First of all, I can’t recall a single semi-coherent statement that Rust Cohle: Space Edition made about climate change throughout the movie. “There sure is a lot of dirt flying around this fucked-up ol’ planet!” pretty much sums it up.
Second of all, I found the decision to base a driving part of the plot on this dude’s blind commitment to return to his family pretty inexplicable given the fact that it takes him about 47 seconds to decide to leave them to go on a shockingly ambiguous, probably fatal space mission. “THEY CHOSE ME!!!” says Ben Barry, post-quantum physics Ph.D. “I HAVE NO CHOICE!! I MUST LEAVE THIS MORNING!!!” “But Dad –” “NO TIME!!!!! GOOD BYE!! HERE’S AN OLD WATCH THAT WILL LATER HAVE EXTREME BUT INEXPLICABLE SIGNIFICANCE.”
Amelia: I think that might take about as long as actually watching this movie did. And have about as much to do with climate change. {HIM READING THE PHONE BOOK]
Nathan: I never got the sense that the movie’s big bad was climate change. I though it was “the blight” — however it came to be — which systematically killed nearly all plant life (or at least food plants ). So the global threat of human extinction is from total ecosystem collapse, not climate change. I didn’t go in expecting that, nor feel like it was raised by the movie itself. The cause of the blight goes unmentioned and its consequences are presented as brute fact — not something the characters are here to explain or solve. The dust clouds aren’t the puzzle to solve, but rather the drum beat to extinction that gives urgency to the character’s choices.
Sam: We should say that the dust-storming Earth-pocalypse that goads humanity into wormhole-connected galaxies in search of other habitable worlds is not explicitly the global warming that threatens our species in real life. BUT IN FACT AGW IS WHAT WE NEED TO FOCUS ON, PARDON THE MOVIE CAMERAMAN PUN!
As a card-carrying degrowther, I was really digging the first few minutes of the movie, when everyone was focused on fixing Earth by living modestly, not looking to jump ship for another planet to destroy. .....COOL YES!....But I guess the script never even really stated that the environmental catastrophe the characters face is human-caused. In fact, Matt McCo even sat on the porch at one point and Texas-drawled that the Earth didn’t want people to live on her no more. Sounds like the typical Republican description of natural climate change. ....YES!
Eve: Sam … it seems like you would have hated every minute of the movie after the first three, if this is true. Since there were approximately infinity more minutes, I really apologize for that whole evening.
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures

*Spoiler: They is us. Did I just blow the movie? YES YOU DID!
Amelia: Where this movie lost credibility for me was not the science, but the scientists.

If we are a society that thinks of science as a kind of magic whose main method can be distilled down to “follow your heart” then no wonder we’re getting in trouble with the basic facts of global warming here at home.
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures
Ted: Here’s one thing I think Chris Nolan got right. Dramatizing clear-and-present dangers that elapse over massively long time scales — climate change, space catastrophes, peeing in a bottle you had by your side and peed into from your seat sitting down during Interstellar’ s 169  minute running time — remains a persistent challenge for storytellers, especially in film. By situating the action near black holes, Nolan was able to make 23 years of horrible climate effects feel urgent. Casey Affleck’s family keeps dying of dust lung over long decades, while Space Cowboy Coop tries to shred the raddest big wave ever. If he pulls it off, bang! New home found, climate crisis over. [LOL]!]
Amelia: That may actually be the best possible reason to make a movie co-featuring intergalactic space travel and climate change.
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures

Ted:  How can we think like a species instead of a bunch of tribes to address our biggest problems?

Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures
Amelia: Let’s end at the beginning, with what I think is the biggest question of this movie: Do we really believe this whole space-gambit was warranted in the first place? OK, yes, we screwed up the Earth, but wouldn’t it have been easier to commit those billions and billions of secret NASA dollars toward eradicating blight and adapting new crops than sending THREE PEOPLE to recon another galaxy? 
Eve: [WELL SAID,] Amelia. 
Amelia: Did they, though? Did they really need that?

Amelia: Here’s the quote I’m stuck on: “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.”