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Interstellar Liberty and the Foibles of Progressivism



Spoiler Alert: This blog post may contain clues to key plot points in the 2014 film Interstellar.

One of the cornerstones of progressive political thought is that experts should be put in charge of public policy, using “scientific” management and “evidence-based” policy analysis to determine and implement social policy. Few areas of policy have been more steeped in this perspective than science policy. But this idea may have taken a pop culture hit in Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar, although it might be difficult to see at first.

At first blush, Interstellar seems like a conventional trope—the Earth is fast forwarding into environmental apocalypse, and it’s up to a few brave scientists and a NASA test pilot to find a new world for humans to colonize. The epic space opera includes a ton of great special effects, a tight script, and excellent acting by Matthew McConaughey (as former NASA test pilot Joseph Cooper), Anne Hathaway (as NASA scientist Amelia Brand), Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine (Dr. John Brand), John Lithgow, and Matt Damon (Dr. Mann), among others.

But the story embedded in Interstellar may be more important for what it leaves out than what it includes. Rather than take the politically correct approach that puts humans at the center of the climate catastrophe (although overpopulation is given a nod, possibly for popular plausibility), the movie explores hope, perseverance, and human creativity. It’s in the area of human creativity where the Nolan’s screenplay establishes a clear but subtle critique of experts as the arbiters of the humanity’s future and an implicit argument for liberty as essential to innovation.

In a layered, weaving (but not meandering) story, Interstellar’s core includes themes focused on communication, human connection, and a faith in humanity’s ability to innovate, commit, and persevere. A ragtag team of experts led by Dr. Brand (Caine) is all that’s left of NASA as dust storms consume what’s left of habitable Earth. They are tasked with ensuring humanity’s survival through a science-based, decades-long effort to travel through a wormhole into a new galaxy in search of a new planet and home. An alien intelligence created the wormhole, the scientists believe, in an effort to save human beings. So, NASA sent out manned space probes to find a new planet. Most fail, but they find three promising prospects, setting up the need to send a more complete crew, including experienced test pilot Cooper and other scientists capable of setting up a new colony. The science is plausibly accurate, and involves exploring the so-called “fifth dimension” of physics, the dimension beyond time that attempts to link gravity and electromagnetic forces (presumably Kaluza-Klein theory).

But here’s a twist that few seem to have picked up: The movie slams rule by experts in favor of individual ingenuity. The plot is inextricably tied to a space mission to determine whether Earth’s inhabitants can be evacuated to a new planet before it’s too late (Plan A), or whether to start a new colony using thousands of frozen fertilized eggs (Plan B). Joseph Cooper (McConaughy) is motivated to go on the mission to save humanity and his family, so he is betting on Plan A. Both options are set up by the lead scientist and project leader, John Brand. He is the expert—referred to at various times as “Professor” and “Doctor”—who, leveraging his scientific background, expertise at NASA, and understanding of humanity’s fate, created these plans as the only two viable options.

(Spoiler Alert). We learn, however, that Plan B was the only option all along, even though it was presented to Cooper as an equally viable option. Cooper, his family, and the rest of the human species still on Earth were never expected to survive. In fact, Brand (Michael Caine) manipulates the entire space crew, including his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), to ensure they undertake the mission and implement Plan B, which is to repopulate another planet with humans. (In what is likely a coincidental but intriguing twist, the other principal antagonist ends up being Dr. Mann. In real life, not the movie, Michael Mann is a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University long accused by climate skeptics of purposely presenting data in a way that exaggerates the effects of climate change to manipulate public policy.)

Without saying too much more, as in any good story, let’s just say that neither Plan B nor Plan A end up being the winning solution. Through mind-bending plays on physics (that I do not understand but am willing to accept in a sci-fi movie), Cooper ends up saving humanity through his cunning and faith in the creative power of his family and other humans back on Earth. In short, the policy experts lose, but the scientists win.

Christopher Nolan’s revised screenplay (first developed for Steven Spielberg by his brother Jonathan Nolan) deftly weaves this interplay between scientific management and individual scientific inquiry into the final half-hour of the movie as the audience slowly recognizes the futility of both Plan A and Plan B. As Cooper’s desperation increases, the audience is never really sure if humanity will survive. It’s from the final defeat of the scientific mastermind, through his own natural death, that the creative juices of the others searching for a solution on Earth are unleashed. Their willingness to think in new ways, interpret new data, and then play off each others’ inspiration (particularly Cooper and his adult daughter) drive the story toward resolution, both as a movie that can capture the imagination of a popular audience as well as a tale of humanity’s survival.

Of course, this ending is far more historically grounded than the apocalyptic end foretold by most doomsday predictions. More importantly, while science saves humanity, it’s individual perseverance and the human application of this knowledge within an environment of unconstrained free thought, experimentation, discovery, and overlording scientific masters—personal liberty—that provides salvation, if not redemption. Thus, in addition to being a good movie, Interstellar carries a pro-liberty message worth pondering at deeper levels.

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