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Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Burkean Conservatism in Space

The movie pits natural affections for those close to us against abstract conceptions of humanity.
Christopher Nolan

Ever since I read Bradley J. Birzer’s TAC piece on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy in which Birzer argues that “much of the dialogue [in The Dark Knight Rises] might have been written by…Edmund Burke,” I’ve found myself thinking along similar lines about Interstellar.

When I first saw the film four years ago, I left the theater unwilling to admit to myself that I felt underwhelmed.

Nolan’s sci-fi epic picks up 60 or 70 years in the future in a world devastated and depopulated by war and disease to the point that the New York Yankees play on what looks like a minor league field. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut dissatisfied with his life as a farmer struggling to feed the tiny remnant of humanity, finds himself swept up into an interplanetary mission to procure a new home among the stars for the human race. He accepts, understanding that while only a few years will pass for him, he’ll miss decades of his 10-year-old daughter’s life.

Accompanying him on this voyage are a stirring Hans Zimmer score, drop-dead gorgeous visual effects, and strong performances by the cast. Yet in spite of all this, I still couldn’t bring myself to love Interstellar. A few small details of the story threatened to ruin it for me.

Before Cooper’s Endurance mission leaves earth, his fellow explorer Brand (Anne Hathaway) explains to him that, unless her astrophysicist father (Michael Caine) can solve a particularly elusive equation, humanity on earth is doomed. Saving those currently alive, however, is of secondary importance. Brand shows Cooper a “population bomb,” an ark of embryos and artificial wombs sufficient to restart the human race on any hospitable planet.

For me, this killed the film’s sense of urgency. If the goal was to save humanity, what did it matter if a single generation died off? When I learned later that the original script had offered no such hope to the living inhabitants of earth, I grew even more frustrated with the Endurance crew’s refusal to forget about the people they’d left behind.

Brand’s insistence that “[l]ove is the one thing we’re capable of that’s capable of transcending time and space” and should therefore be allowed to affect their decision-making process seemed to me an unforgivable lapse into puerile sentimentality.

After a second viewing, though, I realized that I had initially watched Interstellar with a set of abstract, scientistic presuppositions that the film is actually working to subvert.

The 20th-century Catholic existentialist Walker Percy warns against such scientific abstraction as it applies to our relations with our fellow man when he writes in his essay “The Loss of the Creature” that “once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals but only specimens.” I was annoyed with Cooper because he could not bring himself to be scientifically objective and view his daughter back on earth as a mere specimen, no more or less inherently valuable than any other member of the human race.

Although existentialism is primarily associated with beret-wearing Frenchmen tending towards varying degrees of Marxism, I would argue that its focus on life as experienced (rather than theorized) lines up perfectly with Burkean conservatism.

When Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a number of English radicals who supported the French Revolution quickly published responses. One of these, William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, attacks the human tendency to harbor natural affections for those closest to us. For Godwin, the relations of friend, parent, and spouse are irrelevant; each of those must be judged objectively according to their “importance to the general weal.”

In “Interstellar,” Godwin’s argument is taken up by Dr. Mann, one of several astronauts sent out years in advance of the Endurance mission to explore possible new home worlds. Mann tells Cooper that Brand’s father gave up on solving his equation years ago, and that the idea that the current generation can be saved is a calculated lie: “He knew how much harder it would be for people to come together and save the species, instead of themselves. Or their children… Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier—we can care deeply, selflessly for people we know, but our empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.” For Mann and Godwin, our natural affections impede our objectivity and hinder our ability to act in the best interests of mankind.

In contrast, Burke sees our closest ties not as our greatest weakness, but as our greatest strength. “[T]o love the little platoon we belong to in society,” he writes, “is the first principle…of public affections. It in the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Like Cooper, Burke derives his willingness to sacrifice for posterity not from some abstract concern for the future of the human race, but from his love for his own child.

Those who replace these natural affections with abstract formulae—whether of the Rights of Man, the communist utopia, or the scientific, utilitarian management of humanity—run the risk of becoming what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.” These tinkerers care more for their theories than for their neighbors, and Burke argues that this shift of allegiance makes them capable of any atrocity. Dr. Mann’s enlightened rationality leads him jeopardize the mission by betraying Cooper and leaving him for dead on an uninhabitable planet, and although Burke was mocked for his hyperbole when his treatise first appeared, he was vindicated a few years later when the mass beheadings of the Reign of Terror began.

Burke is also vindicated in Interstellar. At the film’s climax, Cooper falls into a black hole, but instead of dying, he enters a tesseract that enables him to reach into the past and across the galaxy. Navigating by love and memory alone, he is able not only to paradoxically send his past self the very message that leads him to the Endurance mission in the first place, but also to send his daughter—now an adult astrophysicist working on the same equation that stumped Brand’s father—the solution that will save everyone on Earth. And in a profoundly Burkean twist, Cooper also realizes that the wormhole through which Endurance traveled to reach these new planets was actually opened not by aliens, but by future humans who have evolved the ability to transcend time and space, but have not become too “advanced” to remember their ancestors with affection.

The temptation toward social engineering may be a powerful one, but as Burke insists, society is not “a problem of arithmetic.” The bonds of love, faith, and tradition that tie us together are not mere hangovers from some primitive herd instinct. They are, as Brand says, “observable, powerful.” When Cooper attempts to reduce human love to social utility, Brand asks what possible social utility there can be in our love for people who have died. Cooper has no answer, but Burke does: “People who never look back to their ancestors will not look forward to posterity.” Instead, they will theorize and tinker until, in the end, they have abolished their own humanity.

And so it is Cooper’s love, not for some abstract concept, but for his own daughter, that sustains the continuity of community, and it is the love that future generations bear for their predecessors that saves the human race.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.