My thoughts on John Glenn and the abandoned frontier reminded me of this film from 2014. I went to see Interstellar mainly because I was tickled by the fact that the bad guy is called "Dr Mann". But I took along my kids, and I'm glad I did because it's a good film to see with children or parents. Underneath all the saving-humanity space-travel stuff, the only relationship that matters in the movie is between dad Matthew McConaughey and his daughter. I'm tiptoeing around the startling evolution of that relationship, but let's just say that the, ahem, role reversal of their final scene together had my boys talking all the way home.
Interstellar is directed by Christopher Nolan, and written by him and his brother Jonathan, and reviewers were enjoined not to give away any details of the plot, or even the name of the fellow who plays "Dr Mann". This injunction spurred an entire genre of spoiler-laden Internet posts with titles like "Twenty Questions Left Unanswered By Interstellar". For my own part, I shall eschew too many specifics about the narrative of the film, save for a word on "Dr Mann" at the end. But I would like to say something about the view of the future offered by the Nolan brothers (no relation to the Nolan Sisters).
The story takes place a few years from now, when mankind is facing extinction because of a planet-wide crop-killing "blight". I know everyone and his Auntie Mabel have done thumbsuckers on the supposedly right-wing sub-texts of Interstellar, but in my case I found it oddly reminiscent of my own book. Hey, how about that? There's a moment early on in the film when a schoolteacher earnestly explains to McConaughey's character why he can't let his daughter have outdated books about the space program: The current textbooks teach that the 1969 moon landings were a fake designed by the United States Government to force the Soviet Union to compete and thereby drive them into bankruptcy. As I mentioned the other day, I have a whole section on the moon landings in After America (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore and go to support my pushback against the real-life "Dr Mann" and his fellow climate mullahs). Anyway, to reprise that passage from After America:
Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, wrote that "that landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans...
"Forty years ago, we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability..."
If you think about it, isn't it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet... It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a 19th century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
Christopher Nolan takes that to the next stage: What happens to a society that turns its back on ingenuity and innovation? It becomes necessary to rewrite and diminish even the glories of the past, including even that moon landing - for to believe we faked it is easier and less painful than to believe we actually did it.
McConaughey's character, who's so archetypally American he's called "Coop", doesn't take that schoolma'am's historical airbrushing lying down: "We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible ...to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements." And then the bleak realization that we no longer do: "But we lost all that."
Coop knows whereof he speaks. He used to be an astronaut. Now he's a farmer. Almost everybody is. And not Archer Daniels Midland-type mega-farmers, but broken-down family-farmers living in weathered, creaky homesteads where you talk about burying prematurely deceased kin out in the back forty. The hardscrabble land yields less and less each year because of the mysterious, devastating "Blight", which blows in and leaves the neighborhood in dust so thick it's like John Steinbeck with a James Cameron budget. My old comrade John Podhoretz observes:
It is notable that the terms "global warming" and "climate change" are not used to describe the environmental depredation of the Earth—notable because that would be the easiest cultural shorthand for Nolan to use. It feels like there's a reason for their absence.
I'd go a little further than that. Nolan actually goes to a bit of trouble to identify the problem as "non-anthropogenic" climate change. NASA's top boffin (Michael Caine, not on best form) explains that the Blight feeds on nitrogen - which is 80 per cent of the atmosphere, but, unlike CO2 emissions, nothing to do with man.
So America has returned to that locally-grown environmentally sustainable family-farm elysium "progressives" have been pining for since Woodstock. As someone says early on, "The world doesn't need any more engineers. We didn't run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food." Even as the Blight wipes from the earth wheat and okra, a society of farmers scrambles ever more feverishly to grow corn - the last crop left. When the last corn has been cut, mankind will starve - and those that don't will suffocate as the Blight sucks up the atmosphere. "We've forgotten who we are," says Cooper. "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt." To quote again from After America, this society has succumbed to a poverty of spirit.
There's a suggestion that there's still one or two engineers out there somewhere - Coop and his kid excitedly chase one of the new drones, made in India. Interstellar reminds us that real science is supposed to solve problems at a time when the pseudo-science of the Big Climate hucksters sees man as the problem and wants only to regulate and tax and enforce him into submission. Cooper lives in a United States that has ceased to innovate and then stopped, and then slipped backwards. This is a society that has seized up, as far too much of present-day America already feels it has. As I say, the film is set in the near future, and then the slightly-further-away future, but through the passing decades nothing much changes: the cars, the clothes look the same, only a little rustier and shabbier. Whether or not, as Professor Charlton says, human capability peaked in 1969, in this film's vision of the future it pretty much ground to a halt four decades later: The farmland is a 1930s dustbowl, but they drive from the homestead to the dying main street in early-21st-century club-cab pick-ups. To go back to my 19th century date farmer wondering where in the desert the Great Ziggurat of Ur is, there are a couple of scenes when Coop reaches for his laptop and has to wipe the dust - the Blight - off it: in this film, the computer is a dusty artifact of a lost America.
In Steinbeck's Oklahoma dust bowl, the Joads want to get to California. But when the planet's a dust bowl you have to find your California out there beyond the stars. So what's left of NASA has dispatched its last astronauts out into space to find some habitable planets on which to start anew. Which is where "Dr Mann" comes in - and where we'll get just a wee bit spoilerish:
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told the mission was led by "the remarkable Dr. Mann." No first name is given, to the best of my knowledge. After visiting one planet and finding it unsuitable for life, Cooper and his crew head out for the planet settled by Dr. Mann.
Dr. Mann is prone to speechifying about the importance of saving future generations of humanity. Indeed, he claims he is willing to sacrifice the current crop of humans to make sure life goes on... It turns out that the remarkable Dr. Mann is a horrendous liar in other ways and is willing to kill everyone in the film to save his own hide.
In the real world, there's another famous Dr. Mann: Dr. Michael Mann, noted climate scientist and father of the controversial "hockey stick" graph that shows man is warming the planet at crazy-fast rates. Mann, it's worth noting, has come under fire from some on the right who have claimed that he is misleading people about the dangers of climate change in order to spur action. And the speech given by Interstellar's Dr. Mann seems awfully reminiscent of the arguments made by those who think climate change will lead to the death of us all: We humans are simply too selfish to make the sacrifices demanded to stave off the existential threat posed by man-made global warming, so deceptions and non-democratic decision making is totally acceptable. For the good of humanity, of course.
The movie "Mann" is one of several astronauts out there in search of new worlds. The other guys are just referred to by one-word surnames, but "Dr Mann" is never referred to as anything but "Dr Mann". In other words, the Nolan brothers appear to have consciously chosen to give their villain the character of a "climate scientist": "Dr Mann represents the best of us," says a starry-eyed Anne Hathaway early on. Given the film's themes, it's difficult to believe the Nolans' choice of name for their bad guy is pure coincidence.
Once he's on his new world, he sends back data telling NASA what a perfect climate it is. When Coop & Co get there, they discover it's an ice planet - a vast frozen wasteland in which even the clouds ice up. Consigning the man who eliminated the Medieval Warm Period to a giant planetary icebox again seems too good a jest to be coincidental. For the Nolan brothers' next film, a crazed musical comedy boy called "Dr Steyn" takes over an abandoned planet and uses Ethel Merman's DNA to repopulate it with an army of show-stealing starship troupers who conquer the galaxy extremely loudly.
As to Dr Mann's ultimate fate, I shall say no more except to note that, from my point of view, it's a far more satisfactory outcome than the torpid DC "justice" system is likely to provide.
~PS Speaking of Mann vs Steyn, reader Steve Locke writes:
No comment or opinion piece in quite some time on Michael Mann and the trial of the century? Has the suit been settled?
Good God, no. I regard "settling" as a grossly abused concept in the American courts. Gimme "guilty" or "not guilty": Straight up or down.
The reason I've not written anything recently is because there's nothing new to say, and saying the same thing over and over round and round in circles surely tries the patience of readers. Mann vs Steyn is procedurally stalled in the dank toilet of DC justice, awaiting an interlocutory ruling from the DC Court of Appeals before the trial court, the DC Superior Court, can resume its own sloth-like deliberations. In any functioning courthouse, the interlocutory ruling would have come over 18 months ago, but, as I testified to the US Senate, the dysfunctional DC Appeals Court has a remarkably incompetent jurist (Judge Ruiz) who takes up to three years to issue rulings.
I leave it to others to decide whether they're stalling merely to prolong the process and force me to "settle". But that's not gonna happen.