Whilst watching Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, it struck me that behind all the out-of-this-world visuals (no pun intended) and somewhat corny over-sentimental dialogue, there was a whooole lotta Nietzsche going on, and that this film would provide a pretty solid gateway into some of the ideas of one of the most overrepresented and misunderstood blokes in modern (i.e., post-Kant) philosophy. Sort of.
Now, this isn’t exactly new stomping ground for Nolan. In 2008’s Dark Knight he had half the world on the edge of their seats wondering what the Joker, one of the most brilliant and captivating characters in 21st century film, would do next. Nolan’s Joker was basically middle-period, pre-epiphany Nietzschean philosophy walking and talking: Utterly nihilistic, thrillingly violent, and impossible to ever really know. He even makes overt allusions to Nietzsche, saying stuff like ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you… stranger’, a modification of Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger (it’s either that or The Joker just really likes Kelly Clarkson).
But what set the Joker apart from other textbook supervillains is how we, the audience, spend most of the film trying to grasp just exactly what his agenda is. It wasn’t money, or a woman, or revenge, or jealousy, or simple world domination, it was something much more chilling and harder to admit to: he wanted to devalue all the things that we like to think make us human, to show us that morality is an illusion and that even the best of us are ultimately self-interested; that it is often in fact the best of us who are the most self-interested without realising it.
This is the grumpy Nietzsche of Human, all too Human and Dawn and The Gay Science. He wanted, in Hollingdale’s words, to ‘break down all the concepts and qualities in which mankind takes pride and pleasure into a few simple qualities in which no-one takes pride or pleasure and to see in the latter the origin of the former’. And just like Nolan’s Joker, Nietzsche does a chillingly convincing job of this. With his signature grandiose rhetoric, his tooth-and-nail violence on the page, and his gutter-fighting, eye-gouging wrestle with all the big names of philosophy, he comes scarily close to convincing us of a total devaluation of humanity (not to mention murdering God and positively destroying christianity).
This is the Nietzsche that’s given him the unshakeable reputation of being some sort of mythical-grade villain, not so much Ubermensch and Ubermonster, something subhuman and unspeakably dark that crawled up out of hell and tried to bring hell with him. It’s the Nietzsche that virtually all male adolescents interested in the humanities say they love when they’re having their rite-of-passage Nietzsche phase, before they actually get round to reading him and are swiftly put off. It’s the Nietzsche that you often see quoted out of context on a poster of him looking constipated and demonic with his bushy moustache spreading out in every direction. But this is not where Nietzsche ended up in his thinking, nor is it the Nietzsche I’m interested in. I’m only interested in this point of his philosophy as a stepping-stone to what came next: Zarathustra and the Ubermensch, or ‘Superman’.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra marks a pretty dramatic u-turn in Nietzsche’s thinking. He’d gone about as far as anyone can go in the nihilist direction and, quite understandably, wasn’t a very happy bunny. Philosophically, he was at a dead end and it was not a good or cheerful or productive place to be. Eventually the pressure gave way and he just exploded (intellectually that is), renouncing his nihilism in favour of a fervent, passionate, affirmative approach to philosophy, and, ‘as a result of ten absolutely fresh and cheerful January days’, Book one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra poured forth manically from him.
It is this era of his philosophy that Interstellar concerns itself with (From here on out: Spoiler Alert). Interstellar is set in a disturbingly plausible near-future America in which the exploitation of the environment has reached the point where that environment is becoming no longer inhabitable. Technology’s waxen wings have melted and not much works anymore. There’s a second dust bowl, a food shortage, and things aren’t looking like they’re going to get any better. Coop – a widowed ex-Nasa pilot – is trying to hold a farm down and be a good guy for his kids and do all the other stuff you have to do to be a likeable everyday hero in a Hollywood film.
After a weird series of events, Coop and his daughter Murph stumble upon a NASA base out in the desert, where Coop’s old chums greet him and tell him that no, NASA was not in fact decommissioned as the government had everyone think, but has actually been pootling along all this time and working out how to rehabitate all people on another planet in another solar system accessed by a handy wormhole out near Saturn. They’ve sent some people out there, got some limited data back, and now they want Coop to go out with a team and find out which of the planets is habitable by visiting them all. Plan A is to find a habitable planet, set up some form of sustenance, and then invite all the folks back on earth to come on over. Plan B is to leave everyone behind and repopulate the planet via what appears to be a sperm bank on the spaceship (although they never really clarify). It transpires that it was Plan B they were going to do all along, and Nasa only pretended to Coop that Plan A was plausible to convince him to go in the first place. It thus falls on Coop’s shoulders to bring the next step of the human race into fruition. To do so he has to abandon his family and community, his property, and his environment, the three cornerstones of any capital-M Man.
Now, where does Nietzsche tie into all of this? It’s in the idea of the Superman – to be understood not as some ideal of man but something above and beyond man altogether. The Superman is, in Nietzsche’s thought, the next step for the human race, only we can’t rely on some inevitable Darwinian forward motion to push us there: we have to wilfully get there ourselves. Here, as in The Dark Knight, Nolan doesn’t just simply dramatise an idea of Nietzsche, but works it into a compelling narrative and tests out how this idea stands up in the ‘real’, emotionally-involved, human-interest world of Hollywood film. Let’s take a closer look at Nietzsche’s idea.
In the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome… All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?… Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman’. Now, the Superman is something that has been interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, or, as Nicholas Taleb points out in The Black Swan, ‘readers interpret however it suits them’. For the sake of simplicity and the appallingly slim average internet attention span, let’s just take a kind of straightforward anthropological or evolutionary reading of the Superman, as this is also the angle that Nolan comes at it from in Interstellar.
In this understanding, the basic premise of the idea is that in order for our race to not come to a standstill or stagnate, we need to wilfully take our evolution into our own hands. Granted, this has been something that’s kind of been going on ever since the Neolithic, when we stopped exclusively chasing bison with sticks and started planting grains and keeping goats. In other words, its when our evolutionary foothold became based not on our physical strength or niche in the food chain, but on our ability to exploit our environment and use technology, with culture and early religion being the adhesive that held us together in communities.
The problem is that in the 12,000 years since we started doing this, we have become very, very good at it, yet we are still none the wiser about where we are to go next after we’ve established basic sustenance. We lack direction, and the impulses and genealogical makeup that make us capital-M ‘Man’ are actually sometimes a hindrance: look at how many fights the Alpha-male impulse results in on Friday and Saturday nights, or how many wars have been waged over the inability to grasp the validity of another group’s belief-system to them, or how our notions of herd identity lead so often to the persecution of those that fall outside of it (enacted out on both a national scale, with countries and states, and in smaller communities, such as gangs or football hooliganism). In short, we have no idea where to go next, and we are all-too-often the victims of our hormones and impulses. As Nietzsche notes, ‘Not only the reason of millennia – the madness of millennia too breaks out in us. It is dangerous to be an heir’. All this leaves us in a bit of a pickle.
But how does Nietzsche go about approaching this pickle? How does Interstellar comply with or reject Nietzsche’s pickle-approach? And is there any room for plain old humanity in Superhumanity? Well, er, you’ll have to wait a week.