Head over to Youtube to see the trailer for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s new film and (inevitable) masterpiece. Nolan’s work has always been a cut above the rest of Hollywood. Since he started directing big budget flicks (2005’s Batman Begins) he’s always blended action, adventure and mystery with intelligence. He insists his movies are just “popcorn flicks” but everyone can see they are something much more. Interstellar is the story of scientists who unlock a way to travel the universe through wormholes. If I’m not mistaken, those wormholes also cause the characters to time travel. Nolan’s movie is based on some theoretical science that goes way above my pay grade, but only Nolan could find a way to incorporate hard scientific theory into a “popcorn” sci-fi movie with an all-star cast headed by Matthew McConaughey.
What does Christopher Nolan’s movie have to do with history, and therefore with this blog? The teaser trailer features images of humanity’s achievements including surviving the dustbowl and reaching the moon. McConaughey’s voice narrates the images, which are interspersed with a few snippets from Interstellar itself. The triumphant images end with a montage of America grounding her space fleet and symbolizing a halt in our endless pioneering ambition. His speech is inspiring and challenges humanity to continue to reach for the stars. “Our greatest achievements cannot be behind us,” he says. “Our destiny lies above us.” Unknowingly, this dialogue parallels a common theme in historical works. Are our best days really ahead of us?
Teleology is a philosophical point of view that argues that things exist for a final end. In history, this philosophy often shapes narrative. Events happen to bring about future events. Causation and all that. Inevitably the historians argue that the future events will be improvements on the past. When they look back on history, they often see a rising progression in humanity’s “civilization.” We become more advanced, smarter, healthier, morally superior.
A perfect example is the argument over gay rights. When someone opposes gay marriage or equal rights, we often say they will be on the wrong side of history. This statement contains an assumption that the future will continue to improve morally. We saw this sense after World War I, as well. After such massive destruction, few people anticipated another large scale war was even possible, much less likely within twenty years. The future, it is assumed, is always better.
That’s not necessarily true. History isn’t linear. Rome was a very advanced society, but when it collapsed centers of learning disappeared, health deteriorated, and an argument could be made that Europe became more “savage” and decentralized before. Another philosophical paradigm of history is a cyclical viewpoint. The rise and fall of empires and civilizations. They’re closer to the mark, but still wrong.
Future history has not yet been written. We need to constantly strive to advance our society according to our morals and our principles. We need to reach for the stars, and hopefully Interstellar helps rekindle that pioneering spirit in the world, and especially in America. We cannot assume the future will be better, we cannot get comfortable. We can’t say “it (whatever it may be) can’t happen here.” Similarly, we can’t expect to collapse and fall, like an inevitable cycle.
The future is what we make of it. I’m glad to be reminded of it. By a movie trailer, no less.