Why Interstellar annoys me


I finally saw Interstellar last night. Good movie. But here’s a rant on why movies like it annoy me:

They ignore the biggest problem facing a group of people trying to decide how to save the world—the collective action problem.

For example, most people in Interstellar suffer from apparent mindlessness. Not the main characters, but everyone else. While government scientists slaved away building a massive spaceship to take them to another world, everyone else just went about their lives. A government bureau manned by hundreds of people working in secret operated, as far as we know, without any significant conflict between the individuals who comprise it. This, despite shrinking budgets and sky-high stakes (whoever gets on the ships first has the best shot at surviving). Everyone just goes along with what’s being dictated from the top, but those at the top don’t seem to possess any real enforcement mechanism that would allow them such control over their subordinates. Everyone just does what they’re told, apparently never thinking that they might know better than their bosses.

Of course, it’s not impossible that tons of people could get along without serious conflict. The collective action problem isn’t a logical necessity. It’s merely something we observe in the world—something that plagues almost every attempt at group action. So perhaps this government bureau and all the other people in the world who just sit around peacefully waiting for someone to do something about the pending apocalypse could be an exception. I guess it’s possible that a government bureau wouldn’t change course after 25 years of no results from their original course of action, or that no one would begin to doubt the head honcho physicist who, after decades of thinking, never did solve the problem necessary for them to succeed and survive. That could happen. But such a world bores me. It’s not interesting or one worth putting in a movie. It skips over what is perhaps the most endemic problem facing groups of people trying to achieve a common end.

I’d rather watch a movie about how this society came to achieve such a harmony—not one that assumes this incredibly complex problem isn’t interesting or is just something humans will get over once their species matures a little bit. That’s because the problem is interesting and humans won’t ever get over this as long as they all have independent minds and subjective values and live in a world of scarce means.

I’ve seen this annoying theme in other movies, too. In Divergent80 percent of the world’s population is ruled by 20 percent. It’s not like the real world, where people generally agree to be ruled by their leaders (at least in theory). Everyone in the Divergent world is assigned to their “faction” according to the results of some serum-based aptitude test. This test is administered by one particular faction, who it seems has never thought to use this power to improve their own lot or advance their own faction’s causes (this faction also happens to govern the other factions). They just go along with the existing order, despite huge gains to be had from manipulating the test.

For example, here’s an unintentionally hilarious quote from Divergent:

We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. We even feed the Factionless—the ones who don’t fit in anywhere. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government.

“Trusted to run the government.” As if this power isn’t questioned or challenged every single day by anyone who disagrees with any decision that government makes. Everyone just agrees to get along. Yes, the movie is about one faction taking over the others, but the way it happens actually magnifies the problem I cite here because the faction who tries to seize power is not the one that already “runs the government.” Instead, it’s another faction for whom seizing control comes at a much higher cost.

In short, movies like this make people out to be too passive. Their plots ignore the problem of collective action and make the jump to solving whatever other problem a group faces facing by removing any semblance of independent thinking on the part of the group’s individual members. Not every movie does this, of course, but too many do. What I find truly interesting about people is not what a group can solve once they are all of one mind, but how they come to solve anything at all while of different opinions about what should be done, and what the process of achieving that order looks like.

In fact, I’d love to see a movie about that—one where human beings face annihilation if they don’t do X, but never get around to doing X because they can’t agree on how to do X. Or one where a protagonist comes up with a way to reason with dissidents or align incentives such that everyone agrees and they accomplish X. Such stories might not be as action-packed, but they’d at least give people a more realistic picture of how the world works instead of one that regrets the fact that we all think independently, have different subjective ends and would benefit from simply following our leaders.

I’m sure I’m overstating this point. There are probably some subtle things in each of these movies that explain why people in them are so passive. But I’d still like to see the collective action problem made more prominent in science fiction movies. It’s not worth marginalizing, even if to make a point about something that requires easy collective action, because it will always be with us.

Oh, and one more thing that annoyed me: Romilly seemed a little to normal after supposedly waiting 23 years for Cooper and Amelia to return from Dr. Miller’s planet. Feel free to disagree, but I think he’d have gone crazy by then, being alone on the other side of a black hole and all.

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