Interstellar

Article by   December 2014
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At the end of one of Christopher Nolan's most memorable films, The Prestige, one of the duelling magicians, Robert Angier, lies dying, and reproaches his rival, "You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple, miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder."  The challenge for the magician, the impossible challenge, was to sustain that sense of wonder for act after act, even as the audience began to see through the earlier tricks, to somehow fool them once again, reversing the logic just as it had been deciphered. The film The Prestige was itself a masterful execution of the very magician's strategy that it portrayed, and in fact served as a metaphor for Nolan's whole oeuvre

With Interstellar, his latest masterpiece, this modern-day wizard has done it again; once again audiences shuffled out of the cinemas in stunned silence, scratching their heads. Only this time, the trick was that it wasn't a trick, it was real. In his earlier films, Nolan, like the cynical Angier, seemed to concede that the world was simple, miserable, and solid all the way through, with transcendence a mere feat of imagination or leap of faith--an elaborate act that held out the promise that the world was true and good and beautiful and knowable, and held more secrets than its dreary appearances, only to be unmasked as a dream of wishful thinking. In Memento, The Prestige, and Inception, Nolan deftly made the world disappear into his magician's hat; in Interstellar, he triumphantly whips it back out from beneath his cape.  

The setting for Interstellar is Planet Earth a few decades in the future; unrestrained consumption and environmental degradation have led to an agricultural crisis like the Dust Bowl on a global scale. Earth's dwindling population subsists by farming corn, the one surviving crop, and Cooper, a widower and one-time NASA pilot, is no exception. Learning of a secret plan to save humanity, he agrees to pilot the craft that will travel through a wormhole to identify habitable planets orbiting a black hole in a distant but now-accessible galaxy. This means leaving behind his teenaged son Tom and 10 year-old daughter, Murph, and the resulting estrangement from her hangs heavy over the rest of the film. Most of what happens on the other side of the wormhole cannot be revealed without spoilers; suffice to say that the time-warping effect of the black hole means that dark decades pass on earth during the short months of their mission. Hope fades, lies are revealed, but in the end, a "eucatastrophic" twist (to use Tolkien's term) makes possible a reconciliation between Cooper and Murph, and with it, the key to saving the human race.

The mind-bending, soul-wrenching, tear-jerking epic that is Interstellar brings together the themes that have occupied Nolan throughout his remarkable career (in the films already named and the Dark Knight trilogy)--the awful mystery and tragedy of time, the yawning gap between testimony and knowledge, the ethical quandary of the "noble lie," the bitterness of separation between parent and child--and adds two ingredients previously lacking: emotion and the cosmos. By "cosmos" here I do not mean simply the presence of outer space, but rather the whole sense that we humans occupy an objective universe larger than ourselves. 

Memento and Inception unfold largely within the confines of the mind; The Prestige is told primarily through the diaries and recollections of two men; the Dark Knight trilogy is set in a world frighteningly realistic, and yet known to be a fantasy world. Interstellar begins, like the Bible, with man quite literally in the dust, it widens its lens so as to take in the whole universe of space and time, and it ends in a vision of future transfiguration. Moreover, while Nolan's other films have been justly accused of a certain cerebral quality, in which even the moments of emotional catharsis come layered in such complex logical puzzles that they are scarcely felt, Interstellar overwhelms its viewers in raw emotion. 

We have been treated before to the pain of a dead wife (Memento, The Prestige, and Inception), lover (The Dark Knight), or parents (Batman Begins), and most insistently, the pain of separation from children and the struggle to communicate with them (The Prestige and Inception), but always with a certain detachment. In Interstellar, however, this last theme first appears in a leave-taking scene of such bitterness and realism that it is hard for any father to watch without sharing in Matthew McConaughey's tears, recalling the haunting lines from Till We Have Faces: "So the last spoiled embrace. Those are happy who have no such in their memory.  For those who have, would they endure that I should write of it?"

This sense of loss serves in a way as the metaphor for the loss that lies at the heart of parenting. From the moment he or she brings a child into the world, the parent begins to slowly fade from the scene, letting go more and more, pouring out  his or her life for the sake of the child and at last passing from the scene so that the child can inherit the earth. As Cooper reflects to Murphy, "Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future." Nolan brings this home to us powerfully through the device of time dilation, as relativity allows twenty-three years to pass on earth in what are just a few hours for Cooper. In this unforgettable scene, Cooper weeps uncontrollably as he watches recordings of his children passing suddenly from childhood to adulthood and parenthood of their own. No doubt with this scene in mind, Tom Shone of the Guardian writes, "Interstellar actually puts the audience through an entirely new species of emotion: a fiendish compound of grief, longing, loss and awe at time's immensity."

Of course, for all its undeniable greatness, Interstellar remains notably flawed. Many have justly complained that, aside from Cooper and Murph, most of the characters remain underdeveloped, a consequence of dialogue that is surprisingly flat and plodding, even for the uneloquent Nolan brothers. This means that many viewers may not find themselves really engaged until the first big plot twist, about one-third of the way in. Moreover, the jarring transition near the end from a rigorously scientific (albeit of the mind-bending Einsteinian sort) portrayal of the world to a mystical transcendence of the space-time order as we know it may require a suspension of disbelief too much for many viewers, even if this is where the film is at its richest. Certainly Interstellar's ambitious imaginative leaps and profound philosophical questions blunted its mass appeal and prevented the box office sensation many were expecting, but for the theologically-minded, it offers a feast like few other films in recent memory. 

To be sure, at the heart of the film lies an unresolved ambiguity (as in so many of Nolan's films), that leaves an open question as to whether the film can be described as truly theological in its vision or unabashedly humanist, indeed transhumanist. Throughout, the film is haunted by the presence of mysterious "They," a powerful and indescribable agent (or group of agents) that is reaching out to help humanity in its hour of need. As the film nears its mystical end, we hear that "they have access to infinite time and space," in what would seem a confirmation that we are not dealing with any kind of creature. And yet, before the end, it is suggested [here I cannot avoid a "spoiler"] that "they" are simply us, evolved to the point of such transcendence. I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who found this distinctly implausible, and yet the implausibility comes not merely from common sense, but from the argument of the film itself, which may be read as a sustained critique of Darwinian logic. 

It is true that a sort of theme-anthem for Interstellar is that most humanistic of poems on death, Dylan Thomas's great "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," which is repeated at several key points. However, each time, it is recited only by Michael Caine's character, Prof. Brand, and--without giving away another spoiler--his credibility is shattered by the end of the film. Indeed, the characters who appeal to the evolutionary drive to preserve the species are systematically discredited, and their utilitarian ethic of disinterested regard for the human race degenerates into another form of self-love. Meanwhile, the irrational ethic of preferential, sacrificial love, an affection that, as one character explains, defies any evolutionary explanation in terms of social utility, is revealed as not merely the only real means of saving the human race, but as somehow reflecting mysteriously the order of the universe. Harking back to medieval cosmology, but with a quantum twist, it is suggested that love is actually a cosmic force like gravity, "evidence of a higher dimension we can't perceive." It is possible, perhaps, to say all this and yet still arrive at a closed immanent loop in which this higher dimension is something humanity achieves by its own power, but such an interpretation sounds a dissonant note within the symphony of the film as a whole. 

Interstellar, then, for all its ambiguities, offers us the hope that the world is not, as Robert Angier had said, "simple, miserable, solid all the way through." Rather, the sense of wonder that the magic of film offers us is no illusion, but reflects the transcended wonder of a world sustained by love that surpasses imagination.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

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