Love in the time of interstellar travel
Interstellar is big. BIG. There are big names, big visuals, and big scope. The latest offering from perennial Oscar favourite director Christopher Nolan – of The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception fame – is as ambitious a blockbuster film as you can get. Interstellar is the story of humanity’s last desperate hope to escape our dying Earth, discover a new planet that will allow for colonization, and provide our fallen hero a chance to fulfill his, as of yet unrealized, potential. Featuring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine, the glittering ensemble is so weighted down with various accolades that the film simply had to take place in outer space to enable them all to get moving.
Interstellar is a film in three acts. Act one is the exposition. Here we learn that Earth has succumbed to various calamities – global warming and human warfare – emaciating the population and inverting the social caste system. The poisoned landscape has erased the need for governments and military personnel, elevating the lowly farmer to celebrated status. With cinematography reminiscent of Depression-era “Dust Bowl” documentaries, it is some time before the audience realizes these are in fact images of the future and not the past. These conditions give rise to the philosophical underpinnings of the film: mankind’s ultimate nature and purpose. Faced with the challenge of scraping sustenance from the dust-choked fields, humanity has ceased to look to the stars with wonder and ambition and, instead, stare downwards to scribble in the dirt. As one character laments, “Mankind is meant to be explorers, not caretakers.” As stewards of God’s creation with a divine mandate to do just that, care for this world, Christian audiences will find more within these conversations to digest than Nolan seems willing to allow.
Act two is your typical space adventure film. We realize McConaughey’s character was once an engineer training for NASA’s space program before the unspecified catastrophes smothered his enthusiasm for such pursuits. Through some mysterious supernatural intervention, this one-time pilot stumbles upon what remains of the preeminent space agency and their hail Mary attempt to save the human race. Desiring to reclaim his true calling, as well as save his family, he signs up to fly with the mission. Fans of science fiction and fellow Trekkies such as myself will feel right at home within this segment, and McConaughey and Nolan do a wonderful job of making these scenes gripping. So does Anne Hathaway, playing the naive yet passionate scientist learning the realities of her theoretical knowledge of space travel. Experiencing the small crew in their tiny spacecraft juxtaposed with giant planets that don’t fit into the frame is moving.
Act three is where things get strange. It’s all advanced physics and theories of relativity, with shifting realities and talk of 4th and 5th dimensions. Without here giving away his means, Nolan uses this final act to demonstrate that humanity has within its potential greatness the ability to at once be the cause of our woes and the cure as well. When open to exploration, intuition and inspiration, the human race is capable of such acts of universal import as we cannot even fully fathom in our present state. Reformed folk who ascribe to the doctrine of total depravity may find this theme difficult to square with much of what the Bible teaches. There is one tiny thread throughout Interstellar that, given its due, could have provided the film more theological cache. Several times throughout the film love is granted special attention as the one thing beyond human calculation, science or even time itself. One cannot help but hear hints of a greater universal truth here: God’s love is, in fact, the only thing that does weave through all of creation’s existence, past and future. It may be too much to ask Christopher Nolan to develop this theme in a faithfully satisfying manner, but I continue to hope for a big-budget movie to slip up and say something divinely true.
As an avowed lover of the fantasy and science fiction genre, I recommend this movie to all who look to the stars hoping to glimpse something outside ourselves and beyond that which we think we know so well. Interstellar does not quite bring us to any undiscovered country, but it does call strongly to that place in our souls that hopes that one day we can.