Humans have always looked heavenward. Our fascination with stars, planets, galaxies, and what lies beyond stems from our instincts to explore but also our awareness of frailty. Space beckons us and plays to our “what’s it like?” curiosity (and sometimes pride). But it’s also where we turn when things down here look dire. We’ve always looked up when we need grace, hope, salvation, escape.
Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi saga Interstellar explores space in both of these senses. It’s an enthralling, provocative, ambitious film that comes at a time when space exploration has had some setbacks (recent rocket and space tourism disasters, ongoing cuts to NASA’s budget).
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” says one character early in the film, lamenting that “now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Interstellar is the rare film that forces deep consideration of “our place” in both the terrestrial and celestial spheres, though its conclusions are perhaps less satisfying than the cinematic journey itself.
Interstellar is set in a not-too-distant future in which extreme drought and other ecological changes—causes unspecified—are progressively making the earth an uninhabitable place for humans. Most crops no longer grow, the air is hardly breathable, dust covers everything, and America (the only country we see) has become a struggling agrarian society straight out of a Dorothea Lange photo.
Because the earth appears to be on a hopeless trajectory, NASA is actively and secretly developing an escape plan for humanity, but first they must find a livable planet. Thankfully a Dylan Thomas-quoting physicist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has discovered a mysterious wormhole near Saturn which provides a shortcut to unexplored galaxies and, potentially, habitable planets. Early expeditions through the wormhole (aptly titled the “Lazarus” missions) have not returned and no one knows what they may have discovered. A new mission is necessary, and the survival of the human race depends on it.
This is where astronaut-turned-farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) comes in. He’s led by what appears to be supernatural (or alien?) guidance to professor Brand at a secret NASA facility. Brand taps Cooper as the commander of the Endurance mission (nod to Shackleton’s famous Antarctic expedition), which also includes Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), whose name and likeness evoke the pioneering aviation pilot Amelia Earhart.
Cooper, a widower raising a young son and daughter alongside his father-in-law (John Lithgow), makes the tough decision to embark on a journey that might ensure a future for his children but will almost certainly mean he won’t see them again for many years, if ever. Deep space travel of this sort does odd things with time, you see. One hour on a distant planet can equal years back on earth.
Welcome to the brain-bending world of Christopher Nolan. Interstellar feels like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Inception meets Looper. It’s as much a head trip as it is a space trip. There is constant talk of wormholes, black holes, singularities, event horizons, gravity, relativity, Murphy’s Law (which by the end of the film takes on a whole new meaning), and other nerdy-but-fascinating things most of us don’t understand.
For that matter, many of the physicists and astronauts in the film hardly seem to understand. “Science,” says one character early in the film, “is about admitting what we don’t know.” If that’s true, this is a film that should make us all feel like scientists.
When Interstellar suggests that science is admitting what we don’t know, however, it is not embracing a reverent humility in the face of unknowable mysteries. Rather, as the film progresses it becomes clear that the awe and wonder it elicits is directed not toward heavenly mysteries as much as the progression of human knowledge and science itself: mankind’s limitless capacity to survive, evolve, invent, and explore.
With its contemplative existential ruminations, awe-inspiring machinery and Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous, booming organ score, Interstellar feels a bit like a three-hour church service set in the cathedral of space. And yet God is not worshiped here or even discussed. Unlike similar films like last year’s Gravity or 1997’s Contact, which engaged questions of God and faith (Matthew McConaughey played a Christian leader in the latter), Interstellar exists in a world where God seems to have gone extinct alongside wheat and okra.
Despite God’s absence in Interstellar, the film nevertheless feels “church-like” in its artistic grandeur, intellectual curiosity, and probing of big questions about life, death, sacrifice and love (“the only thing that transcends space and time”).
There is also a decidedly eschatological undercurrent to the film, with its themes of a doomed, burning planet and a hoped-for “escape” to a better place beyond the stars. In contrast to a film like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which accepts earth’s demise and humanity’s extinction with a sort of nihilistic relief, Interstellar sees it as an opportunity for rebirth and renewal. Though equally as secular as von Trier’s film, Nolan’s film is at least informed and haunted by a religious sense that believes in hope: new life out of the ashes, Lazarus-like resurrection.
Yet its hope is pinned not on the supernatural but on the super power of the natural—namely the natural process of evolution and the “miracle” of survival.
Survival is Interstellar’s most central theme. It’s no coincidence that the words of Dylan Thomas are repeated throughout: Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Every character in the film is a testimony to the natural instincts of self-preservation and adaption in the face of extinction: doing whatever it takes to survive, both as individuals and as a species; fighting, clawing, gasping, raging against the dying of the light.
But is this really as inspiring and sublime as the film wants it to be? What are we so desperately surviving for? What purpose or plan is dependent on the continuance of mankind? To what end, ultimately, does our capacity for creativity, problem-solving, and order-making point?
The film suggests love as the one inexplicable, transcendent “why” that makes sense of the world’s whats—but it engages it in a superficial way. There are lots of tears and a few soliloquies (mostly from Hathaway’s character) about love, but the deeper questions it begs go unanswered. In a purely materialist world, where does it come from? If love is merely an evolutionary adaption that enhances human survival skills, how do we make sense of sacrifice? What could possibly be compelling about a cross?
Interstellar doesn’t need to be religious, of course. Its secular, yet curiously devout vision of the cosmos is likely an accurate reflection of prevailing thinking about science in today’s world. Still, for a film so curious about the heavens and the far-flung mysteries of the universe, its closed-off posture toward the supernatural feels inconsistent. If science is indeed as interested in what we don’t know as what we do, shouldn’t it also be curious about what we can’t know? Contemplating the limits of our knowledge seems to me the most exhilarating curiosity of all.
Interstellar is a mild PG-13 film. If not for a few intense action scenes and the occasional profanity, the film may have even been rated PG. There is no sex or nudity in the film and its violence is almost entirely bloodless or seen from afar. The edgiest thing in the film is probably its overall doomsday themes or its sometimes unnerving music by Hans Zimmer.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the booksHipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.