I recently went to watch the latest Christopher Nolan movie called ‘Interstellar’ – and this is a reflection on the film that includes discussion of the ending, so if you like to watch your science fiction stories completely unspoiled about how they turn out, best stop reading now.
Interstellar is one of my favourite sorts of movies, by one of my favourite modern directors (he was also responsible for Inception and the recent Batman trilogy). It is what is known as ‘hard’ science fiction, whereby the story is intentionally grounded in what is considered to be ‘proper’ science. In this case, there is even a book by the physicist Kip Thorne, who was a technical adviser on the movie, which discusses the astro-physics of black holes, which is the means by which humans travel from one star system to another – hence the ‘interstellar’ of the title.
Nolan is, I believe, an atheist. At the very least, he is a humanist, and this takes a particular form in the film. The premise of the story is that, some time in the near future, the earth is dying, for reasons unexplained but probably as a result of human pollution. There is a ‘blight’ which is killing off most of the food crops in the world and consequently all the economic resources on earth are going towards agriculture rather than space exploration: “We need farmers, not engineers” as one character says. In order to support this shift of emphasis, the history of space exploration has been suppressed. Text books now describe the moon landings as a propaganda coup against the Soviets, a televisual sleight-of-hand used to intimidate political opponents.
In this context, to seek to explore the stars is a defiant act of hope. The film as a whole can be taken as an attempt to re-inspire the watcher with a desire to voyage into the final frontier, “Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here”. The story of the hero, which has a significant amount of emotional heft (in ways that I shall not spoil here) is very affecting, especially for fathers of daughters. At the conclusion of the film, the hero is forced to make a leap into the unknown, and this is where the humanism of the director is shown most clearly. Where there might seem to be a deus ex machina – a God intervening in the system in order to set things right – in Nolan’s story, the deus turns out to be humanus – human beings from the future that have learned to manipulate time. One might say ‘God is one of us’.
However, although that is the surface truth of the story, there are two ways in which the film actually draws deeply from the Christian mythos, in ways that make me consider the film to be quite orthodox in its message. By ‘orthodox’ I mean ‘informed by the resurrection’, that is, seeing the world with a Christian point of view. The Christian perspective seems to subvert even the most consciously humanistic of intentions!
The first way in which the story draws from the Christian mythos is simply in terms of the narrative arc. The salvation of humankind is at stake, one man has to move forward, leaving behind all his ties to his family and ends up journeying alone into a black hole where he expects to die, and yet – miracle of miracles! – something happens to transform the situation and the hero is enabled to return, to be reunited with his loved ones one last time, before he ascends once again into the heavens. I trust that this description is enough to show the parallels with the Christian story.
However, that first parallel with the Christian story is itself quite a slim point. It is the story of the redeemer, which, although it undoubtedly has a definitive form in our history in the Christian gospel, can be found in other cultures in very similar forms. Where I found the film to be most deeply compatible with the Christian story is in the fundamental message about love, articulated by one of the co-stars, and the one whom the hero voyages to pursue at the end of the tale. The co-star gives a moving speech at a crucial moment in the plot about the way in which love guides human activity, and that love is not bound by time. It is, in a sense, the faculty in human beings which (in the language of the film) allows us to access the ‘higher dimension’ of time and guide us, and which the hero directly uses later on in order to guide his decisions and achieve the salvation of humanity. This is an understanding of love which sits directly within the mainstream Christian tradition. To adap St Paul’s language: love bears all things, love hopes all things, love never ends – death has been swallowed up in victory.
Nolan’s Interstellar is a great film – some wonderful action sequences, a solid plot with emotional weight, and an inspiring message delivered with awesome imagery. That message, it seems to me, is quite profoundly Christian – despite a superficial coating of humanism. Our society is still haunted by the Christian imagination, and whenever a creative artist in our society seeks to express something transcendent they cannot, despite themselves, avoid drawing from baptismal waters. In our own time we have entered, if not the end of the earth as a whole, certainly a time of great tribulation and trauma. We would do well to be guided by the message of Interstellar: love will guide us through the abyss.