–Jesus, Mark 12:34
If you have not seen the film Interstellar, you should. It’s just out, and in many ways it’s a masterpiece. No one today with the possible exception of Ridley Scott attempts epic pictures like Christopher Nolan. Sure, there are 17 comic-book films a year now, but those don’t count. Nolan is in my view an auteur, if one with a popular sensibility. He makes exquisitely-crafted movies and explores the complexities of life even as he produces tense, compelling, and often emotional drama.
Here are five takeaways from Interstellar. These have a theological inflection, please note. (Mild–but not explicit–spoilers to follow.)
1. The film seems to be the third in a trilogy of Nolan films exploring the power of love. The Prestige, in my reckoning, was about the love of self. The twins played by Christian Bale acted out of their own self-interest, you could say their own self-love, to preserve themselves. So did Hugh Jackman’s character; he sought to replicate himself such that he would not die.
Inception was about the love of a spouse. Nolan is the modern master of the Macguffin. That is Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the plot device that allows him to explore human nature in all its density and turmoil. (I took a class on Hitchcock’s films at Bowdoin and loved it. Thank you, liberal arts education.) Nolan is like Hitchcock. The collapsing worlds and internal logic of Inception were not the point, though they were great fun to piece apart. The point of the film was spousal love and loss. Inception wasn’t an action movie (as some thought), it was a meditation on the ache of losing a spouse.
Similarly, Interstellar is about the love of a father for his child. It is about parental love. That is the greater point. The scene where Matthew McConaughey watches videos from his children is one of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever watched. People around me in the theater weren’t sniffling, they were sobbing, and with good reason.
The most profound loss that can be experienced in this world is the loss of a child. This is why it is so significant that God the Father gave up his beloved son. His loss was absolute. It was not only Christ who entered into our suffering, but the Father. He lost his son. Interstellar pictures some of the piercing pain that occurs when a parent loses a child, or children. Even before death, the absence of a parent is devastating. Interstellar gets the emotion of this connection just right, and wow, what a punch it packs in this regard.
2. The film captures the power of the human spirit. The familiar refrain from the movie, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” owes to Dylan Thomas. It is put to powerful use in Interstellar, which is in some ways an ode to the power of humanity. In fact, that is the movie’s strongest theme. It nudges out the theme mentioned above by a hair, I think.
This is unfortunate, because Nolan misses an opportunity to take his audience beyond ourselves. His film traffics in the numinous, in the ethereal, and it points us to realities unknown. But it swerves at the last minute and somehow makes us the measure of all things. I won’t reveal how it does so, but it does. Here Nolan shows that he is, like the wise scribe in Mark 12, not far from the kingdom, but not a resident of it, either. He is so close. He sees the mystery and beauty of life. But he resolves the tensions of our existence, tensions that truly resolve only in the person of God, in the substance of humanity. The result is a great sigh of disappointment, a collective letting out of air from the celestial tires.
But though he gets the biggest thing wrong, he gets the nature of humanity largely right. McConaughey’s character is a force to behold. He is a wonder of action and initiative. He refuses to die. He refuses to give up hope. He gets knocked down (literally) but keeps coming. This is the human spirit. This has been, for a while, the American spirit. There is such beauty in the human person, because it is specially designed by the super-intelligence of the Creator. Interstellar captures this. In the span of the cosmos, we are tiny, seven feet tall in extremity. Yet because of God’s special design, we are capable of astonishing feats of courage and will.
3. Interstellar is also a critique of the failure of the modern will. The imagination has been lost. When imagination dies, the will to thrive dies. All that remains is the will to survive. In a parallel of modern developments, the space program has been sharply cut in Interstellar. Children now grow up with their eyes in the dust. Everyone’s hunched over, face down, in Interstellar. The space program encourages people to look up, and to dream.
This is a powerful critique. The textbooks in the film have been subject to revisionist history that renders the great space missions of the 20th-century as propaganda pieces. Nolan’s film fits neither with left or right thinking; it is somewhere in the middle, as his previous films are. It may be gently leftist, but few scenes in the movie are more visceral than when McConaughey loses the ability to speak when he learns that the space missions of NASA were mere propaganda. Nolan feels no love lost for revisionism, that much is clear.
It is not enough to muddle along on your way to death. Whatever the odds, Interstellar communicates, it is worth it to risk death in order that you might live. This is a message that is so close to Christ’s, it could almost be preached in a pulpit.
4. Interstellar muses profitably on depravity. I am no film expert, and Nolan’s movies are intentionally confusing. They loop. I thus confess that I do not know exactly what Nolan’s understanding of human evil is. His characters wonder out loud whether the universe can act in an evil way, and one says that this is not so. Nolan seems to picture space as fearsome yet generally benevolent. I wonder if space itself is akin to the being of God in his worldview.
Whatever the case, it is clear that Nolan–as a postmodernist–does not view humanity as lily-white. The character of one scientist is downright diabolical, motivated only by selfishness. Nolan’s films often feature a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Interstellar fits this trend. The scene featuring the aforementioned scientist and his depravity takes your breath away, so violent is the evil, so strong is the cunning. This too is a part of Nolan’s portrait of humanity: it is not only our innate goodness that is strong, it is our capacity for destruction.
5. Interstellar captures the drama, and beauty, of life. Nolan knows how to shoot action and drama alike. He likes bone-crushing sound that not only thunders but stabs at the ear. No one uses music and ambient sound better than Christopher Nolan. McConaughey speaks throughout in his soft, buttery drawl, an effective compliment to the roars and spikes and rushes that punctuate the film. Even the film’s sound seems, on further reflection, like a parable of life.
I’ve read a number of the top film critics on Interstellar. As I expected, many critiqued the movie’s “goopy” sentimentality. They felt little connection to the themes of love and loss, fatherhood and absence. I recognize that few journalists enter their chosen trade out of a sense of sentimentality. Having said that, the jaded nature of many top film reviewers feels, after you read enough reviews, like special pleading. Uncle!, you want to cry. We get it! It’s so much more authentic to explore raw carnality, bitter irony, unfettered aggression. You win. Let the universe be awash in darkness, as you wish.
Except I’m not. I’m not at all willing to concede this. I raised this point when I wrote about The Hobbit a year ago, and I got a good amount of pushback then. Here’s my thesis: it is not inherently more noble to explore the outer reaches of depravity in your film than to explore the depths of love. This is not to say that any film that considers love is to be judged excellent. Of course not. But it is to say, our modern reviewers do us a disservice by grading on a curve when it comes to immorality and darkness.
Interstellar has a few moments that get a little hammy, yes. But I was profoundly stirred by McConaughey’s love for his daughter. Love is the most powerful force in the world. That’s ultimately what emerges from the film. Even those who have mastery of multiple dimensions cannot quantify love. It is too strong a force. Interstellar reminds us of the passing of time, and shows us by use of “relative” time just how fast life moves. I watched the film and wanted to spend every second I could with my kids, frankly.
Time can be quantified. Love cannot. Nolan gets that. He gets, furthermore, that fathers will do anything and everything they can to save their children. But this is not only true of humans. This is true for the divine. The Father loved his Son, but he gave him up for us, that we might live. Interstellar powerfully depicts the extent to which humans will go to sacrificially love other humans. It does not depict, however, just how far the divine will go to sacrificially love his creation.
So it is that Nolan is so near, getting so much right, depicting the complexity and drama and ugliness and beauty of our humanity and the created realm, and yet getting it ultimately wrong. Still, it seems, he is not far from the kingdom of God, and he may find his way there in time.