For Further Comment: “Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

This morning, I received an email from my father with a link to this article. I’ve geeked about Interstellar in his direction, so he knew this would catch my interest. He was right.

So, because this gave me a chance to geek about Interstellar to all of you, I’m going to use it for my inaugural “For Further Comment” post.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m not going to bother trying to dance around spoilers in this post. I’m not doing a plot summary or anything, but if you haven’t seen the movie, maybe stash this post until you do.

First off, the link to the article:

“Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

Also, I should disclose my biases. I love the work of Christopher Nolan. I’ve watched every single one of his movies at least once. Yes, including the obscure Following. And, I’ve loved each one. Yes, including The Prestige.[1]

So, when I saw that a new Nolan movie was coming out, I was already on board. And when I saw that Nolan was going to do a science fiction movie…well, I was enthralled.

Here I should distinguish: when I say that Interstellar is “science fiction” genre, I don’t mean the space opera of Star Wars or the Star Trek reboot, as much as I like space opera. Rather, I mean that Interstellar is part of a long tradition that uses stories like this to grapple with philosophical issues. Make no mistake: Interstellar definitely makes the appropriate genuflections in the direction of astrophysics and other appropriate sciences, as it was actually inspired by the theoretical of Dr. Kip Thorne, a physicist who was also an executive producer and the science consultant for the film. However, Interstellar is chasing down ideas.

Someone has noted that science fiction stories are ultimately about one of two issues: human identity or humans’ relationship with their tools. Interstellar is about human identity: specifically, what it means to love.

In the linked article, Rick Phillips does a good job of outlining this theme of the movie and positioning it relative to the current zeitgeist.[2] However, when I left the theater after watching Interstellar, I was fascinated by its positioning relative to the science fiction tradition. It seemed clear to me that Interstellar is in dialogue with certain ideas that have threaded through SF, demonstrated most aptly by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001.[3]

Okay, yes, yes, I know about the eight-minute long light show and the weird ending of 2001. But I stand by my designation of “masterpiece”. In its story, 2001 manages to address both prongs of SF: it sets forth a comprehensive vision of human identity in the context of humans’ relationship with their tools. Even if you haven’t seen 2001, you know about the crazy computer HAL. And what are computers, but the pinnacle of human toolmaking?

I consider 2001 to be an example of what I’ll call “transcendent science fiction.” These are SF stories that use the outer reaches of space as a stand-in for God/The Ultimate/Destiny/whatever. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is another movie that would fit into this category, and I think that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was trying to occupy this space, too, though not nearly as well. It’s the place where SF touches mysticism. And it’s definitely where Interstellar fits as well.

Here’s the thing. These stories often feel very epic in scale. For crying out loud, 2001 covers literally millions of years in only a couple of hours. And while there are characters at center stage, none of them are deeply engaged or even sketched thoroughly. Even Dave Bowman, the final survivor of the crew of the Discovery, isn’t a realized character. He is Everyman. He could be anyone. And that’s the point. The main character of 2001 isn’t any one person; it’s humanity as a whole.

And that’s where Interstellar is so very different.

Phillips phrases the theme of Interstellar in this way:

[L]ove is what propels human beings to sacrifice and provides a glimmer of hope for our race.

As wonderful as that statement is, I think that Nolan is being a bit more sophisticated than that. Because, after making that statement, Nolan asks a profound question: what is love? Is it just the sum of the evolutionary impulse to survive as a species? Or is love a transcendent force in the universe?

And you see both sides of this. The mission that is launched into space has, as its primary focus, the survival of the species. There are embryos on board the ship that are intended to be the first colonists of the new world. Humanity gets off the rock, even though the particular humans might not.

On the other hand, you get this great exchange, which I’m cribbing from IMDB:

Cooper: You’re a scientist, Brand.
Brand: So listen to me when I say love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.
Cooper: Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing…
Brand: We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that?
Cooper: None.
Brand: Maybe it means something more – something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it. All right Cooper. Yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Cooper: Honestly, Amelia, it might.

“Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Of course, all the interstellar travel and, well, astrophysical weirdness of the movie relies on gravity to transcend space and time. So, which is it? Is love or gravity the ultimate transcendent reality?

Or, put another way, is the physical realm all there is, or is there something more?

And I think that’s the point of Interstellar‘s weird ending. All the stuff about fifth dimensions and all that? Really just technobabble to allow a single reality to shine through: love brought Cooper back to his daughter.

2001 cares about the vast sweep of human history, but there’s not really any room for…you know…people. Interstellar ultimately insists that humanity in the abstract is less important than the particular humans that you love.

G.K. Chesterton seized on this theme when he wrote:

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation…. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident. (Emphasis mine)

Science fiction can sometimes get caught up in the questions of caring for humanity while neglecting the questions of caring for our neighbor. Interstellar is a beautiful corrective to this trend.

[1]That one is for my brother, who understands why.
[2]Because it’s my blog and I get to drop words like this from time to time.
[3]If you’re interested in a truly fabulous analysis of 2001, I direct you to this website, which forms the foundation for my understanding of 2001.

One response to “For Further Comment: “Interstellar” — Christopher Nolan’s Ode to Love

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