Interstellar and Humanism Versus Love: A Theological View of the Universe
Interstellar is Christopher Nolan's newest prodigy, and a Sci-Fi adventure that is beyond this dimension. It is a story of human persistence in the face of extinction, but it's message is so much deeper than a standard Humanist interpretation—it enters the fifth dimension.
The author of this article assumes that you have seen "Interstellar" and are interested in a further dialogue about the film.
A Humanist Film
Upon plainly viewing Interstellar, there is no denying it's Humanist thread. With a plain interpretation, the film is about man saving himself, through himself; man is his own savior.
In the last twenty minutes of a three hour film, the blanket is pulled out from in front of our eyes, and it is revealed that the ghost in Murphy's room is really her father in another dimension (don't make me explain that one, I'll leave it for the nerds to duke it out in the comments).
Seriously, did you not see that coming? For me, I understood it within the first half hour, making the rest of the film painfully tragic and anticlimactically long. I walked out of the theater, glowing with fascination, but disappointed with the execution of the final act.
Did Nolan really just pull a Memento on us? I thought he had abandoned cheap tricks and sleight of hand gimmicks. No, I believe that Nolan is better than that, that this film is far more transcendent than it appears.
A Definition of Humanism
According to Google's definition, Humanism is:
"an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems."
In other words, Humanists view humanity as the pinnacle of existence. In Humanist thought, nihilism gives meaning to life. All humans have is the here and now, so humans should try to get along and progress society. There is no higher power—mankind determines his own future.
Wikipedia picks up on the secularization of Humanism stating:
"In modern times, humanist movements are typically aligned with secularism, and today "Humanism" typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centered on human agency, and looking to science instead of religion in order to understand the world."
That is exactly the conflicting world the characters of Interstellar find themselves in.
Check out the Trailer for "Interstellar"
If You Haven't Seen Interstellar, Buy it Here:
The Genius of Nolan
Christopher Nolan may very well be this generation's most extraordinary storyteller, in the same way George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were before him. On recounting IMDB's top films of all time, Nolan's films litter the Top 250 Best Films like confetti on New Years.
Nolan has brought to life such deeply philosophical films as the Batman Trilogy, The Prestige, and Inception. In my mind, he might just be one of the greatest minds of this century and should be regarded in the same hall of fame as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien.
It is that genius that makes me want to take another look at Interstellar—the same one that made me leave the theater unsatisfied, and will probably make me lose many nights of sleep.
Editorial Correction: I have cumulatively lost about 30 hours of sleep thus far—and this is the longest I have ever spent on an article. Interstellar affected me in a way that few films ever have.
To Each His Own
What has always been infinitely fascinating about Nolan's films is that he likes to present the evidence and have the viewer come to his or her own conclusion.
Nolan loves to clash secularism with religion, liberalism with conservatism, good with evil, and utilitarianism with individualism. What is more, he tends to keep quiet on his own personal views of the themes in his work, leaving the audience in both painful intellectual ecstasy and agony.
Nolan's world within Interstellar appears to be godless, but he leaves religious bread crumbs for us to follow on our journey through the universe.
Religious Imagery in Interstellar:
- Their mission is called the Lazarus project. When the characters get to Dr. Mann's planet, they raise him from the dead; the whole project is intended to save humanity from death and destruction.
- Cooper comes back to earth as a ghost, after saving humanity and defeating Dr. Mann who is personified as the depravity of man and his desire for self-preservation.
- The soundtrack's foundational instrument is an organ. The universe of the film is then turned into a church-like setting. The film's theme of mortality goes nicely with an organ; it foreshadows the possible funeral of humanity.
- Love is the unexplainable element that no scientist has been able to crack. It is said to be irrational, unscientific, and stronger than any bond.
- Murph is 33 when she cracks the code that saves humanity; the same age as Christ when he saved the world.
- The space station is very Ark-like, saving humanity from sure doom.
- Dr. Mann murderous rage against Cooper can be interpreted as a nod to Cain and Abel.
Interstellar Creates it's own Religion
Within the familiarity of religious imagery, the film creates its own religion; it's own explanation for man's drive, his purpose, and his method of salvation.
At the beginning of the film there was hope that there was "something else out there," but as the film progresses, it becomes clearer that humanity is all alone in a dark and unforgiving world; it preaches that we are our only hope.
There is a brilliant scene where the space ship is going through the wormhole and a translucent hand reaches out to shake Dr. Brand's hand. At that point in the story the characters marveled at the hand; in the midst of uncontrollable chaos, a benevolent hand reaches out to them.
What the characters discover, in the final act, is that the hand was really Cooper's, from another dimension. The scene has echoes of Michelangelo's painting of God reaching out from Heaven and touching man's hand.
As one critic put it, "If humanistic pop science is a religion, then Christopher Nolan is its high priest and Interstellar its rapture story." (Patheos)
Consider the Interstellar poster provided: If Cooper is the savior of future humanity, the bright light above his house provides the same imagery as the bright star that led to a little barn in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. However, look closely, it is not a star above Cooper's farmhouse, but a rocket ship. Upon closer inspection, the farmhouse is humble and barn like—and it sits in front of a backdrop of cross-like telephone poles.
Is Nolan's film merely suggesting that scientific speculation is a religious experience? Is the film trying to bind together science and religion—suggesting that truth is found in both? Does the film reside within the tension between our discoveries and the mysteries we have yet to solve—and if so—does the film suggest that there is a justifiable place for faith in the unseen?
Humanism vs. Love
Interstellar uses specifically Christian imagery, to create its own answer to man's deepest questions. However, the story presents a tension between the sterile, chaotic system of evolution and the scientific irrationality of love.
This is best represented in the scene where Cooper and Brand are debating which of two planets they should aim their spacecraft at, having only time to choose one or the other. Brand reveals that she has a personal stake in traveling to Wolf's planet because he was her boyfriend. However, Science—the hard evidence—points to Mann's planet as being the best for sustaining life.
There is No Utility to Love
Cooper states a utilitarian view of science; if something doesn't have a use, then there is no purpose. Brand tells him, "love isn't something that we invented. It's observable. Powerful. It has to mean something." Cooper counters back at her, "Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing." To that, Brand asks what possible social utility could there be in loving those who have past. Then, she jumps into her speech on how love is transcendent:
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.
As the film shows in the final shot, as she is taking off her helmet, she was right—her boyfriend's planet was the best of the 12.
That idea of love being the key to life—and to the survival of humanity is expounded upon several times over the course of the film.
Evolutionary Science Goes Against Self-Sacrificing Love
Darwin's principle of Natural Selection leaves no room for self-sacrificing love, and the film seems to hang in the tension of that thesis—that pure scientific theory does not hold a place for self-sacrificing love.
Natural Selection is the idea that the strongest of a species survives and the weakest die off over several generations, making an almost perfectly adapted super-species. There are limited resources, making survival a competitive sport. Those that adapt the fastest to their environment, survive.
In the film, Cooper and Murph catch a stray drone. Cooper begins to disassemble it and Murph asks him to let it go saying, "it isn't hurting anyone." She carries the sentimentality of catching an animal and her voice reveals a humane compassion. Cooper rips it apart, saying "Listen this thing needs to learn how to adapt, Murph, like the rest of us."
In Dr. Brand's death speech, he reveals that Plan A, to save the people on Earth, was never his intention and exposes that he had already cracked the code to gravity decades before. He tells Cooper that he was chosen because he had an object of love that would drive him across the Universe. He supposes that no human would ever sacrifice himself to merely save a hypothetical future humanity.
Dr. Mann botched the data about his planet so that the astronauts would come pick him up. The planet was inhospitable, iced over, and full of harmful atmospheric ammonia. He knew that if his planet was inhospitable, then he would die there, because he knew that the underground NASA operation didn't have the resources for a salvation voyage.
Dr. Mann literally goes crazy, cracks Cooper's helmet, and shoves him off a cliff. He then makes a run for the space station and blows himself up when he doesn't dock it correctly; his punishment fit his crime. Cooper is picked up by Dr. Brand Jr. and miraculously docks their shuttle, against all odds.
Dr. Mann's name is no coincidence. The filmmakers out this scene in the movie to show humanity's animalistic behavior in the absence of love. Right when Dr. Mann gets awoken from his long nap, he goes off on a speech about man's need to adapt, to overcome, and to fight for survival. He embodies survival of the fittest and self-preservation and it climaxes in attempted murder.
The scene is also shown to pound in the idea that love will make you fight harder to survive. Dr. Mann taunts Cooper with the idea and tells him how it is scientifically proven that the last thing we see when we die is the faces of our children; that their images give us the second wind to keep fighting just a little harder to survive. All the while he is saying this, Cooper is doing just that: holding on a little longer and fighting a little harder.
We're not meant to save the world--we're meant to leave it.— Dr. Brand
Evil is in the Heart of Man
Dr. Brand and Cooper have a discussion over whether or not nature is evil and Brand comes to the conclusion that nature isn't evil—we are. We bring our problems and our darkened hearts with us, no matter what planet we populate.
If the Humanist view is that man can save himself, that through rationality humanity can be fixed, the scenes with Dr. Mann seem to persuade against that philosophy. Man, left to himself, only destroys himself. It is self-sacrificing love that sets us apart from animals—from the harsh reality of "survival of the fittest."
Maybe to be human is anti-evolutionary. The film seems to leave room for the supernatural power of love and allows its origin to remain agnostic.
Two Possible Endings
The spinning top, the jumbled top hats, and that all-telling glance in an Italian cafe have all taught me to never trust the endings of Christopher Nolan films. He is notorious for having unreliable narrators, flashing the audience quick visual clues, and leaving them pondering his often ambiguous endings.
Here's a bold question: Did Cooper die in the black hole?
Not very many critics agree with this conclusion, but there is some evidence that points to the whole movie being interpreted differently than it is plainly laid out. Here are some things to think about:
- There is an idea in filmmaking that if there is a loaded gun on the wall, it has to be used in the final act; there is also a rule of 3's. Dr. Mann's line about seeing the faces of your children when you die is used once on the planet, maybe once when Cooper is dying, and then again when older Murph tells him to go away because she wants to see the faces of her children when she dies. When Dr. Mann tells Cooper that line, pushes him off of a cliff, and interrogates him as to if it is true. As Cooper is gasping for air, Dr. Mann asks him what he sees, but can't bear the sounds of a dying man and stops listening. That scene is a foreshadowing of a parallel scene where Cooper sacrifices himself into the black hole, sees Murph in the tesseract, then in a dream-like scene, sees her as a dying woman.
- If he really is the ghost, then why did he tell himself to stay? He now knows that the senior Dr. Brand was lying and that humanity is doomed.
- Why was Dr. Brand's boyfriend dead in the final shot? Given the relativity explanation, he would have arrived there only hours before she did. Does that mean that the planet is unusable? Is she taking off her helmet a sign that the planet is a good new home, or is it an act of suicide? If the planet is humanity's new homes, then why is there no foliage? It looks like the desert. If this really is the new Garden of Eden, couldn't the filmmakers have made it more obvious by landing her in a garden.
- Don't you think it's strange that the space station is very catered to Cooper? It is explained that there is a museum to his family, but the baseball field, cornfield, and house are identical to those of his life on Earth. Is this really a Heaven-like place? And didn't the corn have that blight problem?
- Could it be that the data Cooper gave as he was dying is what led to the salvation of Earth?
- If the gravity equation was really solved decades ago, then why did Cooper need to become a ghost to transfer the equation to Murph? Couldn't Dr. Brand have just given it to her?
- What happened to Tom and his family? If the ending is true, then why did Murph make it to the space station and not also Tom?
- How did Murph know that Dr. Brand was all alone on the planet?
- In the original script Cooper dies in the snow when he returns to Earth. It literally says, "He will die alone." Then the script continues with him waking up to a deathbed scene with his great, great, great, great grandson, who hands him back the watch. A similar ending, but without Murph.
The Science Behind the Black Hole in "Interstellar"
The Traditional Ending
If Cooper dies in the black hole, the information he gave saved humanity and allowed the embryos to get to the last planet. His act of self-sacrificing love saved humanity.
However, if the traditional ending plays out exactly as it is perceived, then a man just went across the entire Universe out of love for his daughter and all of the other families. Either way, it is not just technology and evolutionary adaptation that saves them—it is also love.
The traditional viewing is probably correct, but then again, this is a Nolan film—it might take several viewings to get it right.
What Do You Think?
Is the ending as simple as the film plainly states?
A Story of a Father's Love
Sure, Interstellar is confusing, has more plot holes than Swiss cheese, the music is so loud you can't hear the dialogue, and the ending is rushed and ambiguous. However, it is also one of the most scientifically interesting and visually stunning films ever created.
It unashamedly brought grown men to tears while telling a very human story. It made us take a hard look at the things we hold dear, our place in the Universe, the sacrifices we make for the ones we love, the role of science and technology in our society, human nature, mortality, and the adventurous and unwavering nature of the human spirit. It taps into that part of us that looks up into the sky at night and wonders what else is out there.
Just as the Trojan War launched a thousand ships, Interstellar goes to the ends of the Universe in the name of love. The awesome power of love is humanity's timeless tale and Interstellar is another telling of it. Told on the vast stage of the Universe, Interstellar is really a story about the love a parent has for his daughter and the immeasurable lengths he is willing to take to protect her and keep his promises.
Maybe I liked it so much because I watched it with my father sitting next to me.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Jennifer Arnett