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"Interstellar" and Humanism Versus Love: A Theological View of the Universe

Jennifer is a filmmaker and movie conoseaur. She loves looking for "easter eggs", symbolism, and hidden theological messages in movies.

An explanation of symbolism and critique of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

An explanation of symbolism and critique of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

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 its message is so much deeper than a standard Humanist interpretation—it enters the fifth dimension.

A Humanist Film

Upon plainly viewing Interstellar, there is no denying its 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.

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.
Doesn't this look familiar?

Doesn't this look familiar?

Interstellar Creates Its Own Religion

Within the familiarity of religious imagery, the film creates its own religion—its 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 spaceship 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 passed. 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

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

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 home, 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?

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.

If You Haven't Seen Interstellar, Buy it Here:

© 2014 Jennifer Arnett


Robert Sacchi on September 20, 2015:

Yes, it is fun to theorize and to find things in movies and TV shows that even those who made them didn't realize were there. I love doing that.

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on September 19, 2015:

Thanks for reading, Robert. Totally fair game not to buy it. It's just fun to theorize.

Robert Sacchi on May 30, 2015:

While I don't buy there is a deeper ending you do make a good case for it.

Alex Aili from MN on January 31, 2015:

Well-written and good ideas! Nolan is indeed a mind boggler.

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on January 01, 2015:

Kylyssa, thank you for engaging so intensely in this topic. One of the fun things about the film has been all of the philosophical and scientific discussion that have come out of it.

I agree with you about some of the scientific holes in the film. I wondered why they couldn't try to fix the Earth instead of leave it. The film never showed the world beyond the little town in the Midwest. I wondered it people in Costa Rica were eating corn too. I think at its heart the film is about family and lengths love will go to. Secondarily, it shows the adventurous spirit of exploration. In 2 hours, the filmmaker can't show everything, so they have to make the world of the film very small. I don't think Nolan wanted to make another "Day After Tomorrow."

The 40's look of the film, mixed with the technology of Drones and robots made the whole film an allegory for the tension between Traditionalism and Progressive movement. Not once is it implied that the problems on Earth were caused by Global Warming, which is an interesting choice for a Hollywood film. In the principle's office scene, it is revealed that the world stopped technological advancement out of necessity. The irony, is that their lack of advancement might have sped their demise.

In regards to the utility of love, the film suggest that there is no utility to it, but leaves room for interpretation. Is asks if there is a utility to loving someone who has died. Obviously not, but as humans we still do. The film seemed to fly off the notion that a pure evolutionary, survival of the fittest system cannot produce self-sacrificing love. The movie suggests that there is something in humans that cannot be explained, however, the film leaves that portion up to interpretation.

It may not be a popular opinion, but I interpreted the film as having an anti-humanist message. It shows humanism accumulating into Dr. Mann and selfish ambition. This is further expounded upon in Sr. Dr. Brand's death speech. This is purely an academic analysis and not meant to offend.

Jim from Kansas on December 19, 2014:

I've been meaning to go see it. When I do, I'll be back.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 18, 2014:

Thanks for the spoiler alert. Your lead-in sounds like this movie is up my alley. I'll click out and come back to your hub after I've seen the movie.

Mary Craig from New York on December 18, 2014:

I didn't read your hub as I haven't seen the movie, so I'll have to remember to come back after I do. Thanks for the heads up!

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on December 17, 2014:


Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts. I read in an interview that Nolan considers his film to be speculative science, not science fiction. What grounds it is the father/daughter relationship. That story could be told in a million different ways, but Nolan chose to tell in the vastness of space.

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on December 17, 2014:


I am so glad that you saw it and liked it. I was thinking about you and how it was a story I thought you would like. The whole film was groundbreaking and unlike anything I have ever seen. It's one of those films people will be talking about for decades. When I was studying film we studied the greats like Star War and Close Encounters; Interstellar will be spoken of in the same way. I can't wait to see what Nolan does next. How can he top that?

From a writing perspective, the story is very interesting in that the Antagonist is time. It's a unique example of building external and internal conflict. You just want to squirm in your seat; that's a hard thing to write--for the audience to be so invested in the characters that you feel the action right with them. It also goes to show that audiences still enjoy very human stories. Yes, there are robots and cool graphics, but the love story between a father and his daughter is what carries the film.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

HK from London on December 17, 2014:

What a wonderful hub. Great and deep. I am a fan of Nolan movies and I loved it. This movie makes much more sense when viewed as an emotional or perhaps a philosophical drama rather than a sci fi.

Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on December 17, 2014:

Love is inexplicable only if you can't realize it's a key to raising offspring that are born vulnerable and stay vulnerable for a long period after birth, requiring intent and complicated care that makes survival more difficult for parents. Mammals and birds love so it's no surprise humans do, too.

I don't understand the title of your hub. Humanism isn't something that would be vs love. Much of humanism has to do with caring for one's fellow man out of love. The idea is that since there's no perceptible God that takes care of our problems and our fellow humans it's up to us to do it because we, as humans, care. That's the whole reason behind humanist charities.

Human love and ability versus a supernatural blight might be a better title. The characters were clearly trying to save humanity due to their feelings for the human race. That's human love or humanism.

It's a fantasy drama film trying very, very hard to be artsy and deep, limited by a script that doesn't pay any attention to the science we already have. If a drama fantasy bills itself as science fiction it should pay attention to some existing science, especially science the average person is familiar with.

Here are some incredibly obvious scientific solutions that don't rely on space travel to other solar systems or prayer:

*Air-tight greenhouses operated by robots or humans in clean suits

*Fungus-derived foods grown in sanitary conditions

*Algae-derived foods grown in the same

*Insects farmed in clean, sealed areas

*Artificially lighted, air-tight underground growing areas

*Meat cultures grown in sterile laboratory conditions

We can and are already are doing all of those things in labs, the meat just has a lousy texture. I don't think the starving people would complain.

They could also genetically engineer plant life immune to the blight.

*Do all those things plus all the other things scientists and average people would come up with and then slowly re-introduce life to the surface of the earth once enough time has passed for the blight to have died off, having no life left to sustain it. The process could be sped up by measures taken to sterilize the earth. The greenhouse effect that would be reduced due to the absence of plants could be repaired with pollution.

Heck, humanity as a species could be saved with little splinter colonies on the moon and Mars sustaining themselves similarly but it wouldn't be necessary as the sun wasn't put out and the earth itself was only inhospitable, not deadly to people wearing protective gear.

I feel it also fails as a fantasy film because there were too many fantasy aspects that were subtractions from, rather than additions to, reality. Too much of current science was missing without any explanation as to why human science had devolved so far in all areas except the ones relevant to the plan while clearly well-educated people still existed. The supernatural elements inserted to make it a fantasy were also a bit too trite, in my opinion.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 17, 2014:

My wife and I absolutely loved this movie. I've heard from friends who hated it. I thought the imagery was exquisite, unlike anything we have seen in films in a very long time.