About halfway through Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I thought I’d made a mistake. I glanced anxiously at my 12- and 15-year-old boys and worried that this three-hour story was too complex and plodding for these Harry Potter aficionados. They probably wanted mythic heroes, hangers full of advanced artillery and battles with menacing aliens. We got none of that in this saga. Our experience was much more subtle—and meaningful.
In Interstellar, exploration is as much about the journey of humanity as it is of space. And more to the point, it’s about one family’s experience against the backdrop of an entire planet full of families, clans and tribes. Set in the near future, Cooper, a rural farmer and single father of two teens, struggles to find his place in a world that no longer values his engineering and piloting skills. NASA, his former employer, has been driven deep underground and now functions as a covert government operation. The historical metanarrative is unmistakable: modern certainty (science will save us) gives way to postmodern skepticism (question everything because nothing is working as predicted), which leads to neo-medieval superstition (the Apollo program was a myth and farming is all that’s needed now), to something that transcends human history in a place that breaks the natural laws we hold so dearly (the black hole).
This narrative brings with it an inherent tension between science and faith. That’s not a new cinematic theme. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sagan’s Contact and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas all take us to an unknown destination beyond the stars, launching us into the void of uncertainty. M. Night Shyamalan tends to do the same in nearly all of his movies, but with plots firmly rooted on Earth. In these films, science, though foundational to our existence, is neither capable of predicting the future or of bringing meaning to life.
Back to Interstellar. Cooper’s relationship with his daughter, Murphy, provides the tension required to address such transcendent themes. One of the core dialogues in the movie comes as Cooper hugs his crying girl, unsuccessfully convincing her of the importance of his upcoming journey.
You have to talk to me Murph. I need to fix this before I go. After you kids came along, your mom, she said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ I think I now understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
This statement plays itself out as the film develops in ways that aren't immediately identifiable, but we are given hints. Both while her father is present and then after he is gone, Murphy must summon all her intellectual abilities to solve a very looming technical problem: how to relocate a sample of humanity off of the dying planet. Frustrated at every point, she slowly learns that someone or something has been giving her clues along the way. As she opens herself to realms of the mystic and unquantifiable, she sees the signs in falling dust, mechanical objects and, my favorite, a room full of books—oak shelves full of hard shells of knowledge that point the sojourner in the right direction but never tell the full story.
As father and daughter cross space and time, they interact and influence one other in a way that exceeds theories of quantum entanglement. If electrons that have interacted in the past and then moved apart can affect each other’s nature regardless of the distance that separates them, might not the human spirit be capable of the same, but on a much grander scale?
For the most part, Interstellar does a good job of adhering to current understandings of physics. Nolan necessarily takes some liberties because the essence of space is quite boring. But when the “laws” of nature are bent or broken, characters in the movie are confronted and left questioning their own notions of the cosmos, eventually yielding to a belief in “them” which is also simultaneously a belief in “us” and an acknowledgement of something transcendent and even divine.
Dr. Brand, a young female scientist on the transgalactic expedition, realizes this at a pivotal moment: “Maybe we've spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” This would be a cheap and clichéd line in most movies, but it comes as a timely gem in Interstellar. This is a conversion experience. This is Love shouted across space and time. This is a recognition of the Divine. This is the Love that spoke and created all things into being in all times and places and stands above all times and places with a chorus of witnesses connecting the Creator to the Creation.
The Gospel of John presents similar themes of mystical connectedness.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.
John’s sense of interconnectedness is not something that can be explained by science and technique. This Spirit of in-and-with-and-through has not only come but is continually coming in a way that human eyes can’t see and physics can’t explain. This Ghost—this Holy Ghost—haunts our past, present and future simultaneously and reminds us of a God who stands outside of space and time (which incidentally is why the Incarnation of Jesus is of cosmic importance as God bursts into the physicality of space and time).
Interstellar isn't a movie about space exploration or time travel or conquest of an alien world. On the contrary, we're not even shown an alien creature. At best, we are only asked to consider the possibility that "they" exist and are somehow benevolently prodding us along like an unseen parent. This movie is, however, a deeply moving story of families and our connection across time to both ancestors and descendants through faith and love. We’re reminded that none of these connections are inconsequential to our combined destiny. Stranger still, these grand yet seemingly distant interactions are not purely human, for in and through these transcendent encounters, Spirit and flesh intersect in a way not bordered by space, time and gravity.
Three hours after we entered the theater, my family hardly knew what to say. I’m sure my boys didn’t understand the full scope of Interstellar’s benediction: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But they soon began asking questions, naming issues and identifying with the film’s characters. We’ve already bought the soundtrack and my boys can’t wait for the BluRay.
As one who is father, son and ghost, I think we had an amazing family experience together.