Talking Pictures in Review: Interstellar

For those who were unable to attend this past Friday night, here’s a brief summary of the Talking Pictures discussion of Interstellar, along with a few additional thoughts.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

First, a few comments about the artistic and technical qualities of the film:

  • One of film’s more outstanding qualities is composer Hans Zimmer’s musical score. Music in film is meant to play an important role in telling the story at hand, and Interstellar does this better than most, helping you feel the appropriate tension, wonder, loss, love, etc. Interestingly, director Christopher Nolan initially gave Zimmer, not the full script, but rather a single page of notes to work from for a day. What Zimmer produced at that time became the foundation for the finished score.
  • The film obviously contains compelling visuals as well, including several big, engaging shots: including dust storms on earth, gigantic waves on a far distant planet, a massive black hole, etc. To render those visuals in a “believable” fashion is no small feat.
  • Fitting with the film’s preoccupation with time and relativity, its narrative doesn’t unfold in a strictly linear fashion. For example, we meet Murph first in her old age (played by Ellen Burstyn), before we see her in two other distinct periods in her life (played by Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain). At other times we see events long after they’ve occurred (through the messages the astronauts receive in space). And other scenes we experience, for lack of a better way to put it, from two different perspectives in time (think of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) observing himself talking with Murph when she was a child). There’s also a nice bit of foreshadowing when Cooper speaks to Murph about parents being the ghosts of their children’s future.
  • As is typical of Nolan films, Interstellar doesn’t explain everything in a nice and tidy fashion at the end. Some viewers might find this frustrating, but one noteworthy effect of this it to engage us as viewers even after the film concludes. We’re compelled to continue trying to piece together and explain what happened.
  • Though the scope of Interstellar is unquestionably grand—including the future of the human race, space travel over almost incalculable distances, etc.—it remains a very human film. We care about the big questions in the film in large part because we care about the individual characters. In fact, the core of the story is arguably the relationship between a dad and daughter, a relationship that must confront extraordinary circumstances. That the film is a highly emotional experience for many viewers (including me) is a tribute to the skill and veracity with which that relationship is dramatically portrayed.

As to what the film communicates as a whole, I came away with three significant observations (though they’re doubtless not the only ones to be made). Two involve ways in which the film resonates deeply with reality. The first of these has to do with its portrayal human nature. One the one hand, humanity according to Interstellar is capable of great courage, fortitude, innovation, and sacrifice. We see this plainly in the heroic efforts made to first hold on amidst a dying Earth, then to leave it in order to continue on another planet. On the other hand, human beings are also capable of deception, manipulation, cowardice, selfishness, and even murder. The actions of both Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) exemplify these latter characteristics. And when Brand states that they won’t run into evil out in space, Cooper offers the telling caveat of “just what we take with us.” All this reflects what Pascal called the “greatness and wretchedness of man,” the biblical reality that we still reflect the glorious image of God in numerous ways, but are now inescapably twisted and marred by our sin.

Secondly, film clearly values the significance and power of love. The characters that demonstrate love are the most sympathetic figures in the film. I’ve already mentioned the core of the Interstellar being the relationship between Cooper and Murph, but this is also demonstrated to a degree in the character of Brand. Her appeal to love as a reason to investigate one planet over another—an important moment in the film—is eventually vindicated. The planet in question becomes humanity’s new home, and she survives to find it.

This second point actually leads me to the third. While the film clearly portrays the significance of love, I think this actually runs counter to the larger worldview it communicates. Interstellar basically portrays a naturalistic perspective of our lives and universe. That is, there’s no appeal to the supernatural. Rather, it’s a “closed” system of matter and energy, cause and effect, time and chance, and our experiences as human beings are consistently framed in evolutionary terms. But as I’ve mentioned before, the question is whether such a worldview can adequately explain or provide any meaningful basis for love. In a naturalistic world, what we experience as love is ultimately nothing more than chemical reactions and electrical impulses. There is no larger reality “behind” these things. The physical processes are all there is.

On the basis of this point, then, I think either the film is inconsistent with itself, or Nolan means to raise the question of whether such a worldview—so often unquestioned in our culture—can adequately explain our experiences. For my part, I think that Brand is on to something when she says this:

Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something. …Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive.

Love is, in fact, evidence of something “higher.” And Interstellar, whether it intends to or not, underscores the point.

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