With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan set out to make this generation’s version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—a movie with stunning visuals of space, set at a time when humankind is facing serious threats to its very existence. In both movies, the threat is man-made: in 2001 it’s the threat of global war; in Interstellar it’s global warming. Both movies received “mixed” reviews when they were released, with people divided as to whether they loved or hated the movie. 2001 became a cult favorite and then a cultural icon. The fate of Interstellar remains to be seen.
The movie has flaws, but I’m firmly in the “loved it” camp. First of all, Nolan delivers on the visuals. The scene where the astronauts travel through the wormhole was, for me, worth the price of admission alone. While other sci-fi shows (Doctor Who and Farscape come to mind) depict a wormhole as a kind of tunnel, Nolan took consultant and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne’s idea that a wormhole is a sphere and rendered it beautifully onscreen.
What I loved most, however, is how Nolan plays with all the different kinds of beliefs humans express about the future. The majority of sci-fi films are based on the belief that we’re headed for some kind of apocalyptic showdown in which humans will be pitted against each other, our own inventions, or aliens (the Terminator movies, Edge of Tomorrow, and all those zombie apocalypse movies, for example). I have personal friends who believe this: one keeps buying guns to guard his home against the people he is convinced will lay siege to it for his stores of food when solar flares or an earthquake destroy the social infrastructure, while another has gone so far as to build a literal fortress with concrete walls 40 feet high up in the hills, for when the 9.0 earthquake hits. (I’ve pointed out to him that he’s far more likely to die of a heart attack safely walled away from the paramedics who could save him, but statistics and logic have no effect when it comes to deeply held fears.)
My own experience has been that when things get very bad, most people band together to help the entire community survive. This belief was confirmed for me last summer when wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes in the Methow Valley of north-central Washington state. I have lived in the Methow and have many friends there. All of them told me stories of how the community had come together during and after the fires and shared what they had with each other—even though many of them had very little to start with.
Nolan shows us an Earth in which global warming and genetic modifications to food plants have led to dustbowl conditions combined with a series of “blights” that target certain crops; at the time of the movie, humans are relying primarily on corn for survival and coping with huge duststorms. Distrust of technology has led the government decreeing that the space program of the 20th century was all a lie meant to lull people into false hopes. Yet people are not at war over the scant resources; the main character, Cooper, a former NASA astronaut-turned-farmer, lives in a community where people help each other and still go to their kids’ baseball games, doing their best to have normal lives.
Another belief that Nolan references in Interstellar is the belief in an external benevolent force that will rescue us from ourselves just in the nick of time. Nolan’s version of the Rapture is the belief that helpful aliens are watching over us; this belief seems to be confirmed when a wormhole appears near Saturn. Despite the official messages from the government, we find that NASA still exists and has already sent twelve one-way missions through the wormhole to seek out potential new planets for humans to move to. NASA recruits Cooper for a thirteenth mission (is the reference to Apollo 13 deliberate?) to investigate the three planets that are the most likely candidates. Eventually we find out that yes, the wormhole was deliberately placed there to help humans escape their dying planet.
The movie also expresses our underlying faith in science. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries led people to believe that we could eventually understand—and through that understanding, gain mastery over—the forces that govern our physical universe. To a large extent, that has been true, although as the movie also shows, such mastery creates its own problems. But most of us still hold to the faith that we can solve our own problems through science. In Interstellar, this faith is expressed in the hope that Cooper’s daughter Murphy can “solve the problem” of gravity; once that is accomplished, once humans gain power over gravity, we would no longer be tied to Earth and could take millions of people anywhere in the universe.
Yet at the same time, Interstellar is about our faith in the power of love. The astronauts who have the courage to step through the wormhole on a journey that probably will end in lonely deaths do so because they love the people they leave behind and want to do all they can to save them. The movie makes it clear that this is not impersonal love but love for specific persons: Cooper’s for his daughter, his co-astronaut Brand’s love for the other astronaut she hopes to reunite with in space, and the veneration the original astronauts felt for their mentor and leader, Dr. Mann, “the best of us,” that caused them to follow him on his quest to save mankind. Only Dr. Mann, as it turns out, has no such personal love for another to keep him on track, and so he reverts to that most primal kind of love, self-love, and nearly wrecks the mission as a result.
Because of his love, Cooper is able to communicate back through space and time with Murphy and give her the key to solving the problem of gravity and saving humanity. He is given the ability to do this not by aliens or a benevolent deity, but humans themselves—the humans of the future, our own descendants, who have mastered time as well. And that’s the final faith that Nolan covers: the faith humans have in our ability to find a way through any problem. Science alone is not the answer, love alone is not the answer, faith in help from “above” is not the answer, but they are all part of the answer.
In the end, Interstellar suggests, it is all about community: if we work together and pool our resources, our knowledge, our abilities, out of love, we will find a way.