Film Review: Interstellar image

Film Review: Interstellar

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This is the first of an occasional ThinkTheology column where I’ll be reviewing films that make me think about my faith in some way, equal parts review and theological pondering. I’ll write something whenever I watch a film worth covering, as well as about the obvious choices, like the upcoming film about Moses starring Christian Bale. While it is entirely possible to write reviews without spoiling the film, sometimes in order to discuss the themes in more depth, I’ll need to spoil elements of the plot, so while you should be able to read most articles without seeing the film first, I’ll always signpost any potential spoilers in advance.

Interstellar opens with an almost documentary-like tone, with some plainly shot talking heads reminiscing about life in some dusty farmland. What’s this? Has Christopher Nolan, the director behind mind-bending thrillers such as Memento, The Prestige and Inception, as well as some rather dour superhero films about a man who dresses like a bat, made something down-to-earth and restrained? Well, not so much. Instead, he’s using the almost docu-realist style to introduce the central plot point – life on earth is now unsustainable, and humans need to find a way to keep on living. The tone seems to suggest one thing: this is a real problem that we could one day face together. The solution, according to Nolan, is far more grandiose, and involves spaceships, wormholes, black holes and all sorts of things that are really better to discover when watching it without much prior knowledge. At the centre of it all is Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, an astronaut who is dragged into the mission by mysterious messages, and has to leave his children behind to try and save the future of the human race.

The first thing you should prepare yourself for with Interstellar is that it is not a particularly action-packed blockbuster. There are some spectacular sequences, such as an attempt to dock on a space station that is spinning wildly through space, and scenes of such abstract beauty that the scale of the film alone is enough to make you think about the God who has numbered the stars and knows them by name. It’s a film so big it crosses galaxies, and does so with the sense of awe and wonder that makes sci-fi such a powerful cinematic genre. Yet Christopher Nolan, along with his writer brother Jonathan and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, is actually more concerned with the ideas behind the spectacle, and the result is something that involves more exposition than explosions. So, get ready for lots of talking. But lots of talking IN SPACE.

The dialogue-heavy nature is both Interstellar’s downfall and its great success. The Nolans apparently feel the need to explain every minute machination of the plot to the audience, breaking the golden rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ from the outset. And there is a lot to tell. It’s a story stuffed with so much science, it’s meaningless to try and explain it now – the characters will do that for you anyway. Yet all the talking that happens also allows for some meaty discussion of themes that separates Nolan out from just about every other blockbuster director out there. If you forget his ridiculous and curiously adored Bat-trilogy, Nolan emerges as a film maker determined to firstly be original and secondly to say something with his films. With Interstellar he is aiming higher than ever and asking the question that has plagued creative types for centuries: what is man’s place on earth?

One of the taglines, and most memorable lines in the film, is that ‘mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.’ In Interstellar, the world is broken, and mankind’s solution is to find a new earth. Their journey between the stars (hence the title) is guided by a mysterious force, which they guess to be some kind of multidimensional being, a force that wants to save humans from their fate and provide them with a new earth and a second chance. Where many films are concerned with our own personal mortality, this makes the picture a whole lot bigger: what is humanity’s purpose, and where will it go when it all ends here on earth? The existence of God and the book of Revelation make sci-fis like this somewhat redundant, as Christians have a hope of a new earth that will replace this current broken planet, but it’s refreshing to see mainstream blockbuster cinema grappling with such weighty themes.  The astronauts in this film aim to find a new planet somewhere light years away from this earth, but the hope of those who read Revelation 21 is that instead of finding us a new home, this one we currently live on will be perfected and made new, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more for the former things have passed away.” Instead of vague multidimensional beings who will provide a new home for us, it’s the God who created us in the first place, making all things right. Yet what both the film and Revelation agree on is that this earth isn’t going to last forever, and that something is fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed. It’s important to work out what, then, is mankind’s next step.

Interstellar asks even more probing questions than that, using the character of Cooper to focus the grand, global existential questions onto a personal, relatable story. While the film asks how humanity should be saved, it also has the audacity to ask what it takes to do that. There are two plans to rescue the human race from extinction, one which involves moving the battered remnant on earth to a new planet, and the more efficient option of transporting fertilised embryos to their new home, and starting afresh. Cooper – played with the usual hangdog charm of McConaughey in his new found popularity – clearly prefers the first option, as it is a way of providing a hope for the children he has left behind. Yet the odds weigh heavily in favour of the latter option, which essentially amounts to survival for the sake of survival, continuing the human race simply because we can.

The choice between these two forms an emotional dilemma that resonates into the final act. Cooper’s fractured relationship with his children, a thread that is the emotional core of the story and gives more heart to the film than Nolan usually allows, is what gives the decision between the two plans its potency. Is mankind worth saving if it is not for the sake of saving those you love? The act of salvation, to Cooper, has to be motivated by love, otherwise he would not have left earth in the first place. This is a story that champions human relationships, and the fate of one character certainly proves the phrase that ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’ Nolan hammers this home a little too hard sometimes, particularly in one cloying speech about love transcending dimensions, but the point is a powerful – and, dare I say it, Christlike – one, where the only reason to leave your home and to cross space and time to save the human race is because you love the people you are trying to save.

This final paragraph contains massive spoilers about the end of the film.

The film ends with an insane multi-dimensional trip into the singularity of a black hole, where Cooper ends up manipulating the past, the present and the future to help save mankind from their predicament. No, seriously. And cinematically it sort of works. It emerges that the mysterious ‘others’ who have helped the humans are actually just humans themselves, but in the future and with more developed technology (at least, that’s the conclusion that Cooper reaches). Ultimately, humanity saves humanity from itself. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (very much a reference point for the film), faith is put in the power of humanity to progress beyond itself. People will evolve, adapt and ultimately become the source of their own salvation. Cooper even survives ejecting himself into space for reasons largely unexplained, giving him – and consequently humans and pioneers – an air of immortality. It’s a frustrating note to end the film on, from a Christian perspective, when the film had been looking outwards at needing something else to save them.  One thing to consider, however, is the improbability of this ending. It stretches the realms of credibility to almost breaking point, which does actually raise the question: can humans really save themselves?

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