Interstellar takes us to the stars. Director Christopher Nolan goes all-out to inspire awe through eye-popping visuals and soaring organ music – make sure you see this film on the biggest screen you can find. The human characters often play second fiddle to the ideas, but at the heart of it is a big idea about humanity and relationships, dramatised through the relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain).
Although there’s no explicit religious reference or allusion in the film, the issues it raises overlap with questions of faith, as many people have noted: What is our place in the universe? What is our destiny? How can we overcome our problems?
SPOILER WARNING: Although I’ve tried not to give away specific plot details, from here on I’ll be discussing the themes of Interstellar in detail, so read on at your own risk.
“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”
As we’re taken on this journey, the film seeks to rekindle our instinct to explore and to reach for the stars. Like Gravity last year, it evokes fear and wonder at the grandeur of space.
But Interstellar seems in deadly earnest in suggesting we need to get out there among the stars. And the reason for that is the survival of the human race. If we can’t leave earth, we’ll die here.
I love astronomy and science fiction. In the last few days, I’ve thrilled at the Rosetta comet landing. I marvel at our ability to explore the universe – to “think God’s thoughts after him”. I love the idea of humans boldly going where no one has gone before.
But scientifically speaking, interstellar space travel is sheer fantasy. We can dream of great breakthroughs, but for now it remains just a dream.
McConaghey’s Cooper rails against the idea of humans being “caretakers” rather than “explorers”. The Bible tells us that our calling as human beings is both these things. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were given the task of filling the Earth – exploring and colonising it – and subduing it – cultivating and taking care of it.
For Christians, our faith frees us to accept our mortality without fear. We can face our death, even the extinction of the species, knowing that it’s not the end. But is that it? What comes next?
Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Michael Cain’s character, Dr Brand, claims: “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” Similarly, Christians have sometimes made the mistake of thinking that God’s plan of salvation is all about escaping earth for heaven – most glaringly in the idea of the rapture, where Christians get airlifted from the planet before the apocalypse hits.
Interstellar travel is the rapture for materialists. As George Monbiot astutely observed in the Guardian, it’s the hope that rather than dealing with the problems we face here on earth, we can escape to a new world. But even if that were possible, it doesn’t deal with human nature, and so we would just take all our problems with us.
If we look only to human love and human ingenuity to save us, as it does in Interstellar, we’ll be disappointed. But a fuller understanding of the Christian story sees that Jesus came into the world to redeem and restore this world, and that we will be raised to new physical life in the new creation. We don’t go to a different world – Jesus will restore this one.
In the meantime, God involves us in the task of bringing healing, justice and restoration to the planet, through announcing the Good News and having our lives transformed by his grace and Holy Spirit.
Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.
The film also shows that mere survival is insufficient. Through the twists and turns of the plot, it implies it’s not enough to be devoted to preserving the human species in abstract. In fact, it can lead to spectacularly bad decisions. Similarly, the Bible insists on us loving our neighbours, the real people around us with all their foibles and problems, not just the idea of “humanity”.
Anne Hathaway’s speech that: “Love isn’t something we’ve invented, it’s observable, powerful force like gravity,” and like gravity, transcends time and space, has been much derided as sentimental tosh. But while in the film, it’s ultimately human love and human ingenuity that saves the day; Hathaway’s character speaks more truly than she knows.
The Bible says that God is love, and so love is indeed the most fundamental force in the universe. As philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, this means gravity is not just like love, it is love on a material level. It’s a love that can save us, that hasn’t given up on this world but will one day restore it. God’s love is “the love that moves the sun and other stars”.