Christopher Nolan’s latest offering to cinema aficionados is, I think, a truly spectacular film. In an age when movies often fail to be as epic as their trailers lead us to believe, Interstellar delivers in every possible way. It accomplishes in magnificent fashion what every great film ought. It entertains with a story of an identifiable and reluctant hero fighting to save mankind and the visual imagery was nothing short of extraordinary. As this author watched it, I sat and marveled at the film’s portrayal of just what it might be like to venture into a wormhole or to be pulled helplessly into a black hole. However, the film goes beyond the interesting storyline and the stunning visuals, possessing something deeper, something that touches the soul. It connects with one of the most basic elements of our humanity—the need and desire to look up and ask why. This urge has been a part of us since the first humans were awakened thousands of years ago. It is what makes us human and what distinguishes us from other living creatures. Mr. Nolan shows us a kind of realization of just how far that urge can carry us—into the deep recesses of space in a quest for our own survival. Yet, the movie does not stop there as it touches upon another element of our humanity: love. Love and human connection are shown to be necessities and their importance to the survival of the human race shown incapable of overstatement. But I digress. This is not intended to be a review of the film but something else: I would like to offer up a different interpretation of those referred to as “they” in the film.
As the movie progresses, we the viewers learn how “they” orchestrated a grand design to help the human race escape a dying planet and seek life in another part of the universe. The scientists in the film eventually come to the conclusion that “they” are an advanced future civilization of humans who through scientific discovery were able to bring about their own survival by helping their ancestors find a way forward. The possibility of the divine is altogether left out in their interpretation. But does this purely naturalistic explanation adequately account for the origins of our inquisitive spirits and our need for love and connection? Is there strength in the idea that “they” are the product of millions of years of unguided evolutionary processes, or do these components of our humanity point toward something else?
Fortunately, for myself and others of a like mind, the film never explicitly confirms the accuracy of the scientists’ conclusion. Surely, the scientists believe this to be the case but their hypothesis fails to paint the entire picture. Due to their own biases they are unable to conceive of what was lurking behind the curtain. The reason I say fortunately is because if their theory were true, then eventually the story would come to end, and all life would be gone forever. C.S. Lewis once spoke gravely of this disturbing possibility when he said,
The whole story is going to end in nothing. The astronomers hold out no hope that this planet is going to be permanently inhabitable. The physicists hold out no hope that organic life is going to be a permanent possibility in any part of the material universe. Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down. Nature is a sinking ship. Bergson talks about the élan vita, and Mr. Shaw talks about “Life-force” as if they could surge on for ever and ever. But that comes of concentrating on biology and ignoring the other sciences. There is really no such hope. Nature does not, in the long run, favour life. If Nature is all that exists—in other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort outside Nature—then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return. It will have been an accidental flicker, and there will be no one even to remember it. (On Living in an Atomic Age)
In the case of Interstellar, we are told that the universe is running down, that everything that has a beginning has an end. But when the universe fades away at the end of time, not even an advanced race of people could escape that ultimate reality no matter how far they had progressed. Life–all life–would utterly end like a nightmare of unimaginable proportion. All our loves, all our joys, all our histories, and all our memories would be totally and completely extinguished. Forever.
Sound bleak? Such a grim reality should not set well with any of us. The story does not end there, however, and if Interstellar had a sequel it would continue on into a future of further progress and greater discovery. In such a sequel the advanced future society in its quest for knowledge may learn something else, something that they never even had the vaguest inkling to consider—like a great twist at the end of a movie where suddenly a profound realization occurs and all of the interwoven plot lines come crashing together in a most unexpected fashion. “They” discover that they were never really the “they,” and all along someone else had been guiding their greatest efforts and proudest achievements. It was not humanity who conceived this plan when the world’s foundations were being laid; it was “they.” “They” are the origin of our urge to look up and wonder, our need for love and connection, and it is “they” who are the authors of mankind’s survival in Interstellar.
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.—Robert Jastrow, Physicist, Astronomer, Cosmologist in God and the Astronomers
It is upon this highest peak that the theological element can finally enter into the equation, and hope can rage against the dying of light. I freely acknowledge this probably was not in the minds of the Nolan brothers as they penned this masterpiece of a film. They may not even wish for their work to be interpreted in this manner, and yet, the stubbornness and discontent within me say that this interpretation is the only truly valid one. With a purely naturalistic explanation, there is no lasting hope in the story. Merely achieving a temporary dwelling place until time and space winds down is a resolution befitting only the darkest of nights. If this is the true end, what is it all for?
Be grave once more, never stop looking up and asking why and you will see the blinding sight of the divine blazing into our world and raging against the dying of light.
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