Warning: This review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens in the film.
Interstellar, the new film directed by Christopher Nolan, attempts to say something profound about human relationships and meaning, a goal that by itself is worth celebrating. What the film tries to say is a little more ambiguous.
If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives of those atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
The story is formed around a father-daughter relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConoughey) and Murph (a character portrayed by three actors, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn) that is poignant and real and, at one point, drew tears from your humble reviewer and father of daughters. That relationship is really the main plotline holding the story together, but regrettably it is never fully worked out. After two and a half hours (and almost a century) of longing for reunion, father finds his daughter again through remarkable circumstances. They share a joke, and then dismiss each other after a couple minutes. The audience is expected to suspend disbelief with such swift transitions, common in the film.
Utilitarian Value of Love
The father-daughter relationship, however, has another job to do. It provides the audience with an example of one those seemingly unscientific ideas like love that are so valuable to humanity because . . . because . . . they can help us make better gut decisions? This seems to be the point of Murph’s insistence for her father to “STAY” or Dr. Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) desire to visit Edmunds’s planet (the planet where a former astronaut named Edmund was located) instead of the planet of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). Love informed the right gut decision.
Love’s value is apparently utilitarian, not ontological. It serves a purpose, but it has no value by itself. In these terms, the self-love of Dr. Mann and the survival instinct that animates his betrayal of our main characters is perfectly legitimate. Cooper calls him a coward because he seeks to preserve himself at the cost of the mission, but we might be reminded that, at this point in the film, Cooper is guilty of the same thing. The elder Dr. Brand’s plan A is a hoax, earth is doomed, so why not return to your loved ones? Dr. Mann is completely justified in his actions, so why all the sinister music while he is doing his thing?
Love is transcendent, the younger Dr. Brand says, but what that means differs from what it means in a world created and sustained by a personal God.
Which raises the question of meaning. The movie begins with a welcome conflict between science (Cooper’s empiricism) and mystery (Murph’s ghost), which is further complicated by the deliberate ignorance of the post-food crisis world in which they live. There are things we can observe and understand and those we can’t. Notably, the analysts at NASA all conclude that the gravitational anomalies are messages from “them,” presuming an unseen but personal force identified with what? Aliens? Spirits? Deities? Future fifth-dimensional humans? No one asking questions about God is given a fair hearing.
We find, however, that some of these anomalies, Murph’s ghost for instance, are actually the work of Cooper himself operating in a fifth-dimension-for-dummies control center located within a black hole. Mystery solved. The mystery is you. There is also a strong hint here that the agents behind all of this are a higher, future form of humans, manipulating gravitational anomalies like trails of bread crumbs. This “you of the gaps” theory is basically the notional twin of the “God of the gaps” theory so derided by critics of certain forms of creationism. If you encounter mystery, you can chalk it up to you, just a better future you. How’s that for special pleading?
Where Can Meaning Be Found?
Even so, we are never given an explanation about the meaning of the events that unfold on the screen. Is this all not the natural progression of cosmic activity in a vacuum? Should the audience be moved merely out of solidarity with our species (which again would justify Dr. Mann’s actions as much as Cooper’s)?
These are not meta-type questions irrelevant to the movie itself. They actually get at the issues the movie is exploring. How ought we to evaluate decisions in life? Where do we find meaning?
The problem is that the scientific romanticism of Interstellar can only describe events in ever more complex networks of causes and effects. It cannot explain events. It cannot provide a foundation for meaning. We get the what and the how (most of the time) but not the why. We get much sound and fury, but thin signification.
That said, Interstellar is still a moving film; at points it is breathtaking. Nolan provides a vividly produced simulacrum with expansive extraterrestrial panoramas imagined and shaped deliberately for the IMAX screen, just like those floating lanterns in Tangled were destined from birth for 3D screens. Some of these scenes are literally wonderful in their construal. Yes, it suffers from several severe plot-holes (apparently in the naturalistic universe of the film, the deus ex machina is one god who is not dead) and even more problematic idea-holes. But the movie is still worth seeing.