Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is one of those films I wish I could have seen three times before I wrote my review. As it is I only had a few hours to process the (insanely mind-bending) film before I had to turn in my review for Christianity Today. Because of that I want to share a few further thoughts I've been mulling over in the week since I've seen the film:
I'm generally happy with the review I wrote and stand by my arguments about the film's "secular, yet curiously devout vision of the cosmos." Also at CT, Alissa offered a different view, suggesting a reading of the film as fundamentally religious. While I agree that the film asks metaphysical questions and looks and feels religious (it "feels a bit like a three-hour church service set in the cathedral of space," I wrote) I can't get past the film's insistent refusal to allow for anything supernatural. I read the film that way in part because of Nolan's whole body of work. He goes out of his way in his films to strip away the supernatural and ground things painstakingly in the natural. Take the Dark Knight films: One of the most distinctive aspects of them, relative to the superhero genre as a whole, is how de-mystified and stripped of the "super" they are. Or take The Prestige. It's a film about magic that feels supernatural but, in the end, is explained with the natural (I hope that's not a spoiler!). Or consider Inception, which feels like there must be something otherworldly or surreal about it, right? But no, it's all explainable because of psychology and science.
Of course this is not to suggest that these are bad films. On the contrary; they are wonderful and awe-inspiring films. I totally agree with Alissa that science does not negate mystery and that "just because we understand a mystery doesn't make it less worthy of marvel." But I do think awe/marvel/wonder takes on a different meaning and posture in the context of a strictly material universe (the awe is directed to the object/phenomena itself, or the science which understands it) than it does in the context of a God-created universe (the awe-inspiring object/phenomena points beyond itself, to the divine).
I suspect Christopher Nolan is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (clearly a major influence on Interstellar), who famously said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That is to say, what appears magical or supernatural to us is probably just science we haven't yet understood completely. Everything can ultimately be explained. Certainly this is the concept put forth in Interstellar that makes sense of the movie's "ghosts" and other phantasmagoric mysteries. If you think about it, cinema is the perfect medium for someone who ascribes to the Clarke mantra. Movie-making is essentially making magic via technology. Certainly Nolan excels at this, as his films do a tremendous job giving the illusion of "magic" by exploiting the technologies of the medium.
A few other random reflections on the film:
- I still think one of the film's most powerful themes is survival--that mankind's instincts to survive make almost anything possible. The "rage against the dying of the light" idea (Dylan Thomas) reminded me of other recent "fighting to the last breath" movies I love, like last year's All is Lost or 2006's United 93. It also struck me as a powerful contrast to the Brittany Maynard "die with dignity" story which has grabbed headlines in recent weeks. Watching humans do literally anything to survive (because it's their inborn instinct), even when the prognosis is hopeless, is so much more compelling than applauding the premature ending of a life.
- The more I consider Nolan and his body of work the more I think about Nolan's decidedly British gaze. What I mean is this: There's a meticulous perfectionism and yet coldness to his filmmaking. There's an appreciation for artistry and beauty, yet an avoidance of religion and God (intentionally) and a discomfort with touchy feely emotions (unintentionally?). This is very British. Britain today is thoroughly post-Christian and yet unavoidably informed by its Christian heritage (especially aesthetically and narratively). The British gaze today is (for the most part) coldly rational, yet bound by an optimism and moral compass that comes from the vestiges of Christendom. In this way I think Interstellar is a very British film.