Ed Silver: Will self-knowledge be sustained or is it destined to collapse under the weight of human selfishness?
NB: See also Christopher B. Hays’s reflection on Interstellar.
In the summer of 2000, I was living in Jerusalem, staying in an empty and crumbling Greek Orthodox Monastery in the Valley of the Cross. Aside from a couple of other students, the only residents were the superior and his mother. The building itself was a fortress with thick stone walls, buttressed and steeply sloping. A crouch and a squeeze through its narrow entrance and the clamor of West Jerusalem was suddenly gone. Inside was a carefully tended garden of lemon trees and fragrant flowers and a beautifully adorned 11th century church. The monastery was built into the surrounding walls — three stories of galleried halls opening onto a plaza below. The few residents lived above where the sunlight and air were best. By day, you could wander through the empty rooms, finding traces of the earlier crusader-period and Georgian foundations.
Each night, just after sundown, a raucous screeching would begin to echo from deep within the monastery’s interior. Hearing it the first time set my hair on end. The inhuman sound was everywhere and then, abruptly, it was nowhere. Once, stumbling from my room, I met the superior’s mother, hair unbound and dressed in a nightgown, walking in a circuit and praying intensely. In her hands she held a bucket of water over which she made a hasty cross-sign before tossing it, loudly, onto the stones three floors below. When the splash echoed, the noise instantly ceased. The old woman nodded her head grimly, muttered something about devils, and went back to bed.
A few days later, flashlight in trembling hand, I pushed further back into the recesses of the building. My light played across darkened rooms until it lit up a wall carpeted with nesting bats. In a moment, I understood the source of the noise. At sundown, these bats would begin to stir, eager to feed in the wooded valley. But, given the monastery’s jumble of confusing angles, its half-open hallways and warren of rooms, their attempts to echolocate must have created an confusing palimpsest of walls and spaces, obscuring the path to the open air above. When the superior’s mother threw her bucket of water onto the paving stones, it would have been like a light switch flipped for an instant in a darkened room. With an external, fixed reference point, the colony of bats could navigate safely into the night.
The image of humanity groping blindly into the stars in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, led on by the strangely impotent hints from some unknown benefactor, put me in mind of those bats and that weird inter-species symbiosis. Nolan has staked out a solid position as this generation’s poet of subjective temporality. The baroque and interwoven timelines of Memento and Inception have here received a firmer, scientific grounding. References to relativity theory come so fast in the film’s second act that you can feel Nolan’s desperation to educate his audience quickly enough to comprehend his artistic vision.
And what a vision it is. This film is huge, risky, and idea-driven. Its obvious precursor is Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, another big-concept film whose narrative also strained under the weight of its ideas, but whose visuals and orchestral score kept the whole mess together. It’s closer in spirit to the forgettable 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Apollo-Era dreams of the inevitability of human spacefaring having given way, in the sequel, to cold war small-mindedness and yearning for a deus ex machina. For his part, Nolan’s early 21st century vision is marked by our species’ growing awareness of resource scarcity and our tenuous command over nature. The film reads best as a kind of a fable, a narrative stripped down to its essential elements: a broken world, a desperate yearning for renewal, strained relationships and the sharp fear of parental impotence.
All this would seem fertile ground for religious language. As a biblical scholar, I kept waiting for the apt scriptural references: Noah, Christ’s self-sacrifice, God’s Speech from the Whirlwind in the book of Job, Adam and Eve. The closest we get is a reference to the earlier round of last-ditch spacefarers as “Lazarus Missions,” a designation whose inadequacy is remarked upon as soon as the allusion is made. Instead, the scripture of this film is Dylan Thomas’ poem for his dying father: “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Repeated at key moments, it summarizes the yearning at the core of the film: a desire to live on in the face of inevitable death.
Nolan paints a bleak picture of the end of human life on earth. Everything in this movie is falling apart. Dishes are heavy with the dust of exhausted topsoil. Whole breeds of crops are dying out. The air itself is becoming unbreathable. Technology is cobbled together and humankind has been reduced to tinkering. “A caretaker generation,” one school official calls them, and yet, to the audience it’s clear that this is only one of the several acts of desperate self-delusion the dying human race has chosen to sell itself. Poised against those who are, in fact, going gently into that good night, the protagonist Cooper is a throwback to The Right Stuff. A test pilot born too late, his own name prefigures his role in the film as the one who must fashion a vessel to carry the dregs of humanity forth. He is all rage, and one of the film’s smaller joys (or frustrations, depending on your degree of reconciliation to Nolan’s vision) is seeing him refuse, stubbornly, to die. This is not a cosmos that promises resurrection; the only living Lazarus is a murderous idiot.
The humanizing counterweight to this rage to live are the loving relationships at the core of the film. Cooper’s love for his daughter, Murph, whom he abandons in the effort to save her, the elder Dr. Brand’s love for his daughter, Amelia, and Amelia’s own love for one of the Lazarus astronauts. In one of film’s riskiest moments, Amelia speaks to this love and the power of human intuition as a thing that shapes and gives meaning to technology and science. (In its own way, this film is a feminist tragedy, acknowledging the historical position of men as scientific protagonists and explorers, depicting these men as loving imperfectly and lying shamefully, and showing us a younger generation of women whose development as characters is stunted by that exhausted plot structure and whose personalities within the narrative have been warped by the continuing failure of patriarchy to get over itself.) Amelia’s speech is echoed in Cooper’s own struggle, in the film’s climax, to bend time and space in order to achieve a connection with his own daughter. This is not the patient, kind love of 1 Corinthians. It is at once a furious parental yearning to keep safe that which cannot be protected and an infantile need to live in a world that is at once nurturing and open. It is a push and pull between risk and trust, one which is written into the human relationships in the film and woven into its conceptual architecture. What Murph wants from Cooper is what Cooper himself wants from the cosmos. The rage of each comes at seeing that desire denied.
In its own way, this film is a feminist tragedy.
This is a film that depicts, passionately, the human, the superhuman and the post-human. There is no one out there to save us, except, perhaps, the people we might become. But, again, there is no way for them to save us, except, maybe, by some connection that can traverse time and space. Without this love, we remain a selfish virus. (Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is, in a way, a reply to the earlier, Ligottian nihilism of True Detective, which had seen him declare human consciousness a cosmic mistake.) With love alone, we are mired in childlike superstition. The future as Nolan imagines it depends on striking a balance between these two forces. But the film pushes further, straining credibility to show us what, exactly, that love might look like. Murph’s ghost is real, is necessary. The force that pushes the books off her shelf is actually her father struggling to communicate a truth that will save her.
It’s difficult to trace the human against the background of the infinite without lapsing into melodrama. Religious traditions are able to pull off the trick by employing a conceptual vocabulary that grounds these themes in sacred narratives and tradition-sanctioned metaphysical systems. Without the curtain of theology to hide behind, Nolan distracts us with a fast-moving plot, an overpowering orchestral score and some astonishing visual effects. When his characters reassert their humanity, the emotional pitch is often turned up higher than it needs to be.
As I watched the film, I found myself wishing for some of Italo Calvino’s subtle irony to cut through all the urgency. In his 1965 collection of short stories, Cosmicomics, Calvino kept his focus resolutely on the human, in all its awkward imperfection. His narrator — Qfwfq — who seems to exist both within time and outside it dramatizes mathematical concepts and key moments in the development of the universe, dragging them down to a scale that the human mind can comprehend. The absurdity of his vignettes helps Calvino’s reader to experience, gently, the implications of our having been thrown into a cosmos that was not made for us: the moment before the Big Bang is a crowded tenement apartment, the non-convergence of parallel trajectories in infinite space is re-described as Qfwfq’s desire for a beautiful woman who is both tantalizingly near and eternally untouchable. Beings on distant planets communicate with one another using signs succinct enough to be read at galactic distances, but whose essential ambiguity provokes confusion, doubt and shame. There is a little of this humor in Interstellar, but it’s most often provided by the boxy chrome robots who accompany the spacefarers. Nolan’s depiction of the human form is resolutely heroic, and the comic potential of depicting sentient meat as it ventures out among the stars remains largely untapped.
Interstellar reads best as a post-religious movie that treats themes on which religious traditions have had much to say without making overt use of their concepts and language. For all its ponderous development, this struggles to be a film about human responsibility. It recognizes, as Calvino did, that the human ceases to be recognizable as such when framed by the universe. But it insists, courageously, ceaselessly, and without condescension to its audience, that the human scale is not irrelevant and that the bonds we struggle to maintain with one another enrich and enliven the very cosmos that takes no notice of them and that would destroy them without hesitation.
Interstellar reads best as a post-religious movie that treats themes on which religious traditions have had much to say without making overt use of their concepts and language.
At the same time, Christopher Nolan has diagnosed an immaturity in contemporary science fiction and is trying to bring the genre to a place that acknowledges the responsibility of artists and filmmakers to speak not only to the imagination but to the heart. The film’s singular contribution is to introduce the idea of love manifest as self-sacrifice into the discourse of human spacefaring. Nolan has recognized that the cinematic visions of George Lucas, Ridley Scott, or J.J. Abrams are ultimately enervating. They cannot show us a path from here to there and hence function as a kind of sci-fi pornography, depicting a human future in space that they cannot actively engender. For all its philosophizing and its ponderous science, Interstellar is a film that wants its audience to walk out both smarter and more sober than they were when they walked in.
The animating truth of Interstellar is that the human condition is, itself, a struggle to find balance between the urge to know and to make, on the one hand, and our urge to be known and to be cared for, on the other. Nolan’s genius is in not grasping at the cliched religious language of past generations to achieve this balance. He has turned his back on all that, as if saying that, like our cinema, our religious traditions have failed to stir the human heart to address the great challenges of our moment. Instead, he too gropes outward, struggling to find a new language and a new visual vocabulary capable of sustaining not only wonder, which is cheap these days, but a sense of transcending responsibility for future generations.
Throwing a bucket of water into the darkness is not an inherently religious act, even if an old Greek woman living in a monastery intends it as such. Its effect on her environment operates according to natural laws, even if she herself does not know them. Yet, to the bats, in their chiaroscuro world of echoed clicks and empty silence, who can say if they do not perceive, dimly, the workings of a higher power helping them struggle outward into the nurturing darkness? We ourselves are, in Carl Sagan’s formulation, “a way for the cosmos to know itself.” With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has invited us to ask whether this self-knowledge is a thing that can be sustained or whether it is destined to collapse under the weight of human selfishness.