Christianity,  Culture,  Entertainment

My thoughts on “Interstellar”: It asks all the right questions but gives all the wrong answers.

I saw the movie Interstellar a couple nights ago, and I’m still thinking about it now. It’s a mind-bending meditation on the meaning of life set within an epic intergalactic journey to save humanity. Superficially, it’s a sci-fi flick. But most fundamentally, it’s about metaphysics and theology.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell. At some point in the not too distant future, the world becomes increasingly uninhabitable to humans. The food supply is afflicted by blight, and the world becomes a giant dustbowl. America no longer has a military and has ceased to lead the world in innovation and technology. In this dystopian future, the decline of American greatness seals the fate of the planet. It is only a matter of time before human beings on earth will all die of asphyxiation and lung disease.

A farmer and former astronaut named Cooper (played by Matthew McConaghey) is tapped to lead a mission into deep space to find a habitable world in order to rescue the human race from extinction. If the mission succeeds, there are two plans for saving humanity. Plan A involves evacuating humans to the new world. Plan B involves leaving humans to die on earth and starting a new human colony artificially by bringing to life thousands of frozen human embryos.

At the heart of the movie is the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murphy (played by Jessica Chastain). Murphy has already lost her mother to cancer. And she cannot bear to lose her father as well. As Cooper leaves his family to save the world, Murphy falls out with her father.

I’ll let you see the movie to see how the plot resolves. It is gut-wrenching and human. As a father of three daughters, I related to the pathos generated by this film. At every level–dramatically, technically, production value–this movie was very well executed.

Nevertheless, it’s the metanarrative of the movie that is most compelling. A father leaves his home in order to save the family that he loves and indeed the entire world. He is gone so long that his own children began to question whether he will ever come back. The Father’s invisibility causes his children to question whether his word is true. Meanwhile, planet earth has become a kind of Eden that is expelling its human inhabitants. From dust these people came, and to a dusty death they are returning–unless the father saves them. This movie is thick with biblical mythology and allusion.

The film asks all the important questions. In one of the most penetrating scenes, an astronaut named Ameilia (played by Ann Hathaway) talks about human love and how it tends to transcend space and time. Love resides outside the measure of empirical science. Nevertheless, no one questions the existence of love. Perhaps the existence of love reveals that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Indeed, the rescue mission is motivated in part by an invitation by invisible other-worldly beings who seem to be aiding humanity’s rescue.

So the film does ask all the important questions. Unfortunately, it also gives many wrong answers. Without giving away specific details of the plot, the big discovery at the end of the movie is that Cooper realizes there is no one out there to save humanity. Humanity must save itself if it is to be saved. We are the answer to our own questions. At the end of the day, the universe is a closed system, and there is no mysterious other worldly being trying to save us. If we want to be saved, we will have to pull ourselves up by our own humanistic boot straps.

There is more that can and should be said about this movie. I look forward to reading other reviews. This was a rare, smart, thoughtful movie. Highly recommended.


  • dr. james willingham

    Hollywood is always promoting the humanistic pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own bootstraps. There is another side to this coin, and that is man has gone into space and has been going for over 60 years. To find this out, one must be trained in thinking out side the box and extrapolation techniques, plus knowing how to look for confirmation of independent variables over which no one has control. Even now there is on youtube, a scientist who has analyzed the info on patents, etc., plus other available evidence, and has come to the conclusion that the speed of the space ships might well be 200 times the speed of light which puts most of the near buy star systems, including galaxies within reach of our civilization right now. In fact, other sources suggest that through the Black Ops budgets we the tax players have financed the building of these space fleets (apparently two) and they are under the control of a international group. Seems one dear bed-fast fellow stumbled over NASA stuff that indicated ship to ship transfers of official personnel, the ships not being any in the known US Navy. We are going to the stars, and my analysis of indirect evidence suggest that we have been doing it since the 50s and perhaps even better evidence the early 40s. We are moving closer and closer to full disclosure about what the government has been doing in the Black OPS budgets in the matter of space travel, etc. While I am hesitant about the matter of star gates, some seem fully persuaded of that reality along with time travel.

    Having read sci/fi lit. ever since the early 50s and having read its materials from the early periods later on, I am always amazed at how much was being told about what they actually had in such materials. Consider for a moment the Polaroid Land Camera which was patented in 1947 and launched as a product in 1948. In 1943 a sci/fi writer, A.E. Van Vogt published a short story in a sci/fi magazine in which he described a fellow who found an instrument on a space ship that had landed on earth with no one aboard. As he was handling the instrument suddenly he was blinded by a bright flash of light. When he regained his eyesight, something was issuing from one end of the instrument, a picture of himself. Just think of the description of the camera some 4 years before it was even patented. O yes, and Dr. Van Vogt, one of the sci/fi authors with a Ph.D. was a member of Canadian Intelligence during World War II. I am also reminded of the bomb (like as in A-Bomb though not named but described as to its effects) published in one of the leading sci/fi magazines during World War II (editor John Campbell, if memory serves). The FBI came to seem him about it, and he talked them into not shutting the mag. down and seizing the whole thing lest they arouse the spies. After all, who would believe that what seemed to be tear hair literature could be spilling the beans on inventions?

    Well, just consider the particle beams and ray guns, the latter in Buck Rogers back in the 30s, and the latter in the sixties and seventies sci/fi novels. O and consider the confirmation shown on Nightline one night. Two flying saucers were filmed from one of our space ships floating at leisure over the upper limits of the atmosphere, when suddenly the speededup. Very shortly, in seconds, two gray beams came shooting up through the atmosphere, I dare say one can find that on youtube ( I think I saw it recently), but I was watching Nightline when it happened and Koppel and the others had little to say about it. Wonder why?

  • Alistair Robertson

    In this dystopian future, the decline of American greatness seals the fate of the planet.

    Sorry, that made me laugh. American greatness is not humanly the only hope for the planet, but Hollywood films always seems to push that line. It has just become a little funny whenever I see it, now.

    Apologies if that offends.

  • Everette Hatcher

    This movie attempts to lead us to believe that impersonal chance evolution can give us satisfactory answers to the big questions that all of us are seeking answers to!!!!!

    On December 5, 1995, I got a letter back from Carl Sagan and I was very impressed that he took time to answer several of my questions and to respond to some of the points that I had made in my previous letters. I had been reading lots of his books and watching him on TV since 1980 and my writing today is a result of that correspondence. It is my conclusion that Carl Sagan died an unfulfilled man on December 20, 1996 with many of the big questions he had going unanswered.

    Much of Carl Sagan’s aspirations and thoughts were revealed to a mass audience of movie goers just a few months after his death. The movie “CONTACT” with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey is a fictional story written by Sagan about the SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE (SETI). Sagan visited the set while it was filming and it was released on July 11, 1997 after his unfortunate death.

    The movie CONTACT got me thinking about Sagan’s life long hope to find a higher life form out in the universe and I was reminded of Dr. Donald E. Tarter of NASA who wrote me in a letter a year or so earlier and stated, “I am not a theist. I simply and honestly do not know the answer to the great questions…This brings me to why I am interested in the SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE (SETI)…Let me assure you, one of the first questions I would want to ask another intelligence if one were discovered is, DO YOU BELIEVE IN OR HAVE EVIDENCE OF A SUPREME INTELLIGENCE?”

    Was Sagan ever satisfied with the answers he came up with in his life? It is my view that true peace and satisfaction can come from a personal relationship with Christ and only in the Bible can we find absolute answers that touch this world we live in. The Apostle Paul was totally content when he wrote the book of Philippians from a jail in Rome right before he was beheaded (according to tradition). That satisfaction comes from having a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe.

    “Interstellar” and “Contact” are both attempting to tell us that we can find those satisfactory answers without turning to God.

  • Bob Goethe

    >>Superficially, it’s a sci-fi flick. But most fundamentally, it’s about metaphysics and theology.<<

    Actually, the traditional role of philosophy was to ask the big questions: What is the character of human nature? Does sin exist, and can it be circumvented? What is the nature of the perfect human society? How can it be brought about? Does truth exist?

    Sometime in the early 20th c. philosophers stopped asking these sorts of questions, and started wondering whether words had meaning.

    One of the roles of SF in our culture has been to ask the big questions that few outside of the church are even considering.

    Of course, not all SF asks big questions. Some of it just like to see Death Stars explode. But I don't think we need put SF and serious philosophical reflection in opposite corners from each other.

  • Christiane Smith

    Hi MARY,

    Your thoughtful comment about the great mystery of the Incarnation of Christ brought to mind a quote, this:

    ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed;
    it is what is united to His Divinity that is saved’

    (Gregory of Nazianzus)

    • Everette Hatcher III

      Over and over in the movie Cooper (played by Matthew McConaghey) says “someone out there is helping us,” but instead of pointing to God who created us for a purpose, the film points to impersonal chance evolution as the hero and the final conclusion is no one is out there and we have to help ourselves.

      John Cage took a long look at chance evolution and based his music on it and the result was horrible. Living in a world created by chance impersonal evolution has caused the loss of significance of mankind and many have given up of a hope of finding meaning. Furthermore, filmmakers such as Resnais, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Bunuel,and Bergman all attempted to show what it is like to live in the area of nonreason!!!

      However, even though there is a clear choice between the two conclusions of how we got here and where we are going, INTERSTELLAR tries to come down on the side of impersonal chance evolution but still give mankind a lasting meaning for their lives when that worldview can only take away any significance for humans!!!!!

      The final conclusion of the movie reminds me of the words of Francis Schaeffer when he was discussing the artwork of Francis Bacon then he skips over to Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, and John Cage and compares them to Bacon in their view that possibly that a message break forth from the impersonal chance universe:

      I have an essay on Francis Bacon by John Russell. Methuan published it in London in 1964.

      Bacon goes on, “In my case all painting–and the older I get, the more it becomes so–is an accident.” Now this is very important and to think of Jackson Pollock putting on his paint as a pure accident and you may remember my lecture on Paul Klee.

      Paul Klee (1879-1940) speaks of some of his paintings as though they were a kind of Ouija board. Klee thinks that the universe can speak through his paintings. Not because he believes there are spirits there to speak, but because he hopes that the universe will push through and cause a kind of automatic writing, this time in painting. It is an automatic writing with no one there, as far as anyone knows, but the hope that the “universe” will speak.We think of John Cage with the universe speaking though chance.

      Now Bacon continues and he says something very similar to what Pollock, Cage and Klee believed, “I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things that are very much better than I could make it do. Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.”

      Now here from Francis Bacon’s own viewpoint. An absurd universe in a total sense and in some element of the paint taking on its own personality and a message may come through from impersonal source.

  • Chris Ryan

    Fascinating review. Honestly I can’t say that the theological angle ever occurred to me. Its funny how we all bring different view points to interpretation. I’m still mulling over it myself. Need to go see it again.

  • brian darby

    Thank you for the review, it was a good movie, I had a long diatribe but it would not have been helpful. I really was touched by the movie.

  • Esther O'Reilly

    I personally loved it and will be reviewing it soon. I caught some plot holes and rolled my eyes through portions of the dialogue (especially the Matt Damon character), but overall thought it was intelligent and moving. McConaughey: All right, all right, all right! Another nomination in the bag.

  • dr. james willingham

    Wait until believers find out that the Bible was set up to make them think outside the box. Intellectually, the greatest book ever written, Holy Writ, and I mean the Old and New Testament, demonstrates a wisdom that is commensurate with its claim of having been inspired by Omniscience. Our problem is that we lack so much in the way of perspectives in order to be able to understand it. The ideas/truths of Scripture are so constructed as paradoxes and crisontological poles which constitute the whole of a truth designed to set up a tension in the human mind which enables believers to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic or, in short, mature people who respond appropriately to a given situation.

  • benjamin samuel

    I liked your analysis, specially your stressing out of the “questioning”. I am happy I debated this point with a friend who helped me seeing a great chunk more of the movie, due to his questioning of my interpretation, and to realize there is an alternative, much richer interpretation than the straightforward, direct message, which is there, nevertheless. In my viewpoint, the movie does not gives us all the answers to the questions we are asked there. Superficially, it has I ndeed encoded one of the answers (a positive one) but it is open to the viewer state of mind as well. It asks you to question, to question even what you are seeing. Once you understand that it is not yet giving you the full answer, it leaves it up to you to decide what would you prefer: the proposed one based on human ingenuity, hope in science, technology which are part of human nature, love and curiosity or the alternative. One alternative is to go without questioning, go into that gentle night, the dying of the light without putting up some fight: stagnation, reaction instead of controlled action. Extinction, without the rage. Slow death, perhaps. Other.

    Superficially, the movie gives all the answers, even speculates about black holes and the fifth dimension and what not. Well understood, the movie ends with a big question mark about the future of humanity, including its technology and a wishful thinking that is up to you to criticize, accept or not.

    I explain more. First of all, it is advisable to understand the characters of the movie as methaphors or representatives of certain type of person and idea. It certainly explains why the characters are not well developed: they are just as characters in a comic book with certain talking points that represent certain ideas. I’ll leave it to you to the funny task of coming up with answers to: what represents Murph, Cooper, Tom etc?

    I believe, a crucial point of the movie is the following. As Man and its Technology (TARS) enters the singularity we can only speculate. The movie after that is merely wishful thinking of a dying man. What happens after Copper is sucked into the black hole is merely the answer provided by Cooper’s last dying thoughts and that’s why it is so strange. In fact, the mission might have been a complete failure. Extinction could be the result of bad planning and last minute resolutions (i.e., the whole mission). So, in fact, it is up to us to speculate what will be the future of humanity. We can also ask the following: should we wait until a cataclysm occurs or should we act before and try to be prepared? Here you need not think merely about the usual climate change mumbo jumbo. Think instead on: should we be embarking on space exploration, and science per se in expectation that good and useful technology would come out as often occurs or should we be merely reacting to problems. Acting on improvisation as did Cooper and its fellows might not lead to salvation…

    The movie is only superficially providing the answer: brave people of good will, with the right motives, a mix of ambition and love for close and extended family, will eventually sacrifice for respect to their nature and for love ( not necessarily sexual), even if daunted by conflict ( this is what Cooper represents), and will “not go gently into that good night” ( death/extinction ), there will be “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, but will that be enough?

    Rest assured, there is an answer-message in the movie that is aligned with the best tradition of rational optimism which is an overall positive wishful thinking to the question above. Some sort of believe in Man and it’s technology. We should perhaps go with that, but let us not, on the other hand, start acting as if everything is guaranteed and right just yet. That’s what I take from this movie: there is an inception of the following type of idea: the day you stop learning and questioning and wanting to reach out for the sky is the day you could stop living or stop being human.

    • dr. james willingham

      Carl Sagan is reported to have said something to the effect that our present situation in which so much of our science is kept from the masses could be setting the stage for a disaster. He evidently was aware of the possibility that interstellar ships had been traveling to other star systems for sometime, the early 50s as I guessed, the early 40s as someone with more knowledge suggested. Our problems revolve around our lack of adequate perspectives to understand the Bible, and I do not mean some hidden arcane mysteries. The Book as some have indicated provided us with the background for the development of the scientific method, although we have yet to develop it to the point of being able to deal with anymore than limited analytical situations (which has brought a lot of success, but is still wanting). What we need is a more holistic method, one that can handle both the individual and the collective situations together, when such is needed. Most people have some knowledge of Einstein and his understanding of the limits on traveling at the speed of light, but there was another scientist before him, one whom I think was far sharper. I refer to Nikola Tesla. He developed the electric dynamo, ac current, did things that effected the weather as well as the earth, things that provided for our protection during the Cold War, but now could be used in a way that is becoming deleterious to us. There is a video on Youtube, narrated by Martin Sheen and backed by the US Air Force Lab and the US Navy Lab along with scientists and engineers, and other professional people who pointed out that HAARP which influences the atmosphere is potentially dangerous in that our atmosphere is a dynamic system and, if a butterfly’s wing in South America can cause a tornado in the US or China a week or a month later, then what can HAARP do in punching holes in the atmosphere (so to speak). Wake up folks, It is later than you think.

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