Across the Stars

“Across the Stars”
A Review of Interstellar by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Interstellar
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            The first images of Christopher Nolan’s space opera Interstellar happens not in the future but the past, so we think. Several elderly people are interviewed talking about failing crops, swirling storms of dirt, and rampant disease. It appears they are remembering the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but soon it is revealed they are looking back at the not so distant future. Several generations forward, climate change has made the Earth virtually uninhabitable with rampant blight and fierce weather. Nolan’s goal is clear; humanity is repeating its mistakes, but this time, it will be permanent. The only hope is finding another Earth. “We were never meant to save the world,” one scientist remarks. “We were meant to leave it.” Interstellar then takes the audience on a worldwind tour of the Universe as a small group of astronauts combs the galaxies for a new home. Beyond the spectacular visuals, there is a really important message hidden inside this space extravaganza, but it’s severely hurt by an unwavering commitment to scientism. Nolan has faith in the stars, but his faith in humanity is less certain
            Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut, now small town farmer, who fosters in his children a love of experimentation and ingenuity to solve problems. He is met with resistance by their public school teachers who have rewritten textbooks to demonstrate the Moon landing was a hoax and discourage scientific advancement. “The world needs farmers, not engineers,” one tells him. One afternoon, Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) discovers her bookcase sending strange messages. Cooper uses these messages to locate a secret NASA facility and meets his former teacher, Prof. Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) who reveals a startling plan. Forty-six years prior, NASA discovered a wormhole to another solar system that contains several Earth-like planets. He believes there are beings that use gravity as a form of communication inviting people to settle these worlds. Despite being out of the field for years, Brand invites Cooper to lead this mission; due to relativity, he will not return for many decades, possibly never. While his son and father-in-law are understanding, his daughter does not want him to leave, but he goes anyway, promising to return. Cooper and his team will spend the next two and half hours skipping around planets looking for a suitable environment. This mission will test each other as they try to save humanity or at least what’s left of it.
            Interstellar advocates a largely scientist view, the idea that scientific knowledge, not God or religious faith, provides the answers to life and humanity’s greatest hope. Religion is never mentioned even once, even as a criticism. Nolan’s world devoid of it, like Star Trek. This is best illustrated in the two plans Brand creates for the mission. Plan A involves Cooper finding a habitable planet, returning, and leading other ships through the wormhole. If he is unable to return, Plan B goes into effect. Brand has stored racks of frozen embryos onboard that will can be brought to term and raised as a new civilization. This is inherently evil and grotesquely disturbing, imprisoning thousands of souls that will be killed if not “used,” yet the film takes not even a second to consider the vast ethical implications, undermining anything constructive Interstellar may have to say about human nature or morality.
            Yet for all these problems, Nolan recognizes there are some things science can’t do. Millions of light years away, Cooper discovers that Plan B was always the intention; Brand created Plan A as a means to convince Cooper to cooperate. There is also a villain awaiting Cooper across the stars that demonstrates how technology is always at the mercy of human cruelty. Both of these people embrace a scientist attitude but are ultimately viewed negatively. Rather, it is the love that Cooper has for Murph that drives him on and transcends the Universe when intelligence cannot. He will not leave humanity behind and fights to keep his promise.
            As a piece of science fiction, Interstellar is impressive. While a significantly weaker film than last year’s Gravity, its creative effects pack a wallop. There are many incredible scenes like going through a wormhole, making an emergency dock, and getting caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. The loud sound effects raddling the theater are as close to a real space takeoff as most people will get. There are many nods to previous sci-fi films, especially the crew’s helpful robots TARS and CASE, which look like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a field of over dramatic actors reaching just a little too far for late November Oscar gold, they are probably the best characters in the film, sarcastic and gruff, wishing to get the mission over with so they can have a cold beer. There is also an “alien” element that guides Cooper’s path and becomes progressively weirder and weirder. These beings are a fun idea but quickly disintegrate under scrutiny.
      Interstellar is a spectacular film but suffers greatly from valuing some aspects of human life while devaluing others and puts the material world on way too high of a pedestal. Science truly is beautiful, an important endeavor that is worth our wonder, energy, and tax dollars, but is a means to an end, not an end itself. All human effort requires the moral compass that religion provides. After all, God wrote the laws of the Universe, both thermodynamics and the Ten Commandments. They are overlapping magesteria, meant to exist in perfect harmony. In the back of his mind, Christopher Nolan understands this to a degree, but he’s too caught up in the philosophical fad of this age to admit it.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on November 21st, 2014.