Interstellar: I – The Drama
Nancy and I along with our son and daughter-in-law, Daniel and Jessica, went to see a film that I thought was called Intergalactica, but soon discovered was called Interstellar. My mind, and often my mouth and even my fingers, for some reason, known or unknown, often does that – transposes one word or phrase for another. One example – always guaranteed to split the sides of my wife, Nancy, and my two young children – is the substitution of the name of candies called “Jolly Ranchers” with the name “Jolly Rangers”. When I first typed the substitution, I even reversed the names, writing that I substituted the correct name, “Jolly Rangers”, for the name “Jolly Ranchers”. I only caught the error in editing. Jolly Ranchers were favourite candies of Daniel and Gabriel when they were young. I always seemed to call that candy by the wrong name. The mental reason for that substitution is unknown to me until this day.
As another example, I almost always say “loan” when I mean “borrow”. I know the right term in my mind, but there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth. Almost everyone does this a few times because of a memory synapse error, but for some of us, it is a chronic condition. For others, the condition is acute. The phonological system involved in speech output in the language-dominant hemisphere is impaired. It is one major reason why I almost never read a talk. For almost inevitably one word or phrase will be substituted by another, in spite of the script before my eyes, to produce an unintended joke and unwelcomed laughter. When this occurs in a seemingly extemporaneous speech, it is barely noticed.
I do not know the physiological explanation for my condition, but I think I have a rational explanation for why I called the film Interstellar by the name “Intergalactica”. The name “Interstellar” never made sense to my rational and scientific mind, so my brain independently performed a transposition. After all, interstellar means travel between stars. From the little I had heard about the movie, the space travel was from the planet earth in one solar system to another life sustaining planet in another galaxy. The movie was about travel between galaxies using a wormhole in the space/time continuum. In any case, why would humans seeking an alternate livable planet want to travel from one sun to another? Perhaps to a planet in a very different solar system. But everyone knows, or do we, that this is impossible – even in science fiction. Intergalactic travel, believe it or not, is a far more realistic scenario which the imagination of the movie makers literally bend to their advantage.
The more I reflected on the movie to write about what I was thinking, the clearer it was to me that I could never write about it in one or even two blogs. I wanted to write about the science in the film as I started to do above. But the film was so packed with science – from the biological to fundamental physics – that it would take a blog or two just to unpack the scientific dimensions of the movie. Put another way, truer to that science, science was but one dimension of the film and it alone had multi-dimensions.
Secondly, there was the visual and auditory aesthetics of the movie. I had never seen or heard a movie anything like it before – and I am not just referring to the soundtrack that sometimes made it impossible to decipher the dialogue, especially the dialogue about science. Was that deliberate? Usually I can re-run the movie in my own head when I write about it the next morning. I found that impossible with Interstellar. It was so rich in visual and auditory terms. And those are the dimensions of a movie I often recall least of all. I am not a person who can easily recall what a person looks like or sounds like, or can richly describe a scene where we have just been. Somehow, I can usually do it with movies. However, with this one, I plan to return and see the movie a second time just to concentrate on that dimension. Since we leave in three days for our southern trip en route next week from Seattle to Marin County in California, that second viewing will probably have to wait until we return to Victoria in mid-March. Hopefully, the movie will be playing at some IMAX somewhere.
The dimension that I – and usually most others – can most easily grasp is the dramatic and thematic one. That dimension alone was very rich – though sometimes corny and cloying. Although basically a classic love story, that aspect of the movie also had many dimensions. I could not help but think of E.M. Forster’s great novel, Passage to India, even as I was watching the movie. In a late chapter in the novel, Professor Godbole is at a festival celebrating the midnight birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. The celebration is not a national feast or even a multicultural one, but an effort to allow everyone to feel at one with the universe. Godbole is thinking about his obsession with the English lady, Mrs. Moore, his memory of a wasp sitting on a rock and the rock itself. He fails. The movie Interstellar is imbued with the same Hindu vision of merging mankind to be at one with the whole universe while also revealing what separates humans.
Love is the means to get there. But what kind of love? Godbole thinks it might be a man’s love for a woman. But he is unsuccessful. So is the effort of Dr. Amie Brand, played brilliantly as usual by Anne Hathaway, who is determined to reunite with the great love of her life, an astronaut, Dr. Wolf Edmunds, who, in the Lazarus mission ten years earlier, was one of twelve scientists who set off to find an alternative planet where the survivors of Earth could resettle. Is it the love of mankind for future generations? This is what drives the chief scientist, Amie Brand’s father played by Michael Caine, so much so that he tells the great noble lie called Plan A that dominates the film. Humans had already demonstrated a great disregard for future generations and had allowed the planet Earth to move pell mell towards its own destruction in the dystopian bleak opening and pre-story to the movie’s major scientific narrative. Can one scientist’s determination to save future generations overcome these propensities?
Behind that destructive force is another – the love of a human for himself – a personal survival instinct. This is what drives Matt Damon playing the part of the fallen angel, Dr. Mann, whose determination to live overcomes his responsibilities as a scientist. Mann is man’s worst enemy. However, in this interplay, of self-love and species love, of inter-personal love of a man for a woman, there is a fourth form of love that supersedes them all. It is the love of a parent for a child and of a child for a parent. In the movie, it is the love of Cooper, himself an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey, not for both of his two children, but for his daughter Murph. Murph as a child is played by Mckenzie Foy, as an adult by Jessica Chastain and as an old woman on her death bed, by Ellen Burstyn. Cooper’s connection to his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet as a 15-year-old boy and Casey Affleck as a grown adult) is just blown sideways, or, rather backwards, because Tom grows up to be a stick-in-the-dust farmer just as his grandfather, Cooper’s father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), was.
The competing forms of love constitute the dramatic centre of the film .However, only a parent’s love for a child, more specifically, a father’s love for his daughter and its reciprocal response, allows humans to escape the gravitational pull of earth and become the embodiment of infinite love that allows the survival and re-birth on another planet of the human species. Godbole’s affection for Mrs. Moore and his attempt to merge the rock and the wasp and Mrs. Moore in a singular unity could not accomplish that task. Nor could Professor’s Brand’s effort. But Cooper and Murph could and did in this Hollywood romance. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” But not any love. Only the love between a father and a daughter is successful.
And what a reversal of the biblical precept (Numbers 30:16) that gives a father command over the vows a young daughter might make. In Interstellar, the relationship is reversed. Murph is the superego who holds her father to account for his vow to return. Murph is Antigone, anti-gone, who becomes the guardian of the faith and stands up to the principle and teacher who would betray science and the cultural heritage of learning and exploration of humans.
As suggested in reference to Dr. Mann, the movie is as much a religious film as it is an exercise in science fiction. Hence the Lazarus name of the previous mission echoing Jesus’ restoration to life of Lazarus four days after he purportedly died. In that mission, twelve apostles, no, astronauts, are sent forth to find an alternative livable planet. Three found possible prospects. In addition to Dr. Mann and Dr. Edmunds, there was Dr. Miller on the first of the planets that was thought to offer a possible viable alternative to Earth. She too died. However, there is no raising any of them from the dead. Cooper and his crew prove not to be miracle workers and the ghostly suggestions of books thrown off their shelves in Murphy’s bedroom when she is still a young girl will also prove to be more metaphysical than mystical. So why if the movie is a blend of the heart and the scientific rational brain, are there so many religious references?
Well it is a tale of faith versus cynicism. It is a story of good versus evil, the latter emerging in many forms, from political historical re-writing of the truth of the Apollo mission into a tale of political shenanigans to Dr. Mann’s behaviour in enticing Cooper’s crew to land on his planet. It is a tale of resurrection of a different sort, if not from the dead, from a cryogenic hypersleep as two of the astronauts aboard Cooper’s space ship, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), do. It is a tale of awe for the absolutely divine magnificence of the enormous universe in which we live. However, instead of, “And God said… and then there was…” we find what was and try to discover and articulate it. Thought, reflection and words follow and do not precede the cosmos. But more than anything, this is a tale of both human vision and human responsibility, both often celebrated in religion, but also both just as often repressed by organized religion.
Then, as Megan Garber’s article in The Atlantic on the movie put it, there is also a Chosen One – Murphy – a chosen people – those brought to the new promised land. If religious, the movie is more Jewish than Christian even though Murph saves the world when she is thirty-three years old. For the people must go on an exodus given the widespread failure of crops and famine in the land. However, one cannot make too much of this for there is no real persecution, though the space voyageurs do not go forth into the Land of Oz “somewhere over the rainbow”. As much as the movie is religious, it is religion caught up within the network of science. To the extent that religion is not reverent of science, to the extent that it is a matter of blind faith in the lessons taught by authority, the film is stridently anti-religious while always remaining ethical. In that sense, it has the same ironic references to religion as Passage to India that I mentioned above. The sense in which it is most religious and also most akin to science is that both involve faith in an eventual salvation, faith in benevolence, faith in a world that is overwhelmingly unknown and, to some extent, unknowable.
The clues can be found in the text book assigned to Murph by her school that now denies that humans ever landed on the moon. For institutionalized thinking has become dogmatic and is at war with both curiousity and wonder in favour of order and good behaviour. Conformity is at war with exploring the impossible to make it possible by dogmatically preferring certainty over speculation, especially that of science fiction. The message of the movie is as simplistic as any religious message: dare to aim higher; break barriers and reach for the stars, replace self-protection and survivalism with exploration, risk and perseverance. Our greatest tales are of journeys to discover the unknown based on faith in the promise of the future.
Our rich cultural history provides the clues to regaining that lost art of speculation, wonder and pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward. The titles of the books on Murph’s shelves in her room and of the books that are thrust by some unknown force onto the floor. I was looking because I thought that surely Passage to India or Homer’s Odyssey would be among them. But I did not spot either. Instead, the books I spotted, with a few exceptions, seemed more mundane than profound with no subtlety whatsoever in the connections with the movie. I actually cheated here since I could only recall a few, so I looked on line at close-ups of the bookshelves that play such a prominent part in the film.
The mundane books included Stephen King’s The Stand about a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by plague, James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere, Curtis and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders: an Atomic Tale and Elizabeth Wolff’s Out of the Blue in which the title says it all, in the latter case referring to both chance and to the source of truth in the sky. There is also a biography of Charles Lindbergh, a Scrabble dictionary and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. These books were clues that subtlety would not be a great strength in this movie. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, an updated version of the Moses story set in New York, seems to have some connection with the movie, but I would have to read Helprin’s book to figure it out.
However, Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab chasing a huge white whale, is also among Murph’s books. The novel begins, “Call me Ishmael.” Is Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, the narrator, Ishmael, while Cooper is Ahab searching to find, not a spirit whale, but a habitable planet where the human spirit as well as body can survive and thrive? It is hard to say. For the film is syncretic, mixing and not always matching multiple sources and influences. I was sure one of the most important was Odysseus’ (in Latin, Ulysses) travels in the Odyssey and his ten-year effort to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. In a small way, perhaps. But there were too few parallels. In Interstellar, there are twelve ships that were driven off course just as in the Lazarus mission ten years before Cooper set off. Are the people on Earth the infamous lethargic lotus-eaters? Certainly multiple winds that Odysseus had in the leather bag given by Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, permeate the story.
However, there are no cannibals though the voyageurs are torn between Dr. Mann’s and Dr. Edmund’s planets, the Interstellar tale is actually far less fantastical than the narrative of the Scylla and the Charybdis. For this film is about science fiction, not science fantasy. Odysseus never meets the spirit of his own mother, but rather the real flesh and blood presence of his own daughter. He was the spirit. She was the real thing. It is Cooper’s daughter not Cooper himself whom the new colony of humans is named after. After all, the movie is about father-daughter love as an expression of quantum entanglement, the interaction of two particles that behave as one even though they may be light years apart. We no longer live in the mechanical industrial age but in a networked communicative age; this movie is surely an expression of my children’s and grandchildren’s era rather than my own.
Next Blog: The Science of Interstellar