Across the Stars: A Review of “Interstellar”

As a piece of science fiction, Christopher Nolan’s space opera is impressive, but it is undermined and diminished by a relentlessly scientistic perspective

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (3 reels out of 5) 

[Spoiler alert: This review contains several key plot elements and details.]

The first images of director Christopher Nolan’s space opera Interstellar are not of the future but of the past—or 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 is severely undermined by an unwavering commitment to scientism. Nolan—who co-authored the script with his brother, Jonathan—has faith in the stars, but his faith in humanity is far less certain.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut turned small town farmer who fosters in his children a love of experimentation and problem-solving ingenuity. He is met with resistance by public school teachers who have rewritten textbooks to demonstrate the Moon landing was a hoax and who 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 using 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 Cooper’s 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 then spend the next two and half hours skipping around planets looking for a suitable environment. That mission will test each of them as they try to save humanity—or what’s left of it.

Interstellar advocates a largely scientistic view, assuming that scientific knowledge, not God or religious faith, provides the answers to life and is therefore humanity’s greatest hope. Religion is never mentioned, not even to be criticized. Nolan’s world devoid of it, much 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 deeply 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, morality, or ultimate meaning.

Yet for all these problems, Nolan recognizes there are some things science cannot 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, whose presence demonstrates how technology is always at the mercy of human cruelty. Both of these people embrace a scientistic 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 so 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, including going through a wormhole, making an emergency dock, and getting caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. The loud sound effects rattling the theater are as close to a real space takeoff as most people will experience. There are several 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 overly dramatic actors reaching just a little too far for late November Oscar gold, they are perhaps 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 in many ways but suffers greatly from valuing some aspects of human life while devaluing others, and from placing the scientific study of the material world on far too lofty of a pedestal. Science—true science—is beautiful, an important endeavor worthy of time, energy, and support. But science is a tool—it is a means to an end, not an end itself. All human effort requires the moral compass that true 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. Christopher Nolan seems to understands this to a certain degree, but he’s too caught up in the philosophical fad of this age to admit it or give it the screen time it deserves.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.