The Traditional Universe of Nolan’s “Interstellar”

Trying to find a spiritual or transcendent experience at the movies can be an exercise of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Even so called “religious” films are many times insufferable, sentimental bludgeons used to confirm the moralistic approach of many Christians. While this may seem to encourage so called “Christian values,” it commits the egregious sin of reducing film to a “media of the obvious” and religion to just another morality tale. After all, people of true good will would agree that there is a whole world of difference if one replaced Mantegna’s Crucifixion with a textbook on Salvation History or substituted the soulful cries of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with an audio book by Scott Hahn.

The question, then, is whether or not there are films that carry a “density of spirit”—an understanding of spirituality that rises higher than the merely didactic. Certainly, many Catholics are familiar with some of the classics such as the incisive wit of A Man for All Seasons or the sublime masterpiece of The Mission. Some might even be familiar with the Heroic Virtue of 2014’s Calvary or cite the deeply Catholic world carried over into the film adaptations of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yet if the same people were asked about such a kind of film existing in the genre of science fiction, some might strain, with limp shrugs, to name even one. Some might even try to stretch the dualism of Star Wars into a religious message, but as healthy as the hero’s journey is as a narrative device, I find Star Wars‘s lack of real faith “disturbing.”

Interestingly, there does exist at least one science fiction film that fulfills a spiritual vocation. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the World of Spirituality “does not go gentle into that good night.” It is in this film that, in the slow decline of civilization, we see an analogy to the call to “rage against the dying of the light” in the West. Whether Nolan intended it or not, Interstellar derives its power and efficacy from an understanding of man and society rooted in the world of Spirit—in the world of Tradition. This is a World that stands opposed to the “World of Modernity.” While Modernity is the realm of fundamentalism, reductionism, dichotomy, and materialism, Tradition has always understood the synthesis of matter and spirit and has always been aware of a higher, spiritual plane that transcends the material world of phenomenon. For his film, Nolan has tapped into this world that still remembers how spirit exists with matter and that humanity’s origin and destiny go beyond space and time.

The Traditional phenotype of Interstellar is best understood when compared to its Modern counterpart: the science fiction film The Martian. While both films revolve around a near future setting beyond earth where the protagonists must solve nearly impossible technical problems, the disposition of their protagonists demonstrates the underlying currents of each film. Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, who is stuck on Mars, is an eminent scientist. It is his intelligence alone that he uses to extricate himself out of his situation often punctuated by his unwavering and vulgar worship of his own acumen. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey’s character Cooper in Interstellar is also a very intelligent astronaut and engineer, yet he has no trappings of hubris that Damon’s character rejoices in. Cooper is humble even in the face of difficulty. Conversely, Damon’s character throws tantrums whenever he is unable to complete his tasks. These external signs merely point to the deeper, essential difference between the two men. It is not the false, artificial dichotomy of science versus spirit that so preoccupies the modern world, for Cooper himself is also a scientist. Rather, Cooper also understands that there are things greater than the merely physical. He is honest and is motivated by love for his daughter. Meanwhile, the audience of The Martian is asked to idolize Damon’s intellectual prowess alone and impersonally. Damon’s character is the modern man who seeks nothing but his own survival and convenience.

The fact that Cooper was also a farmer further differentiates him from Damon’s character. The farmer of Tradition understood that his vocation was like an art. The feeding of people came through dealing with extreme toil and manure. The ancient farmers noticed how their fields yielded much fruit when they found a purpose for the manure their animals (nature) gave to their fields. In the same way, Cooper understands that it is the acceptance of something painful that can bring about a good. It is easy to notice that Damon’s character is the Modern inversion of the noble farmer. He is the “botanist”—the kind of person who treats plants as merely a scientific endeavor rather than an art. He derives no spiritual experience from the process of farming and it is fitting that the fertilizer he uses is from his own teammates. The selfishness of his own endeavors is demonstrated by the fact that he goes on to claim all of Mars for himself now that he has tilled its soil. This highlights a fundamental difference between the Worlds of Tradition and Modernity: the former is the outward flow towards an “Other” while the latter is the internal idolization of the “Self.” The former, just like Cooper, has a view of the universe that accepts and integrates suffering. The latter, like Damon’s character, rejects suffering as useless. After all, Modernity’s obsession with anesthetics to numb pain and hedonism to accentuate pleasure is the natural outcome of a culture based on idolizing the individual. The childish, vulgar petulance of Damon’s character is the poster child for Modern Man’s comfortable, technological anesthesia. It is also no wonder that the extreme starvation Damon’s character experiences has no emotional currency in the film. His physical status does not provoke any emotional or internal change in him. He remains “grounded” once again demonstrating the infertility of his outlook on his experience. He is the parched earth that does not accept the stink of the fertilizer in order to become fruitful—in order to transform into something that rises to the light. Damon’s character is the quintessential example of killing rather than riding the tiger.

Meanwhile, Cooper culminates his “outward” vocation with an act of self sacrifice. His heroism to save Anne Hathaway’s character results in what would seem like his death. His descent into the Black Hole “Gargantua” is the crystallization of his transcendent path. The humanity of the future—the ones they call “the others”—grants him access to the multidimensional tesseract. He literally goes beyond the physical laws of the observable universe much like heroes of legend that undergo a journey through infernal regions. This is in sharp contrast to the end of Damon’s character who only seeks to return, unchanged, to the mundane existence on Earth. While Damon’s character taps into the vast ocean of earthly existence as the end of his struggle, Cooper offers up everything for the ability to transcend time and space. He exits the realm of physics and enters into the realm of the metaphysical—from the natural to the supernatural as represented by the superdimensionality of future humanity’s tesseract. In the Interstellar universe, the solution to the conflict is resolved by Cooper’s love for his daughter transcending the physical laws of the visible universe while The Martian relies only on the cold sterility of pride. One final note on the comparison comes from the original novel of The Martian: Mark Watney—Damon’s character in the film—is one of only seven to witness Mars up close as he exits the atmosphere. Mars is described beautifully, but instead of responding in awe and silence, Watney shouts an expletive at the planet. Compare this with Cooper who walks through the museum that was his farm as it was preserved. Although the farm symbolizes the decades of suffering and toil that Cooper had to endure, he does not reject it. He accepts it as part of his journey much like the resilience of Christ’s wounds on His resurrected body. Tradition organically holds together the narrative of history as meaningful and sacred while Modernity throws away history like upgrading to the latest version of an iPhone every year.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that this juxtaposition between the man of Material Modernity and the man of Material-Spiritual Tradition is already self contained in Interstellar. Amazingly, Cooper’s counterpart, Dr. Mann, is once again played by Matt Damon. Dr. Mann, according to Michael Cane’s character, was one of the “bravest humans ever to live.” Anne Hathaway’s character says that he was “the best of us.” Cooper and the team race to Dr. Mann’s planet since the beacon showed that it was habitable only to find that they have been given a false signal set up by Mann knowing that lying would be the only way he could receive a rescue party. Mann ends up betraying Cooper by trying to kill him as they descend into the valleys of the ice planet, but dies while trying to commandeer the Starship “Endurance.” It is a stunning indictment of the folly of Modernity which seeks to equate proficiency in knowledge with bravery and integrity. But this is not so surprising. After all, in the World of Modernity, only the material exists. Therefore, a man who gains mastery over the material must somehow be “the best of us.” Even Mann’s method of trying to kill Cooper is steeped in his role as the villain of Modernity for he rams his helmet against Cooper while Cooper protests that he has a 50/50 chance of breaking his own helmet. Mann’s insistence that it is better odds than what he’s had betrays the fundamental reliance of Modernity on numeration, efficiency, and calculating human life as a commodity rather than a sacred journey.

What is interesting is that it is not through physical prowess that Cooper survives his encounter. To win through brute force would simply be a vulgar condescension to the level of the Materialist. Instead, Cooper’s physical abilities reach their limit. As Mann himself points out, Cooper should begin seeing images of his children before he dies. It is this spiritual thumos that Cooper taps into to make it out alive. By demonstrating his victory in spiritual terms, the universe of Interstellar showcases the triumph of transcendental values as the true source of human endurance. It is no wonder, therefore, that Mann could not gain access to the Starship Endurance since he did not possess such an internal quality. It is, in fact, his hastiness that brings about an explosive decompression that spins the Endurance out of control. Only through skilled piloting, at great risk to himself, could Cooper re-attach to the central axis of Endurance and re-establish safe rotation. In essence, Cooper is the transcendental, centered man who brings stability back to a system out of control by ceasing chaotic movement. This motif reaches far back in the World of Tradition as early as Dante’s journey to Purgatorio as Earth’s polar Axis to the theories of Kingship in Confucius’s Analects that understood regality as the Stabilizing and unmoving Center.

Whether or not Nolan intended these traditional elements to be in the film through his own research is questionable. However, it is perhaps not surprising that a film meant to be taken seriously will inevitably tap into themes that have served humanity so well for millennia. While most films reach into the world of Modernity which forsakes anything eternal as “outdated” or “backward” and revel in the fads and jokes of the present day, Interstellar‘s power—albeit perhaps subconsciously—derives from the deep foundation of the World of Tradition and elevates it to a height affirmed appropriately by the resonance of Hans Zimmer’s organs—that liturgical instrument designed to emulate heavenly choirs.

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