*Contains Major Spoilers*
I recently traveled to another galaxy via a wormhole and got too close to a supermassive black hole. Thankfully I’m no worse for wear and I’ve returned with a story to tell. I watched Interstellar and, like all good science-fiction, it took me to a galaxy far, far away where I could gain insight into burning questions much closer to home.
Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s near-future take on the human race’s need for salvation. I’m not sure if that was his intention, but it’s certainly there. Climate change has slowly but irreversibly rendered the planet uninhabitable and humanity, quite literally, needs to be saved.
I thought the film was beautiful, emotionally engaging, and tense—everything a space epic should be—and on top of all that, Interstellar did what only the best movies do: it asked good questions, big ones.
So, the question then is this: who will save us?
The essence of the question it asks is found in the juxtaposition of our dying Earth against the crushing nothing of the void. Humanity is in a rough spot and this interstellar expedition Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway volunteer for is our Hail Mary shot in overtime.
The heroes set out to save the world and eventually the movie starts getting very ‘Nolan’ (that’s not necessarily a bad thing) and, as a Christian, I couldn’t help looking at some of the plot through the lens of my faith.
A key plot device is a mysterious Other, referred to only as ‘they’, that appears to be aiding humanity in their effort to save the species. This raises a few questions, and the internet is abuzz with theories. Who are ‘they’? Could it be aliens? That seems plausible, but a little obvious. Could it be God? Sure, maybe, but sci-fi tends to hold to what the first man in orbit allegedly said: “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” For myself, and many people on the internet (see: comments) the movie cut its own legs from under itself when Matthew McConaughey theorizes that the benevolent Other must be a hyper-evolved humanity of the future. I find it telling that many people discussing the film online refer to ‘them’ simply as aliens. McConaughey’s theory is just too unbelievable.
I’m not interested in plumbing the depths of the relationship between science and religion in this article, so we won’t get into that here. Instead I want to consider our desire for control and our lack thereof.
People’s reactions to Interstellar highlight the human craving for the power to control our destinies, and the story sets us up for an outside intervention—a saviour. It brings us to the edge of our seats with the question “Who will save us?” and we want to know! Then we’re told that it’s us: we saved ourselves. The movie falls flat from that moment; forget about time paradoxes and plot holes. Why did Interstellar take this route?
Karl Barth, speaking of the human condition, offers some insight:
“He has turned his back on the salvation that actually comes to him. He does not find the fulfillment of his being by participating in the being of God, which comes as a gift of God. Instead, he aims at another salvation, one found in the sphere of his creaturely being and attained by his own effort. His belief is that he can and should find self-fulfillment. He has himself become his own end.”
So now we have another paradox. Our craving for power and control over our destinies drives us to self-salvation projects where we justify our lives; we want to merit our existence. The problem is that we all have this nagging feeling that it’s not enough. Have I wasted my life? Those things that people whisper about me, are they true?
I believe our efforts to save ourselves, or justify our existence, are impossible projects. I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own; however, a guy named Jesus said it first:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
So if we have been able to save ourselves all along, it follows that we were never truly, dangerously, irreconcilably at risk. If future humanity saved humanity then nothing needed to happen—hello, paradox—and I spent nearly 3 hours experiencing a spectacular, but ultimately, unsatisfying story. I know why internet pundits keep referring to ‘aliens’ instead of the super-humans of the future: it’s because the story needs a saviour to be emotionally satisfying, not an interdimensional pat on the back. Likewise, in Jesus’ parable the Pharisee attended to his own salvation; he thought he had it locked down with all his goodness. Jesus says no dice, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
For myself, I think the movie would have held up better with the introduction of a supernatural element, something beyond our understanding, rather than falling back on the self-absorbed notion that we’ll be able to save ourselves.
What about you?
Did you find the end of Interstellar satisfying or did it feel like something was missing?
Consider this thought on Sci-Fi from Grantland:
The other reason we make space movies is God, who may or may not be waiting for us at the far end of the universe, but persists in science fiction despite how hard science fiction works to dethrone Him or expose Him as an electromagnetic anomaly. Science fiction is a fundamentally rationalist genre that can’t stop imagining supreme beings.