(WARNING: Spoilers below about the movie Interstellar!)
Considering the movies that debuted last year, I think that Christopher Nolan’s newest project, Interstellar, absolutely took the cinematic cake. Nolan, is the man behind cinmetiaclly impressive films such as Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Interstellar follows in their greatness. Nolan fans and general moviegoers alike flocked to theaters to witness the space travels of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the ex-science engineer and NASA pilot turned corn farmer.
In many of his movies, Nolan challenges the audience to wrap their minds around mystery. Challenging the audience intellectually is a concept foreign to most movies today, which tend to give everything on an intellectual platter – or even lack the intellectual platter itself. Most movies don’t challenge the audience to reflect on a reality bigger than the movie itself. In other words, they don’t challenge us to engage in mystery – especially in the mystery of human existence. Interstellar is a movie about the exploration of the unknown, and not just the unknown of the physical universe.
In one interview, Nolan explained that, “What we found was the further we went across the universe (the infinite), the deeper into space we went, the more isolated the characters became, the more the focus is on them as human beings…what defines us as human beings.” Undoubtedly, making a space epic about interstellar travel is intriguing, but making a movie also about the truth of real human relationship – exemplified by Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) – takes Interstellar to a much deeper, more anthropological and theological level.
Virtuous and Transcendent Humanity
Throughout the course of the film, as Nolan discusses, are balanced the cosmic realities of time, space, and gravity with the virtues of faith, hope, and love. In some way, there is a true connection between the nature of the physical cosmos and the transcendency of a virtuous humanity. Now, I am not sure whether Nolan is or was raised Catholic, but he certainly has a profound Catholic imagination when it comes to filmmaking. Nolan never talks about this astrophysical/anthropological balance in strictly theological terms, but the connections can be made.
What Nolan understands, through the balance of these realities, is the ever abiding transcendence of the infinite within the finite – human beings especially included. There is simply much more to humanity than flesh and bone. The transcendent nature of the human person is partly due to humanity’s ability to practice virtue.
The virtue of faith is repeatedly noted in the anonymous “they”, whom the NASA scientists believe created humanity. The scientists believe these creators are watching over them. After discovering a wormhole, which provides humanity the ability to explore new worlds in light of the blight which has consumed Earth, the scientists always refer to the blackhole as “someone putting it there” to explain its sudden existence. Even though the wormhole appeared randomly, they never consider it a matter of chance, but of providence. The Catechism says, “…it is by faith that man commits his entire self to God.” Surely, the NASA scientists have a certain amount of faith in order to give themselves over to the “being” that provided the wormhole.
The second virtue, hope, is represented in many characters, but especially in the enduring spirit of Cooper. No matter what is thrown at him, including the entire exploration mission which was in fact doomed from the beginning because “Plan A” – saving humanity on earth – was never an actual option for those in charge, Cooper has an enduring and hopeful spirit. Despite all of this, Cooper is always able to see beyond the situation and look toward the goal of survival and the salvation of humanity.
Christian hope is not just a pacifier to keep us strong in difficult times, but it is an orientation to the fundamental source of fulfillment (God) and is a trust in God’s bountiful providence. Mary Hilkert explains that, “Human beings are able to cling to life against all odds, to cling to God in the face of God’s silence. That kind of human resistance and hope can be sustained only by a deeper spirit of life – the very Spirit of God within humanity.” Throughout the movie, Cooper does not have a hope that pacifies him, but a hope that drives and guides his every action.
The last virtue, love – the summit of the virtues – dominates the film. The balance of the physical cosmos and the transcendency of virtue should be especially called to mind here. Gravity is undoubtedly one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Gravity is able to cut through both time and space, while truly molding the universe. Love is the virtue that rises above and cuts through all else. Like gravity, love is able to cut through time and space, while molding the universe. Love is the key to human existence that binds us all together. Even if Cooper is in a different universe – in another time dimension, the bond and relationship of love that he and his daughter share is unbreakable.
After seeing the movie and having watched a few interviews online, I found it interesting that Nolan’s main motivation in writing the script for Interstellar was not about making a space film, but it was about making a film expressing this relationship between a father and daughter, which Nolan calls “the heart of the film.” When asked if the movie was about love, he replied, “It is inevitably about love because it is about human beings…what it means to be a human being and the connections between us.” Human beings are fundamentally about love.
The Transcendent Church and the Communion of Saints
Some of my most profound reflections, however, came near the climax of the movie as I was utterly glued to the screen. After Cooper and Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) discover that the whole mission of escaping Earth and finding another habitable plant was a huge lie by Brand’s father (Michael Caine), and after almost being killed by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) – one of the original explorers of the habitable worlds – they have to escape the gravitational pull of Gargantua, a cosmically massive blackhole.
In order to save Dr. Brand, after maneuvering around Gargantua, Cooper detaches his pod from the space craft to give Brand a chance of escaping the gravitational pull of the blackhole. Cooper then falls into the great unknown of the blackhole. What Nolan does cinematically here is incredible; he leaves his audience in complete bewilderment and shock. Interestingly, the blackhole is compared to an oyster earlier in the film, with the center of the oyster being a pearl. This analogy alludes to the truth at the heart of mystery. Cooper, literally, dives headfirst into the truth at the heart of this mystery.
As Cooper falls into the blackhole he doesn’t die, but falls into another dimension. He falls into a tesseract of fifth-dimensional reality. As Christians, we believe that death is not the end of life, but is really a passing into another dimension of existence. When Cooper figures out where he is with the help of TARS – a robot that falls into the blackhole with Cooper, he finds that he is surrounded by an endless maze of bookshelves. It so happens that this fifth-dimension of reality into which he has fallen is somehow linked to the bookshelf in his daughter’s room back on Earth – he is just on the other side of the books. (Earlier on in the movie, Murph makes some comments about feeling the presence of a ghost near her bookshelf. Before Cooper left for his mission, as he talked to Murph in her room, a book even strangely fell off the shelf without anyone touching it.)
In the tesseract, Cooper tries reaching through the fifth-dimensional wall of bookshelves – each wall of shelves representing a different point in time – to try to communicate with his daughter. Then, a moment of epiphany. Cooper realizes that he was his daughter’s ghost. He realizes that the “they”, the quasi-celestial being or beings whom the NASA scientists thought created and guided the human race, was actually humanity itself connected through another dimension.
His mind racing, Cooper says, “They have access to infinite time and space but they are not bound by anything. They can find a specific place in time and communicate.” Simultaneously, he realizes that communicating with Murph, in her specific time and space, is actualized through love. He realizes that HE is “the bridge” with the three-dimensional world. Remembering the conversation of virtue, Cooper figures out that love is the key to bridging the infinite and the finite.
Human beings undoubtedly live physically on Earth, but after passing into another dimension (death) humans exist supernaturally, yet alongside humanity’s physical existence. This scene shows an understanding of the Communion of Saints and the transcendent, supernatural reality of the Church. The Church – the Body of Christ – is not just a reality that exists here on Earth, but also in Heaven. The connection of Cooper and Murph reminds us that the supernatural Body of Christ – the Communion of Saints – is not to be seen as totally separate from earthly existence, but as existing along side it.
In other words, Heaven is not somewhere else, but it is here! Heaven is already on Earth! The infinite coexists with and in the finite. This was Christ’s great proclamation during his ministry in Galilee: The Kingdom of God is here and it is here NOW! The saints in Heaven are able to communicate with us here and now though prayer and love. We are not cut off from the Communion of Saints, even though they are dead, because all of humanity is united in the Body of Christ through love, which transcends the physical reality of the cosmos.
Interstellar shows that there are deeper mysteries and truths in our universe that we still have to explore – one of them being the final frontier, the other being the mystery of the human person, as persons are oriented to the infinite and to love. By looking up to the stars we can enter into those deeper realities and ask the big questions of life: Who am I? What is my purpose? How am I connected to other human beings and even God? Christopher Nolan certainly dove headfirst into these questions with his new movie. It’s important to always seek the answers to these questions. It is the humanity that searches higher and farther that will find true purpose and fulfillment. Let us remember the words of Cooper, “Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers, that we’ve barely begun, and that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, but our destiny lies above us.”
 CCC, 1814.
 Mary Hilkert, Naming Grace (New York: Continuum Publishing Co, 1997), 52.
 Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan. (Burbank: Legendary Pictures, 2014). Digital and IMAX.