”Interstellar” and the Force Which Moves the Stars

July 17, 2015


(NOTE: Spoiler alert!)

The challenges in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are gigantic. Matthew McConaughey and company have to save humanity. They also have to figure out what humanity actually is: the sum of the individuals on the planet or the just the species as an abstract concept? They also have to “solve for gravity.” And they have to live in a world without okra. I’m not making that up. That part is actually in the movie. So, yeah, a lot to deal with.

In the near future, the earth is exhausted and deteriorating. The food supply runs dangerously low and a terrible blight threatens both crops on the surface and the air we breath. Against this terrible future, a group of scientists explore a newly formed wormhole near Saturn in hopes of finding a suitable new home for humanity. A dozen scientists have already traveled through the wormhole to a different galaxy to explore a dozen potential planets. A new group of explorers must now make contact with those scientists to examine their data.

Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, pilot for the new mission (recently a family farmer), is chiefly concerned with saving (and safely returning to) his family. Anne Hathaway’s young Dr. Brand greatly desires to be reunited with her love interest, fellow astronaut Wulf Edmunds. Against this “small” view of the future, Michael Cain’s physicist Dr. Brand insists, “We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species.” Sharing this view is Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann who ridicules Cooper and the younger Dr. Brand for their inability to think beyond the people right in front of them.

Mann and the elder Brand believe they have taken a courageous view, a bold step to sacrifice the humans of the present in order to save humanity’s future. The species, Brand contends, is what matters most. Another scientist who shares this view is the geographer Doyle who admonishes Cooper, “You can’t just think about your family. You have to think bigger than that.” These scientists believe, in order to save humanity, you can’t think about individual people or families or even the sum total of human beings on the earth. Instead, they contend, you must think about humanity as a species, as an abstract concept. This doesn’t it well with Cooper, the NASA alum turned farmer, who accepted his new mission with reservation and desires to return home as soon as possible.

These different perspectives take practical shape in the two plans crafted to “save” humanity. Plan A involves evacuating the people of earth via great space ships. Plan B involves simply (“simply” is a bit of an understatement) repopulating a new planet with thousands of frozen eggs. Both plans require finding a suitable new planet. But Plan A also requires the solution of a more difficult problem: gravity.

Having given up on Plan A, Mann and the elder Brand work towards Plan B. Convinced that everyone else is thinking too small, these scientists instead think in the abstract, treating “humanity” as an equation to be solved. Of Course, Mann and Brand make a valid point. What is the survival of one person compared to the survival of “mankind”? And what is the reunion of one father and daughter compared to the critical task of ensuring our entire species lives on?

In the film, this view which holds the species as more important than the individual is bolstered by a semi-authoritarian system that values food-production over science and encourages people to have children to reverse population decline. Of course, this is the antithesis to the message heard around the world today which encourages people to have fewer children and leave farms for factories and software firms. I’m not sure if this subversion of today’s message was intentional or not. But it certainly is funny. Whatever the precise content of the message, the overarching idea is clear: the species is more important than the good of the individual.

Yet, for both Mann and Brand (Matt Damon and Michael Cain for those of you keeping track), this abstract approach proves fruitless. The old physicist struggles for years with complex equations only to secretly give up. Mann, who was to find a suitable new place for a colony of test tube babies, finds himself alone and beaten on a barren planet of ice and toxic air. Meanwhile, galaxies apart, Cooper struggles on with his quest to find a home while his daughter, Murph, tries to find a way off the diseased planet earth. However, it is not their perseverance but their love that sheds light on the answer to their mutual problem.

Nolan hints at “love” as an answer early in the film when the astronauts must decide which of three planets (the only viable options of the twelve worlds scouted by the earlier group of astronauts) they should visit. Cooper argues that Dr. Mann’s planet is the most logical candidate since it is still transmitting an “all clear” signal. But the young Dr. Brand petitions to visit the planet of Dr. Edmunds. Cooper has discovered Brand is in love with Edmunds and confronts her about this conflict of interest. She argues, unsuccessfully, that her love for the man doesn’t necessarily result in irrationality:

Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.

The speech falls a bit flat. Both in the narrative and on the audience. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is unconvinced. And I was unconvinced as well. At least at first. The last thing I wanted to see was a space-drama ending in a trite message about the unconquerable nature of romantic affection. But the movie progresses after this speech for a while without ever referencing back to ideas of love as a force. Fine with me.

Until, in order to save the mission, Cooper sacrifices himself so Brand can continue on to her romantic interest, Edmunds. And maybe save humanity in the process. In doing so, he is flung into the center of the black hole. Of course, we don’t know what’s inside a black hole. It should contain all of the mass of a massive star that collapsed in on itself. And, past the event horizon, nothing should be able to escape. Not even light. Also, the temperature ought to be in the range of a billionth of a kelvin. So, even if we found a black hole, we wouldn’t have any way of observing what’s inside. All that to say, I have no way of questioning what Matthew McConaughey finds inside. And what he finds is… his daughter’s bedroom.

The scene is difficult to understand but it seems that someone (or something) exists outside of the present and has constructed a way for Cooper to observe time outside of the normal human way. We do know that time is the fourth dimension. Kind of. I mean, if I were going to meet someone at their apartment building, they would need to give me three coordinates. Say, the third story (1) of the building on Main Street (2) and MLK Blvd (3). I would need all of those coordinates to find the person in three dimensional space. But this person would also need to give me a 4th coordinate: time. Otherwise, even if I were at the right point in space, I would probably not meet them. Of course, we humans have the ability to move forwards and backwards, up and down in space. But we are bound to the present. We can’t even imagine what it would be like to NOT be bound by time. To see and interact with our past or future, it just doesn’t make any sense to us. But, according to Interstellar, we will have this ability someday. The “someone” who saves Cooper turns out to be us. A very distant us. And so Cooper is able to see different moments in time in a kind of library labyrinth that is his daughter’s room.

In this room outside of space and time, Cooper is able to communicate with his daughter (via gravity!) and save those still on earth. The scene is incredibly surreal but is clearly a vindication of the “small” view of humanity held by Cooper and Brand. Earlier, when Cooper is told to to think bigger than his family, he responds, “I’m thinking about my family and millions of other families.” Dr. Mann sees this as a kind of selfish, mean thinking. But it is this kind of familial concern that brings about much larger results. It isn’t the elder Dr. Brands’ willingness to sacrifice every living human or Dr. Mann’s pragmatism that saves our species, it is the love between a father and daughter that cuts through space and time like an arrow through the blue.

The scene was, in a way, a kind of validation of Brand’s earlier speech about her desire to see the man she loves. But plenty of people felt the appeal to love as a “force” akin to gravity was out of place in a film that was otherwise faithful in the scientific aspect of its science-fiction. I understand the criticism. But I would also say that our understanding of both gravity and love isn’t nearly as complete as we sometimes pretend. Earlier in the film, Anne Hathaway’s Brand does a decent job of critiquing the sociological explanation of love. We can explain it away with theories of social necessity. But how shallow. And boring.

Even less satisfying are our theories on gravity. We know what it does. Usually. And how. Sort of. But the why is another thing entirely. Newton explained gravity as the force of attraction between two objects. Roughly, the gravitational constant times the mass of the two objects divided by the squared distance between them. This is all fine and well for most observable objects on earth under normal circumstances. But move out into massive objects in space or into the particle level and that rather simple equation falls apart. These days, we mostly accept Einstein’s view that gravitation is actually part of his theory of relativity. According to this view, gravity isn’t a force but a curve in spacetime. And here’s where my mind explodes. I can’t really explain this. But neither can anyone else. And Einstein’s view isn’t universally accepted (that was a physics pun). And there are lots of scenarios where gravity behaves in a way we can’t really explain. And then some people think gravity is a kind of wave. And others say it’s made up of particles. Uh. Ok.

I’m not going to try to explain any of this. But I would like to point out that Christopher Nolan isn’t the first person to connect love and gravity. Dante ended his beautiful epic with this incredible line:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Gravity, of course, is the force that moves the sun and the other stars. But God is the first, the prime mover. So, love and gravity are not unrelated. They are ways to describe this one cosmic force that holds everything together. Not in an impersonal way! Not as a kind of sappy scientific analogy! But as the forces (or maybe just “force”) that moves and orders the entire cosmos. Recently, Peter Kreeft connected gravity and love in a speech he gave on ecumenism (you can read the whole thing here). He said:

For gravity is not just like love, but gravity is love on a material level. In fact, it has two movements: one is towards union, back to the center, the big bang, the past by gravity. And the other is to give itself out to all other beings, out into the future, the expanding universe, by energy, and by entropy, which is energy giving itself out to the empty places. Aquinas says, “The good is diffusive of itself.” On every level, from the Trinity to subatomic particles.

So, that’s pretty intense. To this, Interstellar adds a kind of picture of this gravity and love as they reveal themselves across spacetime. It may be strange to watch these “forces” cut through spacetime. But it isn’t unscientific. And neither is it unChristian. We Catholics already believe that the Eucharist transcends spacetime. It’s both terribly disconcerting and yet beautiful to see Cooper reach out to his daughter across time, across galaxies. But an even more disconcerting and far more beautiful event takes place at every Mass (the Catholic one, not the physics one) when Christ is made FULLY present to us. At that moment, billions of Catholics across thousands of years are present together in a single room, upstairs in Jerusalem. We are also in heaven at the Wedding Feast of the lamb. And, even stranger, we all become the mystical – but physical! – body of Christ.

The love that moves the sun and the other stars also binds us together across spacetime. It is this personal force of love that saves humanity in Interstellar over the pragmatic approach to resuscitate an abstract humanity. And it is this personal love that must save us now. This love, this incredible gravity that created the universe is also the force that draws us back in.