Saturday, January 10, 2015

Interstellar and the Incarnation

(Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)

2014: A Space Odyssey
When Interstellar came out last November, the hoopla surrounding it was matched only by the film itself. It was, in a word, spectacular. It was a true space epic on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its scope and profundity, and it arguably outdid 2001 with its more humane depiction of mankind's future (i.e., no disturbing acid-trip tran- scendence into who-knows- whatzit). Add to it moments of thrills and suspense, plus outstanding special effects that afforded scientifically accurate space phenomena, and it is as I said: spectacular.

It is not unfair to say the film espouses humanism, but it's not entirely fair either. True, there is a great deal of emphasis on humanity's ability to save ourselves with our pluck, ingenuity, and (above all) science and technology, but there is something more than these that the film acknowledges, something outside of science and technology and pure reason but not wholly outside of us: love.

Kickin' it old school.
This is a new kind of hu- manism. Old school human- ism (from the Enlightenment to Modernism) saw Reason as the supreme attribute of humanity, and thus its advancement was our pri- mary motive power: we are built to know, so let us unlock and understand and manipulate and control the very fabric of existence. Love, being primarily emotional, was unreasonable, and therefore of limited use outside of coercion and manipulation. (See The Abolition of Man.) Such an older humanism is present in Interstellar, mainly embodied in Matt Damon's character, the interestingly named Dr. Mann, who talks a big game about his duty to preserve the human species at all cost. Such costs included betraying his own teammates (killing one of them) and nearly wrecking the entire interstellar mission in a foolhardy move that only killed himself and jeopardized everyone else. All the while, he excuses himself as doing what is necessary, and how one day the human race will recognize him as a hero.

Dr. Mann: the failure of the old.
He's an interesting character, mainly because you know he doesn't believe a word of what he's saying. The brilliance in Matt Damon's performance is the anguish and struggle you see come over Dr. Mann as he does his nefarious deeds in his well-meaning attempt to save humanity. There's more that could be said about him, but the movie makes the basic point quite clear: Dr. Mann's way is not the right way. His attempts to be purely detached from his decisions fail miserably (in more ways than one), and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) rightly dubs him a "coward," someone who uses rational justification as a smokescreen for giving up hope.

But what exactly drives Cooper and the others? The answer is love. Love is their motive power. Not some abstract "love" for the human race, but specific, concrete love. Cooper goes on the mission because saving the earth means saving his daughter. Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is trying to reach a fellow explorer trapped on a distant planet because she loves him, even though getting to him is not an option, and the scene where she argues for going there anyway ends up with her admitting that she's wants to go there simply out of love, but what's wrong with that? Maybe love is something scientifically understandable, some force or power or substance in the universe existing dimensionally in ways we don't yet understand but know it's real because we experience it nonetheless.

Cooper and Amelia: the near miss of the new.
That scene is fascinating to watch, because as Amelia goes on, her argument breaks down and sounds utterly absurd, and the movie lets it sound absurd because it is utterly absurd to try and scientifically quantify love. It is (as she puts it) "transcendent," something existing beyond the scope of pure scientific inquiry, and yet it is knowable because we just know. Our experience and intuition rise to defy (and convince) our reason. It was this sequence, listening to Amelia speak of love this way, that made me later realize how amazingly, frustratingly close to the truth this movie got.

Listen again to what was being said: Love is a transcendent something existing and acting within our universe and yet is greater than it, filling it, and driving us in our deepest being to move beyond ourselves towards something other than ourselves. That sounds suspiciously like God.

Think about the basic plot: Cooper agrees to go on an interstellar journey across space and time to save humanity from an inevitable doom, and he does this all out of love. That sounds suspiciously similar to the Gospel.

Somewhere in time....
And think of the climax: When Cooper is swept up into a tesseract of Time, he attempts to communicate with his daughter out of frantic, desperate love for her by interacting with the physical world from his transcendent position. During this scene, he at times literally had his finger on the Incarnation: his transcendence touched the very dust.

This is not a Christian movie. Christopher Nolan was not deliberately trying to symbolize the Gospel or Incarnation. I believe that it just happened that way, because the Gospel and the Incarnation are true (not just factually and historically but also ontologically and ultimately), and you can't talk about "love" in any serious or profound way without them. It just isn't possible. (It's vital to note that the very strength of the "love" in this film is made possible because we see it incarnated in Cooper's relationship with his daughter. In this way, it avoids becoming merely sappy and sentimental.) This is the film's true power and what makes it so moving: not just its incredible composition as a work of art but also that it was so incredibly close to the truth. It brushed up against it multiple times, literally (as I said) placing its finger on it.

In the end, brushing up was all it managed to do. Since the film contained no concept at all of Christ or God (either for or against), it couldn't make the final step to connect it all together. Just as old school humanism emptied Reason of any higher meaning and thus left it bankrupt whenever it came up short (as it did in the 20th century), so Love in the new humanism points to nothing beyond itself and thus must ultimately remain mysterious and unknowable, a transcendent something that we experience but don't really understand. We experience it, but are ultimately shut out from it. It is there, but it is silent.

Thus, the film feels like a near, near miss.

But, good grief, what a spectacular near miss.

Seriously: you need to see it.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2015


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