Something about space exploration invites us to ponder our place in the universe. From the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey to last summer’s Europa Report, storytellers have explored the mystery of human existence against the vast unknown of space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of the most ambitious of those.
In Interstellar, the Earth is dying. NASA sends a manned mission to explore 12 planets with the goal of finding one on which to resettle Earth’s population.
In the midst of a visually stunning journey, the characters wrestle with deeply human questions. What is the value of life? Are we simply biological creatures with personality and emotional settings to enhance our survival — or are we more than that? Is survival of the species the highest end? Is there something more? What? For what are we willing to kill or sacrifice?
I love those questions, but I’m most intrigued by the way Interstellar prods at materialism, a culturally embedded philosophy that says nothing exists except matter and things can only be measured or known through the physical sciences.
Materialism views humanity only with that lens. Everything about us — our thoughts, desires, feelings and beliefs — are chemical reactions preprogrammed to promote the survival of humans.
Interstellar offers a layered critique of materialism, particularly the ramifications of acting on the belief that the greatest end is survival of the species. Well-intentioned educators have no problem writing the Apollo moon landing out of history in an attempt to keep people focused on farming and survival. A scientist is willing to let Earth’s population die off in order to guarantee the survival of the species through embryonic reseeding on another world. Another scientist — who literally gives a voice to materialism — lies, manipulates and attempts murder to ensure his own survival.
Up against these narratives, Interstellar ponders the experience and existence of love. Is it part of our survival programming — a chemical reaction or social utility? Or is it more, something outside of ourselves that connects us to each other?
“Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful; it has to mean something,” says one character, pondering whether the way we think, act and perceive should be influenced not only by the sciences but also by love — “the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
While Interstellar doesn’t explore this as deeply as it could, Nolan chooses love as the thing that raises us above our physical programming and destiny.
“Death and genetics are immensely powerful. . . . It would take something with enormous muscle and compassion to push back the course of nature,” says Jeff Cook in Everything New. The only hope to escape the ramifications of death and our bondage to the chemicals within us is “help from something immaterial . . . something beyond nature that not only has the power but also has the will to breathe into us a bigger kind of life.”
Physical science is right: We are bound by genetics and death. “We all came from dust, we all end up as dust” (Eccl. 3:20, The Message). But there is more to the universe. There is a Love — not only transcending time and space, but entering into it — who saves us from our bondage and makes everything new, even us.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.