Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Ode to Humanism or Religious Allegory?

“Mankind was born on Earth.  It was never meant to die here.”

I have to begin by clarifying that I am not a Christopher Nolan fan.  While imaginative and intriguing concepts form the basis of his films, his poor storytelling often gets in the way.  His films are often riddled with plot holes and poor editing, while lacking in fluidity and cohesion.  That said, I have to give him respect for his latest epic, Interstellar.  For once, I will not be ranting about the shortcomings of the film, but rather, discussing the profound themes Interstellar deals with.  I cannot deny that despite the tragic storytelling, Interstellar is an ambitious, relevant and profound epic that blows the mind and deserves discussion.

interstellar logo

Now, as most of you know, you can’t watch a Nolan film without suspending your belief in reality. That said, Interstellar doesn’t merely ask you to suspend your belief in reality, it asks you to have faith. But faith in what? On one hand this film is clearly a secular humanist/atheist manifesto, a tale claiming that humanity’s only hope is humanity itself; on the other, Interstellar is a religious allegory about a journey of transcendence and enlightenment.  Either way, the film must be given kudos for having this duality, or what the characters in it might describe as, “extra-dimensional.”

A common misconception by many is that science and religion contradict one another. One must only look at recent headlines quoting Pope Francis’ statements about how the theory of evolution and the Big Bang are plausible events in the history of the universe.  People often forget that this has been a belief of the Church for quite some time now (the Big Bang was first theorized by a Catholic Priest), and are quick to jump up and down in surprise at the new Pope’s “progressive” ideas. This stems from the misunderstanding that religion and science contradict one another, which is far from true.

bigbang2
Father Lemaitre with his buddy Albert.  Guess which one thought of the Big Bang theory? Hint: It wasn’t the guy on the left.

What might be more accurate is that our misconceptions of Religion often contradict Science.  For example, if one interprets the creation stories as literal, yes, this misunderstanding of Genesis will definitely contradict scientific facts.  One should remember that for the informed religious person, a story like that from Genesis is a tale told to teach a message or moral, not scientific facts.  In short, Religion and Science tell two different stories, equally important, but different in purpose.  While Science attempts to discover the physical nature of the universe, Religion attempts to understand the metaphysical nature of it.  Both are important, both are necessary, both are crucial to our understanding of the world we live in and hope to transcend.  What makes Nolan’s latest work so wonderful to discuss for once is the depth and profundity of its themes, which seems to tell a scientific, religious and atheist story all at the same time!  Mind blown!

Before I get into the discussion of secular humanism and religious allegory in the film, I want to mention a premise the movie seems to rely on:  If you didn’t understand the logic of some of the plot points in Interstellar, it’s okay, you’re only human and not at that level of understanding, yet.  At least, that’s how Cooper (the protagonist) reconciles with the fact that humans can’t fully comprehend the concept of an extra-dimensional form of humanity…yet.  When confronted or challenged with questions about God that cannot be answered, this rationalizing is also evident with religious people who will often say:  “If you don’t fully understand God, that’s okay!  We aren’t capable of fully understanding divinity…it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.”  Interestingly enough, scientists use similar logic (and I paraphrase here): “At the moment we may not be fully capable of understanding the entire universe, but it doesn’t mean we won’t ever understand all of it someday.”  Ironically, both Religion and Science believe a similar notion here–one day, we will understand the seemingly incomprehensible truths about the universe, for now, have faith!  For the scientist, we will understand it as we evolve and are able to comprehend more than what we comprehend today, so have faith in man and science!  For the religious, we will understand it only once we attain union with God, so have faith in God!  Consequently, after contemplating this seemingly unifying concept, I began to notice that Nolan was allowing me to see a common thread between religion and science and that in a way, they do tell a similar story!  Below, I have outlined the two perspectives in which one can view the film…

Interstellar as an Ode to Humanism

“Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage, against the dying of the light” – Dylan Thomas.

(Spoiler alert) One need not look too deeply to see how secular humanistic this movie is.  Some have already suggested that it’s one of the most humanist films Hollywood has ever seen!  It’s no surprise that Thomas’ poem was used as Dr. Brand’s credo.  Thomas was an atheist, and was merely suggesting in his poem, that one must fight to survive, and to not go easy into death, as there really is nothing after it… Brand definitely agrees with this thinking as depicted in his depressing death scene.

The film, without a doubt, can be viewed as a secular humanist tale simply because God seems to be completely absent from the story.  It is in a way an ode or manifesto to the idea that humanity’s only hope is humanity itself; that humanity’s fate is in humanity’s hands; and that only science, not God, is necessary in the equation.  Interstellar follows human characters who–despite being in a grave situation on a dust covered dying Earth–show us that with knowledge, courage, will-power and love, humanity will successfully take us to the next level.  It is a tale of space travel, expansion and colonization.  A story that challenges the apparent limits of the human experience.  It is a story that in essence suggests that eventually humans will live forever as they will evolve into “extra-dimensional” beyond the bonds of time and space; in short, they do not need God because they will become gods.  This becomes most evident when our humanist hero, Cooper, arrives within the tesseract and the singularity of the black hole which he survives!  Here, he is given the perspective of one with extra-dimensions.  Moreover, he realizes that his daughter’s Ghost was merely him, that there is no “they” only “us” and that it is the human race that eventually evolves into “extra-dimensional” immortal beings who live beyond the here and now of time and space and are thus responsible for saving the humanity still trapped within the dimensions of time and space on Earth (mind blown part 2!).

INTERSTELLAR

amelia alone
Caption: At the end of the film, Murphy tells her father to get back out, explore and look for Amelia Brand (allusion to Amelia Earhart), as she is out there all alone. This further emphasizes the cold idea that if Humanism is true, we are utterly alone in this Universe.

One must also take note that while in the tesseract, Cooper communicates with his daughter through gravitational waves, sending her the needed information through his watch (a man-made device) to complete Brand’s equation.  The significance of this scientific equation, the utilization of gravitational waves, and the man-made watch as keys to humanities survival further suggests the secular humanist idea that our salvation is in human hands…not a god or supernatural being.  It is not “they” (an allusion to the Trinity?), not God, but merely Science that is necessary for salvation.  Essentially, the film suggests that humanity’s Saviour is humanity itself!

“We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us” – Cooper

Without a doubt, the film does well to convey this secular humanist message.  It is not aggressive but rather quite subtle and organic in its approach.  In short, Interstellar is a celebration of the human spirit, and an ode to secular humanism.  But despite the absence of God on the surface of the film, one must consider the sometimes blatant, sometimes obscure religious symbolism in the film as it becomes suggestive that the characters and events in the story may represent that of a religious or spiritual journey of transcendence.  You might cringe at some of this interpretations, but the movie is just not as fun if we remain stuck on the surface… so let us Inception this thing and go deeper (I’m sure Nolan would want us to)

Interstellar as Religious Allegory

2001-Interstellar

Dust is representative of Sin: When the film opens we are in a Dust Bowl-esq America, only it’s the near future and the dust is literally killing us.  Humanity is dying because the earth is dying as it is covered in an overwhelming blanket of dust and thus unable to grow anything.  Cooper’s grandchild has died because of dust in the lungs, and more and more people are getting sick and being forced to migrate.   Dust is representative of sin and it is consuming the world.  In other words, Humanity is in need of saving.

interstellar-dust.png

Dr. Mann is representative of Mankind’s Selfishness: Before the events of the film, NASA launches a secret mission–called Lazarus–to explore other galaxies.  Twelve astronauts are sent to look for a new planet for the Human Race.  One of these astronauts, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), represents exactly what his name suggests, “Mankind.”  Then, a new team, consisting of the protagonist, Cooper, Brand’s daughter, Amelia and two other doctors/scientists are sent to follow up on these previous missions.  To make a long story short, they end up journeying toward Dr. Mann’s planet, raise him from the dead (like Lazarus), only to find that he’s gone crazy and desires to sabotage the mission!  It becomes clear that Mann represents the selfish aspect of humanity.  Because of loneliness and despair, he falsifies his data, tries to cover it up by killing the others and attempts to escape, all because he doesn’t want to have to admit his failure! Proud, selfish and stupid…an accurate portrayal of humanity at its worst.  Here Nolan suggests that man’s greatest enemy is mankind.  Ironically, before the evil side of Mann is revealed, Amelia actually says, “Mann will save us.”  But after we realize that Dr. Mann is the antagonist (Judas) who betrays Cooper and the rest of humanity, we are left to question, if not Mann/Mankind, who will save us?!

Dr.Mann

The Black Hole is representative of Death: After barely escaping Mann’s planet alive, Brand and Cooper head toward a black hole.  To allow Amelia to escape to safety, Cooper detaches himself from the spacecraft and falls into the black hole.  Many critics have questioned the plausibility of a human being falling through a black hole and surviving. So one must ask, does Cooper die in that moment? Consider the notion of the black hole representing death and as Cooper falls into it–reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey–he croaks.   Keep in mind that earlier in the film, Dr. Mann mentions that the last thing our hero will see before dying is his child’s face, and when he arrives in the Singularity, Cooper sees exactly that–his daughter, Murphy (Sorry, Casey Afleck). Consequently, one can argue that he has died.  Moreover, take note that he flat lines when the space ship finds him floating among the stars… But so what? Why is death so significant?

blackhole

Singularity is representative of New Life or the Divine and Extra-Dimensional Beings is representative of Transcendence or Divinity: It is only in death (falling through the black hole) does Cooper arrive at the singularity! Singularity?! In a nut shell (if that’s possible), the theory of singularity when applied to mathematics, natural science and technology suggests a sort of transcendence from time and space, a situation or state of being that implies infinite possibility unbound by the rules applied to physical forms (sounds a lot like Heaven).  In the film, singularity is depicted as a tesseract, or more specifically, a weird library room that sees into multiple moments of Murphy’s childhood room.  In other words, singularity is depicted as an “extra-dimensional” state of being.  A state of being similar to divinity, in which one is beyond the confines of time and space.  Consequently, it is within this realm of singularity that the fullness of the religious allegory is realized in this film.  It is in the singularity that Cooper is enlightened and has his revelation: He explains to TARS that humanity sometime in the distant future evolves, transcends the boundaries of time and space and builds this tesseract!  In short, humans transcend from the world we live in, become extra-dimensional beings, or simply put, enlightened/spiritual beings.  In other words, if the black hole is allegorical of death, singularity is allegorical of transcendence/divinity and extra-dimensional beings are allegorical of spiritual/divine beings!  And this is exactly what Cooper experiences!

Cooper is representative of Saviour: Once Cooper realizes the truth, he is able to save Humanity.  Because he is in the singularity, he has transcended time and space, and is able to communicate the necessary information to his daughter so that she can complete Brand’s equation and thus get the people of Earth evacuated!  But does this make him a Christ figure? Well, to fully understand the Cooper/Christ allegory, keep in mind the notion of singularity as divinity.  Jesus was only able to save the world because he was 100% man and 100% divine.  So, when Cooper, a mere man, enters the realm of singularity (metaphorical of divinity), he succeeds in saving the world because he is now both human and divine, like the God-man, Jesus Christ.  But what about death? To be a Christ figure, one must die and rise.  Once again, I argue that perhaps Cooper dies in the black hole, and in this death he experiences transcendence (singularity/extra-dimension), and then rises, depicted by the Spaceship finding him floating among the stars.  By the end of the film he’s 124 years old, he’s gone through a black hole and survives (dies and rises?), transcends time and space and communicates with his daughter to save the world!  And all out of love for his child! (Mind Blown part 3)

who

The Ghost is representative of a Divine Being/The Holy Spirit: Earlier in the film, when in a state of despair Murphy Cooper cries out that her “father was never coming back to save us” and that “Dad left us to die.”  Sounds a lot like someone who has lost their faith!  Interestingly, these lines juxtapose her cry of joy when she’s discovered that her father is the ghost communicating with her and runs out to hug her brooding older brother saying, “Don’t worry, Dad is going to save us!” This reminds me of the Apostles who were scared and in a state of despair when Jesus left, only to be filled with joy once the Holy Ghost arrived.

Early on in the film, Murph claims to have a ghost in her room.  We later learn that Cooper is his daughter’s “Ghost,” as it was he who was trying to communicate with her while in the tesseract.  Keep in mind that while in the tesseract, Cooper is an “extra-dimensional being” (divine) and thus one can argue that the Ghost is representative of a spiritual being–someone or something that has gone beyond the dimensions of time and space, someone, who has reached divinity and is communicating with the humans of Earth to help them–And if Cooper is Christ, then this Ghost is the Holy Spirit.

Interstellar ghost

What’s Love got to do with it?

“Love is the one thing that transcends time and space” – Brand

One can argue that the allegorical interpretation I’ve just provided is ridiculous. A humanist might even say that “transcendence” in the film  is simply a portrayal of an advancement in humanity, not a religious or spiritual experience.  I am aware that the notion of transcendence isn’t exclusively religious, as the film attempts to show that transcendence is possible for any human, without a supreme beings help, but rather with the help of science!  But the question must be asked: How and why does Cooper fall through the tesseract to arrive in Murphy’s room?  To answer this, one must recall two significant conversations Cooper has with Brand and Mann, respectively.  First, Brand raises the question of love, the intangible force that often motivates us in our decision making.  In another scene Dr. Mann points out that Cooper is motivated by his love for his children and that the last thing he will see when he dies are them.  So, as he falls through the black hole why does he fall specifically into the weird library room filled with moments of Murphy’s childhood room?  Unfortunately, for the humanist, science cannot answer this.  But it’s simple…It’s because of Love.  Love is the force that keeps him going when he’s out in Space; Love is the force that allows him to arrive in the singularity and communicate with his daughter; Love is the force that allows him to transcend time and space and become extra-dimensional.  In other words, he becomes divine/enlightened (extra-dimensional) because of Love and saves the world! Sounds a lot more Jesus-like now, doesn’t he?

I know many of you may not be convinced, and I will concede, because without a doubt, at its heart, Nolan’s film is a humanist story.  It is a story in which humanity is saved by humanity, and where humanity doesn’t need god, but rather, becomes god-like.  Despite this humanist premise, however, Love is the one crucial component that is left unanswered by science and ironically it is this crucial component that drives the protagonist and leads him to salvation.  In short, love is the one intangible and incomprehensible element in the humanist universe of the film that remains a mystery…a mystery that Religion seems closer to answering (if not already answered).

Interstellar as a Synthesis of Science and Religion

The film shows how both Science and Religion are essentially telling a similar story: A story of transcendence and faith, a story that suggests we must have faith in the idea that there is something beyond the here and now.  Religion suggests that this something more is union with God. Science suggests that these “something mores” are space travel, wormholes, singularities, and becoming extra-dimensional beings.  Keep in mind that “extra-dimensional” implies to become “God” which jives with the humanist who does not put their faith in God, but in humanity and humanities potential to surpass the here and now.

Despite how progressive this might sound, Religion teaches a similar notion…Christ calls us not only to be like God, to be one with God.  And when He calls us to be one with God, He is calling us to be God! Oneness with God essentially suggests that once we attain this union in Heaven that we become God, or rather, part of Him and his all encompassing Love.  In essence, when we get to Heaven we will achieve “singularity” with the Divine…

So, is the film humanist or religious?  I think it’s both.  Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a synthesis of Science and Religion.  Just look at Coopers character one more time… He is a synthesis of divinity and humanity and it is only once he synthesizes the two and gains the extra-dimension that he is able to transcend time and space and save the world.  Interestingly enough, this synthesis is amazingly similar to how Christ himself is a paradoxical synthesis of divinity and humanity; he is 100% human and 100% God.  More notably, Christ was only able to save us because he was fully human and fully divine.

So to conclude this tragically written, overly thought-out post, perhaps one can argue that in the end, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar suggests that both Science and Religion are necessary for humanity to understand this world, a world that we all hope to one day transcend.

Interstellar-2014-Poster-Wallpaper

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5 thoughts on “Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Ode to Humanism or Religious Allegory?

  1. You show a photo from “2001 A Space Odyssey” combined with “Interstellar” with no explanation that I can see for this image. Was your comment on this photo edited out? I was disappointed because while watching “Interstellar” I said to my wife, “In ways I don’t yet understand, and for the first time, this movie affects me as strongly as “2001.” I was in my early 20’s when I saw “2001,” and now I am 70. So my comment says a lot about how “Interstellar” moved me. I believe that like “2001,” I’m going to have to watch it many times and read lots of commentaries like yours before I feel like I really know what I saw last week. Perhaps there’s a way to get your full unedited version via email or Internet?

    1. PS. I am a Unity minister so I have no conflicts between spirituality and science. It does not bother me at all that God does not seem to be part of this movie. I believe that in reality, God is a “force” that is neither seen nor felt in any physical way. That doesn’t make God any less real or “present” in the Universe to me.

  2. Thanks for your comment Aldon. I didn’t see it until now as I have not been on this site for a while; sorry about that.

    I do see God in this film (which is why I liked it)…and which is why I provided two interpretations… one is that it is a religious allegory, the other is that it is a humanist story, void of God. But when you see it through the latter lens, I believe that the film becomes less interesting. When God is in the details, as he always is, or rather, when one realizes/sees God in the details, stories become that much more interesting. To allude to Martel’s Life of Pi…I think the religious allegorical story is “the better story.”

    In regards to the photo…I’m sorry I didn’t have a comment. There is an article I am looking for, however, that compared/contrasted the two very nicely… I know there are a ton out there, but I remember one in particular that was really insightful. When I find it, I will share it here with you!

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