No Ghosts Just Gravity: Science and Spirituality Reconciled in Interstellar

‎The problem when making central characters scientists, or at least defining them by their rationality, is that in order to abide by the format of Hollywood cinema, they’ll have to step down as hero or cave to the pressure of the spiritual or supernatural. Director Chris Nolan goes one better in Interstellar, attempting to explain away the mysticism of the narrative through science.

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The conflict is introduced early on when ex-NASA pilot and apparent rationalist Cooper (McConaughey) dismisses his daughters claim that there is a ghost in her room – knocking books off the shelf, and parting dust into piles on the ground. This poltergeist isn’t like most others, acting arbitrarily and making shit move to be spooky; this one has a message.

Granted this message changes from the word ‘STAY’ to the missing quantum data of the gravitation problem, communicated in binary on the second hand of a watch. Pretty much the opposite of stay. And a tad more complex. But our hero of the third act is the little girl grown up, daughter Murphy Cooper: scientist and ghost-whisperer. She embodies both the religious and the rational, reconciling the faith-driven attitude of Hollywood with the scientific method by eventually providing proof of her own spiritual experiences.

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Christianity Today wrote about the film as absolutely religious – with Cooper taking the role of Christ, existing on a different spiritual plane, promising his return and communicating from the otherside through books. Father (of two) Son (in-law of John Lithgow) and Holy spirit (of the bookcase variety). Den of geek assures us its a secular tale about “self-determination in the face of final climatologist judgment”, using up Earth’s resources, leaving it barren, and moving on to the next thanks to human ingenuity. “There are no aliens in Interstellar, nor an omnipotent being, just humanity looking out for the betterment of its fellow man.” Both of these interpretations are possible as Nolan has carefully integrated them both – following the template of the faith driven Hollywood hero but trying to explain away the unknowable, the typically spiritual.

In The Prestige Nolan explored the spectacle of stage magic – explaining the mechanics of every illusion on screen except one, which is revealed in the end (spoiler) to be real magic. This is encompassed by the reality of the film, of the genre revealed in the final act, as The Great Danton explains to an audience moments before being transported: “This isn’t magic, it is science.” Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey  (the book that inspired the film that inspired Interstellar) has said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is the idea at play in both The Prestige and InterstellarMagic in this case is the ghost activity which sparks the heroes journey, and also the actions of unknown beings that will lead man to overcome their apocalyptic situation and find another planet to escape to.

Cooper overlooks the significance of the ghost until it provides coordinates in dust piles on Murph’s bedroom floor. It is only at this point that he leaves rationalisation behind and follows his intuition, offering the one-word answer-all ‘gravity’ before heading out to see where it leads.

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“You want to clean that up? When you’ve finished praying to it.”

As it happens the dustycoordinates lead to the secret underground lair of what remains of NASA. The board of rationalists there waiting, pick up on this flimsy explanation when probing the Coopers on how they found the place. “It’s kind of hard to explain, we learned these coordinates from an anomaly… I hesitate to use the term supernatural but it definitely wasn’t scientific.”

Although this is brushed over it forms the fundamental arc of the film. Clearly there is a higher power at work but these scientists know better than to put it down to a benevolent god or an interfering spirit. “Something sent you here” says Prof. Brand to Cooper, “they chose you.” Whose they? Silence. There is no answer yet. NASA will happily take it as coincidence and work on the next logical step, believing that they placed a wormhole near Jupiter, leading to another galaxy with a host of potentially inhabitable planets. Daughter Brand, who moments ago laughed off a 10 year old girl for explaining the anomaly as gravity, now changes her tune – “Whoever they are, they appear to be looking out for us.”

The undecipherable magic that is the guiding force of everyone’s actions to save the human race could be interpreted as irrational, but only because it is not yet explained by the technology and information afforded to them at this point. As will be revealed late in the third act, They are actually humans – the ghost is Cooper. Where religion is usually condemned for its arrogance in making humanlife the centre of the universe, Nolan makes humans the object of faith, he makes them gods. In this sweeping effort, Nolan fuses the mysticism of religion with the advancement of science and technology – he makes them the very same thing.

There are details laced through the film that are loaded with religious significance, showing us that these ideas have been considered, and must be intentional.

Hanz Zimmer’s score possess a transcendent quality, powerfully minimal and emotionally affecting, played out by a large ensemble but featuring significantly as its central voice the organ of London’s Temple Church. Zimmer had written the score thinking of his son, who is aiming to be a scientist himself, and states that the music is a celebration of science, but it obviously has this religious majesty inherent in its sound.

The name of the initial planet exploration mission is Lazarus: consisting of sending 12 disciple-like astronauts who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the future of humanity. Themes of rebirth and resurrection crop up time and again.

The head of the mission, the figurehead and inspiration, is a character significantly named Mann. An astronaut who turns out to be cowardly and a liar, who is aware of his wrongdoings and excuses them as his weakness. Both he and Prof. Brand exploit the evolutionary wiring of Cooper’s paternal drive – as if to say those who are only concerned with science are calculated and heartless, as opposed to the professor’s daughter who believes love to be more of a spiritual bond with deeper significance than we understand, and Cooper who hasn’t quite confessed to his spritual drive – ever-the-Doubting Thomas, he will only see the light once he has seen Jesus dead for himself, once he is in the tesseract overlooking time in three-dimensional space.

In many of Nolan’s films there seems to be this dualism between cinematic fantasy and the logical explanation behind it that almost serves as a justification.

  • Memento has an untrustworthy narrator, who allows the story to become too perfect, too filmic, before revealing it is founded on a lie.
  • The Prestige reveals the explanation behind every magic trick performed within, except the extraordinary and inciting moment which is revealed to be (fictional) scientific advancement.
  • Inception creates a dramatic and surreal action movie excused by the conceit of taking place in the dreams of it’s characters.
  • Despite being based on comic books, the latest series of Batman films have a dark and gritty realism propelling them.

It seems Nolan craves desperately to make cinematic spectacle, but also wants it to be as true as possible within the narrative. What follows may be farfetched, but it is an excuse to appeal to our innate desire for the story of a faithful hero, just in the case of Interstellar using science to explain away the magic.

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