Interstellar and Human Nature

This article contains spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s film, Interstellar. Please read on at your own risk. 🙂

“When you take an audience as far away from human experience as possible, you wind up focusing very tightly on human nature and how we are connected to each other. What the film tries to do is to be very honest in that appraisal.” ~ Christopher Nolan ~

Millions of people have flocked to see Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar and it’s easy to see why. It displays brilliant directing, breathtaking visuals, an engaging story, solid performances, and an incredible score. With these ingredients this movie is bound to have a big influence.

While I enjoyed watching this film, its influence concerns me, because at the heart of every movie is a sermon, a lesson, and a form of instruction. You see, films provide the medium for directors and screenwriters to propagate their philosophies. There’s been dozens of articles and blogs questioning and defending the scientific theories of Interstellar, but my goal is to address what the film says about people, because at it’s core, Interstellar is a film about human nature. Consider Christopher Nolan’s words to Entertainment Weekly, “The film is about human nature, what it means to be human.”

The understanding that statements on human nature are contained within every film has radically shifted the way I watch movies. In his insightful book, Meaning at the Movies, Grant Horner states, “Perhaps the single most important philosophical question to ask when watching a film is, ‘What is the nature of humanity according to this movie?… I cannot possibly emphasize this enough: anthropology is the key. Error at this point inevitably leads to greater error in many other places” (Horner, Meaning at the Movies, 82). In other words, when you watch movies you should watch them critically, rather than passively, and engage, trying to discover what the movie is teaching you about human nature. Does the film say mankind is good or evil? If evil then what makes man evil and how does man become good? Interstellar attempts to answer these questions.

What exactly does Interstellar propose about human nature? Three main points lie at the heart of Nolan’s film: 1) man is connected, 2) man is corrupt, and 3) man is curious. We’ll explore each one and test them according to God’s Word, the Bible.

The Plot

Before we dive in we need a little context. Earth is slowly passing away from a blight that’s killing off mankind’s food supply and oxygen. The human race’s hope of survival hinges on a NASA mission, piloted by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), where he will fly a crew through a wormhole to a galaxy far away to look for a habitable planet. As time quickly passes there are two questions that need to be resolved. First, will a new home be found? Second, and more importantly, will Cooper be reunited with his daughter Murph?

Man is Connected

“I love you forever Murph.” ~ Cooper ~

While the laws of physics, worm holes, and black holes will get a lot of attention, the heart of this film is the relationship between people and the fragility of those relationships. Director Christopher Nolan acknowledged, “The more we worked on the film, I think, the more it became about what it is to be a father, a parent, a child — the connections between us. Or what it is to be human, really.”

The movie centers around the father-daughter relationship between Cooper and Murph. Tension rises in a powerful cut scene where Cooper leaves his young daughter on the family farm to embark on an open-ended space journey to save the world. Tears stream down his face as he drives away, and while the choice is an impossible one, he knows he must put the human race before one of life’s most powerful bonds–that between a father and his daughter.

Do you see the dilemma? Can you feel the tension between survival and the parent-child bond? Interstellar suggests that our will to survive supersedes our connection to family and community. For Christopher (director) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter), this is a mystery that isn’t answered by the film.

Not only did Interstellar highlight the tension between love and separating from loved ones by necessity, but it had an interesting portrayal of the concept of love itself. Most films portray love as pure emotion, something of which you fall in and out. However, Interstellar does a good job of going beyond this stereotypical Hollywood version of the strongest human connection. Throughout the movie love is defined in several different contexts. Dr. Brand says, “…love isn’t something we invented… Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen for a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it.” On the other hand Cooper believes love is simply a “social utility” compromised of “child rearing” and “social bonding,” and it isn’t until the end of the film that he realizes Brand was right and it’s love (represented by his watch he gave to Murph) that transcends space and time.

Viewing these concepts in light of Scripture, I liked how Interstellar shows the tension between love and separation through the passing of time, and the toll it takes on relationships. Deep in space “relative” time demonstrates just how fast life moves. Cooper gives Murph a watch as a gesture of his love for her, which serves as a metaphor for love transcending the passing of time. Nolan told the New York Times, “Having children absolutely fine-tunes your sense of time and time passing. There’s a desperate desire to hang on to moments as your kids grow up.” At key points the movie impacted me greatly with a sense of the brevity of life. Life really is a vapor as James 4:14 says, “…You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” We can’t hold onto anything in this life. Make every moment count (Ephesians 5:15).

Interstellar correctly presents that love involves commitment and sacrifice. Cooper ultimately gives up a lot for his family and the world. However, ultimately the movie provides us with a secular definition of love, a force in the universe holding everything together by suggesting that love would survive even if all humanity doesn’t. But this is opposed to what the Scripture says. The Bible never teaches love as an impersonal force, but rather that it is inherently personal (Albert Mohler, The Briefing 11/14/14 In other words, it’s always linked to God, who is love (1 John 4:8), and has perfectly demonstrated love to us through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross (John 3:16). Therefore the concept of love in Scripture isn’t an impersonal force that holds the universe together. Rather it’s tied to God’s character, modeled perfectly by Him, and taught to be an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.

Man is Corrupted

“Machines can’t improvise well because you can’t program a fear of death. The survival instinct is our greatest single source of inspiration.” ~ Dr. Mann ~

Interstellar shines its brightest when Dr. Mann comes into the picture because the encounter with Mann gives us the most honest and memorable portrayal of human nature in the film. While Interstellar tries to portray mankind as moving in a positive direction: saving himself, improving himself, and loving sacrificially, Mann’s nature takes on the qualities of his icy planet with the cold, hard truth of our sin nature.

Prior to Mann coming onto the scene we’re told very little about him other than Dr. Brand stating he’s, “Remarkable. The best of us.” He left earth, inspiring eleven others to follow him on the loneliest mission in history. Following her comment about Dr. Mann, in a moment of foreshadowing, Brand explains her excitement about their mission, “That’s what I love. Out there we face great odds. Death. But not evil,” revealing she doesn’t believe evil exists beyond earth’s atmosphere, only great odds and death. When Cooper asks her about nature being evil she responds that it’s “Frightening—not evil. Is a tiger evil because it rips a gazelle to pieces?” making her point that a tiger’s need for survival is a part of nature. This leaves the audience believing the only evil that exists is what they bring with them.

Years later (but only days in the life of Cooper and Dr. Brand), after Cooper raises Mann from his cryo-sleep, it becomes apparent that Brand was wrong: evil did indeed make the journey with them. Mann, who we expected to be noble and good, was in fact evil. Mann’s charm does little to mask his dark philosophies. In a conversation with Brand he explains how survival instinct is what drives us is the “greatest single source of inspiration.” He clarifies, “Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier— we can care deeply, selflessly…even without family, I can promise you that the yearning to be with other people is massively powerful. Our instincts, our emotions, are at the foundations of what makes us human. They’re not to be taken lightly.” According to Mann, caring deeply and selflessly is a barrier that needs to be overcome by evolution. Evolution isn’t about cooperation, but competition. Mann proposes that mankind’s emotions developed for the sole purpose of survival, but we have become lost in them and they have become a hindrance.

It does not take long before we find out Mann is a liar. He forged the data about his planet, and activated the beacon so the Endurance would come find him allowing him to steal their spacecraft and escape the planet. Mann kills Romilly, attempts to kill Cooper, and abandons Dr. Brand on the icy planet. “This is not about saving my life, it’s about saving the human race,” he says. But in the end this isn’t about the human race. This self-absorbed, self-admitted coward is only focused on himself.

Biblically, Brand was misguided to think that evil was bound to earth because Scripture is very clear that evil dwells within each and every person (Romans 3:10-12). Every human being has the capacity for evil, and we fill that capacity to the brim. Furthermore, her distinction between death and evil is misleading. Death is an effect of evil (Genesis 2:15-17; Romans 5:12). Unbelievers are much more comfortable viewing death as part of the evolutionary process because for them it disassociates death from the judgment of God. Yet the reality is that death is a consequence of sin and the two cannot be separated.

Interstellar attempts to paint the theory of evolution as a beautiful process full of love and sacrifice. Nolan clearly implies that caring for others is a barrier between humans and the next step of evolution. But in reality, Mann embodies the outcome of all evolutionary thinking. He is the example of trying to live apart from God and build an evolutionary worldview. In a system without God and absolutes, where we’re the product of random chance, right and wrong are whatever we determine and this can vary among people, places, and times.

Mann is a reminder to us that no matter how good a face we put on, our hearts are desperately sick and we can’t understand them (Jeremiah 17:9). That even though we can fool others, there is none who are good, none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10-12). Humanity is in a fallen state (Genesis 3:1-7; Romans 5:12) and desperately needs God to save him.

Man is Curious

“We will find a way, we always have.” ~ Cooper ~

Christopher Nolan stated, “If the movie has an agenda it’s really just as simple as saying, It would be amazing to start looking out of the universe again.” Nolan grew up in an era when every kid wanted to be an astronaut, when science was an exciting field to study, and when people were full of wonder about the universe. He offers helpful criticism when he says, “Technological development has been extraordinary, but it’s all been about communications, it’s all been about our phones and our TV sets and what have you. I think it would be amazing to start turning some of that innovation outwards.” Jonathan Nolan puts the agenda more bluntly, “The instant the light of our curiosity goes out is the instant that our species is extinguished.” In other words if we stay strapped to our armchairs, then mankind is doomed to fail.

The film asserts that humanity is at its best when our love and curiosity drives us to discover our place among the stars. In case you missed it, the movie slogans make this agenda clear: “Man will find a way,” “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here,” “The end of Earth will not be the end of us,” “Mankind’s next step will be our greatest,” “Go further.” For the Nolan brothers the chief end of man is to utilize his power and strength for exploration. The movie inspires the hermit in all of us to get out and explore because this is our purpose and will preserve our species.

Yes, God has indeed created a vast universe at which we can marvel, explore, and enjoy. Discovery and wonder are gifts from Him. Science and exploration are only made possible because there are fixed laws in the universe under the sovereign care of God.

Rather than give credit to and marvel at God, Interstellar marvels at man. The message of the movie is mankind doesn’t need divine intervention because humanity survives, thrives, and overcomes the impossible on their own power. Who will save us and change us? We will. Ultimately our survival is dependent upon us, and that’s why in the movie we can find another planet to recolonize, we can create robots in our image, we can launch an ark from earth to deliver humanity from dangerous blight, and we can evolve into fifth-dimensional beings, mastering space, gravity, and time itself. Interstellar makes a statement that humans are a marvelous, and yet untapped breed.

Indeed humans are marvelous, but thats only because we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). David in Psalm 8 is blown away by the unique way God has designed man, “Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet…” (Psalm 8:5-6).

However man is also fallen (Genesis 3:1-7) and it’s impossible for us to save ourselves. Humanity has dug its own grave and in a sense we are all on a Lazarus mission and need the power of God to resurrect us from the dead. As long as we look to ourselves for light we will be hopeless. But as the Reformation battle cry went, “After darkness, light,” they lived out those words “Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It’s not us or our space explorations that hold out hope for change, it’s the Word of God. Nolan was right in that conquering and change for humanity does come through a seed. In Genesis 3:15 God foretold of a Seed. There’s a seed who conquers and brings change and that Seed is God himself, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, the one who transcends time and space, and enters time and space as a demonstration of His love and as a conquest to destroy sin and death and give life to all who come to Him.

The Glory of God changes everything


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