Despite it’s sci-fi trappings, Nolan’s Interstellar is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Unpack how black holes, gravity and time travel illuminate the story of human salvation, and how the love of the Resurrection “transcends the dimensions of time and space.”
Edited transcript of episode
“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 understand it…”
I’m going to suggest that despite it’s clear science fiction trappings, Interstellar is an incredibly human story and one of the greatest love stories told in recent times, one that captures the depth and breadth and mysteries of divine love in a way a more literal film simply cannot. Nolan himself (raised a Catholic) tells us that even when the film’s music composer Hans Zimmer was given the job to come up with a theme, he was simply told to write music for a love between father and child. And so, this episode, we will explore the mystery of love through the symbols of Interstellar, and in doing so, gain a deeper appreciation of the nature of divine love. As usual, I will begin by sharing a synopsis of the story, which was a little more difficulty this episode, precisely because the science between gravity and time dilation and blackhole remains mostly mystery. But rest assured, even if you cannot follow the how of the story, we can all still follow what happens in the story. After this, I will offer three meditations on the story, divided into the below headings
- Black holes as a surprisingly profound spiritual symbol of God
- The nature of salvific divine love
- The nature of human love
Synopsis of Interstellar
Cooper is an ex-astronaut, turned farmer. He has two children named Murph and Tom. As the story begins, we learn that planet earth is facing a catastrophic disaster – blight and dust storms have decimated the world’s food population, and humankind is on the brink of extinction. Through a series of events, Cooper, ‘accidently’ stumbles onto a secret NASA base, where he learns that NASA was quietly planning a secret mission to send out one spacecraft and find another planet suitable for human habitation. Suitably, they call it the Lazarus mission – echoing of course the Lazarus which Jesus raises from the dead in John’s Gospel. Cooper meets one Professor Brand at the secret base, who claims to be working on a gravity equation to make this mission possible, but Brand asks Cooper to pilot this one exploratory spacecraft.
Cooper agrees to this dangerous mission, but not before going to his daughter Murph’s bedroom and promising her he’d return to her one day. He gives her his watch as a sign and promise that he’d return, where they would one day compare the different times on their watches. Why? Because Cooper knew the gravitational pull of space-time, and that deep in space, time would flow faster for her than for him, meaning she would much older than he was before he left. Anyway, Cooper makes a final promise to Murph saying “I love you forever, you hear me? I love you forever, and I’m coming back.” He then departs from his farmhouse, and Murph is distraught. Cooper pilots a shuttle called the Endurance carrying various scientists, including Professor Brand’s own daughter Amelia, and they blast off. The ship is headed towards a wormhole tunnel that mysteriously appeared near Saturn decades ago… seemingly placed there by a mysterious ‘they’.
The middle of the film is then about how the Endurance travels through this wormhole into a new galaxy, one that centres around a giant black hole called Gargantua. They then explore two different promising planets to ascertain their feasibility for human habitation, with each one presenting itself as unsuitable. Due to some tragic human sabotage, Cooper soon realises that their shuttle didn’t have enough fuel to explore the third and final planet, and so Cooper proposes a slingshot move using the Gargantua black hole to fling them forward to their final planet. However, as they approach the black hole, Cooper realises the Endurance was too heavy to make the distance, and so, he chooses to sacrifices himself for the mission, ejecting himself into the black hole – along with the shuttle’s AI assistant TARS. This greatly lightens the mass of the Endurance, which then allows the last crew member, Amelia to continue on without him to the third planet… she would be humanity’s final hope.
And this is where things get really weird – so if you lose the plot at this point, fear not, for the heart and soul of Interstellar is bigger than our mental understanding. Okay, so inside the mysterious black hole, Cooper finds himself floating inside a giant 5 dimensional tesseract, which you could think of as a cube projected into 5 physical dimensions – including the extra dimensions of space and time. He soon realises that some higher beings had created this tesseract for him, the same higher beings that created the Saturn wormhole in the first place. Why? They did this to allow him to have access to his daughter Murph’s bedroom at any point in time. Through TARS, the AI assistant that was with him, mankind finally had access to data from within a black hole, data critically needed if mankind were to be able to ever leave planet earth and do interstellar travel. Inside the tesseract, Cooper now had a means of reaching back across space-time per se, and feeding the black hole’s data back to his daughter, Murph, who had since herself become a genius physicist. And the means he would do this, was through morse code in the second hand of the watch he had given her so long ago. See Cooper knew that even as an adult, she would one day return to her bedroom, because that was where she kept his watch, and where he made his eternal promise to her. Indeed Murph does return there, and in a moving scene, she realises that her dad was trying to reach her and love her from across the other side of the galaxy and was now programming the much needed data into the watch. In tears and in joy, she processes the data, and finally solves the problem of gravity. This sets in motion the final stages required for mankind to safely leave earth, undergo interstellar travel, and land on their new planet, a planet which Amelia now waited, ready to welcome humanity that had been saved through the love of father and daughter.
Part 1: Black holes as a profound spiritual symbol of God
When I talk to people about Interstellar, there’s probably two things they’ll agree the movie is about – black holes, and the power of love. Well, little do such people realise that in God’s creative genius, blackholes and love actually share a lot in common. For example, did you know that black holes are at the centre of every galaxy, generating the gravity needed to hold all the planets in their orbit, in right order… and to stop them flying off into chaos? Well in the same way, the spiritual world is rightly ordered, held together and centred upon love. God is love, and just as the physical world centres upon gravity, the soul centres upon God. And while we know that God exists, he is technically invisible like a black hole, and like a black hole, we can only observe him by that which he effects. Further, black holes, like God, contain an inner life that is mysterious and beyond human understanding. Scientifically, a black hole forms when a star collapses in on itself, eventually creating a singular point of incredible gravity, from which all matter around it revolves and is drawn in, even light, space and even time. Yes, you heard that right. Einstein’s theory of relativity, definitively proved that even space and time are created, and hence can be warped and stretched and dilated like any other created thing. See, black holes, like God, stand as commanders of time and space. And as mentioned earlier, how a black hole actually works is altogether bamboozling, for no scientist today is able to explain how the theories of general relativity (which defines the laws of big things) works together with quantum mechanics (which defines the laws of microscopic things). Yet in a black hole they somehow come together. What does this mystery communicate to us mortals about creator God? At present we can only ponder, but if we take our cue from Interstellar, there is plenty already we can ponder about the nature of divine love. It is to this we now turn.
Part 2: The nature of salvific divine love
Love of God the Father: Stripped to its bare bones, Interstellar is a story about human salvation … or more accurately a story about the desperate rescue mission to save humanity from extinction. As such, if I could summarise the story of Interstellar in one sentence, it is this: “how the faithful love between a father and his daughter, could overcome any physical force in the universe, so much so that this love saves the whole of humanity.” It always impresses me how this sci fi giant reveals a deeply human story about a father to his daughter, whose love remains the same even across the stars. Nothing separates the love between Cooper and his daughter, and as such, the great paradox of this sci fi epic is that it is one of the most human stories told in recent years.
For Christians of course, the salvific love between father and child lies at the heart of our salvation story… one that involves God the Father, and us his precious children. Just as Cooper once made a promise to Murph “I love you, I love you forever, you hear me, and I’m coming back” God the Father made the same promise to us his children that his love was forever. Unlike human love, which is so prone to become distracted and distorted and weakened over time, God’s love remains faithful forever, because it is a covenant love, unbreakable, and not contingent upon anything we can do. This faithfulness of God then, is truly cosmic. “Your love, LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies” the Psalmist tells us. God the father always keeps his promises. Even though young Murph couldn’t face her father for some time after he leaves, she knew as an adult that her father would keep his promise and return, and it was for this reason that the adult Murph is inspired to return to her childhood bedroom to retrieve her father’s watch, a move which would in turn save the world. One of my favourite lines in the whole movie is right at the end when daughter and father physically reunite at Cooper station. The elderly Murph says to her father “nobody believed me, but I’d knew you’d come back.” When Cooper asked “how”, she smiles and simply replies “because my dad promised me”.
Love of Christ: There is another profound way that Interstellar echoes the Christian story of salvation. It is evident in the climax of the movie, when Cooper sacrifices himself and drops into the black hole in order to allow Amelia a chance to find the final planet. Like Christ who sacrificed himself to give humanity a second chance, Cooper’s selfless descent into death leads to humanity’s salvation – and look at the symbols at play! At Easter we celebrate the fact that Christ transformed the permanence of death into a portal… a portal which leads to enteral life. Well… look what happens when Cooper willingly descends into the black hole— rather than it becoming his death, he instead enters into the tesseract, which is effectively a portal, one which allows him to physically access eternity. Huh? Isn’t eternity like heaven? Well, strictly speaking, our scholars tell us eternity doesn’t actually mean forever and ever time, but rather, it means a state of being when all instances of time become experienced as the present moment. So when we say God is eternal, that’s what we mean – that he is outside of created time, because he experiences all instances of our time as the present moment. Something of this is what happens to Cooper inside the Black Hole’s tesseract, where he has access to every instance of time in Murph’s bedroom, from when she was a little girl, all the way to when she was an adult. Now having access to all time, he was able to go back and choose the instances of time in which he could communicate with his daughter, by using gravity to program his watch.
If you can indulge your imagination a little more, this move is very akin to what Jesus offers each of us at every Catholic Mass. Every Eucharist is a ‘portal’ if you like into eternal time, where Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross AND the final heavenly banquet is literally made accessible to us, in the present. When Jesus says at the last supper ‘do this in remembrance of me’, the word remembrance in Greek doesn’t just mean to recall something of the past, but rather, to make present an event of the past, so much so it affects and changes the present. Pow. Using Interstellar symbolism, each Mass could be likened a little to the tesseract. Just as Cooper needed to find a specific instance of time and space in order for his love to reach Murph, God also requires a particular instance of space and time in which his love can be reached us… and this is the Mass par excellence. If what I’m playfully hinting at here is even slightly true… it would affirm something that Catholics have been saying for 2000 years… that the Mass is not merely an empty symbolic ritual, but the privileged place of divine encounter … where Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross transcends both time and space… and is made physically present for us in temporal time. All those feelings of wonder and awe we get in the tesseract scene, is actually pointing towards something actually and historically real, today.
Part 3: The nature of human love
Those of you who have seen Interstellar would probably remember that dialogue between Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey character (Brand and Cooper) where, as scientists, they discuss the nature of love.
Cooper: “You’re a scientist, Brand.”
Brand: “So listen to me when I say that love isn’t something that we invented. It’s… observable, powerful. It has to mean something.”
Cooper: “Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing… Brand : We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that?”
Brand: “Maybe it means something more – something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in 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 understand it.”
Why this dialogue is so iconic is really worth pondering, because it flies in the face of modern theories that reduces love to a purely psychological, chemical thing, something that is ultimately self serving. Interstellar on the other hand, leaves audience wondering about the true nature of love, why is it so powerful, and why its cosmic expression in the movie feels so true? The first letter of John of course, explores this mystery by suggesting that human love is always a participation in the eternal, because God is love, and God is eternal. Could every genuine act of human love truly be eternal? Well, millennia of love songs and poetry might have more wisdom than some of us today, they who have linked the forever and ever nature of love… something that Christianity actually affirms. But human love is more than romance per se – parents also know something of eternity as they contemplate their sleeping infant, transfixed at the little miracle that has entered their presence. Martyrs know this as they give their lives away almost flippantly, knowing that their act of love is but a molehill in light of eternity. And significantly, those of us who have lost a loved one intuit deep in our soul that no one is ever truly gone, and that our connection for our loved ones might just carry over into eternity and back.
See, Interstellar reminds us that love connects us to one another more than hard lined scientists think, and this connection is not severed even by space or time. Seen in such a glorious light, you might now have a deeper understanding of the power of prayer … and why prayer, if it is offered as an act of love, is so effective a means to serve and honour and cherish another. For God is love, and if we love in God, we participate in the very essence of eternity