“Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus … cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.”
Sorry about the spoilers to come. I don’t know how I can intelligently discuss the “Interstellar” movie without revealing some of its secrets. At least, what I think those secrets were.
I have to admit: a lot went by me. This may be that I’m getting old, but I doubt it. I had a similar reaction, only worse, to “2001–A Space Odyssey” when I saw it almost 45 years ago. (Overheard coming out of that long-ago theater: “What was that all about?”) And back then, I don’t think movie actors had acquired their current trick of sinking into a mumble when delivering particularly important lines.
Here’s what I made of the film when I saw it Wednesday afternoon:
It’s set in the US, in the not too distant future–I’d guess around 2060–when the world is recovering from a devastating ecological crisis and heading into another. This new crisis will finish us off. One food crop after another is dying off; the oxygen in the atmosphere is slowly being replaced by nitrogen. Those who won’t starve in the coming years will suffocate. Terrifying dust storms lay ruin to the landscape.
It’s a classic S-F plotline: the world about to end, a small band of space travelers emigrate to a distant planet, there to preserve humanity as a species. The vast majority of human beings are left to perish. Sort of like Noah and his Ark.
The Biblical trope that animates “Interstellar,” however, is not Noah in the Old Testament but Lazarus in the New. The Noah’s-Ark solution is spoken of as “Plan B.” The preferred solution, “Plan A,” is somehow to get everybody off this planet and settled on a new one. Which, since none of the planets in the solar system is even remotely habitable, has to be somewhere in interstellar space.
You can only get there via wormhole.
Conveniently, a wormhole has been discovered not far from the orbit of Saturn. It’s presence is a bit too convenient to be explained as a natural occurrence. Someone out there is looking out for us, has left us that escape hatch. “Who do we have to thank for it?” asks Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the widowed ex-NASA pilot who’s been impressed to lead the mission to check out a few potential new homes zillions of light-years away. Nobody knows.
Meanwhile, Cooper’s 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is convinced there’s a ghost in their house. A poltergeist. It knocks books from their comforting wall of bookshelves onto the floor, in patterns that seem to make a code. It’s this code that provides the information that gets Cooper involved with the space-exodus project. (Another Biblical echo?)
It’s possible to see Murph as the central character of the movie, more important than Cooper himself. While Cooper and his crew are on the other side of the wormhole, checking out prospective planets, Murph grows from a feisty, hyper-bright child into a feisty, brilliant young scientist, played now by Jessica Chastain. She works with an elderly professor–I thought I recognized Michael Caine–to find some way to get us off this dying planet to wherever we need to go.
Murph and the professor need data they don’t have. These data can be gotten only from the inside of a black hole, where nobody has gone or can go. The professor, it seems–though here the mumble factor kicked in for me, as I watched him lie dying with oxygen tubes in his nostrils–has long despaired of it. “Plan A” was always a sham; only the species can be saved, not the individuals.
Meanwhile Cooper and the space crew, including the professor’s beautiful daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway), visit one planet after another, hardly aging at all. (Relativity, remember.) Three prospects: the first with water aplenty, but afflicted with devastating waves that kill one of the crew and force the others to leave. The second is bleak and icy, hardly livable. The third …
The third potential New Earth is the planet where the man Brand loves has earlier gone to explore, and where she feels impelled to go also. “Love transcends dimensions of time and space,” she tells Cooper, who’s smitten with her himself. He goes off alone, in the company of a faithful robot, into a black hole called Gargantua.
Here’s the real spoiler:
Cooper’s journey into the black hole leads him into a surreal dimension of glowing horizontal rods intersected by verticals, which we come to recognize as the other side of the bookshelves in his old family home. On the other side of those shelves is Murph, sometimes as a little girl, sometimes as the woman who’s gone back to that home in desperate search of the data she needs to bring the human Lazarus out of its impending grave. Her father, a foot or two but also a dimension away, is equally desperate to communicate it.
So the saving knowledge comes, not from the 21st-century’s advanced computers, but from an old-fashioned ghost knocking 19th- and 20th-century books off old-fashioned shelves. But that’s no ghost. As the woman Murph finally realizes, that’s her father, alive.
By the time Cooper’s back in this dimension, in a place that looks like a newly verdant Earth but in fact seems to be a way-station toward our new home–the planet where Brand keeps watch by the grave of her beloved, unaware Cooper will soon join her–Murph is an old woman. (And no, I didn’t recognize Ellen Burstyn.) She’s dying, oxygen tubes in her nostrils, honored as humanity’s savior. She’s the “Jesus,” it would seem, who has called the human race forth from its tomb.
But wait. Who do we have to thank for the wormhole that made all this possible? Fifth-dimensional beings, we’ve been told; and now it appears that these fifth-dimensionals are us. That’s right: the future “us,” come back in time to give the present “us” a helping hand.
Now, does this really make sense? I think not.
If we can only be saved from extinction by “their” intervention, then “they” can’t be the future “us,” because without “them” there wouldn’t be any more “us” to turn into “them.” It’s like pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, which if you think about it for a minute is a physical impossibility.
Lazarus can’t be his own Jesus. He’s dead already. And unlike Jesus, the prophets never promised him any resurrection.
So if we manage, by ecological or nuclear or whatever hyper-sophisticated idiocy to send ourselves stumbling into our collective grave, is there anything–ghost or god or alien–who can help us out of it? The “Interstellar” movie, beneath its facade of a happy ending, says no.
In this season of hope, I’ll hope “Interstellar” is wrong.
In honor of the season, and my own need to recharge my batteries, I’m taking a break from blogging until after the New Year. Very happy holidays to you all, and I’ll see you the week of January 5!
by David Halperin
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