Interstellar – Christian Movie Review
[WARNING: Although this article does not contain spoilers, the reader comments below the article contain MAJOR spoilers. Do not read the comments if you haven’t seen the movie. I should add: the comment by Peter contains the biggest spoilers, but it also contains some brilliant observations that might disprove my conclusion below that “Interstellar” presents a secular humanistic worldview. After you see “Interstellar,” please be sure to return to this article and join the conversation in the comments.]
The long-awaited film directed by Christopher Nolan — his directorial follow-up to Dark Knight Rises and the cinematic masterpiece Inception — has finally arrived. His brother Jonathan Nolan co-wrote the screenplay. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon are among the talented cast. (And they all gave superb, stunning performances.)
The story takes place in the not-so-distant future. As Earth’s crops begin to die, and as starvation threatens the survival of humanity, an astronaut named Cooper (McConaughey) mans a mission of interstellar travel to find another planet where our civilization can continue. To sum this movie up in one sentence: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is to secular humanism as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is to Christianity. I could be wrong. A film like this warrants multiple viewings, and I’ve only seen it once. I might’ve missed something. And Nolan is difficult to pin down, which is partly why his films are so great; they have tremendous nuance.
[Update 11/14/14: A reader named Peter left a comment below and made some brilliant observations that I missed. In fact, his points make a strong case that perhaps Nolan was actually presenting a Christian worldview.]
I doubt that Christopher Nolan aggressively set out to create some aggressive overture to humanism — I doubt that was the most pressing concern on his mind during the creative process — but the film, in my opinion, seems to go in that direction anyways. If my interpretation is correct, then this film is the most breathtaking, masterfully composed ode to one of the greatest falsehoods ever conceived upon this earth: that, by gaining knowledge of good and evil, relying on our own wisdom to manage it, and pursuing total self-sufficiency apart from our Creator, humanity will never die because we will eventually evolve into gods. This is the heart of secular humanism: that the God of the Bible is unnecessary — a myth of the religious imagination — and we certainly do not need a Creator to decide right and wrong and create a basis for morality.
[Note: Although I feel passionate about my beliefs, I mean no personal disrespect to anyone who is an atheist. I respect the goals and admire the courage and the good works in many branches of humanism; I simply have strong disagreements with the presuppositions that form the humanist worldview.]
These big questions of worldview, however, are probably more peripheral to the heart of the film. At its core it tells a heartrending, absolutely tear-jerking story about a father’s love for his daughter. It stirs the soul, and it adds a tangible power to the story arc. I would watch the film again just to see this story-line between the father and daughter. And, just to be clear, I doubt the Nolan brothers intentionally set out to write some aggressive manifesto for secular humanism that demeans people of faith. That’s really not the spirit of the film. Its worldview, assuming my interpretation of the film is even correct (and it may not be), is very subtle. It’s more of a presupposition below everything else — the partially buried foundation. What the filmmakers cared most about, I suspect, is showing how profound our need for human companionship can be. It’s a tenderhearted film that asks vulnerable, earnest questions more often than it makes strong-willed assertions about the origin and purpose of humanity’s existence — though it does make a few of those too at key moments.
Before I get into more of the details of the film (without spoilers) let’s examine any parental guidance issues in the film’s PG-13 content.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity : None. Violence/Gore: There is no graphic gore in this film. Two men fight on a planet with hostile atmosphere, and one breaks the other man’s glass to cause him to suffocate. An astronaut is sucked into space. A man is punched in the face. An elderly man is seen dying in a hospital bed. A man drowns in a huge tidal wave. Language: One f-word, and a fair number of other swear words. Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A farmer drinks a bottle of beer.
Frightening/Intense/Emotionally Heavy Content: Nolan is the Shakespeare of palpably intense, nail-biting cinema. Although there is no gore in this movie, whenever there is any violence or death, it is felt on a deeply emotional level because Nolan creates an extremely convincing world with very real characters. It is likely too intense for youth under 13 (as the ratings advise).
“That conflict, that relentless, aching homesickness — that profound yearning for human companionship that we all have — is what this movie spends most of its time exploring; and it is, I suspect, what the filmmakers cared most about in their storytelling.”
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Any film that Christopher Nolan directs almost always approaches a level of art that only geniuses can achieve. He truly is a Monet — or fill in your favorite master artist — of film in our generation. His grasp of storytelling, his directing of the actors, his pacing and sense of proportion between the three acts of a story: it is always pitch perfect with Christopher Nolan. He weaves everything together to create something mesmerizing. He ratchets up tension with such nuanced precision amidst a complex narrative that, by the time it all climaxes, the film becomes emotionally (and visually, in this case) overwhelming. And the space sequences — especially the ones involving planets and black holes — just, just…I don’t even have the words. Everyone in the theater sat in speechlessness after the movie ended.
Every detail of Interstellar is so connected to the central core of the plot — the part that would require massive spoilers to explain — that it’s almost impossible to discuss much of the film. Any attempt to do so would come across as nonsensical unless the entire plot was unveiled, which I won’t do.
I’ll be content to say this: the film really is a work of art — the kind of thing that does not come around very often in a generation — and it is worth experiencing even if you do not agree with its fundamental worldview. Interstellar is
a phenomenal achievement.
The only major complaint I have about the film craft — and the Washington Post felt the same way — is with the film’s sound mix. Dramatic tidal waves of music crushed the theater during odd moments when actors were delivering important lines. There were actually key moments in the film where I did not know what the actors said because the music was too loud in the mix.
Worldview(s) In the Film
Before I go any further with my analysis of the film’s worldview, I need to make a disclaimer: I do not know what Christopher Nolan’s personal beliefs are. I am only describing (and to some extent, speculating) about the meaning behind the content of the film. It’s entirely possible that Christopher Nolan has a religious faith of some kind that somehow reconciles itself with a belief in humanism and macro-evolution. Who knows what he actually believes.
However, the worldview of secular humanism seems to be deeply prevalent as the premise of the script from beginning to end. Although Nolan places the marrow of his (or his brother’s) secular humanistic worldview beneath rich layers of spellbinding film craft and character development, the film assumes that the worldview of naturalism (i.e. the God of the Bible does not exist, we do not have souls, there is nothing supernatural in the universe) and the theory of macro-evolution is 100% fact. If my interpretation is correct, then the film is a gushing, sincere, painstaking love letter to, well, ourselves. Though, I will admit, it is a very optimistic take on humanity’s future — probably the best case scenario for humanity if secular humanism/atheism really is true and Christians are wrong.
But the beating heart of this film drums loud and clear by the end: we are all we need; we are not made in the image of any Creator; we are made in our own self-sufficient image, and we will become our own gods. However, within this apparent anti-God framework, there exists micro-messages and themes that I relished. You could feel a sincere, almost childlike, affection for humanity in the film. There’s a tenderness there. The characters are deeply connected to each other, and the audience becomes deeply connected to the characters. Human companionship and familial bonds are seen as priceless treasures. By the time the movie finished, I just wanted to run home and give my daughter a big hug.
Interstellar is a bittersweet experience for ardent Christians who love the art of cinema. The exhilarating joy of seeing one of the great filmmakers of our generation at work is worth every dime of a movie ticket — at least from the point of view of entertainment. It’s truly an experience you will not forget.
Unfortunately, for those who passionately disagree with that particular worldview (as I do), the film seems built on a foundation of secular humanistic assumptions about the origins and purpose of humanity. I could definitely be wrong though. I might be missing some key details (I’ve only seen the film once; this kind of movie really warrants multiple viewings), and Nolan is not an easy person to pin down — that’s what makes his films so thought-provoking and enjoyable. His movies always spurn intense debate.
And, with that in mind, I write these observations with some hesitance because the spirit of the film isn’t aggressive about its underlying worldview. It’s not trying to proselytize anybody. It’s not mean-spirited or intentionally insulting towards anyone of faith. It’s all subtle. It’s a supporting character, not the lead. The primary focal point of the story is not to create a manifesto for humanism — though it ends up being that, unintentionally perhaps. The primary focal point is a father’s love for his daughter and how he would do anything, even travel to the ends of the universe, to save her. And he would also do anything to survive and make it back to her. That conflict, that relentless, aching homesickness — that profound yearning for human companionship that we all have — is what this movie spends most of its time exploring; and it is, I suspect, what the filmmakers cared most about in their storytelling.
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]