Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Some Comments on Christopher Nolan's Interstellar

What follows is not a review of Interstellar, but observations made through the lens of this blog's recent content. A 'spoiler alert' is offered as a common courtesy.
In Christopher Nolan’s film, Interstellar, chronos and kairos are folded together like beaten egg whites into cake mix. In an earth where time has essentially stopped, interstellar time finds itself in a physical realm, all geometried-up in refracted light and cuboid shapes. The film presents an uncertain moment in the Earth’s future in which the last generation of the human species must act to preserve itself. The environment is no longer habitable and urgency is undone by the tick-tocking of time. The film plays no politics, but simply assumes that climate change has reached its event horizon. Its many themes include time, physics, love and sacrifice.

The physics allows for depictions of a black hole, reified time, and gravity itself. The depiction of time is fascinating, and might illuminate some of what I have been saying about chronos and kairos (see “It’s about Time Because April is the Cruelest Month”). Seasonality has lost all practical meaning in Interstellar, and references to “next year” (next year’s crop of corn in a world where veggies are the only food)  are reduced to ‘more of the same,’ a syntagm one can see coming, and a measure of nothing. Kairos is lost in chronos, a memory of a fading ‘signified.’

Time, though, can be traversed in its physical iteration, and that’s how the film’s time travelling astronauts get back home, and communicate salvation retroactively. An interesting phenomenon related to time’s representation here is time's distortion by gravity. Because the first planet visited is so close to the black hole, Gargantua, gravity there pulls time out of joint, making every hour spent there tick off 7 years on Earth: fugit inreparabile tempus. This watery, lifeless planet recalls the ebb and flow heard long ago on the Aegean, but Vergil had it right before Arnold’s Sophocles.

Belief and love have a decisive confrontation in the unfolding drama. When making the decision on which planet to explore next, Cooper, our protagonist, argues from the data obtained by Dr. Mann (other explorers had been sent on ahead) on his planet, whereas Cooper’s crewmate, Dr. Amelia Brand, argues for Dr. Edmund’s planet. She also argues from data, but she is in love with Dr. Edmund. Accused of sentimentality, she responds with a discourse on love:  that love is real, not merely an abstraction, it can be felt and touched,  its effects measured. Her remarks bear repeating:

Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.

 Love is rather like time itself and the way it functions in the film. The truth turns on love, however, as Mann’s data is a manufactured falsehood designed to lure the spacecraft Endurance to his own rescue. Love, had it been chosen in faith, would have redeemed time, but the simple credulity in Mann’s data alone, diverts the crew in an unfortunate direction.

Love also plays out, finally, as the redeemer of the human race. The relationship between Cooper and his 10 year-old daughter, Murphy, is one that transcends time by traversing it.  The young “Murph” believes there is a ‘ghost’ in or behind the bookshelf in her room. Of course it is not a ghost but Cooper himself providing the drama’s ‘hauntology.’ Having traversed physicalized time, he returned to her to give her crucial data retrieved from Gargantua. Cooper tocks out Morse code on the second hand of the watch he gave to Murphy when she was a child. The grown Murphy (who shares father/trust issues with Dr. Brand), now a physicist, uses the data to complete the gravity equation that allows for the transport of humans into their redemption in time-space. So real was the love between father and daughter, that Cooper’s promise to return to Murphy is realized; but not without the ironic sacrifices each has made. In the antepenultimate scene, The young looking, 140ish year-old Cooper meets his aged daughter (who has apparently led a fruitful and rewarding life) on her death-bed. In this emotionally compressed scene, where Murphy’s extended family is at her bedside, father and daughter meet across time in the present, and confront time and space, and the love in a promise. Like Moses gazing on the promised land, Cooper is not permitted to be in the moment of his daughter’s death (a parent should never witness the death of a child). There is a loving farewell, and a hope that Cooper will find love for himself  (with Dr. Brand) in time. In the final scene, we learn that love has redeemed Amelia Brand, who, having buried Dr. Edmunds, is set to unleash human life on his most hospitable planet.

Interstellar nods to other films and science fiction themes from the 1950s through the 1970s. The giant pods designed to transport the human race into space are reminiscent of Gerard O’Neill’s cylinders or Timothy Leary’s L-5 structures. The geometries of time conjure images of the Krell’s subterranean power plant. Cooper’s space-time travel reverberates David Bowman’s odyssey. The film’s play with reified love and time, simple belief and authentic faith, takes an intertextual and theological turn as humankind discovers insistence within itself, as astrophysics harbors then releases the event of love.

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