The Rich Man is unimpeachably religious. Clothed in fineries, but stooping to his knees to talk to a homeless man and his vagrant followers, he asks: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He is aware that, while he has kept the commandments of his first-century Palestinian culture since he was a boy, something is lacking. The homeless man also knows this and tells the Rich Man if he really wants to practise perfection he needs to stop being such a beacon of wealth in a society of great need.
The man goes away, broken. The lifelong dream of attaining transcendence under his own steam has been defeated. The homeless man remarks that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a man like that to earn salvation.
Shocked, his followers question their leader: ‘Who then can be saved?’ Who indeed? Fast forward 2,000 years to the age of cinema, and one of the cleverest storytellers of his generation attempts to answer that very question.
London-born Christopher Nolan is arguably the world’s hottest film director. A string of commercial and critical successes have reinvented an ailing superhero, reset the bar for modern special effects and reinvigorated Michael Caine.
Nolan is also an enigmatic figure. He doesn’t have an email address or a mobile phone, and he’s a faithful father-of-four who has been with his wife for 25 years. While he’s never spoken out on the subject, a reading of his films would suggest he has little time for religious belief.
A DIRECTOR WHO LOVES TO TIE UP EVERY LOOSE END JUST CAN’T SEEM TO COPE WITH MYSTERY
To date, Nolan’s films have all taken place in a universe in which there is no need for, or reference to, God. His particularly dark Gotham City in Batman Begins provided only one hope of salvation via Christian Bale’s gruff depiction of Batman. The mind-twisting Inception never even seems to consider the subject. The films are always impossibly clever; often they are puzzles that Nolan seems to set for himself and then resolve, against the odds, before our eyes.
But God is never the solution, or even a part of it. Nolan is a clever man and it stands to reason that his characters and his vision of humanity would also be clever. He is quite happy to answer some of the big questions without relying on the unexplainable. In fact, when the pay-off of a Nolan film is all about resolving the seemingly unresolvable, he would probably see resorting to the transcendent as an admission of defeat.
So we come to Interstellar, Nolan’s most ambitious project yet; an epic story painted across two galaxies. In an unspecified future, the Earth is dying, having fallen victim to a suffocating and barely explained environmental disaster. With the population decimated and the remnant thrust back into a relative dark age (schoolbooks have been rewritten to limit human ambition), the planet has a single hope left: a secret NASA mission to discover an inhabitable world. Before he leaves, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, reflects on the generation that got the planet into this mess: us. ‘Six billion people,’ he says, ‘and every one of them trying to have it all.’
‘We’ were Earth’s Rich Man generation. Now Cooper must manoeuvre a camel through the eye of a needle – or rather a spaceship through an intergalactic wormhole – in an attempt to bring salvation to our descendants.
FAILING TO CONNECT
Interstellar is a flawed masterpiece. It looks magnificent and sounds utterly incredible. Nolan is famed for spending more than any other director on the sound design of his films, and it works. With a heavy nod to the cinematic decade of the director’s birth, Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary score, dominated by the deafening tones of the organ in London’s Temple Church, stays with the viewer long after the images have faded. The story is undeniably clever, and Nolan lives up to his reputation. He draws out a golden thread to solve the puzzle at the end, and he leaves us with a final image that allows us to make up our own minds, rather like Inception’s spinning totem. There are problems, however.
While McConaughey has somehow made the transition from wooden romcom pin-up (critic Mark Kermode once rechristened him ‘Matthew Mahogany’) to genuinely compelling lead actor, the usually brilliant Anne Hathaway takes a step in the opposite direction. The script is clunky and exposition-heavy, and running at two hours 45 minutes, no one would have complained if it had been a little shorter.
As The Guardian’s George Monbiot points out, a story that abandons hope of turning around environmental decline in favour of simply escaping the planet is perhaps ideologically unhelpful. He writes: ‘Technological optimism and political defeatism: this is a formula for the deferment of hard choices to an ever receding netherland of life after planetary death. No wonder it is popular.’
The main issue with the film, however, is that Nolan’s undeniably clever final resolution fails to resonate. As Cooper’s implausible mission is made possible, the director stacks up the problems. How can they travel so far in such a short space of time? What is the mysterious – perhaps even spiritual – force that seems to be helping them from beyond their universe? How do they keep surviving, even while faced with destructive forces they barely understand?
In the end, Nolan’s ‘clever’ answer is far too small for such an epic story. Even on this grand scale his universe still has no need for the unexplainable. Who then can be saved? Humankind, argues Nolan, and by humankind’s own hand. Even when faith is mentioned, it is in the context of a belief in human endeavour. God isn’t just ignored; he’s positively replaced.
Interstellar pays homage to 1970s science fiction cinema; a time when the genre was more about ideas than spaceships shooting at each other. In the tradition of films such as Silent Running, Logan’s Run and Solaris, this is ‘hard sci-fi’, in that it poses an actual question of science through a fictional lens. Nolan is asking: Is our way of life sustainable? Can we subvert the rules of the universe?
While he does a fairly good job of answering these, he swerves past the biggest question of them all in so doing; one that seems inescapable against the backdrop of unending space: Are we alone?
Instead of looking outward, Nolan looks inward, and this humanistic thread is ultimately what makes the film unsatisfying. The script is blighted by occasional overblown speeches about the power of love, including one from Hathaway that borders on nonsense and has little, if any, impact on the plot. The lack of reflection on mystery – even among characters whose way of life has been attacked by a mysterious force of nature – clashes horribly with the majestic context.
WHO THEN CAN BE SAVED? HUMANKIND, ARGUES NOLAN, AND BY HUMANKIND’S OWN HAND
Interstellar tells a massive story, but in doing so it fences itself off from an even bigger one: the narrative that has infected storytelling itself since time began: the tale of an all-powerful God of love, who saves us from the mess we’ve created for ourselves by stepping into that mess and redeeming it. A director who loves to tie up every loose end just can’t seem to cope with the mystery of that idea and Interstellar ends up being the poorer for its inability to leave such a door open.
So, back to first-century Palestine. The Rich Man, who will one day come to symbolise a planet full of materialistic capitalists, is skulking off into the distance while the homeless man’s followers are still reeling from the idea that even this rich and religious man can’t save himself. When they ask: ‘Who then can be saved?’ (Mark 10:26), the Bible tells us Jesus looks straight at them as he gives his answer: ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God’ (v27).
The impossibility of humanity’s salvation isn’t a problem we can tie up with the cleverest of plot devices. As a species we might be brilliant and inventive, but deep down we all know that self-reliance is as flawed as we are. That’s what prevents Interstellar from being a true classic.
Perhaps it’s also why the one thing that remains with the viewer after leaving the cinema isn’t Christopher Nolan’s intricate plot resolution, but the transcendent sound of a church organ.
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