“Interstellar”

In a cosmic scheme of things, our actions are but nothing, and all our struggles and sufferings are reduced to an insignificant nuisance. A sudden supernova, or the onslaught of a black hole and everything we once cherished will be gone, forever, in the blink of an eye. Humans like to find good and evil in everything, even in Nature itself, as if attaching labels to it comforts our anxieties towards a mysterious phenomenon in itself, as if it makes the Unknown known. But Nature doesn’t care, it is indifferent to our survival. One can’t say that Nature is good anymore than one can say it is evil. To label and call it thus is to commit the folly of anthropomorphism at its highest order, a human tendency to be exact. If one day the human species is to be extinct, the Earth wiped back into a clean slate before the arrivals of the first homo sapien, the universe will not care.

Faced with such an indifferent and occasionally destructive universe, we are forced to find our survival on Earth through our own pondering and adaptability. And so we come to tame Nature, the one and only untameable entity. We come to force Nature to do our bidding, to take into our own hands as we see fit, and to harness resources to ensure our survivability. This is all good and well, after all, we did survive millenia through our “intelligence” and consciousness didn’t we? This anomaly in Nature, this sudden mutation, this human species, has suddenly become the apex of evolution, and acquired a hubristic view of our own capabilities, and constructed an ever optimistic view of progress. But what if our pleasures of the here-and-now, the present, obstructs a longer view of the future? What if we aren’t prepared for the consequences of our current debauchery? What if the myth of progress is ultimately a fiction? We love to live under fictions, stories constructed to veil us into action, so that we will not lose our sight on what is deemed socially appropriate. Because Truth, the hard Truths that are potentially devastating, are seldom welcomed. Much like what Nietzsche said, we only accept the Truths that we would like to accept – harmless Truths.

Now, more than ever, we are increasingly aware of the possibility of a wide-scale extinction, because of our out-of-control waste of resources. Nature is a self-correcting system, a system that will rebalance itself to accommodate its current situation. What comes around, goes around, and we will pay for our own debauchery. It is in such terms, that we come to grips again  with the notion of our survival. But what is survival? Is it the survival of the species? Or is it the survival of the individual? The contradictions between the absolute and the relative are irreconcilable, as one is the achievement of an absolute end through the deployment of every means, while the other is much more harder to realize. To realize the former, one merely need to colonize another inhabitable planet, and through the risk of playing God, one creates a “New Earth”, while disregarding the survival of those that are left behind. The latter is harder to realize because to do that, we must move our entire species (a few billion people, not much) to another planet, while the former is efficient in that we need only a few cells, and a few test tubes. It all comes down to what we cherish, the survival of those around us or the survival of a species in its entirety. But as human beings with the baggage of emotions, can we really come to the cruel decision of surviving a species, an abstract conception at its finest? Are we not bound to those that we love ultimately, and to save an impersonal species that we may not meet in the future, doesn’t that seem all too detached from us? To gain a larger perspective, to see the survival of the species as our final goal requires us to have the vision of God, or to be simply, a madman, one that will incite scorn, however noble our goals were.

                                                               Do not go gentle into that good night,

                                                         Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

                                                             Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This stanza from Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, is recited throughout the movie. And through its multiple recitations at different points of the movie, it creates a repercussion that is still felt in me several hours after the viewing of the movie. In its simplest interpretation, it is a reminder that we, and the characters in the movie, shall not forget the true goals of our species as a whole, that we shall resist our extinction with a full blown rebellion, a “rage” that will burn even God and the universe, so that we can achieve survival, to defy the “close of day” and the “dying of the light”. Such is the power of our drive to survive. But our struggles on a cosmic scale are but a parable to our personal struggles, and it is only these that matters, as we face a vertiginal sense of futility in the face of the universe. And taken on a more personal level, doesn’t the stanza itself also meant death, and the tyranny of Time?

Because despite its cosmic contemplation, its wide panorama of beautiful astrological entities, its dazzling vistas of the universe (the wormhole in particular), its philosophical view of mankind’s survival, civilization, and progress, and its dizzying techno-babble on quantum physics, aerodynamics, and astrophysics, the film is, in its naked form, a film of our human condition, one that is personal, and filled with more humanistic themes rather than scientific ones. It is a film about loneliness, separation by long distances, and desperate longing: a loneliness of a father separated from his son and daughter by who-knows-how-many lightyears away; the loneliness of a man stranded on an alien planet, despaired by the lack of human contact; the loneliness of a woman, longing for her lover, with the certainty that he is dead in another planet. It is also a film about how we fill up the gap of our loneliness, because Cooper, the main protagonist, who left his daughter behind in order to find a new hospitable planet to replace the decrepit and dying Earth, and Professor Brand, who let his daughter went on the mission, essentially exchanged roles in that Professor Brand now acts as a surrogate father to Murph, the daughter-left-behind, and Cooper now acts as a protector of Amelia Brand, the daughter of the professor. It is through these pseudo-relationships that they found intimacy: for the professor, he can finally exercise his paternal love now that he has lost his real daughter to the vacancies of space; as for Cooper, a human contact in the deep silence of space is all he can cling for, in order to not lose his sanity to the vast quietude of the vacuum.

But ultimately, I think, it is a film about Time. Time, in a traditional sense is linear in structure, as we move along the constant lines of Past, Present, and Future. But with the introduction of philosophy and more recently, quantum physics and quantum mechanics, we get a more and more complicated and convoluted picture of Time. I am no quantum physicist or astrophysicist, so I have no reason to display my ignorances here in order to convey false messages, and can’t confirm the scientific accuracy of this film. But this much I know at least: in that Time is a concept that we are, implicitly or explicitly, aware of, and the passing of Time is as much a source of anxiety as it is a source of despair. Professor Brand once proclaimed a witticism in this film that is tinged with obvious hints of fear, that “I am not afraid of death. I am an old physicist, I am afraid of Time.” We fear Time because with each moment passing away, our body rots a bit. And with each breath I took, I gain some life, I live for a moment longer, but I take one step further into the realms of death.

The penultimate usage of the notion of Time is precisely in the film’s usage of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which “time dilation” creates “an actual difference of elapsed Time between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from gravitational masses”. What this means is that if there is a difference of gravitational pull and or velocity between two different places, then it will bend Time (spacetime) and distort it, making Time on both places run at a different pace. So in the film, there is a moment where Cooper and co. landed on a planet that floats beside a rotating black hole, making the gravitational pull there immense in contrast to Earth’s, and the implications for this is devastating, as an hour on that planet constitutes seven years on Earth. With such knowledge, comes a heavy burden on how we use that Time. Because every moment is monumental, every minute is the passing of several days, or several months elsewhere. As I sit here on another planet talking with my friends, people on Earth is dying of respiratory problems or facing extinction. We usually take Time for granted, because for all we know, Time will continue to flow on… until that is, if we faced the immensity of Time, or if Time ceases to flow again. But if Time is relative, so too are our human interests. That’s what makes life itself interesting isn’t it?

Somehow I suspect that this film is a personal one for Nolan. Because in his previous films, with the possible exceptions of “Memento” or “Insomnia”, all his films are of an impersonal nature, constructed with the precision of a statistician or a logician, without much care for his characters. Rather, the emphasis is on the storyline, the plot, the screenplay. As much as I admire “Inception”, its cold atmosphere can’t suck me in and immerse myself within it like “Interstellar” can. Maybe it is a sign of maturity, or maybe it is because of the brilliant and intense portrayal of Cooper by Matthew McConaughey (I have loved his acting since “Dallas Buyers Club” and “True Detective”). Maybe…

Christopher Nolan
Matthew McConaughey

But in watching this film I was reminded once again of the amazement, wonder, and awe in the face of the universe, when I watched Kubrick’s marvelous “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or Carl Sagan’s “Contact” and “Cosmos”, or last year’s magnificent “Gravity”. All these differ in their themes, but all of them unite in that they all portray the beauty of the universe, the transcendent nature of our cosmic contemplation, as well as the horrors of a vacuum space, and the insignificance of our trifles in the face of such magnificent indifference. All of them simultaneously combine the horror with the beauty, the smallness of our being, and our capabilities to perceive, even if only for a little, a glimpse of the nature of the cosmos.

We are explorers on Earth during the dawn of Time, and someday, maybe not too far in the future, we may be cosmonauts, living, travelling, and even conversing with other, maybe higher, beings. But until that day, we must concern ourselves with this Earth, tend to and care for this home which has catered to us since our beginnings. For now, we are nothing in the face of the absolute immensity of the universe, the abyss that is our surroundings, as our rage is not enough for us to be ravaging conquistadors, and old age is our symptom, so we will always go gentle… into that good night, into that eternal slumber that awaits us all at the end of our short journey.

Posted in Movie Review.

Hew studied at HELP (love that school), is a Psych grad, and currently works at a non-consequential job for non-consequential wages. Talk with him about literature or the arts (visual and audio), or just anything related to pop culture and he will spazz with geekish excitement (please talk to him, he is lonely and needs help). He lives in Malaysia.