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Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Art & Entertainment ... Outer Space ... Spirituality ...

I don’t keep up with movies, but when something really interesting comes along (interesting to me, anyway), I eventually read enough about it to inspire me to see it. So, when the movie Interstellar came out in 2014, I didn’t rush to the theaters, although I did read a few articles about it. On the surface, Interstellar is a sci-fi tale about a near-future earth where climate change has pushed our modern industrial-scientific civilization to the verge of collapse, where the whole human race could go extinct. Why? Because the planet can no longer produce enough food and maintain the kind of atmosphere that we need. The clock is ticking to figure out how to find a new home for humankind, somewhere out there amidst the stars — out there in the “interstellar void”.

But how would we even get off the earth anymore? In the movie, our technology infrastructure is slowly collapsing; however, there is still just enough left to secretly re-create what NASA and the Soviet space program were doing during the last few decades of the 20th century. Also, there is some research going on about harnessing and manipulating gravity as a whole new way of moving millions or even billions of people out of our solar system – i.e., of opening up the interstellar realm for the future of humankind!

OK, so far so good, it’s an adequate backdrop for an interesting story; but there is a problem, in that the space technology of the late 20th century can get you into orbit, maybe even out to the moon and beyond to the planets; but it clearly cannot cross the huge void between our planet and even the closest neighboring star system. And as to manipulating gravity as a force, we’re not even close yet to understanding how Einsteinian relativity, our best description of gravity and time-space, resolves itself with quantum physics. For that, a “deus ex machina” is needed, something extraordinary has to be added. And that’s the beauty of science fiction, where something totally unexpected and extraordinary can just pop up one day. Back in ancient times, a writer could call upon a transcendent deity for a miracle or two in the clutch. Today, that doesn’t go over very well with an educated, skeptical, agnostic suburban American culture. But as to science, ah, who knows what miracles might yet await those who put their faith in empirical rationalism.

And so, the Interstellar plot gives us a gravity anomaly out near Saturn, something so different and unexpected that it has the fingerprints of a beneficent intelligence behind it. This is no fleeting little ripple in spacetime, the kind of thing that science now studies (e.g., gravity wave detection of distant black hole mergers by the LIGO experiment). This anomaly has been stabilized and is persistent, something that is unlikely to occur randomly “out in the wild”.

This is more than a coincidence; it looks like some intelligent force is at work here. During Cooper’s first inadvertent run-in with NASA at its secret complex beneath the mid-western cornfields, the scientists speak of a “they”, some intelligent force responsible for this. It reminds me of the “watch on the beach” rationale for the existence of God. But of course, this can’t be God. But perhaps it could involve humans from the future who have learned how to manipulate the past, or maybe some advanced alien civilization with a very beneficent character.

In either case, Interstellar seems to confess to humankind’s basic need for God, our realization that we can’t save ourselves. It looks for a new God in new ways, ways that are more acceptable to our sci/tech-oriented culture.

Further on in the film, we get to the question of love. God is love, or at least God WAS love, back in the day. Under modern scientific views, love is just a matter of psychology and evolution. But Interstellar admits that this notion doesn’t sit right with us either. In one scene, the younger Doctor Brand, the astronaut daughter of the old fellow back at NASA struggling to save the world by coming up with a way to fashion huge anti-gravity spaceships, starts musing with Cooper about how love must be something more than a bio-social side-effect, it must have its own ontological significance (“a higher dimension transcending dimensions of space and time”, as Dr. Brand says). Cooper doesn’t quite buy it.

But later on, during the “miracle scene” when a time-line tesseract emerges inside the black hole representing the history of daughter Murphy’s room at the old farmhouse, Cooper is given the chance to send coded messages across time, back to his daughter when she was still young (and when Cooper hadn’t left yet to join NASA and rocket into the unknown in search for a new oasis for humankind). But he then receives a puzzled inquiry from the TARS robot about how he intends to convey the “inside scoop” about black holes to his young daughter, so as to allow her to solve the gravity puzzle that eluded her father once she grows up, and thus allow humans a magic carpet ride away from the collapsing earth. The robot’s exact words were “how, Cooper?” “Love TARS, love” was the reply. Yes, Cooper became a convert to the miraculous power of love. “It’s quantifiable”, he tells TARS.

So, between a benevolent “they” who exist “in the bulk” of all spacetime past and future and have access to a 5th dimension (a REAL 5th Dimension, not just a top-10 R&B act from the late 60’s and early 70’s), along with the transcendence of love itself, Cooper pulls off the impossible — he survives a fall through the event horizon of a black hole, communicates information about the black hole center across time and space, manages to get out of the black hole (the details of that are not given, but with a 5th dimension, anything is possible), rejoins the flotilla of humanity living in huge ships out near Saturn awaiting their turn into the wormhole as to resettle on a vacant planet in a distant star system, and fulfills his promise to his young daughter that he would return – even though just barely, as Murphy is now an old woman in her final days.

Christopher Nolan, the celebrated director and producer of Interstellar, consulted noted physicist-cosmologist Kip Thorne as to maintain as much scientific accuracy in the movie as possible. But in the resolution of the story, Nolan and Throne threw science to the winds, or at least stretched it very far into the realm of the speculative. Thorne himself comments on Cooper’s unlikely escape: “I’m dubious of survival, but we can’t be sure. So I now think it respectable, in science fiction, to posit survival.” Neil DeGrass Tyson, the popular astrophysicist, said that “we don’t really know what’s in a black hole, so take it [the tesseract and Cooper’s escape] and run with it.” This is not exactly the kind of logically positive stuff that you usually expect from the halls of science.

Some people say that the director of Interstellar hints strongly that Cooper actually died, and that the ending is basically just a long dream sequence representing Cooper’s last moment, a “near death experience”. The key to that interpretation is an earlier scene where Cooper is attacked by Dr. Mann, the evil astronaut living on one of the planets explored by the previous mission into the wormhole. Dr. Mann sent a lot of bogus data on how well-suited this planet would be for re-settlement, just to attract a future mission to come and rescue him.

Obviously, Cooper’s mission took the bait, and now Dr. Mann wants Cooper out of the way so that he can commander the Endurance spaceship to take him back to earth, and not keep looking for other planets as Cooper certainly would otherwise do, good guy that he is. While out walking on the surface of Dr. Mann’s barren planet with its poisonous atmosphere, Mann breaks Cooper’s spacesuit helmet and leaves him to die, telling him that the last thing he will see are images of his children. Of course, Cooper does not die, he manages to get a message thru to Dr. Brand out in the spaceship orbiting the planet, and she manages to get a rescue vehicle down to Cooper just in the nick of time.

Or so it would appear . . . but maybe that was just part of Cooper’s “Near Death Experience” — maybe Dr. Mann really did kill Cooper, and everything from there on was an NDE.

The NDE theory would certainly resolve all of the problems regarding speculative space-time and quantum physics, and would also dispense with the need for any extraordinary sentient forces that harken back to the myths of old time religion. If the ending was real, Cooper’s “salvation” from the black hole of death would seem to have been earned by his willingness to sacrifice himself in order to save Dr. Cooper, as to allow her enough remaining fuel to make it to one of the potentially habitable planets (that’s why Cooper crashed his ship into the “Gargantua” black hole instead of remaining attached to the main ship with Dr. Brand, so that the big ship would be lighter and thus have enough fuel to get to another potentially habitable planet in an adjacent star system.)

Personally, I don’t think that Nolan intended to resolve Interstellar as neatly as an NDE would allow. The “love” theme, and Cooper’s “love” response in the tesseract, seem to drop hints that are just as relevant as Dr. Mann’s murderous comments about visions of children. There may be some technical problems with the NDE theory, such as the fact that Mann referred to “children”, whereas Cooper’s son Tom is mostly forgotten after Coopers leaves earth — and recall that as Cooper leaves the farm for the last time, it’s Tom that he hugs; Murphy stayed in her room and wouldn’t even say goodbye. So you’d think that Tom would at least get a bit part in an NDE resolution — well, maybe he did, given that the middle-aged Murphy hugs the ornery adult version of Tom, once she discovers the “coded watch” at the old homestead (where Tom no longer welcomes her — she had to sneak in while Tom was tending to a fire out in the cornfields).

However, given all the time travel and event looping going on in this movie, it’s kind of hard to delineate exactly what would be part of Cooper’s dying dream, and what would not — i.e., Murphy’s recovery of the watch as an adult might have occurred before Cooper’s assault by Dr. Mann, and thus a Cooper NDE occurring after Murphy gets the watch would have him send the signals that caused this event AFTER the event took place. And that would equally apply to all of the strange stuff going on at the bookshelf in Murphy’s room at the start of the film, IF the tesseract scene is actually an NDE dream; so then, the whole plot of the film right from the start never happened! But if it never happened, then how did Cooper even get to Dr. Mann’s planet and have his NDE, if everything that came before was a function of the NDE? E.g., how would he have gotten the coordinate-code in the dust that let him know how to find NASA under the corn fields, if it was just part of an NDE illusion and thus never really happened?

I myself find this to be too convoluted, even though it does have a Zen-like paradoxical quality to it. If you want to interpret any part of the plotline of Interstellar as being “real”, you have to accept that there was / is a “miraculous” worm hole near Saturn caused by a “they”. And if you accept that, then why not go along with robot TAR’s explanation to Cooper as to why they were still alive and functioning despite being within the inner circle of a black hole (where they should fall faster and faster towards the core and become “spaghettified” by the extreme gravitational tidal forces). I.e., “somewhere in their 5th dimension, they saved us.”

Also, going back to Mann — he closed his first soliloquy about near-death children visions by saying that “at the moment of death, your mind is going to push a little bit harder to survive. For them.” That’s just what Cooper appeared to do after Mann’s attack, in his struggle to contact Doctor Brand and to stay alive until she could rescue him. And what he likewise did after dropping into the black hole. E.g., he ejected from his disintegrating ranger ship, even though there was arguably no where to go — whether he sat tight or bailed, he was in an equally fatal place. And yet, Cooper continued to fight for every second, and it proved worthwhile when “they” scooped him into a 3-D oasis carved out within their 5-dimension experience of the black hole. To me, it’s a lot easier and simpler to see the intention of the story as “real” and not a “dream sequence”, and then deal with the complex spiritual longings that the story thus evokes.

I agree with various other commentators who have noted the strong spiritual themes of Interstellar. Sure, Nolan cannot call upon that old-time religion, not even a God of Love, to propel the good vs evil themes and miraculous spacetime events and transcendent loving relationships in Interstellar. And yes, the maker of Inception can’t really be trusted to play the plotlines straight. But neither can he avoid the strong pull of the intense social gravity field behind the ancient myths of Abrahamic theism. Nolan, with the acquiescence of Kip Thorne, gives us permission to imagine a miraculous and sentient transcendence, an almost-Biblical transcendence, in a world and time when empirical science (with perhaps a dash of impersonal Buddhism) define the limits of “what is”.

In sum – spirituality and space sci-fi – what a great combo! I hope that some film producer will do something like this again, before long.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:15 pm      

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