We went to see director Christopher Nolan's Interstellar last night and came away exhilarated and overflowing with analysis of the themes explored in the film. When I got home, I started checking online to see what people were talking about and was a little surprised to see that most everyone was busy arguing over the validity of the science and metaphysics, and almost no one mentioning the human themes of the film. It's almost like Debbie and I saw a completely different movie than everyone else.
The film we saw utilized the Science Fiction genre as a modern form of mythological storytelling to explore the very worldly and human themes of family, love, death, abandonment, elderhood and grief.
To me, the film presented the indigenous worldview within a Science Fiction story and one of the things it showed us is how it's impossible to explain the fullness of Life only through logic and science. All of the internet arguing about the specifics of the science in the movie just confirms this. So let's look at the film through the lens of the indigenous point of view—a world in which the dead are never really gone, where the earth is literally our mother, and where our ordinary reality is by no means the only reality.
I'll do my best to highlight what I can remember, but the film was so packed full of really juicy ideas and metaphors that I feel it'll take a second viewing (at least) to absorb them all. Please be warned: spoilers ahead.
The daughter, Murphy, feels that Cooper has abandoned her in much the same way that many feel abandoned and left behind by those that die. His leaving to go into space—and eventually another dimension—is a brilliant metaphor for death and exploring what happens when we die.
In the indigenous worldview, the dead are still present, although (usually) unseen in our ordinary state of consciousness. Spirits are able to communicate with us through signs and symbols, but only if we're open enough to see them—as the young daughter is able to, much to the engineer Cooper's chagrin.
The movie shows us that the dead are able to hear our prayers, and how painful it is when we forget them, put them behind us, and stop talking to them. This is so brilliantly played out when Cooper's son eventually stops sending messages to him because he never hears anything back. This is devastating to Cooper. Meanwhile, in an alternate timeline, he is able to communicate with Murphy through the cipher of the bookshelf because she is open to, and therefore able to see the signs he's sending to her. In this way, the film shows us how our ancestors are able to guide us on our path, if we're listening.
Late in the film, we realize that Murphy froze Cooper at the age he left her and she was unable to accept his death until her old age, when she had her own family. When she tells him, "no parent should see their child die", I think she's also telling him to leave the Earth before it dies—reinforcing that he is a child of the Earth, no matter how much he has tried to escape her.
Family, Elderhood & Initiation
I found Cooper's (Matthew McConaughey) family in the film to be very interesting. It consisted of him—the ex-pilot turned reluctant farmer—his elderly father (played by John Lithgow), a teenage son and young, brilliant daughter. The mother had died from a brain tumour some time before the beginning of the film, and while her death didn't earn a lot of screen time, I felt that her absence was an appropriate choice considering the larger themes of the movie, and played a big part in a not-so-obvious way within the family dynamic.
For instance, the son was so affected by her death and unable to let her go that he was absolutely incapable of leaving the farm where she was buried, even with the impending death of his family and destruction of his crops and house later in the film. The son clearly has difficulty accepting his mother's death and Cooper's leaving. When he gets older, he turns to alcohol to dull the memories, yet is unable to leave the farm where his mother is buried even when his life and his family's life is threatened.
In the scene where Murphy sets fire to his crops is clearly a forced—and overdue—initiation rite for him. His sister Murphy intuited that this was necessary in order for him to let go of his mother and the farm. He has no choice but to leave the house (and his mother) to head out to the fields with a group of men (the initiators) and undergo the ordeal of vainly fighting the fire (trial by fire).
When he returns to his sister with his face covered in soot, it echoes the tribal coming-of-age rituals where a boy returns from the ordeal with ash on his face and body and is welcomed back by the women of the tribe as a man.
Lithgow's grandfather showed us how in so many families it's the grandparent who is the one who is able to see and praise the grandness of the grandchildren, while the parent is unable to because of a myriad complex emotional tensions. He also is able to define the boundaries with McConaughey's character—it's your job to do the disciplining, it's my job to do the praising and comforting—but I'll also tell you when you're forgetting to do that. We can also see the tension that is present between son and father, in this case, Cooper's embarrassment by his farmer father and the grandfather's frustration over Cooper's inability to be the good, quiet farmer son.
In the film, the men are constantly talking about gravity and how it's the one force that is able to transcend the boundaries of time and space. When Anne Hathaway's character, Brand, suggests that love can also reach across time and space, a couple things clicked for me.
Just as we are connected to the earth by the force of gravity, we are connected to others—living or dead, near or far—by love. If we're able to see that love is a form of gravity, then maybe we're better able to feel love for the earth and feel it's love for us.
I thought it was great how the film illustrated that men often are looking for the logical, measurable explanation while it's the women who are more easily able to understand the forces of nature in an intuitive, heartfelt way. This was played out in the scene where Cooper and Brand are arguing over which viable planet to travel to next, and whether Brand's love for another astronaut is affecting her judgement. Cooper insists that the decision be based on logic and data, and in the end it turns out that Brand's heart feeling is correct.
The following are some of the quick notes I made immediately after the film.
- Gravity=Love. Love connects us to others, even after death. Gravity connects us to our mother, the earth.
- Just because we can't see them doesn't mean the dead can't hear us, and they feel abandoned by us when we forget them and stop talking to them.
- We are profoundly linked to the Earth and cannot live without her. That's why Cooper listens to nature sounds on his headphones in space—if he doesn't, he knows he'll go mad with longing and grief.
- Love the Earth like she's your mother.
- Live like you're part of a species, not like you're a singular entity.
- Proceed as if your ancestors can hear you, and listen for their guidance.
- Books are one way our ancestors speak to us. Books contain their stories and their wisdom.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the film! Please feel free to comment below.