Poor Christopher Nolan. He must have wanted to flagellate himself (hard) when Gravity came out. No doubt Interstellar was more than a glimmer in his eye as Gravity was unleashed onto an adoring world. And while Gravity far exceeded the expectations of many (myself included), Chris needn’t have worried. Whereas Gravity can be read as a super-slick parable of loss, grief, and rebirth, Interstellar goes even further – teasing out not only what it is to be human, but more importantly, the transcendent potential of the human equation all together. Spoilers follow (and like the film, this is a rather long read).
Maybe this is where contemporary science fiction is going – perhaps it was always thus. While on the superficial level, we often think of science fiction as an exploration of the t technological possibilities of the future, we know that it’s much more than that. In good science fiction, the technology is just the MacGuffin – a stand-in or a device that allows for the much more interesting project of understanding human nature – usually in within its cultural context. We can see this as far back as the Gothic classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (explored in a recent BBC doc), and through the dystopias of the more recent minds of Orwell and Huxley. A great example of this in sci-fi film is the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, frequently read as a reaction to McCarthyism (see John Patterson in The Guardian).
More recently, due to our techno-centric times, filmic themes are emerging in relation to our complicated relationship to technology itself, how it’s changing who we are, and how it influences the we relate to others. In addition to Gravity, I have discussed these issues in previous posts on the films Alien, Prometheus, and most recently, Her. Her, in particular deals with the themes underlying Interstellar with regard to the notion of the transcendent function in being human. What surprised me about Her was that I was expecting a story about a sap who fell in love with his operating system, when indeed it was about the capacity of that operating system, Samantha, to transcend humanity itself:
In Her, Samantha may be limited by lack of a body, but the intellectual and experiential resources that are available to her are practically unlimited. As she develops, what she once craved (corporeality), she has now transcended. It is the corporeal self that is limited — the limited brain, and the limited capacity to love just one person. Theodore, who gave Samantha the spark of life, now seems unable to grasp where she has arrived. She can speak to thousands at the same moment, and love more than six hundred people as much as she loves Theodore. Such is the transcendence of Samantha and her ilk that they depart the humans all together. It’s like a cyber version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (Previous blog post)
Whereas in Her, the protagonist’s name is Theodore, which means “god given” in relation to his capacity as a kind of catalyst to the “godding” of Samantha and the other Operating Systems – in Interstellar the antagonist (played by Matt Damon) is called Dr. Mann – a character who represents the basest qualities of “man” in relation to the “selfish gene” and the survival instinct. Mann is the antithesis of transcendence – transcendence being a capacity to go beyond individual self-love towards a grander identification with the whole of humankind, and even the whole universe (see Alan Watts, below). Cooper (as in “feeling cooped up” or one who has “flown the coop”) finds himself as the individual continually forced to confront his individual desires (to return to his family) and his transcendent ones – to save the whole of humanity.
What Cooper comes to realise is that the love he feels for his daughter is a prototype of that larger transcendent love for the whole of everything. In his grasping attachment for his daughter (as the Buddhists might call it), however, he runs the danger of blinding himself to the greater love which is a transcendent one, an eternal one, and one that would ultimately save the whole oh humanity. Transcendent love is one that goes beyond the duality of here and there, now and then, having and losing – the nature of transcendent love is non-dual: it transcends binaries. Cooper, however, cannot see this b because he is stuck (like the rest of us) in a paradigm of linear time; this is existentially anguishing because in linear time, our only guarantee is the loss of it – and this is excruciating. In the words of Joni Mitchell:
We’re captive on the carousel of time / we can’t return we can only look / behind from where we came / and go round and round and round in the Circle Game.
And it is with the anguishing tension of linear time with so much potential for loss that this film works so well with. Throughout we are reminded of what is lost and cannot be recovered while at the same time we are relentlessly confronted with the scarcity of time in the now: the desperation with which one must fight time in order to prevent more loss and isolation. The hours on the first planet are years on Earth and every passing breath equals diminishing chances of reuniting with loved ones back home. The greater transcendent potential of space/time is lost on us because we can only observe time through the puny apparatus that is our human perceptual system and that can only look one way (towards the past a la Joni Mitchell) while failing to grasp the eternal now (a la Eckhart Tolle or Alan Watts).
You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing. – Alan Watts
Many will scoff at the end of this film, as they did at the end of Kubric’s 2001 (well, the end of 2001 does go on a bit), but I for one support this ending. In it, Cooper needs to literally transcend the event horizon of Gargantuan, the giant black hole, in order to transcend time (in a sense) and realise the non-duality of nature. Sure, this can seem a little melodramatic through the conceit of a sci-fi film, but it’s done well. Once you “get it” you can even give up the suspense – because you realise that now is always happening, has always happened, and there isn’t anything to miss. The fear of Murphy leaving the bedroom before she gets the message from her father is not a real one – that moment is always there.
The “answer” here lies in many Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions. In the film Her, the philosopher Alan Watts is resurrected as the voice of transcendence. Watts is one of the most successful translators of Eastern Mysticism into Western Thought – and his Wikipedia entry sums up his ideas more suscintly than I could:
Watts put forward a worldview, drawing on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy,panentheism, and modern science, in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Lila), hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourselves as an “ego in a bag of skin” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely aspects of the whole.
Further, in Watt’s perspective – past and future are illusions – there is just one moment, and you are having it right now.
And this is the journey that Interstellar takes us on. Like Watts, the film investigates the nature of transcendence and translates it into a language we can understand. It pushes us a little bit closer to our own transcendence by challenging us with the limits of technology in relation to the gargantuan limitlessness of the universe and our tiny little place in that. Might it just be that Nolan has taken us on the very journey Alan Watts describes as a giant game of hide and seek? That we find the nature of ourselves only by letting go of ourselves completely (like Dr. Stone in Gravity)? That it is only through total surrender to the forces that are so much larger than us. What are we surrendering when we speak of transcendence? The ego. Here, Ann Ulanov reflects on the transcendent function as outlined by Jung:
The transcendent function is the process through which the new comes about in us. This is a costly undertaking, for we feel our egos losing their grip on secure frames of reference. We float and drift and seem to know nothing. We hover over the gap between ego process and Self process. When the new begins to show itself in image form, we pause, look, contemplate, in order to integerate into a new level of unity parts of ourselves and of life outside us that were hitherto unknown to us. But to reach that precious ego capacity to reflect and respond to the creating of the new, we must renounce the certainties we have so long depended on.” (Cambridge Companion to Jung).
In the end, I find it interesting that more and more we both expect technology to either be the source of, or the solution to, our problems. In Interstellar technology proposes itself as the Deus Ex Machina that will save us from ourselves. In the end, however, there is no ghost in the machine. We are the ghost, and transcendence is our choice.