Cooper: “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.”
Donald: “When I was a kid, it felt like they made something new every day. Some gadget or idea. Like every day was Christmas. But six billion people…just try to imagine that. And every last one of them trying to have it all. This world isn’t so bad.”
Cooper: “We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
At first, this scene in the first act of Interstellar seems to set the tone for the rest of the film, one of high-minded idealism about NASA, outer space, and humanity’s desire to push boundaries and explore beyond our own stratosphere. However, after re-watching the movie in light of the ending, this scene takes on a dark irony. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former pilot-turned-farmer in a near-future America facing a climate crisis that echoes the Dust Bowl Era. He is widower, father to two (Tom and Murph), living with his father-in-law Donald. Interstellar tells how Murph’s discovery of a gravitational anomaly eventually leads to Cooper being sent on a secret NASA mission to save the dwindling population of Earth. This story spans lightyears and, thanks to relativity, nearly nine decades.
Cooper regrets his decision to leave Earth—and Murph—almost as soon as he takes off. Even in the tesseract as he watches himself leave, he sobs, “Make him stay, Murph. Don’t let me leave, Murph!” Even knowing he’s worked to save the human race from imminent destruction, Cooper still would rather have spent Murph’s childhood with her. TARS, the mission’s AI assistant who serves as Cooper’s interlocutor during his revelatory time in the tesseract, doesn’t understand. He asks Cooper why he thinks transmitting the crucial quantum data to the ten-year-old Murph will work. “Love, TARS. Love,” Cooper responds. Love, as it is pointed out in another scene, is the “one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space.” Here, Cooper essentially recants his prior frustration with humanity. Love and a yearning for home prove to be much more powerful than a desire for adventure. He is an explorer, a pioneer, and yet all he truly wants is to be his daughter’s caretaker. Among the stars, he yearns for his place in the dirt.
This reorientation of Cooper’s desires strikes me as echoing something deeply Christian. The first humans were, after all, caretakers. They were tasked with the high calling of tending a garden, caring for the earth and its inhabitants, having dominion, and ruling justly in a way that imaged the God that created them out of the dust of that very earth. It was only after being cast out of that garden because of sin that we became explorers and pioneers—not out of curiosity, but out of necessity. Everywhere outside of the Garden of Eden was unknown territory. Likewise, the Endurance‘s mission is a kind of exodus from the doomed planet Earth. Cast out of their original paradise due to the consequences of their own actions (in this case, a climate crisis), humanity takes to the wilderness of a different galaxy to find a new home. If they can’t find a planet flowing with milk and honey, they’ll settle for breathable air and the presence of water. The previous mission sent out twelve scientists to different planets—like the twelve Israelite spies scoping out Canaan—in search of this hoped-for promised land.
Interstellar’s plot trajectory is “onward and upward,” but zoom in on Cooper and you’ll find a man desperate to get back to his dusty, failing farm to be reunited with his children. Cooper’s love for his children pulls him backwards even as the Endurance continues to catapult farther and farther away. On their journey, fellow astronaut Amelia Brand tells Cooper, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable and powerful. It has to mean something.” When Cooper responds with a bland answer about evolutionary social utility, Brand pushes back: “Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension we can’t consciously perceive.” Brand is touching on something fundamental here. She understands that love—something in the realm of poets rather than physicists—is a strong enough force that it must be reckoned with in order to save the population. She and Cooper have been tasked with a fundamentally salvific act, and she’s asserting they cannot do it without love.
A banishment from what was once paradise, a difficult journey in an unfamiliar realm, a salvation effort with impossible odds, motivated by love… Sound familiar?
For all this quasi-theology, Interstellar is adamant in its assertion that humanity is alone in its salvation efforts. The film is haunted by “them,” mysterious beings referenced throughout as the ones guiding the humans on this mission to save the race. It’s not until one of the most mind-bending scenes in the film when we finally learn who “they” are. As Coop drifts through the five-dimensional tesseract, he realizes, “They didn’t bring us here at all. We brought ourselves.” “They” are not the kind of otherworldly life forms we’ve been imagining, like benevolent E.T.s, but rather a form of humanity from the distant future evolved to live in all five dimensions. Despite leaning on an outside force for guidance and deliverance, a hope “from another place” (Esther 4:14), Interstellar ultimately concludes that humans are finally, totally, desperately alone. We are our own best chance. If we are truly all we have, then the best we can hope for is an ending like Cooper’s. The reunion between Cooper and Murph happens not how it ought, back home with ten-year-old Murph running into her father’s arms, but instead on a strange, Earth-like, cylindrically-distorted space station near Saturn with Murph lying in a hospital bed near death, many decades older than her father. This is a similitude of deliverance, a contrived promised land, a home that looks more like a tent in the wilderness.
As he sends the Endurance off into the wormhole, the aging Dr. Brand exhorts them with the words of the Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The irony is palpable: Brand knows he’s sending this team out under false pretenses—he has no hope of “Plan A” working or of seeing any of the team members (including his own daughter) ever again. Abandoning both the planet and the people of Earth appears to be the only hope for humanity’s survival. His salvation effort includes no hope of homecoming and is devoid of the love his daughter later speaks of. I’m reminded instead of another poem. “And for all this,” Gerard Manley Hopkins insists, “nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” Hopkins gives his reason for this hope against hope: “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Interstellar doesn’t quite tell the whole story. In reality, the “them” guiding us to safety in the wilderness isn’t just our own intuition or future selves, but the Triune God. His love is a love that returns. He’s been in the business of delivering his people from doom for quite some time now. He has love not only for us but for the very earth we dwell on—something evident in the creation account, in the covenants regarding the Promised Land, and in Jesus’s promise to build his kingdom here, on Earth, among us. Our aching for home will not be fulfilled in a half-baked way like the space station replica of Earth, but fully. The very soil on which we trod will be redeemed from the curse it has borne for so long. Because the Holy Ghost does brood over our bent world, we have a hope beyond ourselves. Our hope is Jesus, and he is bringing us into a good land, flowing with milk and honey. He is the only one who can truly say to us Cooper’s words to Murph: “I love you forever. And I’m coming back.”