Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Pope Francis

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Since its premiere in October 2014, there has been more than a little debate about whether or not Interstellar is a “religious” film. Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus claims that, for all of its metaphysical interests, Interstellar never really addresses the question of God — an omission that he contrasts with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), another sci-fi film that clearly broaches religious themes as it braces for its dénoument. And yet, Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson calls Interstellar an “inescapably (r)eligious film,” as does Megan Garber of The Atlantic, who considers it an exploration into “the spiritual implications of space.” What gives?

Part of the issue, doubtless, has to do with what counts as “religious” in today’s increasingly secular culture. For, as Wilkinson and Garber note, the very plot of Interstellar bears concerns that can’t help but raise questions about the destiny of human beings and the role of the supernatural therein. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph “Coop” Cooper, an astronaut and scientist, who is led by a series of uncanny experiences to a secret NASA plant. There he learns that the crop blight plaguing the Earth will not abate and that he is to head an expedition to a wormhole near Saturn, where, it is hoped, he will find a new planet for the Earth’s population or, at the very least, a place where several thousand human embryos can be raised and the human race preserved. Preceding him in this endeavor are twelve other persons, and, while a number of them are presumed dead, three have sent back encouraging feedback about planets near a black hole, Gargantua. Though torn — Coop is leaving behind a family, including his intelligent yet fragile young daughter, Murph — he agrees to lead the mission and leaves with a small crew of scientists and robots. The journey to the wormhole alone will take roughly two dozen years in Earth time, and Coop is unsure if he’ll ever see his family again.

Already, then, a key theological question is indicated: what, if anything, binds human beings to the Earth? And, in Interstellar, an answer is given: nothing. Indeed, the film might be fairly characterized as anthropocentric. Human beings are in charge of their own destiny, and so not only can the Earth be left behind, but there is no reason to be attached to it. It’s just the “rock” where humanity got its (accidental?) start and, sensu stricto, is in no way preferable to any other planet. But this is a far cry from the biblical account of creation, which was recently emphasized in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si. As he writes:

The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Of course, Francis’ reading is in line with Catholic orthodoxy, to which Nolan need not adhere. And yet, one might wonder just what is lost in the transition from the older, Catholic perspective to Nolan’s more Darwinian approach. If human beings are not, in a certain sense, bound to the Earth, then why should they care for it? Perhaps human development, following the law of evolution, will ultimately transcend what the Earth can provide, and so the planet should simply be stripped of its resources and discarded as a sign of “progress”? This viewpoint is not explicitly stated in Interstellar, but it is telling that, in one scene, Coop laments how human beings have wasted too much time “staring in the dirt,” rather than seeking their place in the stars.

In any case, as the film moves on, the plot becomes as cumbersome as the imagery sublime. Coop’s crew lands on a number of potentially habitable planets, including one whose gravitational force results in recurring (and destructive) tidal waves:

Moreover, due to gravitational time dilation, Coop’s experience in space is occurring at a startlingly quick rate in Earth-time. Murph is now an adult, working with NASA to find an equation that might harness gravity. Her efforts have proven unsuccessful, but then something unexpected occurs. Coop plunges his ship into Gargantua, only to emerge into a tesseract wherein he is capable of interacting with multiple dimensions of reality. Thus he is able to transcend spacetime and to communicate with Murph through gravity waves — a discovery that dovetails with the uncanny experiences that inaugurate the film. Eventually, the tesseract collapses and, in a whir of color and light (which suggests Nolan’s fondness for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Coop finds himself in a space station orbiting Saturn, where he is reunited with the now elderly Murph. The mission to save humankind has proven successful, but, just as importantly, Coop has been reunited with his daughter.

Here, again, Interstellar skirts up against various theological issues. For example, Coop’s ability to outstrip the normal limitations of human nature (finitude, temporality, perhaps even mortality), not to mention his “second coming” at film’s end, suggest godlike status — a point arguably intimated by his initials, J.C. And yet, Coop’s powers are not conferred by a deity, nor are they intrinsic to his nature. Rather, they were bestowed by a future human civilization, which has learned to master the very conditions that burden human beings.

In the end, then, Interstellar dares to imagine a humanity that itself has become divine. It is a theme, I suppose, that could be spun in a Christian direction. After all, as Nolan sees it, science itself is not a dispassionate discipline, motivated by objective data and perfunctory inquiry, but is driven by love — love of our children and, if not our planet, then our race. And from where, one might ask, does that love originate? Why, indeed, are we the way we are? Such questions are ripe for theological interpretation, but, as noted at the outset, Nolan doesn’t bite. Just why is a matter of speculation, though it seems safe to say that, for Nolan, it’s far more interesting to think about where humanity is going than where it came from. For when we look to the stars, not as a heavenly abode but as a world to conquer, we are able to save ourselves. And, in this conclusion, Nolan turns science into a religion unto itself.

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska, has been called a number of things — a chronicle of economic depression in rural America; a satire of Midwestern values; an ode to the stark beauty of the Great Plains; and, perhaps above all, an ideal vehicle for veteran actor, Bruce Dern. In a sense, Nebraska is each of these things. And yet, more than anything else, it is a film about compassion.

To have “compassion” is, quite literally, to “suffer with” (com-passio) with another. Thus we say that the compassionate person does not merely feel bad for one who is suffering but actually works to assuage one’s pain. It is a stance of solidarity or, better yet, the ultimate act of togetherness. After all, it is one thing to stand with a person when things are going well, but quite another when they are not.

The compassion at the heart of Nebraska involves two main characters — Woody Grant (Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte). The movie opens with Woody, disheveled and grim, hobbling along a highway in Billings, Montana. A policeman stops him, and we soon learn that Woody is trying to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, a distance of nearly 850 miles. It is a fool’s task, but it turns out that Woody is something of a fool. A naive yet strong-willed septuagenerian, he believes that he has won a sweepstakes prize from a Lincoln-based marketing agency. He wants to claim his million-dollar award, but no one will take him. His wife, Kate (a hilarious, foul-mouthed June Squibb), thinks he belongs in a nursing home, and his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is too busy trying to become “the Tom Brokaw of Billings.” That leaves his youngest son, David, who agrees to drive him, figuring, at the very least, it will get him out of Billings for a few days. And so they head east, across the Plains, which Payne’s black-and-white lens imbues with a sense of washed-out melancholy.

It is at this point that the film’s central motif emerges. As Woody continues to prove troublesome (drinking too much, wandering off, losing his teeth), David is forced to try to understand him better. Why has he so often resorted to alcohol abuse? Why is he so sullen and taciturn? And, above all, why is he so adamant that he has won one million dollars? Through a series of events, most of which center on a pitstop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, these questions are not so much solved as contemplated. David comes to see the world through Woody’s eyes, and he realizes that his father’s personality is an outgrowth of much pain and tragedy — a point that sheds light on the old man’s quixotic quest. For Woody wants to leave behind something for his family, something they (and he) will be proud of. Thus David must finish this journey with Woody, no matter how arduous or fruitless. That, indeed, is what it means to be compassionate.

Such a conclusion might suggest that David is a kind of Christ-figure, but that is not how Forte plays him. Rather, he exudes the humble, often unsure demeanor of a disciple — that is to say, of one who knows what is good and true, but also knows the struggles of adhering to it. This sort of attitude — meek yet resolute, empathic yet committed — may help illumine a recent comment by Pope Francis regarding the Church:

“We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one…”.

To see from the periphery, as he puts it, is to look outward, beyond one’s own interests. It is, in other words, to treat others with compassion, to meet them where they are, even if where they are is difficult or disappointing. According to the Pope, this sort of compassion is not a weak-kneed capitulation, but a means of redemption. Nebraska agrees.