Krish Kandiah: Five big questions raised by Interstellar

Christopher Nolan is a visionary filmmaker famous for producing intelligent blockbusters such as Inception and the Batman Trilogy. His latest ambitious project is a sci-fi space-travel epic clocking in at nearly three hours. With a budget of $165 million and an all-star cast, it is not surprising that it is already a big box office hit. But beyond entertainment, the film also explores some big questions.

I went to see the film the same day space history was made when the European Space Agency landed a space probe on a comet 500 million km away from earth. With the gap between space science fiction and scientific space reality ever narrowing, these questions carry extra weight. The following reflections do not include any spoilers – no information given will exceed what is revealed in the trailers.

1. Can our planet sustain us?

The set up for Interstellar is yet another dystopian future. This time it is not a plague, an alien invasion or a meteor that threatens humanity's fragile existence, but a global food shortage. Farmers have become the world's heroes and the central character is a retired astronaut-turned-agriculturalist: Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. Interstellar raises important questions for us as a planet with a population now well over seven billion. Are our food sources resilient enough to feed our population? 

Unfortunately the movie raises the issue of global hunger by focusing on a US family in the Midwest. A film about people starving in Sudan or a family forced to scavenge for food on the rubbish tips of Manila would probably not have been as compelling. Global hunger is already an issue in our world affecting over 800 million people each day, but it seems it is only a crisis when the USA is threatened – this betrays the myopia of our western culture to poverty.

Environmentalist George Monbiot has criticised the film for not mentioning climate change for fear of upsetting a US audience. It reminds us that Hollywood's sensibilities do not just determine how a film plays in the USA, but how the global movie-going audience is continually shaped by an America-centric view of the world. 

Having raised the challenge of our planet's inadequate resources, the film's solution is not global co-operation. Nor, surprisingly, does the hope of the entire planet rest on the shoulders of a single white hero, as in so many other Hollywood apocalyptic scenarios.

"We are not meant to save the world, we are meant to leave it"
Professor Brand

The film takes a strange ecological approach. We have consumed our world so we now need to move on and consume a new one. Monbiot recognises that this is actually not a new theme – it also lies at the heart of other exodus science fiction plotlines such as Battlestar Galactica, Red Planet and even Superman. Where has this idea come from? How widely held is it the view that it doesn't matter how badly we pillage our planet's resources? As Christians we must ensure that the subtleties of the film do not either blind us to the reality of food shortage crises around the world, or the responsibility to care for our planet and its people.

2. Is time travel possible?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Interstellar is going to raise questions about time travel. Cooper needs to make a big decision: leave his family in order to save them or stay on earth and lose his family to the impending doom. His decision to go sets up the rest of the movie. But will his 10-year-old daughter ever see him again? If Cooper and his astronaut crew are going to have to travel to another star system thousands of light years away, it is going to take a long time to get there. Even if they use some kind of cryogenic suspension, surely the people of earth will be long dead before the mission ever gets back. Alternatively the crew needs access to some kind of clever "faster than light" drive, teleportation technology or a wormhole phenomenon. Here's where relativity theory kicks in. Astrophysicists predict that if someone travels at speeds approaching the speed of light then time is experienced differently. Time will pass more slowly for the person travelling than for their family left behind on the earth. So an hour for the astronauts might be a decade back on earth. So how far and fast will Cooper go, and how old would his daughter be if he ever came back? As you can imagine this leads to some interesting dilemmas.

Christians too often wrestle with similar paradoxes as we believe in a God who is outside of time – he is the Alpha and the Omega and sees the end and the beginning – and yet chooses to experience and travel through time with us so we can relate to him. We try to understand how it is possible he could break into human history and die for all the world – for both those who have already lived, and those yet to live. We wrestle with the question of whether our actions make a difference if the end is already seen and known, and even planned, by God. We wrestle with the prophecies of the Bible, the promise of an eternal life with a new heaven and a new earth, and conducting a relationship with the unseen God of all time who made the stars and yet counts the hairs on our heads.

3. Is science objective?

Interstellar raises some important questions about the nature of science. There is a myth that argues that science is purely objective; it helps us to know hard facts about the universe. But Nolan is keen to undermine this myth. Key decisions in the plot hang on the idea that human beings are far from objective and thus any kind of science we embark on is going to be influenced by human nature.

This echoes reality. When I was a medicinal chemistry student I discovered how research funding works. While malaria was killing far more people per day than AIDS, a lot more money was being poured into AIDS drug research than finding a cure for malaria. AIDS was a better financial investment for the big pharmacological companies than malaria, because more Western people were dying of AIDS than malaria and Western people can afford to pay more for their medicines.

In Interstellar the pressure to fake results, choose personally advantageous research and to lie about mathematical research is a powerful apologetic for the subjective nature of science. Too often militant atheism clings to the objectivity of science as a means to attack what they see as the subjectivity of Christian faith. Nolan delivers a demolishing critique of this view.

4. Is science opposed to spirituality?

In an interview for TIME magazine both the female leads in the movie argue that there is a direct link between spirituality and science. Jessica Chastain who plays Cooper's daughter Murph, an astrophysicist with outstanding mathematical and computational powers, says of her character:

"She's protected by the numbers... It's an obsession for her. It's a way not to feel, and it's how she realises that science and spiritual world are the same thing."

Over the centuries Christians have been at the heart of major scientific work and see their faith providing the motivation for it. For example Blaise Pascale, who invented calculus, Gregor Mendel the geneticist, Michael Faraday, the physicist famous for his work on electricity and magnetism, and Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society.

Anne Hathaway, who plays Brand, the chief scientist on the Interstellar mission, has been quoting Albert Einstein in her interviews: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science in blind." The best science recognises human beings as more than just collections of cells. It values a holistic approach to human identity that has room for the contribution that spirituality plays in human flourishing. The best approaches to faith recognise that humanity was created to explore, experiment, discover and reflect on creation. Christianity has played a major role in the formation of the scientific method of the Western world and science has contributed huge advancements that can help the Church play its part in God's plans for the universe. Let's pray for a clear sighted Church and an agile and active science that draw on the best of each other.

5. Is love real?

Cooper faces a huge existential challenge. He is presented with an opportunity to do what he has been training for his whole life: to pilot a spacecraft. But will he leave his daughter to pursue his dream? Will he be able to put the needs of humanity above the needs of his own family? Cooper faces the challenge of so many parents – what do we do outside of the house in order to help those in our household to flourish. The interplay in Interstellar between the cosmic and the domestic is one of the film's enduring charms. It's all very well seeing Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk risk their lives to save the galaxy – it's another to see a single dad make those tough choices. With the father-daughter bond acting as the movie's emotional centre the film raises some huge questions about the nature of love. At a very significant point in the movie - in a speech that has received mixed reviews - Ann Hathaway's character states:

"Love isn't something we invented. It's observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space."

You can watch the movie for yourself to discover just how important this idea is to the plot. But suffice to say Nolan has been asking interesting questions about what really motivates human beings. In the face of huge technological changes, ecological disaster and even interstellar travel, Nolan presents a powerful apologetic for love being the centre of human existence.

This idea resonates with the Christian faith which has always held that love is key to the universe because God is love. God creates humanity to love him and love one another and when humanity fails to love as we were designed to, God doesn't give up on humanity and look for a new planet to love. God instead takes the initiative in the supreme act of love which was the sacrificing of his son Jesus to live, die and resurrect for the sake of a lost world. For those that respond to God's love there is the invitation to be adopted into God's family and to live a life of love towards God and a world in need.

Interstellar is not a perfect movie. It has some awkward moments and a somewhat enigmatic resolution. The seventies style aesthetic with strong references to Kubrik's 2001 A Space Odyssey will not appeal to everyone. Nolan's vision has some very innovative features and I especially liked the walking metal Kitkat robots. Interstellar is not a Christian movie but certainly raises questions that Christians ought to wrestle with and could act as a conversational bridge for useful discussions about life and faith. Go and see it, enjoy the ride and some of its mind stretching ideas.

Dr Krish Kandiah is the president of London School of Theology, the largest interdenominational, evangelical theological college in Europe. He is also the founder of Home for Good, a start-up charity helping to find adoptive and foster homes for children in the care system.