Sentimental distance

Perhaps the most incisive critique of Interstellar contends that the film itself submits to error much too enthusiastically. This critique concerns its recourse to maudlin dialogue expressing bald sentimentality. This seems to be not only a gesture typical of Hollywood filmmaking, but also opposed to the scientific outlook that makes the exploration that the film depicts possible. The sentimentality comes to a head after the disaster of the water planet that leaves the surviving astronauts with the decision of which of the two remaining planets they should visit—Wolf Edmunds’s planet or Dr. Mann’s. Dr. Brand argues for visiting Wolf Edmunds’s planet instead of Dr. Mann’s on the basis of the insight that her love for Edmunds gives her. This sentimentality also bombards the spectator through the relationship between the father Cooper and his daughter Murph. While the otherwise scientific Dr. Brand goes so far as to suggest that love provides a connection across the barriers of space and time, Cooper’s communication to Murph actually does transcend spatial and temporal barriers.

The panegyric to love that Interstellar employs appears to mark a departure from its speculative insights and to return it to the terrain of the typical film in which love solves otherwise intractable contradictions. The spectator could be excused for thinking that she or he had temporarily stumbled into Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) or Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1990) while listening to Dr. Brand proclaim the power of love. According to the sentimental version of love, it provides a harmonious connection that overcomes our individual isolation. In a universe that contains love, existential solitude is not our destiny. But love in Interstellar bears little resemble to this sentimental version. It does not simply accomplish the transcendence of distance and isolation but relies on them as well. Love requires absence and rupture in order to emerge as a connection, and this absence remains integral to the connection that it forges.

Each iteration of love in Interstellar centers on absence or rupture. In order to express his love for Murph by transcending time and space, Cooper must first leave her. Murph experiences his departure as a complete betrayal, and she despises Cooper for what he does (especially after she learns about Professor Brand’s lie and assumes Cooper’s complicity in it). This initial betrayal plays a central role in making the connection between Cooper and Murph evident. Cooper can communicate with Murph in the Tesseract only if he has previously abandoned her on Earth. But even the miraculous communication in the Tesseract that spans time and space reveals the necessity of an obstacle for love to articulate itself.

The Tesseract does not allow Cooper to talk to Murph or communicate with her directly in any fashion. It facilitates only indirect communication.[25] Cooper must knock books off Murph’s bookshelf and manipulate the second hand of her watch in order to send her messages. His love for Murph requires the barrier of the bedroom wall and the mediation of Morse code to express itself. If he could speak to her directly, it would not appear as an act of love, and Nolan’s film usually highlights the barrier in its depiction of love. The barrier that creates absence is not opposed to love but a constitutive part of it.

The scenes of reunion that conclude the film further this idea. When Cooper finally sees Murph again, she is a dying old woman, and when Dr. Brand arrives at Wolf Edmunds’s planet, he is already dead. There are no harmonious reunions in Interstellar, and absence remains attached to love through the end of the film. This separates it definitively from Pretty Woman and Sleepless in Seattle. As Nolan’s film shows, love for the dying and the dead is not simply an extension of love for the living but the paradigmatic form of love. After Dr. Brand’s plea for her fellow astronauts to follow her insights based on love, Cooper objects, “Love has meaning, yes—social utility, child rearing.” The film cuts back to Dr. Brand, whose counterargument is revelatory. She says, “We love people who are dead. Where’s the social utility in that?” This statement encapsulates the film’s conception of love: rather than serving social utility, love connects us to what is absent, and this absence is the stimulus for it. When one loves, one loves what is not there. Even when Cooper finally connects with Murphy in the Tesseract through his love for her, this love requires a barrier in order to manifest itself. The Tesseract, which operates through love, shows that love requires distance.[26] [open endnotes in new window] Love is the fiction that enables us to overcome absence while remaining within it. This is why Hegel begins his intellectual career by thinking that love might provide the basis for an entire philosophy.

In his early thought, Hegel gives love an ontological place. It has the power to elide spatial and temporal difference, to forge identity within difference. Though later Hegel will come to see contradiction as absolute, love stands at this point in his trajectory as a way of overcoming contradiction. But even here, love requires the difference that it overcomes. In a fragment from his Early Theological Writings, Hegel explains,

“love completely destroys objectivity and thereby annuls and transcends reflection, deprives man’s opposite of all foreign character, and discovers life itself without any further defect. In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate.”[27]

Hegel’s final sentence expresses an ambiguity that nicely captures the idea of love: the separate both remains separate and isn’t separate at the same time. But this statement about love nonetheless represents an unsustainable position for Hegel philosophically, which is why his mature thought departs from it.

The problem occurs with the claim that love “discovers life without any further defect.” As Interstellar shows (and Hegel’s later philosophy emends), love doesn’t erase the defect but embraces it. Love is itself an impurity that depends on our defects—our inability to be present—in order to emerge. If Dr. Brand and Wolf Edmunds had a connection without a defect, Dr. Brand would never have to articulate it to Romilly and Cooper. The heroism of love coincides with an embrace of one’s impurity. What gives love its ethical status is that it highlights rather than obscures our defects.

The absent hero

Christopher Nolan’s films notoriously obscure their ethical center. One of the primary ways that they mislead spectators is by presenting a hero in whom the spectator can invest only to reveal that the film’s ethical center lies elsewhere, that the investment has been misplaced. This center is usually not the focus of the filmic narrative nor the ostensible hero. Most often, the ethical center appears as an alternative to the ostensible hero and his mode of existence. The examples of this figure extend from Leonard Shelby’s wife (Jorja Fox) in Memento (2000) to the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (2008) to Mal (Marion Cotillard) in Inception (2010). The ostensible hero rejects the path that these figures offer, but this rejection reveals that the main focus of the narrative should not in fact be the source of our investment.

The ostensible hero in Interstellar is not a serial killer like Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento or a sophisticated deceiver like Cobb in Inception. He is a much more sympathetic figure. Cooper, the ostensible hero of Interstellar, displays genuine heroism in the film. He volunteers to fly through a wormhole into another galaxy with slim odds of surviving in order to find a new home for humanity. And he ultimately communicates the solution to the problem of gravity to his daughter on Earth, which enables her to help all its inhabitants.

Cooper himself feeds the illusion that he is the hero. Before he leaves on the voyage, he tells Murph, “I can’t be your ghost now. I need to exist. They chose me.” Events in the film give weight to Cooper’s statement here. They perpetuate the idea that Cooper is the chosen one, the hero who can rescue humanity. When he performs the visually remarkable docking with the spinning Endurance as it plunges to the atmosphere of Dr. Mann’s planet, it seems that his estimation of himself is correct, but the film subsequently gives the lie to this idea.

Cooper has a momentary recognition in the Tesseract that Murph is the real hero. He says to himself, “They didn’t choose me. They chose her.” But when he awakens the space station orbiting around Saturn, he forgets this insight and returns to thinking of himself as the hero. He learns that he is aboard a structure entitled “Cooper Station,” and when he expresses appreciation for it being named after him, his doctor chuckles to himself and informs him that it is named after his daughter, Murphy Cooper. Murph, not Cooper, is the real hero of Interstellar because she exhibits fidelity to the fiction and thus to making the impossible possible. For Nolan, this is the ethical act.

Murph’s commitment to the fiction appears in the film’s first spoken line. We hear her say, “My dad was a farmer.” While it is true that Cooper was a farmer, he never sees himself in this way and actually detested farming. Her fiction about his love for farming leads a curator to construct a replica of the family farm on Cooper Station for him, and when Cooper sees his dying daughter again, he asks rhetorically, “You told them that I loved farming?” This seemingly unimportant joke on Murph’s part actually gives us crucial insight into her character and to the status that she accords to fiction.[29] It is her commitment to the fiction that leads to the discovery that rescues humanity.

Nolan’s depiction of Murph’s discovery makes clear the nature of her heroism. It resides in her ability to submerge herself entirely in the problem without any skepticism about the possibility of finding a solution. This absence of skepticism manifests itself through the formal structure surrounding her discovery. When we see Murph on Earth, she remains devoted to the discovery of a solution and refuses to accept the barrier of impossibility that Professor Brand accepts. When Murph finds the solution to the equation that will enable humans to use gravity to leave Earth, Nolan shows her in a montage sequence working feverishly. As she announces the solution to the other scientists at the NASA base, she tosses her papers in the air and proclaims, “Eureka,” echoing Einstein’s famous statement of discovery. This is the point at which Nolan raises the level of the music to obscure her words and to show that her heroism stems from her exaggerated commitment to the problem.

Nolan further indicates Murph’s heroism by juxtaposing her efforts to save her brother’s family and to discover the solution to the problem of gravity against Dr. Mann’s attempt to maroon Cooper and Dr. Brand on his desolate planet. As Cooper learns about Dr. Mann’s betrayal of the mission, the film cuts back to Murph driving away from the family farm after failing to convince her brother Tom (Casey Affleck) to leave for the sake of his sick child. Dr. Mann provides false comfort to Cooper by assuring him, “You’ve not alone,” and repeating the Dylan Thomas poem Mann says, “Do not go gentle into that good night” as he walks away and leaves Cooper to suffocate. Through Dr. Mann says, “I’m here for you,” while Cooper dies, Mann can’t tolerate the suffering and turns off the speaker in his helmet. At this point, the film cuts to Murph turning her jeep into the family cornfield, where she will set fire to the corn in order to force Tom to leave.

The sequence depicts the contrast between the film’s most ignominious character and the film’s hero. Dr. Mann presents himself as someone who understands the difficult truths that others cannot face about the importance of the species and the unimportance of the individual, but he constantly acts in ways that threaten the survival of the species because he refuses to sacrifice himself. Murph’s juxtaposed act of setting fire to the farm saves her brother’s family, though it earns her his hatred. She puts her own well-being at stake because she sees that this is the only possible way to counteract a seemingly intractable force (her brother’s stubbornness). But most of the heroism that Murph displays is not physical heroism, as it is in this case. It is literary.

Heroism in Interstellar is not flying oneself into space but learning how to read. The film begins with a travelling shot depicting dust falling on Murph’s bookcase, and this bookcase provides the key to escaping the deadly dust. Murph first learns to read the messages that Cooper sends her from the future through the falling books, and then she solves the problem of gravity by interpreting the Morse code that he uses on her watch. These interpretations provide the basis for the rescue of humanity. The act of interpretation is the heroic act because it changes the terrain of the situation. The proper interpretation transforms gravity from being what chains us to place to being a lever for emancipation from place.

The editing of the film contrasts Murph and Dr. Mann, but the ability to read well separates Murph from the film’s other misguided character—Professor Brand. Though Professor Brand organizes the entire operation to rescue humanity and constructs the fiction that makes the project possible, the distance that he takes up toward his own fiction renders him, in the words of his daughter, “monstrous.” We know Professor Brand as a reader through the poem that he repeats, the lines from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Though Dr. Mann’s invocation of this same poem while trying to kill Cooper undermines it in the film, the poem is sufficiently suspect on its own, and Professor Brand’s affection for it reveals his limitations as a reader.

The problem with Thomas’s poem is that it articulates a straightforward imperative that doesn’t place any interpretive burden on the reader or listener. Everyone knows that the poem is trying to say, and its simple meter doesn’t add any challenge for the interpreter. Of course, we shouldn’t grade poems higher for unnecessary obscurity—T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” isn’t a great poem just because it takes intensive study to make sense of it—but the significance of a poem derives from the distortion that it creates in language. A poem interrupts our everyday relation to language even if it does so in everyday language, and this forces us to rethink the situation in which we find ourselves. Interpreting a poem is itself an act of changing one’s life, as Rilke once put it in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” A poem that doesn’t require interpretation doesn’t transform the interpreter’s relation to language or way of thinking about her or his situation. Desire, like love, demands indirection.

Even as a child, Murph (as far as we can see) does not have a book containing this poem on her bookshelf. Instead, she takes on interpretive projects that involve her in a significant distortion and thus require a transformative act of interpretation. The fact that the film begins with a bookcase is not insignificant: one can discover emancipation only through learning how to read properly, and this requires reading apparently indecipherable texts. Murph demonstrates an interpretive ability that outstrips that of all the other characters in the film, and it is this ability that constitutes the basis of her heroism. The fiction emancipates us from place, but one must interpret the fiction in order to actualize this emancipation.

Interstellar is a film about emancipation and the difficulties that confront it. The film takes the side of Hegel’s insistence on the emancipatory rupture from place against Heidegger’s attempted fidelity to it. Gravity is the chief obstacle in the film because it holds humanity in place. But if gravity is an obstacle, it also embodies possibility: gravity makes it possible for humanity to escape the inhospitable Earth and find a new planet. Because gravity has the power to hold humans in place on Earth, it also has the capacity to emancipate them from place. Such dialectical reversals are only possible through the magic of interpretation. Once Murph interprets gravity in the proper way, its emancipatory valence undergoes a complete transformation.

Throughout its running time, Interstellar, like Hegel’s philosophy, asks us to undertake a radical reconsideration of our obstacles. Instead of conceiving of obstacle as a barrier to be overcome or eliminated, we must see the obstacle as the site for our own emancipation. This is why the film begins with books and foregrounds fiction. The creation and interpretation of fictions change the nature of the problems that we confront. When one reconciles oneself with contradiction through the interpretive act—what I take to be the task of Hegel’s philosophy—one discovers that the problem is its own solution.[30] But in order to see that the problem is its own solution, one requires a fiction in order to transform the structure of the problem and render the solution visible. Interstellar demands that we rethink emancipation through the lens of what constrains us.