Is Interstellar actually about the dangers of scientism?
By Focus on the Family
When the Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar hit the big screens last year there was a lot of conjecture about what exactly the central theme of the movie really was.
The majority of commentary I saw floating around (no pun intended) seemed to take the position that it was a film about how, in the end, it is actually love that will save that world - a message which many seemed to consider a rather lame or cliched one for such a gargantuan (again, no pun intended) spectacle.
I think that this misses the point though, and it fails to see the amazing thematic depth that Nolan has embedded into this, his spectacular homage to Stanley Kubrick (go and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you'll see what I mean!)
Yes, there is definitely a message about love in Interstellar, just not a hackneyed pop song lyric version like 'love will save the day.'
Instead the theme of this movie, in true Nolan style, is much more complex and nuanced.
At it's heart, Interstellar is really a film about the arrogance of scientism, and the many dangers that it presents to mankind.
Scientism, to quote Wikipedia, is the belief that "empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints."
Don't believe me? Just consider the following aspects of this film:
Firstly, one of the opening scenes in the movie involves the lead character Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) salvaging a downed military drone. As he is removing the power cells from the dilapidated drone he tells his kids that by salvaging and repurposing this military technology to power their farm machinery instead they are "giving it something more socially responsible to do".
In other words: scientific knowledge and the technology that this yields is not enough - what we do with that knowledge and the resulting technology matters just as much, and that's where science comes to an end and ethics, virtue and love have to be part of the equation as well.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, Cooper is not a luddite, or someone who is anti-science, far from it. In fact, in the very next scene he sternly rebukes a school teacher who tries to tell him that the moon landings were a political hoax designed to trick the Soviets into bankruptcy (something that is taught to children in the school textbooks in this film) - in the process of doing this he makes mention of the beneficial medical technology that the scientific advances of the NASA missions brought about for humanity.
Throughout the rest of the film, Nolan continually returns to this theme of science and its limits, and the dangers that arise from scientism - an ideology which effectively creates a massive and very dangerous blindspot for humanity.
After one of the crew members is killed, due to some unforeseen circumstances, mission scientist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) sorrowfully mutters to herself: "I thought I was prepared. I knew theory, reality's different."
Then not long after this scene, we see another one of Cooper and Brand discussing the question of what love is.
Cooper states that the meaning of love is found in "social utility, social bonding, child rearing" - to which Brand retorts: "we love people who have died, where's the social utility in that? Maybe it means something more, or something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive... love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it yet."
Then there is the chief NASA scientist in charge of the mission to save humanity, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who builds his entire mission on the back of a decades-long deception, a deception which needlessly tears apart Cooper's family - all because Professor Brand has placed scientific progress above basic moral goodness.
What is most interesting about this deception is that, aside from his daughter, the two other people he has deceived the most - Cooper and Cooper's daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) - are both motivated by love, and it is this love that harnesses science and technology and results in the salvation of mankind. While the cold and utilitarian scientism of Professor Brand results in a despair which leads him to abandon any hope that mankind can ever be saved.
But for me, the most glaringly obvious thematic signpost of all in Interstellar is the character of Dr. Mann.
The film is more than half finished before we actually meet Dr. Mann in person for the first time, but we are introduced to him in various moments of dialogue earlier in the movie, and one of the recurring things we are told about Dr. Mann is that he is "the best of us [scientists]".
The very first time we are told about Dr. Mann, and how he is "remarkable" and "the best of us", is during a conversation between Amelia Brand and Cooper, and immediately following this glowing introduction of Dr. Mann, Amelia Brand says: "That's what I love; you know out there we face great odds, death, but not evil," to which Cooper knowingly replies; "Just what we take with us then?"
This utterance from Cooper turns out to be a prophetic foreshadowing of what unfolds later in the film when Dr. Mann - "the best" and greatest of the scientific community - turns out to be the chief villain of the film, and someone who is literally willing to resort to murder, the most evil act of all, in order to achieve his scientific mission.
Interestingly, Dr. Mann, the greatest scientist mind of all, has all sorts of technology and knowledge at his disposal yet he lacks one fundamental thing: basic human connection and community - he lives an existence incapable of giving or receiving love due to its isolation, and it is this lack of love (not a lack of scientific knowledge or technology) that is the root of the evil that he subsequently unleashes in the film. In this particular aspect, Interstellar echoes the thought of Augustine, who once described evil as the absence of good.
So, in summary, Interstellar is a film where the two main villains are two of the greatest scientific minds of their era, both of whom are motivated by a desire to achieve a good outcome, and both have a commitment to science above all else - yet despite all this, and in the name of progress, they perpetrate great evils.
The main heroes of the movie, on the other hand, are all motivated by love (Cooper, Murph and Amelia Brand) - a love that is willing to accept the limits of science, and to view science and progress merely as a means to an end rather than the ultimate goal for which all else must be sacrificed.
The other interesting thing to note is that the love which motives our heroes is spousal (in the case of Amelia Brand) and familial (in the case of Copper and Murph) in nature - this is not some sort of syrupy greeting card imitation of love, instead it is an authentic love of self-sacrifice and self-abandonment to others.
I am a huge fan of Nolan's cinematic abilities, and as far as I am concerned, Interstellar is another filmic masterpiece from him. However I'm not sure that its true thematic depth will be fully appreciated by the majority for a while yet - like all good artists who use their creative gifts to speak profoundly to the issues of their age, sometimes it takes a while to appreciate just how important that message really was.