Monday, December 1, 2014

Artificial Gravitas

Born and raised a Bible-believing Christian, the only post-earth scenario I've ever seriously entertained involves a new heaven and earth of God's creation. I wouldn't say exactly that I'm comfortable with this scenario, as anything earth-shattering is inherently discomfiting, but it sure beats the secular alternative I encountered in places like my astronomy textbook.  I remember the author droning on with scholarly detachment about the inevitable burnout of the sun and the ensuing end of all life – the nihilist eschaton. I imagine the normal secular response to such a depressing future to be something akin to John Maynard Keynes' famous shrug: "in the long run, we're all dead." But the more optimistic of the secularists turn to science fiction, projecting their trust in the power of the human mind, whether manifested in technology or evolved intelligence, to furnish a new heaven and earth.

The Nolan brothers (the brains behind Memento, Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy) with Interstellar have provided the latest secularist entry into the optimist's column.  Sure the world's ending - an infectious blight wiping out our crops and turning the earth into a vast dust bowl - but there's a way out.  Some mysterious force, alien perhaps, has opened a wormhole in Saturn's backyard, offering a shortcut to a host of new habitable planets.  With new friends like these, who needs an old-fashioned deity like the Lord of Heaven and Earth?  To answer heaven's new call, a heroic band of scientists and astronauts take up the mantle of Moses and set out in search of a new promised land. Of course to perform the miraculous feat of launching earth's remaining millions into space, our heroes need some additional guidance from their mysterious friends.  This help can only be found in a close encounter with a black hole, which serves as a sort of inverted burning bush.

The many parallels to Exodus are not coincidental. Interstellar is a powerful new voice in a familiar chorus of secular prophets calling the West out of the bondage of Christian ideology.  Not that Interstellar directly attacks any Christian doctrine - the plagues have already been meted out on Christian hegemony by earlier generations of culture warriors.  All that remains is to offer the people a new faith to comfort them.  Thus, Interstellar looks forward, articulating a 3rd stage replacement theology, with the species taking the place of the Christian church and super-evolved transdimensional beings filling God's shoes.

In taking such a positive, constructive role, Interstellar wisely avoids a direct confrontation with Christianity, a conflict that mired its ideological relative Contact (incidentally starring a younger Matthew McConaughey as the smarmy liberal peacemaker between faith and science) in Baby Boomer preachiness.  The Nolan brothers also sidestep the alienating art house vibe of 2001: A Space Odyssey by grounding the cosmic stakes in a heartwarming father-daughter relationship that literally transcends space and time.

Forcing a feel-good narrative into the core of a black hole greatly diminishes the awesome and terrifying grandeur of outer space, much like the Cuarons largely neutered space with the imposition of a stock Sandra Bullock character arc on Gravity. Or, on the extreme end of the Hollywood spectrum, how Michael Bay and his collaborators turned Armageddon into a work of high camp. Still, the Nolans are defter screenwriters than the Cuarons and Christopher Nolan is infinitely more serious a craftsman than Bay, so much of the violence to logic and ideological coherence has been better disguised.  It’s artificial gravitas – not quite as powerful as the real article, but not as lightweight as the hackery that is so dominant in modern Hollywood. More importantly, it palliates the optimistic longings of the human heart while suspending the thoroughly justified disbelief of the human mind.

At heart, the Nolans are meticulous, highly skilled entertainers and careless ideologues – ideas are to them as magic to a magician.  Whereas Kubrick and Clarke used space as a grand canvas on which to paint their atheistic vision of life, the universe and everything, the Nolans pull rabbits out of wormholes. Yet the bent of the artist matters less than the content of his work, and Interstellar, for all its sacrifices to sentimentality and artifice, ultimately worships at the same bogus altar of human technology and evolution. Indeed, by pandering skillfully to the tastes of the common man, Interstellar outdoes its predecessors as an apostle, reaching into the heartland passed over by the elitist 2001 and maligned by the belligerent Contact.

Interstellar offers a more entertaining and hopeful endgame for humanity than my old astronomy textbook, but the entertainment is fleeting and the hope is false.  A sober examination of infinite space will yield one of two images, both of them terrible to behold: the face of almighty God or an abyss of nothingness.  The secular Interstellar, unwilling to acknowledge the face of God yet shirking the nihilism of the black hole, settles for smoke and mirrors.