Paradise Bound: Interstellar and the Quest for Dimensional Transcendence


In the beginning, God created Adam. Then, because Adam was lonely, God made Eve. When Eve fell, she led Adam to fall with her and God expelled them both from the garden of Eden. In the 17th Century, English poet John Milton provided his own take on the story of Adam and Eve in his epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton’s version contains moments of sympathy for God, for Eve, and even for Satan, but most poignantly for Adam.

Milton, in his own problematic, misogynist view of Original Sin, presents the idea that Adam chooses a life of companionship over a life of bliss. In other words, the idea of a lonely existence in paradise is worse than whatever could await outside the garden walls, and his decision has haunted us ever since.

I saw Christopher Nolan’s recent film Interstellar as a piece in dialogue with a number of classic science fiction films, namely Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), but also quite possibly with Milton’s interpretation of Genesis as well. 

Interstellar gives us a world in which crop disease has led to worldwide famine. After a series of fortunate events lead former-astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to the lingering remains of NASA headquarters (fortunate indeed), we learn plans of a mission to search for other planets upon which human life may be possible. Cooper accepts the mission, motivated by both his calling as a born explorer and a new found sense of duty to save the world. Cooper leaves behind his ten-year-old daughter Murph and fifteen-year-old son Tom to begin the journey of a lifetime.

Contact, like the title suggests, tells the story of first contact between modern humanity and extra-terrestrial intelligence. SETI scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) picks up a radio signal transmitted from the star Vega, and deciphers a set of instructions for constructing a transport device. Through another series of events, these less fortunate, Ellie finds herself the ambassador for a unique inter-special experience through space.

2001: A Space Odyssey covers millions of years of human existence leading up to a climactic space mission to Jupiter. Presented in a starkly clean world of pristine scientific efficiency, the film alludes to the exploration of events that occur at the hands of unseen other beings, and then chronicles one man’s odyssey “beyond the infinite.”

Whether by expulsion, invitation, or curiosity, these films propel our human travelers beyond the bounds of the known universe in an ostensible search for something greater, something better than the monotony of the familiar. But while this yearning may have prompted the initial desire to explore, these strivings give way to something deeper in all of us. Like Adam, we don’t want to be left behind, alone. Humanity chooses to forsake comfortable lives in solitude in exchange for what we hope will be a sense of greater community and connection in the great unknown.

This journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from Earth to the outer reaches of space and existence, pits two seemingly incongruous notions against each other — the feeling of wanting to leave while at the same time being afraid to go. The films characterize this dissonance by envisioning humanity’s departure beyond the known universe in ways that first confront fears of loneliness and isolation, and then present an unexpected resolution.

Humanity’s first separation is from the mother, a traumatic, life-giving event that lingers across several stages of development depending on which particular school of psychoanalysis you believe in. Regardless, the fear of separation in these films is most easily conveyed through a fear of separation from the creator. In the literal sense, humans are born of the Earth and to leave it is to leave the source of our creation. However in the more figurative sense, this comes across in the various ways that these films engage with the idea of losing or leaving behind a mother and parent, which then sublimates into a larger fear of the departure from God.

Interestingly, actual mothers are all absent from these tales. While this is an unfortunately common plot device, it is not unique to science fiction. However in these contexts, maternal absence serves an interesting role. Through crafty exposition, Cooper tells us that his wife died years earlier of a brain tumor that could have been detected had society chosen to maintain an interest in medical technology. A slightly more heavy handed dossier on Ellie reveals that her mother died while giving birth.

There isn’t much room for mothers in 2001, nor the expectation of them, but in one particularly interesting scene, Dr. Floyd teleconferences home and speaks with his young daughter (played by Kubrick’s own daughter Vivian). When Floyd asks to speak with this wife, the girl’s mother, we’re told that the woman isn’t there. Apparently neither is the baby sitter, and as far as we can tell the girl is quite adept on her own, answering the phone for her father’s call and discussing demands for her birthday. The moment is fleeting but nonetheless gives us the image of yet another child forced into the self-sufficiency of a cinematically motherless existence.

For protagonists Ellie and Murph, this initial mother absence mirrors the larger journey to be undertaken by all of mankind — to depart from the protective womb of planet Earth to seek a separate existence on our own. Ellie and Murph soon lose their fathers as well, but in ways seemingly less permanent than the ways in which they lost their mothers. 

After her father’s funeral, young Ellie shrugs off the comforting words of the priest and retreats to the radio in her bedroom, scanning the airwaves in an attempt to reunite with her father in a place beyond the physical world. When Murph’s father leaves, he gives her a watch, comparing it with the one on his wrist. He promises that the two of them will compare times to see the effects of relativity upon his return. In a sharp moment of realization, she understands that neither of them can know for sure if he’ll be able to come back, but the door is left open for hope. Both films hint at the possibility of a reunion, and it is through these reunions that the films find their remedies to the loneliness of separation.

So what do our explorers find “beyond the infinite” to snatch us back from a perpetually lonely existence?

At first, only space.

My favorite part of 2001 is the sound, or rather, the lack thereof. That is not to say that Hans Zimmer’s beautifully arpeggiating organs are unwelcome in Interstellar, but Kubrick’s minimalist approach is also a nice touch — the vastness of space rolls out across the screen like a silent desert, evocative once again of the isolation of womb-like space for an unborn fetus (an image that the film returns to in its closing moments). The images of Poole’s soundless body tumbling infinitely into space are haunting and beautiful. Bowman’s scramble through the bowels of the ship in an effort to deactivate HAL is accompanied only by the oppressive hum of mechanical parts.

The entire viewing experience of Kubrick’s 2001 is an isolating event, quiet and methodically slow, removing us from the traditionally communal space of a theatrical screening and forcing us into that eerily dark and introspective corner that is the human subconscious.

In contrast, space isn’t quiet for Interstellar, nor Contact, but instead a volatile eruption of the unfamiliar. Interstellar’s heroes at first encounter vicious, uninhabitable planets in their search for an inhabitable one. After reviving one of the original Lazarus project scientists, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), Dr. Mann weeps, expressing the sheer joy of seeing another human face in his lifetime.

In Contact, Ellie immediately takes a shortcut through a wormhole and doesn’t have much time to enjoy the beauty of Robert Zemeckis’s universe, which is breathtakingly reminiscent of Hubble Telescope images of stars and the heavens, but she does take the time to remark how they should have sent a poet. The state of this outer existence emphasizes a recurring theme in the film, which more directly posits questions of intelligent life in the universe. Zemeckis uses the beauty of space to acknowledge how a solely human presence would indeed be a waste of space.

Curiously, the films find resolution for these aching pangs of loneliness through the presence of holes in space (wormholes and black holes) that transport our characters to destinations beyond familiar understandings of time and space. The existence generated by these symbolic rebirths gives way to multidimensional representations of consciousness, built from familiar constructs within each traveler’s own mind.

For Cooper, venturing through the event horizon of a black hole delivers him to the “tesseract,” a theoretical space that transcends the usual boundaries of time and space in the shape of his daughter’s bookshelf, where he is able to have a physical presence and influence in the world of his past.

For Ellie, she arrives on a sandy beach reminiscent of her childhood drawing of Pensacola, FL, and she reunites with an autonomous projection of her father, who then proceeds to impart the greater wisdom of the universe to her.

For Bowman, a variety of experiences take place, the most memorable of which include being transported to a lavishly decorated bedroom that, much like Cooper’s tesseract, also appears to transcend the traditional boundaries of time and existence. 

On the one hand, these are creative choices that have been made by filmmakers tasked with conveying a multidimensional experience in a strictly two-dimensional medium. But for our characters, it is the task of the unknown to make itself interpretable through the language of the known.  It is understood that to some extent, these creations are constructed on the part of higher intelligent beings for the understanding of their lesser human visitors, in the same way that a parent will bundle a infant in tight cloth to imitate the warm coziness of the womb. In these experiences our human characters not only transcend the boundaries of three dimensional experience, but they also transcend their limited states as humans by connecting with non-human entities. Our loneliness has been remedied, but by whom?

What each film steers away from is the direct question of God’s presence in these empty, scientific, and secular universes. Even Contact, which most pointedly raises questions concerning the existence of God, does not declare an answer one way or the other, but instead reframes the film’s initial conflicts not as questions of God’s role in the universe, but tensions as to the nature of faith in the absence of proof.

The truth is that God in these films doesn’t exist in the strict western canonical sense of a father-like higher power that is both the benefactor and progenitor of life on Earth. Instead, God’s presence, if any, is presented as the unexplainable, as a stagehand behind the scenes, removed from time who guides the course of fate across dimensions. In Interstellar, this force is a futuristic version of humanity that crafts the tesseract that allows Cooper to communicate information needed to save the species. Contact alludes to the existence of superior beings who built the wormhole transport tunnel but then departed eons ago.

Perhaps these films show that the only true remedy to the loneliness of the human condition is to look beyond the boundaries of normal dimensions to the forces that exist between them. Interstellar extols the value of love as an unexplainable, yet supremely powerful force that can survive beyond life and death. In not quite as many words, Contact suggests faith. Both sound about right to me, to accept love and faith as the cures that can transcend time and dimensions like the gravity that keeps us together.

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