On the surface, The Theory of Everything and Interstellar don’t have much in common. The former is a romantic drama about the world’s most famous physicist and his battle with a debilitating disease, while the latter is a mind-boggling space epic with psychedelic visuals and thrilling action sequences. But thematically, both films are about the same very important, very timely idea: the merging of two belief systems, science and religion, that our society often sees as opposites.
In James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, science and religion are personified by Stephen and Jane Hawking, respectively. Stephen is a brilliant cosmology student searching for a unifying theory of physics, while Jane is a devout member of the Church of England. The first third of the film focuses on their courtship, and while they may make the world’s most adorable couple, we also see how the differences in their worldviews – which in our world cause such political strife – need not be a hindrance. We brace for their divergent beliefs to cause problems in their relationship – especially when Stephen brings Jane home to meet his entire family of scientists – but the result is just the opposite. The tension between their worldviews causes sparks, not friction, and perhaps this is because the film doesn’t see them as very different. It depicts science itself as a sort of faith, showing just how much the two have in common. In the end, their love for each other – yet a different kind of faith – is their saving grace. Interstellar plays with the same themes. Although the film’s many scientific details has been nitpicked by experts, director Christopher Nolan’s passion for science is the film’s driving force. When Cooper, Matthew McConaughey’s tough but thoughtful hero, tells us longingly that we used to “look up and wonder about our place in the stars” instead of worrying “about our place in the dirt,” Interstellar seems almost like a campaign video for NASA funding (which has been cut drastically in recent years). Still, the film does not stop at the edge of reason. Some critics have seen in Interstellar several nods to the ethereal. It asks the questions that most religious texts seek to answer: Who are we? Why are we here? What awaits us after death? Megan Garber of The Atlantic summed up the film’s message thusly: “Salvation requires humans to have faith in the power…of a being they can neither know nor fully understand.” If that’s not God, I don’t know what is.
Since they were released into theaters on the very same day, these films form their own micro-trend, but they also exist as part of a larger one. Declan Fahy of Washington Post sees Interstellar as part of an “increasing movement toward the portrayal of scientists as heroes,” citing Tony Stark and Walter White as other examples. Pitching Stephen Hawking as a romantic lead obviously supports that thesis. According to Fahy, this elevation of the scientific hero is emblematic of Hollywood’s recent infatuation with the geek culture, but The Theory of Everything and Interstellar seem linked to a concerted effort by those in the scientific community to raise the profile of their work through pop culture. This year alone, Fox rebooted Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, with celebrity scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, and Particle Fever, a terrific documentary about the Large Hadron Collider experiments in Geneva, was released to excellent reviews.
But these films seek a broader purpose than simply advancing science; instead they suggest that reason and faith can work in tandem to provide a brighter, better future. When Stephen Hawking begins to succumb to his motor neuron disease, both he and his father (also a scientist) measure the odds of his survival and adopt a fatalistic stance. But it is Jane, whose faith has no use for probabilities or equations, that gives him the will to live. Similarly, science only gets the heroes of Interstellar so far, and the astronauts have crucial conversations about whether the mission should be guided by probabilities or passion. Merging these two ideas that have caused such great divisions in our society – on everything from climate change to stem-cell research – is a bold notion, but neither film can completely reconcile their differences. They don’t actually grapple with religion itself; instead they use the broader, less divisive ideas of faith and love, the latter of which is possibly the most galvanizing and oft-used convention in film history. Regardless, Marsh and Nolan deserve credit for trying. Their films challenge the viewer by placing science and faith in the same conversation, which is more than the rest of us are doing these days.