Monday, February 2, 2015

Epic Themes and Novel Forms: a Brief Comparison of Cuarón’s 'Gravity' and Nolan's 'Interstellar'

            The recent science fiction film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, depicts the epic adventure of a group of astronauts as they travel, via wormhole, to distant sectors of the universe in order to discover new habitable worlds.  In the midst of this three-plus hour narrative, Anne Hathaway’s character, Brand, delivers the following explanation for the phenomenon of gravity, which has set their quest in motion:
Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. (Interstellar)
Love is the explanation for the physical phenomenon known as gravity.  Love is a transcendental, ultra-dimensional force that influences the material phenomena of the known universe.  And this turns out to be the case, since the ghostly hauntings that Murph experiences in her room as a child turn out to be her father, in the future, giving her all the clues she needs to solve the puzzle and thereby save the human race.
            One year prior to Nolan’s science fiction adventure narrative, Alfonso Cuarón’s space disaster film, Gravity, opened in theaters.  Cuarón’s film, unlike Nolan’s, features no theoretical or hypothetical wormhole travel and no cross-dimensional communication.  It depicts the harrowing experiences of an astronaut stranded between various spacecrafts in the upper atmosphere after a military strike leaves waves of debris orbiting the earth and wreaking havoc on the satellites and stations in its path.  In Gravity, the eponymous physical force that plays such a central role in Interstellar is barely mentioned; instead, it permeates the screen, the space, the vacuum, dictating the orbit of objects.  Gravity constantly works upon the characters and objects of the film, despite its virtual absence from any dialogue.
            One significant difference marks these two films.  Interstellar imagines gravity not as a contingent phenomenon of the universe – an effect of material bodies and things; it explains gravity as a result of human action and intervention.  Gravity is the product of love.  Gravity, on the other hand, feels no need to explain the force after which it’s named; because for Cuarón’s film, space is an emphatically inhuman and anti-human place, a sheer vacuum that doesn’t care about the fragility of humans.  Gravity, while still an anthropocentric film, is not an anthropomorphic film.  In other words, Gravity imagines human resilience in the face of brutal physics – a physics that cannot be reduced to human emotion.  Interstellar is an anthropomorphic film because it envisions physics as the effects of human behavior on a higher dimensional plane.  At some point, in Interstellar’s cosmogony, the phenomena of the universe find their origin in human thought and action.
            In Interstellar the universe actually looks human; but in Gravity, it looks unyieldingly nonhuman, inhuman, even antihuman.
            This is not to discount the effects or cinematic experience of either film; I think most people would agree that both films construct an overwhelming experience for the viewer, and both films pack (at times) quite an emotional punch.  However, Interstellar’s empathetic aspect derives from the human desire to be taken care of; the film is not so much a question of survival as it is of salvation.  The film imagines a kind of science-fictional realm for God and replaces Him with the agency of a future humanity.  Even before Cooper leaves earth, his actions are being controlled to some extent by himself, in the future, intervening into the course of events.  Interstellar retains the space of the divine but merely replaces the figure of the divine with an advanced version of human knowledge/existence.
            Gravity, on the other hand, is about survival, through and through.  There is no alternative space beyond the material universe, and the material universe (unlike the Christian God) is unforgiving.  The film depicts a human astronaut’s attempts to reenter earth’s lower atmosphere safely before the universe grinds all manmade machinery to dust.  The film may be unrealistic, and even inaccurate in many ways; but it is not eschatological.  Nolan’s film involves itself in a quasi-theological narrative by imagining two timelines, one of which is the future guarantor of the other.  The end is in the beginning.  Cuarón’s film, in contrast, does not guarantee its ending (beyond any popular cultural expectations of a mass filmgoing audience).  If Gravity’s lack of realism tells us anything, it is the imbalance between human survival and the sheer weight of a brutal physics.  Interstellar is not realistic in a generic sense (i.e. it does not fall into the category of “realism”), but it recovers the unlikelihood of its plot by framing it all within the grace of benign descendants.  Like Greek epic, or Biblical narrative, its conclusion is foregone; and in this way, Interstellar actually seems to resist modern narrative, despite its provocative experimentation.
            In his formative thesis on the novel, Georg Lukács sets it in stark contrast to the epic.  “The immanence of meaning,” Lukács writes, “which the form of the novel requires lies in the hero’s finding out through experience that a mere glimpse of meaning is the highest that life has to offer, and that this glimpse is the only thing worth the commitment of an entire life, the only thing by which the struggle will have been justified” (200).  Is this not the very sentiment echoed in Stone’s final lines before dangerously reentering earth’s atmosphere?  As the craft begins to heat up from reentry, she speaks to a hypothetical ground control at Houston, although it is unclear if anyone is even listening to her.  Stone admits that it makes no difference whether she dies or not, because either way, “it’ll be one hell of a ride” (Cuarón).  Stone can do no more than find meaning in the smallest attempt at survival, at the miniscule human effort to overcome the odds.  There is no greater meaning in Stone’s survival; she must make her own meaning, construct her own sense of things.
            Interstellar, on the other hand, follows the course of epic, meaning that it totalizes its own meaning from within: “the infinity of purely epic matter,” Lukács argues, “is an inner, organic one, it is itself a carrier of value, it puts emphasis on value, it sets its own limits for itself and from within itself, and the outward infinity of its range is almost immaterial to it – only a consequence and, at most, a symptom” (200).  The figurative correspondence of Lukács’s words is almost uncanny; the physical infinity of the cosmos is echoed in Interstellar by the total infinity of value and meaning – an infinity that is imbued with meaning, meaning generated by human agents.  The difference, for Lukács, between the epic and the novel is the difference between a pre-modern and modern worldview.  In the time of epic, the world was seen as conforming to the values of a culture; for the ancient Greeks, the cosmos conformed to Greek culture and law, and epic confirmed this conformity.  The (modern) novel, by contrast, understands some kind of external reality but does not guarantee the totality of its values from within; in fact, it makes room for skepticism.  There is no way for the Trojans to triumph in Homer’s Iliad, just as there is no way for the Rutulians to triumph in Vergil’s Aeneid, just as there is no way for Lucifer to triumph in Paradise Lost (despite the Romanticist subversion of Milton’s heroism).
            The structure of epic entails its own limits and establishes its value system as the producer of those limits: culture, value, defines the material world.  At its inception, the novel may not yet be ready to abandon the prospect of a rule-governed (or God-governed) universe (even if the 20th-century novel makes this leap); but it is ready to abandon the formal structure that firmly establishes and dictates this governing from within.  The structure of the novel thus acknowledges the incapacity of its values to approximate the material world.  Like Sandra Bullock’s Stone, of Gravity, the hero of the novel can only take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.  Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, on the other hand, is certain of his fate and salvation even if he does not know it; between his various instantiations – the Cooper of earth and the Cooper of Nolan’s disorienting multiverse – Cooper traverses the distance between human meaning and material universe.  He actualizes meaning in the form of gravity.
            Interstellar may of course be forgiven somewhat for its postmodern narrative experimentation; but this experimentation is more an effect of its subject matter than its theoretical concerns.  In fact, its experimentation fails to serve the intended purpose of most postmodern texts.  In other words, Interstellar is not attempting to undermine narrative through its formal play; rather, it salvages meaning by recuperating physical force back under the sign of love, of human empathy.  Like the epics of old, Interstellar sinks its ideological talons into the fabric of the universe and finds meaning everywhere.  Gravity does not seek to be so bold; for Cuarón’s impressive, if flawed, film, it is enough to merely acknowledge that the universe is a cold, dark, and unimaginably brutal expanse.
            But maybe – just maybe – we can survive in it.
Works Cited
Gravity. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014.

Lukács, Georg. “The Theory of the Novel: a Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of           Great Epic Literature.” Theory of the Novel: a Historical Approach. Ed. Michael          McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 185-218.