Monday, November 17, 2014

Reaching Past the Stars - A Catholic Reflection on Interstellar Part I: Love and Gravity

This is not a review of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

For that, you can read my review written earlier.

And this is not an exegesis of Nolan's story.  I have no idea if any of the Christian elements I found were intentional or not.  Though what fan of CS Lewis who saw the mountainous waves of Miller's planet and did not think of Perelandra?

Rather, this article is about how Interstellar has affected me and made me reflect on some elements of Catholic theology and life.

Be warned, in order to speak cogently there are MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THE ARTICLE.  Please only read on if you have seen the movie.

1.  Gravity and Love.

CS Lewis fought against a reductionist view of the world.  Too often, we try to take the great things about life and reduce them to the smallest possible parts.  Freudians for example said that belief in God is just a subconscious need for a father figure or that love was simply a sublimated desire for sex.

Lewis said that while that sounded fine, there was no logical reason why it had to be this way.  For example, we think of human beings inventing words and then ornamenting them with poetry and ornamenting that poetry with music.  But Lewis (influenced by Tolkien no doubt) asked why it couldn't be the other way around.  Perhaps music is the original language and that poetry is fallen music and that prose is fallen poetry.

If God is the great and harmonious artist, then shouldn't the world look like this?

I bring this up because Dr. Peter Kreeft once said the same thing about love.  If God is love, should the universe be at its core a reflection of that love?  And if it does, how is it reflected in the physical world?  Kreeft answer to that is simple: gravity.

Gravity is the attraction between objects.  Love is also attraction.  Love calls us to unification.  Gravity pulls us closer together.  Love moves our hearts and souls; Gravity moves our bodies, both human and heavenly.

At first, I thought this was just a flight of fancy or creative theology by a sophisticated mind like Kreeft's.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  I'm not saying I completely agree with him yet.  But the more evidence we learn about how essential gravity is to the universe, the more Kreeft makes sense.

This takes us to Interstellar.  The two forces that are most at work here are love and gravity.

Gravity bends time and space.  Gravity pulls all the objects towards each other and gravity manipulates the events of the film.  It is a gravitational anomaly that first brings Cooper to NASA.  Dr. Brand says that the problem of gravity needs to be solved in order to save humanity.

And it is love, with its pull, that shapes the entire story.  The love that Cooper has for Murph is an irresistible pull that draws him home.  Amelia is in love with Edmunds and she argues that it has to have a meaning.  Love has to have a deeper significance than simple biochemical reactions in the brain.  Simple evolution does not explain the love we experience.

And that is the point: love is gravity.  Gravity is love.

The reason why Brand could not solve the problem of gravity is that he did not have enough love.  He gave up hope, he gave up on the love for the people on earth.  Murph was able to solve the problem of gravity because she let the pull of her father's love draw her back to the answer.

Love and gravity must be accepted.  Cooper must let go and let the gravity of Gargantua pull him into the black hole.  If he did not let gravity (love) take him, then he would not have been able to help his daughter solve the problem of gravity (love).

And even in the end, love is constantly drawing Cooper forward.  With Amelia out there, love (gravity) pulls him out into the future.

Love (gravity) shapes the universe on not just a physical but a metaphysical level.  This makes complete and total sense since God is love.

In my next article, we will look at Interstellar's non-linear view of time and how it relates to the Catholic view of God.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Film Flash: Big Hero 6

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

A fun superhero cartoon, though not as nostalgic as Wreck-It-Ralph or as magical as Frozen.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time - Importance vs. Greatness

Before I finish my list of greatest sitcoms of all time, I thought it was appropriate to visit the issue of importance vs. greatness.

Some of my friends have been taken aback by some of the absences so far from the list and have been surprised by some of my more obscure choices.  But when reading this list it is important to remember:

Importance ≠ Greatness.

First, we have to understand what we mean by importance.  Usually it means that the show has a strong impact either on the medium or on society as a whole.  But that does not mean that the work is therefore of a high or good quality.

The example I like to use is Star Trek vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As Wayne said, "like Star Trek: The Next Generation. In many ways it's superior but will never be as recognized as the original."

No on can deny the influence Star Trek has had on not only televised science fiction but also on science in the real world.  How many people were inspired to pursue science because of the wonder they felt at watching Kirk and his crew go where no man had gone before.

But if you look at it in terms of pure quality of acting, spectacle, directing, etc, I believe many would say that The Next Generation is a better show, though less important.

For this list, I am looking at the best sitcoms of ALL TIME.  One of the big drawbacks of a show if it is cutting edge and modern.  That is because the modern becomes dated very quickly.  As CS Lewis said something akin to: nothing is so quickly out of fashion that that which is in fashion.

One sitcom that is not on my list, to the chagrin of more than a few, is All in the Family.

There is no doubt that this is an important show.  It brought up subjects that were taboo in that day like racial strife and sexual assault.  It spawned many imitators and spinoffs.  To this day, many shows still use the Bunkers as a model of sitcom success.  And to be sure there are many admirable qualities to this show, not the least of which is Carol O'Connor's amazing performance as Archie Bunker.  It is a further testament to its impact that Archie's chair is currently residing in the Smithsonian Institute.

But in its overwhelming desire to be cutting edge, the show firmly planted itself in its own era.  The show is dated in a way that works against it.  Most shows are set in a very specific time or place, but All in the Family wanted to say something about "today."  But now, "today" is "yesterday" and it doesn't speak as strongly as it once did.  The urgency of topics such as the ERA and interracial dating don't have the same impact because the ERA is dead and most people don't care about two people of different races dating.

The way a show sidesteps this problem is to make the show more universal.  Yes, hairstyles and pop culture references will pin it down in the timeline somewhat.  But if the humor and themes are universal, then it can transcend its place and time.

The difficulty with any judgment of how well a current show will hold up in the future is that none of us knows.  We can only guess.  There are always things that used to make us laugh that we simply outgrow or move on from.  This list is constantly open to revision, as it should be as I grow and (hopefully) mature.  But from my vantage point here at the tail end of 2014, this is how I see things.

Now, even though I respect popular opinion, I am not a pure populist.  Just because a show is revered or successful does not make it great.  Full House was awful but had high ratings.  Freaks and Geeks was cancelled after only 10 episodes, but I defy anyone not to watch it and be in awe of the fact that they managed to make every character three-dimensional and real.

But I strive not to fall into the hipster trap of elevating things because they are obscure.  I don't dislike something because it many people like it.  I remember someone once said to me that they refused to see Titanic in the theaters because everyone else they know had seen it.  It was their way of showing that they couldn't be influenced.  But they didn't see the irony that other people did make the decision for them, it was only a negative decision: a decision not to see it.

I know that some of my choice have been a bit off the beaten path (I am still catching flack about Clerks).  But it is only because I truly believe that they are still funny, regardless of how popular or unpopular they were.

So as we get down to the final five, keep in mind that there are many important shows that have not and will not show up on this list.

If they do, it will only be because they are great.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Film Review: Interstellar

This is Christopher Nolan's most ambitious film in scope and depth.  And it soars to great heights like few movies can.

But Nolan's ambition exceeds his grasp.  (more on this later)

The story centers around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a former pilot who is trying to survive in the not-too-distant future where something called "the Blight" has slowly destroyed most of the world's food supply and turned Earth into a dustbowl.  He has turned in his flightsuit for farmer's clothes and he raises corn with his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), along with the father of his dead wife (Jon Lithgow).

Through a series of events, Cooper finds a secret NASA project that is looking to save humanity by finding a habitable planet.  A wormhole has appeared near Saturn that opens to a solar system in another galaxy.  A dozen astronauts went before to explore possible habitable worlds orbiting a black hole called Gargantua.  Only 3 sent signals for possible habitable planets.  Cooper is asked to lead a group of scientists including Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and a robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) to find a habitable world.  But because of relativity, time will pass more slowly for him, so he may never return or might not return in time to see his children again.

I don't want to speak more about the plot, which is wonderfully complex and has several twists and turns.  But as in most great movies, things never go as planned.

The stakes are high and Nolan wisely keeps raising them as the movie progresses.  And unlike a lot of movies with a forgone conclusion, you never lose your sense of impending calamity.

This Nolan's most emotional movie.  That isn't to say that his other movies are cold, but there is a strong level of restraint to his character's feelings in films like Memento or Inception.  But this is new territory for him.  And McConaughey more than delivers on the part.  He conveys not only strong and believable intelligence, but his heart is on his sleeve, especially when it comes to his children.  You can feel the tearing of his heart as he is put into an impossible situation and must deal with the pain of leaving.  Cooper, like Cobb in Inception, only wants to get home to his children.  But Interstellar surpasses that catharsis because of the raw power of the father's love and his desperation to return home that we see because of Nolan and McConaughey.  These deeply emotional scenes are still sticking with me a week after seeing Interstellar.  He touched on something primal in the heart.

The other actors are also fantastic.  Hathaway brings great resolve and strength to the role without falling into the trap of being masculine.  Irwin's delivery as TARS is one of the most delightful parts of the script.  Michael Caine as Brand's father, a scientist who must solve the problem of gravity to save humanity, brings resolve, depth, and sorrow to every scene he's in.  Wes Bently and David Gyasi also add some important humanity to the mission.  There is a surprisingly famous actor who comes around late in the movie, but I think that it was one of the best performances from them in recent years.

The script is wonderful in its exploration of deep themes.  This isn't just a visual spectacle.  Make no mistake, the look of the film is spectacular and I was drawn in completely by the world that Nolan makes.  But he uses that as a backdrop to discuss and explore things like exploration itself,  the nature of love, human capacities of good and evil.  As a Catholic, I saw reflected what we believe about us: little less than gods but broken by original sin.  Nolan deals with these ideas with a grown up sensibility and treats the material with great maturity.  And the ideas are not flights of philosophical flourish.  They are integral to the story.  The ideas matter.  That is one of the things that I love most about Nolan's movies: ideas matter.

But the design of the film does not suffer because of the intellectual pursuit.  The ships, the planets, the technology... it all is stunning.  I am particularly crazy about the design of the robots.  Too often the robots in movies are humanoid.  Nolan's design is brilliant in the opposite direction.  Here, the robots are obelisk-like rectangles with moving parts to help them walk and do labor.  One of the most interesting and refreshing parts of this is that Nolan allows you to feel a connection to the robots and he gives them personality, but he never lets you forget that they are not living creatures on the same level as humans.  They are like Wilson from Castaway: less a reflection of humanity but of humanity's ability to empathize.

And this points to one of the movie's great strengths: originality.  Not only do his robots feel fresh, but his post-apocalypse is like nothing I've ever seen.  It amazed me how normal everything seemed.  Even with massive calamities and food problems and dust storms, people still had parent/teacher conferences and go to ball games.  (As a side note, I love Nolan's little dig at modern teaching textbooks regarding the moon landing).  His future feels tangible in a way that few others do.  It feels just around the corner.  I haven't encountered that in a good long while.

 Now, the film's main deficit lies in its final act and resolution.  I will attempt to be as vague as possible, but it is nearly impossible to express my reservations without getting into the 3rd act.


Nolan's favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that I detest.  And the DNA of that movie is layered throughout Interstellar, no more so than the final act.  Here, I believe is where the movie will either stand or fall with viewers.  Like Dave in 2001, Cooper goes on a mystical, metaphysical trip.  Unlike 2001, Interstellar attempts to explain to the audience what is happening.  I think Nolan was afraid people wouldn't understand what was happening with Cooper's cosmic odyssey, so he spends too much time here.  The causes the movie, which was moving along at a brisk pace even with a 3-hour running time, to screech to a halt.  The emotional truth of the scene is strong, but here was the one time I felt pulled out of the film and I couldn't help but roll my eyes a little.  I understand that Nolan was saying something profound about love and gravity (which actually as a Catholic reader of Dr. Peter Kreeft was amazingly deep), but I don't think the execution was quite what it should have been.  I wanted it to work, but I think he reached just a little too high and he just missed the mark.

After this, the resolution is a bit too drawn out.  Also in the end, Nolan tries to shift the central emotional relationship to something else.  This would be acceptable, but the relationship that he ends on did not have enough emotional set up in the first 2 acts.   The end is an inverse of the formula for the rest of the movie: the finale makes intellectual sense but does not have the same emotional punch.


Interstellar is not a perfect movie.  It has its flaws and it fails to fully cash the thematic check it writes in the first 2 acts.  But it is still one of the best movies I've seen this year.  It reminds me of a quote.

"Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Infectious Sin

I have a new article up at

We had an Ebola scare in my region of the country.  Before all of the facts were out, there was a lot of confusion and nervous laughter as people joked about the disease all the while masking their fear.

I asked my students to imagine that someone in our class came down with Ebola and the entire school was dismissed so that it could be decontaminated.  I again asked them to imagine returning to my classroom and asking if the room had been cleaned and I had told them, “It has been 98% cleaned!”
What do you think their reaction was?  What would your reaction be?

Most of my students said that they would refuse to enter, even with only a 2% area of possible contamination.  Why?  Because even the smallest part of the disease could infect and kill.

And the same is true with sin.

In the Bible, God would sometimes put entire populations under the “herem” or “the ban.”  In these cases, the Israelites were commanded to kill all that lived there: men, women, children, and livestock…all of it.  

Why did God order the death off all that lived in those areas?  Because they were infected with deep and pernicious sin.  If these people coexisted with the Israelites, that sin would have infected them and destroyed their spirits.  That is not what might have happened.  It is what didhappen over and over in the Old Testament.  

These passages often give believers a bit of discomfort when reading them.  St. Augustine back in the 4th century was no different.  But it wasn’t until he met St. Ambrose that he was taught to look deeper into the Scripture to find the spiritual message.

In our own lives, we have sin.  Some sin for us is a source of guilt and struggle.  But some sin we excuse and accept.  We wink at our little pet vices.  “Oh, I’m just a creature of habit.”  “Oh, I have a little bit of a temper.”  “Oh, I only get drunk at weddings.”
When Christ came He did so to take away the sins of the world.  All sins. 

We come to the Lord and surrender to Him not just the mortal sins, but all the vices that we carry within our hearts.  It is not enough to only give him the “biggies.”  We have to give over all sin.

Because sin is infectious.  

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Best: Top Christopher Nolan Movies

With Interstellar out in theaters, I thought I would take moment to look back at the films of Christopher Nolan.  (Also Screen Junkies just did a panel discussing this same topic and I thought it would be good for this blog)

The man has not made a bad movie in his entire directorial career.  It helps that he is very selective about his films and he has incredible personal control over all of the stories he's ever filmed.

So below are all 9 of Nolan's movies ranked in order from least to greatest.

9.  Insomnia

Of all Nolan's movies, this one is the one that feels the least Nolan-y.  And as far as I know it is the only one that is a remake of another film.  But it is still very dark and moody with some excellent performances.  Pacino's guilt is so visibly felt throughout the film and Robin William's turn as a mastermind killer showed a bold choice.  And the film still deals with big ideas about truth and conscience.

8.  Following

I caught this one on Netflix and it is a fascinating noir film about a man who becomes obsessed with following random people that he sees in public.  This could have easily devolved into some kind of psycho-sexual nonsense.  But he sets out early on that it about this a man who cannot connect to people who is drawn into a strange world of pulling the curtain back on people's lives.  It also is the first film that shows Nolan's funky use of chronology.

7.  The Prestige

This is a movie that will mess with your head.  Even when you figure out one twist (which I did a bit too early), when the film finishes and you understand the implications of what the last 5 minutes reveals about obsession… it sticks with you long after the movie is over.

6.  Batman Begins

Nolan modeled this film after Richard Donner's Superman and it shows.  He tells a story that is epic in its scope and takes us on Bruce Wayne's journey in a way that no other cinematic Batman has.

5.  Interstellar

I will give my full review for this later, but it is easily Nolan's most emotional movie.  It is not that his other movies are cold or are not moving.  But this was the first time I ever saw him reach deep and pull at the heartstrings while once again wrestling with the big ideas of life.

4.  The Dark Knight Rises

Unlike many of its detractors, I think the final chapter of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is fantastic.  He does an excellent job of drawing elements from the previous movies and weaving them into a film that feels like a definitive goodbye to his story.  To this day I get chills when Selina Kyle tries to get Bruce to leave with her saying that he doesn't owe anything to people of Gotham and that he already gave them everything, to which he responds: "Not everything.  Not yet."

3.  Inception

I have seen this movie over and over and I find it fascinating every time.  The layers that stack upon layers never suffocate the action through line of the story that holds you up until the very last second.

2.  The Dark Knight

Arguably the greatest super hero film ever made, Nolan understood that he could make a film that transcends traditional genre walls and talk about something deep about human nature.   People often play up the violent and dark nature of the Joker, but it shouldn't overlook Nolan's ultimate message which is that people are naturally decent.  That is a radical message in today's cinema.

1.  Memento

I have never seen a movie like this.  The level of complexity, artistry, execution, and transcendence continues to blow me away more than a decade later.  When people see this movie they rethink what movies can be.  And that is why this is his best film.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Film Flash: Interstellar

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Like 2001, but good.  Epic scope and emotional depth.  (Beware the chunky 3rd act)

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.