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Don’t Try to Understand it. Feel it: Love, the Void, and Christopher Nolan

My father took me to see Interstellar when I was fourteen. I had no idea what it was about going in — all I knew is that I loved Anne Hathaway from The Devil Wears Prada — but I do know that at the end of the film, I sat beside my father as the credits rolled trying to fathom the enormity of what I'd just watched. “Is there a post credits scene?” I asked. No, he read from an article pulled up on his phone, but they say you’ll need to sit through the credits trying to process all of it.

I took an astronomy class — “Origins of the Cosmos” — at The George Washington University. Pretty much everyone thought I misread the course listing as “astrology” given my overall ineptitude for anything STEM-related, but it was the best mistake I ever made. Because fate decided that I, the English major who had never even taken high school physics and nearly failed chemistry, would sit at the same table as my best friend in the whole world, Chris — who also loved Interstellar and had a poster of it hanging in his room. That Interstellar poster later hung in our shared studio dorm, and I saw it every morning when I woke up.

I don’t know if watching Interstellar was a coincidence, but the fact remains that watching it led me to taking astronomy at the exact time as the person who’d become my best friend in the whole world. It feels too uncanny. And coincidence comes up a bit in Interstellar: Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) starts seeing books fly off her shelf, and dust settles on her floor in longitudes and latitudes. She calls it her “ghost,” not realizing that the entity is actually her father, Coop (Matthew McConaughey), sending messages from several decades in the future. Upon discovering the messages, Coop and Murphy follow the coordinates to a hidden NASA compound, where a team of scientists are preparing for a mission launch that will (hopefully) find a new planet for mankind ... since a global famine left Earth near-uninhabitable. And despite Murphy’s protests, Coop goes on the mission — which involves traveling through a wormhole towards a galaxy where the planets orbit a massive black hole — with no certainty that he’ll ever return.

Nothing will be seared into memory quite like the scene where Coop is trapped in the fifth dimension. When he jettisons a pod from the main ship to complete a slingshot around the Gargantua black hole, he gets sucked into the event horizon and finds himself stuck in Murphy’s room in the past — the year he left Earth on his mission. He desperately knocks books off her shelf to get her attention, only to watch his past self ignore Murphy’s pleas for him to stay. I’m pretty sure I cried at the realization that Coop was his daughter’s “ghost” all along. Even as I write this, I tear up because … I’m half a country away from my own father and I miss him.

So that’s where I’d like to begin: Interstellar is a story about love and connection. Not just any love and connection, but the kind that transcends dimensions and unites people across the vast, unknowable void of space and time and being. For director Christopher Nolan, the dimensions of love are infinite and undefinable in the best possible way. And if his films Inception and Tenet are any indication, this particular cinematic fixation of his has inspired a whole triptych on love and the void.

Dr. Amelia Brand and her theory of love from Interstellar
Art by Lyvie Scott

If you think I’m pulling this thesis out of nowhere, just look at Hathaway’s Dr. Amelia Brand. She delivers a heartfelt monologue about love at the exact center of Interstellar, when their crew is deciding their mission’s endgame. She proposes that love is “some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t possibly perceive” and “is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” It’s a radical perspective on what it means to be human, right in the midst of a hyper-intellectual film that often finds itself digressing into the nitty-gritty of theoretical physics.

Coop resists Brand’s theory of love at first: he dismisses love as an evolutionary social utility for things such as child-rearing, as if he doesn’t make the irreversible decision to travel across space-time to find a planet that his children and all of Earth could live on. But he soon discovers that it may, in fact, be true when he’s trapped in the fifth dimension at the heart of a black hole. Watching Coop desperately knock the books off Murphy’s shelf in the binary code for “STAY” — and watching him retroactively (preventatively?) attempt to keep his past self from leaving Earth to go on this fool’s mission — is literal proof that love transcends dimensions and time. And it’s rather telling, at least to me, that when Coop gets sucked into the fifth dimension, his love for Murphy draws him to the exact place where he can get a message out to her.

It doesn’t matter that love is an incorporeal thing that we can’t see or feel or touch; for Coop and for Murphy, love is what makes the universe go round. Love is what makes coincidence wholly purposeful acts that lead us where we’re meant to be. Coop sends Murphy the latitudes and longitudes, the desperate plea of “STAY,” and then later information about the black hole so she can bring her father home — though perhaps too late, since she’s on her deathbed when she finally reunites with her father. The movement of the universe and every tiny moment they think is an odd coincidence are actually the echoes of their love resounding through space-time that eventually bring them back together again. It’s a rather sentimental take on “Murphy’s Law,” which Foy’s character is named for: whatever can happen, will happen. Interstellar seems to argue that the “whatever” happens because of love.

And sure, the new space station that Earth lives on at the end of the film is a feat of physics and gravity, and the physics of the black hole and wormhole are fascinating. But at its core, Interstellar is nothing without the dimension-shattering love Coop has for Murphy — and that’s a rather reassuring notion given how small and insignificant the vastness of the universe makes you feel. Coop’s love for Murphy isn’t insignificant at all; it saved all of mankind, and most importantly, it saved them both. It’s not lost on me that only a film like Interstellar could feature a love story this profound and all-consuming. Only Interstellar has the capacity to hold a story of this nature, where love renders coincidence nonexistent and pierces the human conception of space-time in the most profound ways.

But Nolan’s cinematic fixation on a love with the capacity to transcend dimensions didn’t begin with Interstellar, but with Inception in 2010. Though Inception does not have the cosmic storyline of Interstellar or the temporal one of his later film Tenet, Inception’s journey into the unconscious (incorrectly called the subconscious in the film) is another remarkable depiction of how love permeates the corporeal form. Is the unconscious mind and the incorporeal world of dreams not itself the void, just one that resides in our own minds? Inception seems to think so, given the ambiguity of whether or not Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) ends up in the “real world” at the end of the film.

The spinning top from Inception
Art by Lyvie Scott

While I could definitely write a whole essay about Inception as a classic heist film because of its corporate espionage A-plot, the film finds its true heart in Cobb’s refusal — or, perhaps, his inability — to move on from the death of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). Mal committed suicide after Cobb performed inception on her to wake her from their dream-shared Limbo, where they spent 50 years together in the span of one night. She still believed that the life they lived in their dream was her reality, and their actual reality was a dream. His efforts to “wake” her actually take her own life. And ever since, Cobb sees Mal in every dream, even the ones he must construct and infiltrate as part of his illicit career. She appears to him as a projection of his unconscious mind, sabotaging his every move and preventing him from constructing the most important heist of his career: the one that will clear him of criminal charges and reunite him with his children.

When Ariadne (Elliot Page) allows Cobb to take her through his dreamscape, she’s astounded when she realizes that Cobb uses his own memories of his wife and family to dream. Cobb explains that it’s the only way he still can dream — a horrifying implication for the audience and Ariadne, since we realize that this is why he can’t escape her projection. Even though it’s the biggest taboo in the world of Inception, Cobb chooses risk because of his heart. Their whole mission is threatened by the fact that Cobb can’t keep Mal out of his dreams or focus completely on their inception. When Ariadne later kills Mal in the dream, Cobb is forced to finally make peace with her death and say goodbye. He can only do so in the abstract world of his unconscious mind, where the dead can still live and affect our waking lives because of the memories we have of them and the love we had (and still have) for them.

Inception is horribly tragic, potentially more so than Interstellar, if only because Cobb can only have Mal in the void. Even in the film, the audience never meets Mal as herself — only through Cobb’s memory and dreams. Though Mal only lives in the narrative as a projection of Cobb’s, she is real because Cobb’s memory of and love for her is just as real as her corporeal form to him. I’m reminded of what Marianne says in Portrait of a Lady on Fire about Orpheus’ choice to look back at Eurydice one last time: it is the poet’s choice to remember her as she was. The dream world that Mal and Cobb once shared on the edge of their unconscious, and the one she refuses to leave because they spent an entire lifetime there, is like that ultimate fantasy of what could have been if their lives were less complicated. If they were allowed to just love, and didn’t need to worry about reality. It’s what makes Mal’s hopelessness in the real world, and her eventual suicide, so heart-breaking for both Cobb and the audience: the world without her is one Cobb doesn’t see as worth existing in.

Throughout the film, Cobb uses a totem to determine whether or not he is in the real world. He uses Mal’s totem, a spinning top, as his own. If he’s stuck in a dream, the top will never fall over; if it’s reality, the top will inevitably fall. Inception effectively ends when Cobb and his team complete their mission. The music swells and suggests that Cobb is triumphant, since he’s able to pass through immigration with ease, his criminal record seemingly wiped clean, and go home to his father-in-law and children — but Cobb feels as if it’s too good to be true. He spins the top one last time, but before waiting to see if it falls, he joins his children in the backyard. The scene cuts to black just as the top rattles, as if it’s about to fall over.

I think it is the more sentimental choice, even if it is the irrational one, that Cobb chooses not to wait for the top to fall. He’s already broken one of his own rules by using Mal’s totem as his own, and he has nothing left to live for now after Ariadne killed Mal’s projection in his dream. If his mission actually failed, what’s the harm in choosing to stay in his dream-world, and be with his dream-children forever, free from the anxieties and burdens of reality? By leaving the ending so ambiguous, I don’t think Nolan necessarily wants Cobb to make the rational choice — and again, just like in Interstellar, Cobb chooses to be with his children because of his love for them. They are, essentially, all he has left of Mal whether or not he’s in the dream or reality.

Dominic Cobb and Mal in Inception
Art by Lyvie Scott

Much like the tragic love story at the center of Inception, Nolan’s most recent film, Tenet, doubles down on a doomed entropic relationship between its two heroes: the Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson). While not explicitly romantic, they’re clearly the emotional center of Tenet because of their mismatched relationship. One only knows the other in the disparate ends of their timelines; when the Protagonist meets Neil for the first time in his timeline, he has no idea who Neil is. But we learn later that the Protagonist and Neil have already met, just in the future. When the Protagonist of the future recruits Neil to join his “temporal pincer movement” to stop Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), he does so only because he’s known Neil forever. They keep finding each other throughout time because they know more information about the other at the right moment in time, and can help each other due to their ability to reverse entropy.

And for all the girls at home who never took high school physics like me and spent most of Tenet confused as hell about the physics, entropy is the state in which a thing is random, chaotic, and in disorder or in the process of becoming so. Though a rather unwieldy concept to explain even in the film — especially when they start talking about reverse entropy, which is orientation towards a state of order — it’s easier to see the Protagonist and Neil’s ability to find each other at the right moment in time to help the other as reverse entropy made flesh.

Much like Interstellar, nothing is a coincidence in Tenet. Let the record show that I am actively resisting the urge to make a reference to the Taylor Swift song “Invisible String” right now, but Neil literally has a coin tied with a red string hanging from his backpack — one that the Protagonist sees several times when Neil saves him from one enemy or another throughout the film. Tenet is bookended by two scenes that end with Neil’s little coin flashing on the screen: in the first, the Protagonist is rescued by a man during a mission in Kyiv. He’s saved again by the “same” man at the end of the film, when he reverses entropy and quite literally takes a bullet for the Protagonist. Without this sacrifice, the pincer is never successful and the Protagonist dies.

If you choose to read the Protagonist and Neil’s relationship as a romance (which I absolutely believe you should, since it makes the movie about halfway tolerable), that “invisible string” connecting them is a love that cuts through even entropy and temporality. In comparison to the rather tepid “romance” the Protagonist shares with Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), to whom he promises to reverse entropy to keep her safe in the final scene of the film — as a gesture of his love for her, the audience is supposed to assume. The critiques of Nolan’s women are both well-documented and neverending, but Kat feels particularly egregious since she and the Protagonist don’t ever have an intimate moment of understanding or connection — at least not the way he does with Neil. From their first meeting where Neil knows to order the Protagonist a Diet Coke, since he never drinks on a job, to their parting of the ways when Neil tells his friend (lover?) to let him go, Neil and the Protagonist may as well be the “true” love story of Tenet since entropy seems to stop just for them and allow their pincer’s success in stopping Sator’s time war.

When Barbara (Clémence Poésy) explains entropy to the Protagonist, she instructs: “Don’t understand it. Feel it.” Barbara demonstrates how to move with the inherent randomness of entropy as a way not to control it, but to understand it. That’s a process that takes trust, and intimacy. The Protagonist and Neil must do exactly that when they meet each other at the disparate ends of their timelines, knowing that in the future, past, or whatever, everything will somehow make sense. Eternity feels like a void, but there’s something remarkably refreshing about being told to listen to your physical experiences to navigate the endless expanse of temporality. Given how Neil and the Protagonist must consistently trust each other throughout Tenet’s narrative, love must certainly be one of those experiences. But even as a platonic friendship deeply rooted in the knowledge that only their partnership can save their timeline, theirs is an intimate one that shows love truly can transcend any normative experience of time.

Neil and the Protagonist share a farewell in Tenet
Art by Lyvie Scott

In their final scene together, the Protagonist asks Neil if anything between them was fate, but Neil says he chooses to see it as reality. Their connection wasn’t fate to Neil, Nolan suggests, because Neil and the Protagonist intentionally forged each of their pasts and futures so they would meet each other at the time and place the other needed them most. Their exchange ends when Neil cheerfully says to the Protagonist, “I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship,” and the Protagonist heartbreakingly replies, “For me this is just the beginning.” It’s a promise that one day they’ll see each other again, and it’s a recognition that their connection doesn’t need to be bound by any natural rules of time and temporality. They’ll find each other again in the chaos that is entropy, and to me? That’s just a little queer, knowing that your love doesn’t need to follow a strict binary of right or wrong. It doesn’t need to exist on some kind of timeline others have decided is normative. It’s one they’ve had to negotiate entirely on their own without the laws of time or physics to govern them. Again, only a film with the scope and scale of Tenet could show this kind of temporal love story between two men trying to save the world.

While Inception’s connection to loving in the void is rather lucid, Interstellar and Tenet feel like cinematic treatises on the philosophy of theoretical physics because of their digressions on temporality and gravity — and how love is the sole thing that cuts through them to make existence in a vast, unknowable universe with seemingly no end livable. What that quantum mechanics class taught me is that what Nolan appears to be saying this: in spite of the void, love. Love because it makes the void worth living. Love because it transcends space, time, and the corporeal form. Love because it makes you specifically and radically human. Love because it’s the only thing you can do when looking at the uncertainty of the world in the face.

In Fall 2021, I took a theater and philosophy seminar at Boston College. There, I encountered quantum mechanics for the first time. Reading those texts for class was like every thought I’d ever had about Tenet and Interstellar realized. And in my notes, I wrote what would become the first kernel for this essay:

“Quantum mechanics embraces the unknown and offers us a space in which we can reflect on the space between ignorance and knowledge, express how much we know about the self/Other, and avoid nihilism. → I’m not shocked Nolan has decided to make a film about Oppenheimer after Interstellar and Tenet in this regard!”

Love is that thing quantum mechanics theorists can never quite describe in their articles and monographs on the subject as what exists between “ignorance and knowledge” but Nolan can through his films. In fact, when I went to class that week, we ended up concluding that quantum mechanics is the closest you can get to recognizing that there are unknown forces in the universe acting to create moments that feel like coincidence — and who’s to say that the force enacting those isn’t love?

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