Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Light Will Die

I love sci-fi. And for all its plot holes and logical problems, one of my favorite experiences this last year was seeing the film Interstellar. You watch the movie and you initially think you have it pegged: “This is a sci-fi adventure about a man fighting to save the human race. This is just another straightforward popcorn-munching Christopher Nolan movie.” But the film also deals with deeper religious, metaphysical, and emotional themes about fatherhood and survival that makes it about more than the raw narrative itself. There is something transcendent about the film, because the filmmaker is trying to reach beyond himself and his own life.

Throughout the film Michael Caine’s character frequently quotes Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” where he writes: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I always misunderstood the poem. I guess I always thought it was a poem about living life with ferocity and strength. In either case it was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, so I dismissed it.

I was out for a run this morning and was listening to the Interstellar Soundtrack (because I’m a truly strange person). The last track of the album is the cast of the film reading Dylan Thomas’ poem in its entirety. I don’t think I’d ever read it completely and when I heard the last line of the poem, for the first time realized this is a poem about dying. This is a poem about a man watching his father die and he’s trying to tell him that it’s right for him to fight and scrape and claw against death because death is unnatural, and what is natural is to resist the encroaching darkness. I realized that just like Thomas' poem, Interstellar is a movie about dying.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It resonates with me. I myself sat next to my own father’s hospital bed as I watched him die. I too wrote a poem (it was awful but captured my heart) because I had no other outlet for what I was feeling. I hear in this poem the cry I wanted to let out but lacked the skill to actually pull off. The film is like sitting next to a dying mankind wishing to see it fight against a similar encroaching darkness. But in the end, Dylan Thomas' father, and my own father, both died, despite their fighting and clawing. What does that say for the human race in Interstellar?

Now, because Interstellar has this unavoidably naturalistic bent and almost begs you to think that this physical world is all there is (MINOR SPOILER: everything in the film ends up having a natural explanation), thinking about the film constantly gives me this encroaching sense that the light is dying, and there is no way, in natural terms, to stop it. We really will all die. The world will eventually fail us and we will fade like lights extinguished. We will not win the battle against the dying of the light. And even if utopia happens, and even if we find other planets to live on and create new life there, each and every one of us will die. Our light will go out. We get a finite number of years to exist, and that’s it. Even though the film tries to wax optimistic, its anti-supernatural undercurrent leaves the viewer, at the end of the day, convinced that he will not escape death and the light will not win. The film quotes Thomas' poem in an optimistic and motivating way. Maybe, perhaps there is some way that we will be able to keep the darkness of non-existence at bay, even for a day longer... but because naturalism can't answer mankind's deepest need for transcendent meaning, the optimism rings hollow.

In an odd way I am thankful for this sense of doom that comes with watching Interstellar. It gives us an existential taste of what the alternative to the message of the Gospel is. Naturalism says, "We can cheer ourselves up for the moment if we try very hard, but darkness is coming, and at the end of the day it will win. In naturalistic terms, the universe will die in the cold and the darkness, and we will all fade into non-existence." As T.S. Eliot said so well in his poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This is the end of naturalism. A hopeless whimper.

In the Gospel message Christ says, “Your life will end. You won’t win this fight (in this life) against the dying of the light. Not in physical terms. But believe in me, and I’ll give you new life, and you’ll find that I raged against the dying of the light so that when you lose that battle you’ll find the completion of the new life that I’ve given you fulfilled.”

1 comment:

  1. "I was out for a run this morning and was listening to the Interstellar Soundtrack (because I’m a truly strange person)."

    And here I thought that I was all alone.

    What I appreciate about Dylan Thomas' poem is that it is a great improvement of sentiment above the maudlin "circle of life", death is just a part of life rubbish by his contemporaries and nowadays, all of which leads to apathy. Death is, in fact, unnatural, in the moral kosmos of God, even if it natural in the materialist kosmos of the naturalists.


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