Christopher Nolan and the Big Picture Focus of Divine Storytelling

[Alternate title: God Is a Master Novelist, Part Three]


Let me put it bluntly: Interstellar is the most important movie ever made. Now, I’m not going to name all the reasons why; that’s for the last chapter of my book, The Hero Doctrine, to explain. And many people who have seen it once, maybe even twice or three times, are going to immediately disagree. That is because they do not see it with the right eyes.

As a piece of visual entertainment, it is a good movie. It has some eye-popping spectacle and a few incredibly thrilling sequences. Who knew a docking scene could be so viscerally astonishing? The acting was good, and it can get very emotional, and the robot is funny. But some parts were just weird and didn’t make sense. It’s hard to hear the spoken lines sometimes and not everything plays out the way we might have felt it should. They spend too long on Earth, which is boring (Earth is dying, we get it), and there isn’t enough action, and the science seems questionable and even ridiculous sometimes. How could he have survived a black hole, and why does it take him to his daughter with all those interconnected compartments and whatever? And the plot itself? It gets pretty weird, and doesn’t always make sense. But on the whole a pretty entertaining movie, even if the storytelling isn’t always clear and grounded.

That is how most people see it, because that’s how most people see movies. It’s also how most people read books. And lastly, it is how most people interpret their life on earth.

The way time plays out to us is like a movie. Bit by bit, frame by frame, seeing only things straight ahead, only ever dealing with the moment. That’s the only way we really have to experience life: linear time. So naturally we expect it to make sense in a linear fashion, the way most movies do. The filmmakers often focus much more on the scene and making it make perfect sense to the viewer as possible to get them interested in what happens next. The moment matters much more than the end result.

Watching Interstellar this way, through the lens of pure linear storytelling, will produce mixed results, though probably more positive than negative. Because it’s not a perfect film. The flow of entertainment, keeping us perfectly aware of the stakes and the factors of plot and character motivations, is imperfect. Our expectations for where the story is going are not always met. Some of the lines and how they are delivered confuse us, as well as the compacted nature of the plot. Christopher Nolan expects us to be able to keep up with every single line and accompanying image even as we’re still trying to make sense of the last scene.

The first point is this: Nolan’s priority in constructing his stories is not ease of first-time viewing experience. His focus is bigger. Much bigger. And so occasionally he’s going to give us imperfect moments that throw our understanding askew and get our minds off-track. His scenes are often more about setting up ideas and themes and little allegorical moments than setting up plot threads that lead to purely entertaining conclusions. Having imperfect beats isn’t necessarily done on purpose; rather, it’s an unfortunate side effect from having his eyes on the larger picture. And sometimes the two aren’t reconcilable.

I know this because I see my stories the same way. When I write, when I brainstorm, I am much more focused on constructing these plots and concepts and character arcs as a whole than understanding the story from the linear perspective readers are forced to experience the story through. Like Nolan, this is not done on purpose; it just shows my priorities. I get very frustrated with the nature of writing groups, as my peers can only read one chapter at a time, and cannot see the story as a whole the way I do. I’ll put a certain plot element in an early chapter as foreshadowing for its use later on in the story, knowing it’s necessary, but it will confuse members of my writing group because to them, it only exists in that first iteration, and sometimes there’s just not a perfect place to put something like that. I am much more concerned with it being there at all than with the reader’s perfect comfort the first time through. The struggle lies with ensuring that it doesn’t deter the reader from continuing on, and hoping, hoping that they remember it when it comes up again towards the climax of the book.

So, now to the real point: God is a like novelist. His priority is, like Nolan’s, not on ease of first-time viewing experience. He isn’t writing our lives so every new plot turn makes perfect sense. The dialogue doesn’t always gel with the action. The score sometimes throws us off-kilter. Ugly moments happen that jar us from our immersion in this world. People don’t always act like we expect them too. Events don’t always or even often play out like we expect them too. And certainly our very lives don’t turn out like we expect them too. So many times things just don’t make sense, and stay that way for years of our lives. Life is not comfortable, nor does it always flow smoothly.

No, like Nolan’s films, our lives are meant to be studied. Seen as a whole, with past events and memories being pondered over and reflected upon in relation to each other, and not in the linear way we experience time. Life only makes sense when we can look back over it and see connections that aren’t immediately apparent. We have memories because it is absolutely imperative that we read over past chapters, that we underline and draw arrows, that we study it out in our minds and articulate our thoughts through writing. Then, as the first few connections are made between two seemingly disparate events, our eyes began to be open, and we start seeing more. Life becomes great literature, not a story to entertain you from moment to moment, but something to read through several times, something to look more deeply at and ultimately internalize so you see the rest of existence with new eyes. If we don’t do this, “the data* makes no sense.”

Heavenly Father with our mortal experience, and Christopher Nolan with his films, are not focused on the beat-by-beat storytelling that other writers generally are. Their focus, rather, is purely on story, and it is up to us to fashion together the far higher intellectual and spiritual plot going on behind the surface plot. They have wider visions and higher ambitions than making life or a movie a merely entertaining experience. That might seem like a lot for a filmmaker or storyteller to expect of a viewer or reader, and it probably is. But I promise, with Christopher Nolan, and especially with God Himself, such close readings are more rewarding than you can possibly imagine. 

So watch Interstellar one more time. For theme in addition to the complex, compact plot. Look for gospel parables about the failure of the philosophies of man to save humanity, about God’s relationship to His children and the height of human achievement through parenthood, about rising above the dust of this world for the aim of celestial heights, where our potential to become like gods is as unlimited as the universe itself. Listen to the music, to the use of the church organ purposefully chosen by Nolan to give a religious feel to the experience, which is essentially a spiritually transcendent one. Think carefully on the allegorical nature of the Endurance, and how it was broken by Mann and brought at one again by an impossible, but necessary act. It’s all there. To what extent Nolan did all this on purpose or not is a question I intend to ask him if I ever get the chance to meet him, but he definitely has an innate sense of Mormon doctrine whether he’s aware of it or not.

And remember to look at the life story God is writing you the same way. Don’t interpret God’s arc for you as a linear progression. Study your own life the way you would a great work of literature: not as a river flowing in one direction, but as a sea of experiences and truths that collectively make a masterpiece as you carefully examine them in relation to each other. And remember that God is not the only one writing your story. And when you get a sense of that larger picture, of the three acts of our existence of which this life is but the second, your own spiritual pen will be able to fill in the gaps, and allow you to become more like the Divine Storyteller Himself. We do not live to be entertained, and neither should we expect the stories we experience to only entertain.

Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom. That includes your very own book of life.


*On that word, “data”: I read one review on the internet that just couldn’t get over Interstellar’s use when the singular “datum” should have been used. And that was all he could write about. That was all his limited mind saw. He ignored the treasure trove of truth and beauty that was the rest of the film because he disagreed with one minor rhetorical decision that could easily be reconciled with even the slightest good will. How often do people fall away from the church because they are distracted by the tiniest crack in their perception of the theology while they ignore the entire rest of this literally inexhaustible gospel?


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