My family loves Christmas movies. Each year, we can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be over so we can finally dust off the Christmas movie collection, and start the annual reviewing.
Some of our favorites are probably also some of your favorites: Home Alone 1, 2, & 3 (we won’t speak of 4 & 5); The Santa Clause 1 & 2 (we won’t speak of 3); Fred Claus; Elf; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; A Christmas Story; The Polar Express; and of course, Scrooge – the Albert Finney musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Over the years I’ve realized that I love these movies for the same reason that I love Danish Wedding Cookies at Christmas: because of the memories. They remind me of my childhood, sitting with my family in the glow of the glittering lights of the Christmas tree, watching the Grinch steal from the Whos down in Whoville, while enjoying my mother’s homemade Danish Wedding Cookies and a warm mug of hot chocolate.
And I appreciate that most Christmas movies deal with important themes. For example, A Christmas Carol is about redemption, Home Alone is about the value of family, and Elf is about… Elf is about… candy?
But a funny thing has been happening as I’ve grown older. I’ve carried on the Christmas movie watching tradition with my kids, and as we’ve sat down to re-watch beloved holiday classics each year, I’ve felt less and less satisfied.
This year I’ve finally figured out why.
Like Buddy the Elf’s four major food groups (candy, candy corn, candy canes, and syrup), most Christmas movies are sweet, but not nutritious; they can be quite tasty, but they’re not very filling; they are stuffed with empty calories when I’m longing for proteins and vitamins and minerals and something to help me stay healthy and alive.
Presents, leg lamps, someone trying to destroy Christmas, someone trying to save Christmas, the latest flying sleigh technology, updating Dickens, computerizing Dickens, Muppetizing Dickens, Bill Murraying Dickens, missing reindeer, flying reindeer, reindeer with attitudes, violent kids left home by themselves, and any one of the hundreds of interpretations of Santa Claus… what’s the point?
There are certainly exceptions, but for the most part, each tries to be bigger and shinier and more colorful and festive than the last one, but most Christmas movies wind up ultimately small and dull and monochrome and lifeless when you hold them up to the light of the season that they are supposed to represent.
Which brings me to my new favorite Christmas movie.
Not only is Interstellar my new favorite Christmas movie, but I contend that it is one the best Christmas movies to come out of Hollywood in years. Accidentally. Obviously, Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make a movie that had the least bit to do with December 25, but inadvertently, he did.
And then some.
To really help explain what I mean, let’s go back to the idea that most Christmas movies are too small. Interstellar is the polar opposite – a big movie, dealing with big problems, big solutions, and the nature of the universe.
You can’t get much bigger than that.
Because of the mind-crushing size of the universe, most of us don’t spend much time pondering it. Interstellar did, imagining that humanity needed to find a way across the universe to another galaxy, and the only possibility of crossing the vast distances from galaxy to galaxy would be through the bending of space and the creation of a wormhole.
Interstellar, released in the fall of 2014, made us stop and think about the nature of the universe, and our place within it, while Christmas movies at their most shallow only ask us to wonder if we’re going to get a Red Ryder BB gun or a Turbo Man action figure, if Santa will get all the presents delivered on time, or – at their deepest – how much of a difference we make in the lives of those around us.
Just what is the nature of the universe, and what is our place in it? Think about that question for a second. And then watch this video.
That expansive universe is the playground of Interstellar.
But the video also explores the complexity of the microscopic universe, which makes me think that I wasn’t exactly right when I mentioned that Christmas films were too small. In some ways, they aren’t small enough, choosing to gloss over important details on their frenzied way to become the next holiday classic.
Oftentimes the smallest details can be the most important.
In Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan lived in the details, forgoing the use of massive amounts of green screen that most of his contemporaries overuse in such films and using half as much CGI. He had 500 acres of corn planted in the Canadian outback, built models of spaceships, sought out the most alien looking backdrops in actual physical locations, and went to the trouble of having Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist, serve as scientific consultant for the film in an attempt to have the scientific details as accurate as possible (read this for a fascinating article about the colliding of the science and the filmmaking in the making of Interstellar).
And the heartbeat of the film is the small, touching story of the relationship between a father and a daughter. With all the huge set pieces and impressive special effects, the film boils down to the love between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain/Ellen Burstyn).
It may not be nearly as impressive as the “twin paradox” of Nolan’s film, but I think I have proven my point that Interstellar is simultaneously a huge movie and a small movie. However, I still haven’t proven that it deserves to be my favorite Christmas movie.
But before I go there, I need to pause and qualify something about myself, as there is still a fact about me that might have a direct impact on the argument.
I believe that this amazingly, mind-boggling, incomprehensibly unfathomably enormous place that we call the universe was created.
If you disagree with that statement, you’re more than welcome to continue reading, but you will be disagreeing with the foundation of my argument. Please go on enjoying Interstellar as good science fiction cinema and It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard as entertaining holiday flicks, but you can forget about me and this blog post. After all, I’m not trying to argue for the existence of God, nor am I trying to prove some “Young Earth”, “Old Earth” argument. I’m simply trying to explain why Interstellar is my new favorite Christmas movie.
The car comes skidding to a halt as the believer response comes almost immediately: “Interstellar doesn’t mention God at all, and actually seems to go out of its way to avoid talking about God! How could that possibly be a Christmas movie?”
My simple answer is this: look at the list of the top 25 Christmas movies from Rotten Tomatoes and tell me how many of those movies don’t mention God, and actually seem to go out of their way to avoid talking about God.
With that question out of the way, let’s head back out into the universe, and in case you’re wondering, we’ll not go gently into that good night.
The God of Scripture created the universe, and any open reading of the Scriptures will support that idea. For example:
Thinking back to that video about the size of the universe which is theorized to be at least 46 billion light years across, it blows my mind to imagine that the God we read about in Scripture is the same God who made it all (for more about the size of the universe, visit this fantastic site.) This is one of the reasons why those of us who believe in that God also want to worship him, because of the idea that He is so indescribably immense that He can make something as indescribably immense as the universe.
But it doesn’t stop there. That same God is the God of the details, as well.
But even that’s not the end of it – the immensity and infinitesimality of the universe. Those are only the parts of the universe that we can experience with our senses. God is also the God of the unseen creation – what we might call heaven.
What do we know about heaven? Most people have an opinion of heaven, based on their own hopes. People see it as a place full of puffy clouds, with angels playing harps, and everyone getting the things they wanted to get down on earth.
But what does Scripture tell us about heaven, as another part of God’s creation?
Some of the language of heaven in Scripture is poetic, and some is literal. Regardless, when you read these and other Scripture passages about heaven, you come away with at least a few basic ideas about it: Heaven is fantastic; heaven can accommodate a lot of people; and experiencing heaven will involve giving all of one’s attention and worship to the One who made heaven and us.
So, we’ve established that according to the Scripture, God made the universe and everything in it, and God made heaven, and God reigns over it all. While this might be nice to consider from a theological standpoint, it still doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding how Interstellar could be connected – even loosely – to Christmas.
Hang with me.
The connective tissue is found in identifying one key player who we’ve not mentioned yet. Who was there with God while all of this was being done? Who was there while the hairs on our head were being counted? While the stars were being hung in the sky? While the foundations were being laid in the Father’s house?
Jesus. The Creator.
Jesus. Who transcends time.
Jesus. Who transcends space.
We need to stop and consider Him for a moment, this person we’re talking about.
According to Scripture, Jesus was there at the beginning, “with God… and was God”, making all things, speaking things into existence as The Word. He made everything in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, all things were created through him and for him, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest quark, and everything in between. He made them. He was Lord over the heavens and earth before time began.
And he chose to leave it all.
To become one of these.
The one who created the heavens and the earth, now helpless.
Unable to feed himself when hungry.
Unable to wipe his own bottom after a big poop.
The Word of God, who spoke the universe into creation, unable to say his own name and having to learn again how to speak.
How to roll over. How to crawl. How to walk. How to run.
The one who ruled over the place where there was no pain, suffering, tears, or death chose to enter into a reality as a helpless, tiny baby on a insignificant little rock in the farthest corner of the universe where he would experience pain, suffering, tears, and death.
Why would he do this?
Was it a grand experiment? The Christ grew bored in heaven, and so he decided that becoming a human would be an interesting experiment?
Was Christ like King Richard in Ivanhoe, who disguised himself as a wandering knight as he sought out adventure?
It was a rescue mission.
Let’s return back to Interstellar for a moment. In Christopher Nolan’s film – as in reality – space is vast, empty, and lifeless. At one point early in the film, Romilly (David Gayasi), one of the scientists, is having a difficult time adjusting to the idea of being in a small spacecraft voyaging through the deep regions of space, and so pounds on the side of the ship in frustration, and exclaims, “Millimeters of aluminum— that’s it! And nothing within millions of miles that won’t kill us in seconds.”
As far as science has been able to figure out, there is nothing out there like what we have here. Our tiny little home, our “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan called it. Scientists posit that there might be others out there, far distant planets capable of sustaining life, and while we’re hopeful that other planets exist like our own, right now this is the only show in town. The only place that God created with beings like us, beings made imago dei, in His own image (Genesis 1:27).
And what do we bring to the table?
In Interstellar, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) nails it.
And we get a glimpse into the rescue mission here. He created us on this pale blue dot, and for some unknowable reason, He loves us. We’re told this over and over in Scripture, with perhaps the most famous passage being this:
And how did we repay him? By rebelling against him, and insisting on doing things our way. From the very beginning, humanity has been characterized by arrogance, pride, lust, vengeance, greed, anger, hatred, evil.
And this evil that exists in each of us is what keeps us from being able to be with him. After all, Scripture tells us this very important truth about heaven:
Unfortunately, that means the door is closed on all of us, because all of us are impure, we’re all shameful and deceitful. And so we needed rescuing.
And who better to rescue us, than the One who created us?
And just like Christopher Nolan’s wormhole opened the doorway to a far away galaxy, Jesus Christ’s decision to be born a baby, to live the sinless, perfect life that we were unable to live, and then to die on the cross in our place opened a doorway that enabled us to cross from this world to his.
When I compare Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to any of the films that we typically watch at Christmas, those movies come up woefully short. They are timid, they are insufficient, they don’t inspire wonder or awe, they don’t give us any sense of the majesty of the world and the universe that God created. They don’t give a hint or a tease about the condition of humanity that would necessitate the need for Christmas.
I’ll still watch them, and I’ll still enjoy them for what they are, and if I get up the nerve, I might even try to reproduce my mother’s Danish Wedding Cookies for my own kids, but they don’t come close to pointing me in the direction of the one who was born in that stable two thousand years ago.
Interstellar did that, in spades.
Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for making a big, bombastic, small, heartfelt film that made me remember a certain little universe-creating baby born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Thank you for pointing me back to Jesus.
Because He is the one I seek.