Interstellar’s box office total is $622,932,412 and counting. It is the eighth highest-grossing film of the year and has spawned an endless raft of thinkpieces testing the validity of its science and applauding the innovation of its philosophy. But it is not so new. The idea that propels the plot – there is a universal super-consciousness that transcends time and space, and in which all human life is connected – has been around for about 3,000 years. It is Vedic.
When the film’s astronaut hero (Matthew McConaughey), declares that the mysterious and all-knowing “they” who created a wormhole near Saturn through which he travels to save mankind – dissolving his sense of material reality in the process – are in fact “us”, he is simply repeating the central notion of the Upanishads, India’s oldest philosophical texts. These hold that individual human minds are merely brief reflections within a cosmic one.
McConaughey’s character doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk. So, the multidimensional tesseract – that endlessly reflective prism he finds himself in as he comes to this realisation, and in which he views life from every perspective – is the film’s expression of Indra’s net, the Hindu metaphor which depicts the universe as an eternal web of existence spun by the king of the gods, each of its intersections adorned with an infinitely sided jewel, every one continually reflecting the others.
Of course, Hollywood’s eager embrace of Buddhism, yoga and other esoteric Indian systems is not new. David Lynch is an outspoken exponent of transcendental meditation, Richard Gere follows the Dalai Lama and Julia Roberts affirmed her Hinduism in the wake of Eat, Pray, Love – a movie that tells the tale of a modern American woman’s journey towards peace through Indian spiritual practises that grossed over $200m (£128.6m). Hinduism can get the tills ringing even when it urges parsimony.
Nolan has long been a devout subscriber to the cause. A director famed for being able to get a multimillion dollar project off the ground with only his own name as collateral, he clearly knows the value of pre-existing brands such as Hinduism. His breakthrough hit, Memento, had Guy Pearce as an amnesiac whose unreliable consciousness is the faulty lens through which we see the story of a murder, told both in chronological and reverse order. This notion of distrusting individual reality and looking beyond it for truth was extended in Nolan’s Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of “psychonauts” on a heist deep within the recesses of a billionaire’s mind – a spiralling adventure of dreams within dreams in which the laws of nature increasingly bend and warp – before finding its purest expression in Interstellar.