She’s out there. Setting up camp.
Alone. In a strange galaxy.
Maybe right now she’s settling in for the long nap
In the light of our new sun
In our new home.
Interstellar is heart-rending and intoxicating as an emotional experience, transcendent as cinema. It is a circus performance, a melodrama, an opera.
Christopher Nolan‘s film is more, however, than its surface at first indicates. While the wonderful entertainment machine Inception (2010) was mechanical, Interstellar is “quantum mechanical”: more turbulent, less tidy and more attuned to the subconscious. It does not only represent a new emotional maturity in Nolan, but also a form of construction and staging that gives fresh room for deep patterns and structures – painstakingly detailed, opening up for interpretation on an analytical level not seemingly present in earlier films.
(This is the first of three articles about Interstellar and looks at its structure. Article B winds up its many thematic strands, including identity, religion, lies and truth, and inflexible perspectives. Article C explores the film as an experience, and various other aspects, including sound, music, editing and consistency. The articles originally appeared in Norwegian in connection with the film’s 2014 release, and are unchanged except for a few reinforcements via Blu-ray screenshots for improved explanation.)
This article contains spoilers for the entire plot of Interstellar.
The articles will read better if you have seen the film, but we shall allow ourselves a short summary of its premise and cast of characters: In the not-too-distant future, plant diseases and lack of oxygen will soon make Earth uninhabitable. In utmost secrecy, NASA has given Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) the task of leading an expedition through a wormhole to another galaxy to find a new home for humanity. Other participants are the scientists Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as the robots TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart). Eventually they join Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), one of 12 astronauts sent out on reconnaissance some years ago. On Earth the project is led by Amelia’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Cooper has left his children behind (they appear in the film at different levels of age since time, due to relativity, goes “faster” on Earth than for the astronauts): Tom (Timothée Chalamet, Casey Affleck) and Murphy, called Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn). Murph becomes Professor Brand’s right hand, but is deeply traumatised because her father left her. Years are passing with no news and her hope to see him again grows increasingly dim.
Important themes in Interstellar are loneliness and inflexible world views. The film is full of characters imprisoned in isolated surroundings. Years ago twelve astronauts were sent out on lonely reconnaissance missions. Three of them sit alone on each their planet, waiting for a reunion with humanity. Isolation and diminished hope have made Dr. Mann mentally disturbed, obsessed with death and ruthless ideas about the survival of the species. Romilly is waiting for 23 years alone in the spaceship for the rest of the crew to return from Miller’s planet. The film often portrays the astronauts as secluded from each other, inside their own small vessels. Cooper hurtles alone into the black hole called Gargantua, where he is going to transcend the boundaries of human science. Back on Earth his son Tom runs the family farm with monomaniacal determination and in denial of other options. NASA has its secret headquarter where a separate society of scientists work on their Plan A. The focal point of both plan and project, Professor Brand, is alone with his knowledge that it is all a sham. Cooper becomes obsessed with the thought of re-establishing contact with his daughter Murph, who in her turn no longer has contact with her brother.
One of the most iconic situations in Interstellar is the docking between the spaceship and a smaller vessel. It occurs several times, culminating when the rogue Dr. Mann tries to dock to take over the mothership, then it spins out of control and Cooper must still try to dock with it. For several minutes the only thing that matters in the film is to get a big round thingy to fit into another big round thingy. In fact, the future of the entire humanity hinges on this utterly concrete activity. Interstellar is fetishising the situation enormously by stretching it out in time, and bombarding it with an almost ritualistic, churning use of recurring elements, both in image, sound and score. Considering that Cooper’s yearning for a reunion with Murph is a driving force in the story, it is tempting to interpret this recurring docking situation not only as a mechanical counterpart to the human longing, but as a grandiose articulation of the need for contact, to break the isolation and touch one another, that runs through the film on several levels.
The docking situation occurs in three incarnations. All of them are of paramount importance. It is introduced, on a lesser scale, just after the astronauts have taken off from Earth and must dock with the orbiting mothership or else the expedition will already have failed – with the same film music as when Dr. Mann is trying to dock, in the second and most iconic incarnation. The third time the situation is of a totally different nature, where Cooper manages to dock with the wildly rotating ship, which on top of everything is about to crash on Dr. Mann’s planet. On the whole, Interstellar feels highly structured and methodical: after the first docking the next important event is to put the spaceship into rotation, and the third docking scene is a combination of these two events – docking and rotation. This is more than just structural elegance, however, since it mirrors the development of the film: precisely the two most controlled, slow and lingering situations of the early stage of the mission are now occurring in a chaotic, desperate context, something that is perfectly expressing the expedition’s descent from proud optimism into hell.
The docking mechanism of the mothership turns on a light and opens its three lids, as if signalling “welcome” with outstretched arms (a gesture hypnotically lingered upon during all three dockings). Dr. Mann is not friendly, however, he intends to “rape” the spaceship. In one of Interstellar‘s many connections to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Mann combines both the astronaut Bowman, who is blasting himself into Kubrick’s spaceship, and HAL 9000, who has become mentally disturbed and wants to kill the crew because it believes that to be in the best interests of the mission. When the docking fails Dr. Mann attempts to do it manually, but the computer answers – in an almost triumphant, overbearing tone – “Imperfect contact”, as if in a partly solemn, partly mocking articulation of the film’s all-important motif about the human need for contact. (This enunciation technique is part of a pattern in the film, to which we will return when discussing the big detachment scene.) The other astronauts are hurrying after Dr. Mann in another vessel, and when Cooper asks TARS if Dr. Mann has docked, the robot merely answers with the word “Imperfectly”, as if an echo of the other computer’s announcement.
During one particularly intense sequence it turns out that Cooper himself is the ghost that the 10-year-old Murph believed haunted the house and left behind coded messages behind. (One of the film’s first lines, “I thought you were the ghost”, which she says to her father after his loud nightmare, therefore acquires new meaning.) Through a multidimensional continuum – a so-called Tesseract – inside the black hole Gargantua, Cooper travels back in time to leave the messages, and ends up behind the same bookcase central to the ghost’s manifestations. At the same time, the adult Murph is drawn back to her childhood home – an inexplicable intuition tells her that the solution to the film’s scientific issue of gravity somehow resides in her childhood experiences.
The contact motif also unfolds on a micro level. Back in her childhood bedroom, one of her first actions is to pick up two models: an Apollo vessel and a lunar lander. She holds them near each other – there seems no conscious thought involved, but her hands, or subconscious, yearn to connect them, in a faint echo of the docking scenes. While inside that room she is filmed almost constantly against the bookcase, which looks like a many-coloured magical backdrop in enticingly abstract soft focus.
Soon Murph wanders restlessly before the bookcase, thinking “What am I missing”. She is intensely attempting to overcome her own “imperfect contact” – waiting for her brain’s neurons to send the right signals, produce the necessary contact to make the solution turn up in her mind. The mysterious ways our subconscious is working create some sort of parallel to the situation behind the bookcase, where the Tesseract constitutes an enormous and incomprehensible network – but at the same time we get the impression that it directly springs forth from the minds of the five-dimensional beings that have made it.
When the metaphysical contact between Cooper and Murph – through the bookcase across time and space – finally happens, it immediately manifests itself in the physical world too, as if a ripple effect. When Murph has grasped the solution, she leaves the house at once and embraces her brother – the film’s first sign of affection between them. And later, after having solved the all-important equation in yet another breakthrough, she gives her friend, the doctor, a big kiss on the mouth.
It was Dr. Mann who introduced the idea that the last thing we see in our mind’s eye before we die, are our children – to will ourselves into living some more, for the children’s sake. (This gets an ironic echo since the last thing he says before his own death in the explosion is “There is a moment…” – his megalomaniacal plan to take over the ship and his consequent abrupt demise will rob him of any time of reflection before his own death.) When Cooper plunges into Gargantua, this is very likely a suicide mission. Via the Tesseract Cooper succeeds in seeing his child, after which we expect that Dr. Mann’s idea will play a role in the film, since it was announced with great emphasis, and that Cooper therefore dies. But in my interpretation he survives. The fact that our expectations are thwarted is merely another sign of his irrepressible character – where everyone else would have perished, he is able defeat even death.
After his indirect contact with Murph, Cooper again transcends time and space. Now another contact takes place – only a tad more tangible – an event that also helps reinforce the film’s parallels between the two women in Cooper’s life. Again he is a “ghost”, but now made of light, as he materialises in highly distorted form inside the spaceship at the time that it brought the astronauts through the wormhole. The transparent hand that Amelia touched then, now turns out to belong to Cooper, travelling in the opposite direction to his home galaxy. In the scene’s climax he reveals himself as almost divine – a mixture of human being and the future, five-dimensional humans who built the Tesseract? – since one of his eyes appears as a circle of light. Amelia rapturously claims that this is the “first handshake”, with extraterrestrials she believes, but in the film’s context it is also a “last handshake”, since it is the narrative’s last physical contact between Cooper and Amelia.
Cooper and Amelia’s occasionally strained relationship is gradually softened through a pattern of escalating physical contacts. On Dr. Mann’s planet Cooper puts his hand on her back as she receives the news about her father’s death, their first touch altogether. Cooper’s plan to use Gargantua’s gravitational pull to reach Edmunds’s planet will mean such a large time slippage that he must give up any hope ever to see his children again. Amelia’s response is to touch his space helmet as a caress. The pattern culminates in their ecstatic contact within the wormhole.
Many other caresses can be gleaned from the film, of an even more indirect nature. When Cooper returns to the spaceship after the unfortunate visit to Miller’s planet, in escalating emotional turmoil he is going through 23 years of video messages. All of them are from his son Tom. Suddenly it is the end – everything falls silent, even the film music is turned off – with no sign of life from Murph. He grabs the black screen with both hands, and all of a sudden the image of (the adult) Murph appears. It is as if Cooper, in his desperate guilt and love, has conjured her up. At the same time we see on the screen that Murph is touching the monitor, in the other galaxy, as she sits with extended arm after having turned on the recorder. In a visual metaphor, this is an indirect hand contact across the universe.
Furthermore, since in the next scene we are back on Earth, where Murph turns off the device after she has finished the recording, the editing suggests that she has sent her message “simultaneously” with Cooper sitting at the receiving end. This is of course an extraordinarily unrealistic coincidence, but all the more poetic – and the breach of realism is hidden by the implied nature of the simultaneity. Nevertheless, this situation can be a metaphor, and foreshadowing, of the fact that love in Interstellar turns out to be a physical, “quantifiable” power that will eventually lead Cooper to the correct place in the Tesseract.
We see a similar symbolic helping hand in the Tesseract when the yearning in Cooper and the adult Murph to communicate with each other is at its strongest: Murph puts her hand on the bookcase, while Cooper – although beyond time and space! – is touching its “backside” in the same way. This is precisely the point in time where the robot TARS reaches Cooper on the radio – as if the “caress” here sets off a breakthrough. For it is during the discussion between Cooper and TARS that they find out how to send the two last, decisive messages to Murph: the co-ordinates of the NASA headquarters and the quantum data from Gargantua. The latter data is encoded into the second hand of the wristwatch that Cooper gave the 10-year-old Murph as a farewell present. The term “second hand” is definitely fitting very snugly into this pattern of touching and hands.
The situation by the bookcase also opens up for another form of contact. Since the 10-year-old Murph can feel that the ghost is actually a person – perhaps on some infinitely faint level she picks up Cooper bellowing her name from “the other side” – what is then more natural than Cooper managing to feel his own presence? It is here the very early scene of Cooper’s nightmare comes in, fuelled by his days as a NASA pilot when he crashed because of a “gravitational anomaly”. The dream is a stand-alone event in the film. It gives the impression that Cooper is plagued by traumas, but the rest of the film shows him as an exceptionally resilient person who takes everything in his stride, and we never see him dream again. The nightmare seems to take place, however, “at the same time” that the future Cooper arrives behind the bookcase via the Tesseract.
In the beginning he expresses frustration, pounding the bookcase with all his might. Judging from the editing Cooper’s dream seems to occur the night before the breakfast scene, where Murph comes to the table with the two model Apollo vessels – they have fallen down from the bookcase and are in need of repair. Is it conceivable that Cooper has sensed his own presence and that this has set off the dream? The frustration of Cooper-behind-the-bookcase is mirrored in the fact that the dream is about Cooper’s most traumatic moment – a crash that seems emblematic for his interrupted NASA career and later maladjusted life – and the crash happens with the same type of vessel that Cooper-behind-the-bookcase just before left behind as a wreck inside Gargantua. He even ejected himself from it, something we must presume also happened during Cooper’s earlier crash – or else it would have hit the ground with him inside.
Interstellar is also marked by another form of contact, through a large number of parallels between the narrative planes in space and on Earth. The opening shot combines the two planes via models of space shuttles on a bookshelf, where the dust on the shelf from the cornfields can also be a metaphor of stardust. We see its most eye-catching manifestation in the film’s extended, virtuosic crosscutting event: a “four-dimensional” construct constituted by the confrontation between Cooper and Dr. Mann on the ice planet, Amelia’s activities and later rescue mission, Romilly’s efforts to access the robot KIPP, and Murph’s medical examination of Tom’s lung-diseased family on Earth. One of the most spectacular images of the sequence is a large overview where Cooper and Dr. Mann fight each other in the frozen desolation, like two stick figures. (Here our thoughts go to the climactic struggle between the two antagonists of Erich von Stroheim‘s Greed from 1924, where the figures on the enormous salt flat could well have been the last men on Earth, but even then they cannot help fight each other.)
The struggle ends with Cooper almost suffocating after his helmet cracks. This is directly mirrored in the examination of Tom’s son Coop (!), even through the doctor’s request that the boy should “Give me a deep breath”, as if in extra emphasis of the breathing problems echo. On Earth too violence occurs, since Tom, agitated by the outside interference, knocks the doctor down. Afterwards, Amelia’s dramatic mission to save Cooper is mirrored in Murph’s evacuation of Tom’s family. Here both ladies are saving people from suffocating and are also racing against time, since Murph has to hurry before her brother returns from putting out the fire in the cornfield. The flames of that field are echoed by the explosion that kills Romilly, and also form a general contrast to the cold on the planet. Other than that, the idea that Earth is in the process of running out of oxygen and food seems like a clear parallel to the explorers’ constant dependence on the oxygen in their spacesuits, as well as the limited amount of supplies and fuel they bring along.
Two of the most memorable “transport stages” in Interstellar – in the entire film history? – are the journeys through the wormhole and later into the black hole Gargantua. The early scene where the family are ploughing their car through the cornfield when chasing the drone, seems like a harbinger of the trip through the wormhole. Also the field represents a shortcut and a direct line between two points, and when the situation is filmed from inside the car, we are subjected to a great, noisy racket of bumping and shaking, which later happens to a much stronger degree in the wormhole. Furthermore, in that passage Cooper must relinquish control since the ship is not responding any more, and this small strand culminates in the black hole where his craft simply disintegrates. This chain of events reflects Cooper’s development in the respect of a reduction of his urge for control. During the space mission he insists on manual control of the vessels, but it is only when he fully succumbs to events beyond his control inside Gargantua that he achieves a breakthrough. The first link in the chain signals this development, since during the drone chase he entrusts Tom with the wheel.
Like the expedition, the car chase ends in a dangerous situation, where the family are close to drive off a cliff. The drone they catch resonates with Cooper’s situation: Precisely like this astronaut and NASA pilot has been forced to reprogram himself to become a farmer, the flying machine’s computer, by Cooper’s own hands no less, ends up running a combine harvester. Murph feels sorry for the drone and wants to let it loose, but when Cooper later decides to follow his own pioneer nature, Murph refuses to let him go.
The vast cornfields form a parallel to several phenomena in the extraterrestrial narrative plane: space itself, the water that seems to cover the entirety of Miller’s planet, and the uniform, icy desolation on Dr. Mann’s planet. The first time the cornfield is shown, it is engulfing the entire frame in overwhelming fashion and the thunder bleeds over into the next shot, mixing with the noise of the craft in Cooper’s nightmare.
That dream kicks off a visual motif of Interstellar, a camera placement very close to this vessel, with the camera gazing along the length of the fuselage. When Cooper leaves the farm to join the space mission, the camera is placed on the car’s body in a similar way. Nolan is “crosscutting” the images of this drive with the sound of the countdown for the mission, thus fusing car and spacecraft. Later this is turned on its head, when the sounds from Earth in Romilly’s headphones are laid over images of Saturn.
The car-spacecraft pattern continues in the scene where Murph and the doctor have to stop the car because a violent dust storm makes further driving impossible: they sit trapped inside as if they were on an inhospitable planet with only the “spacecraft” between them and annihilation. During another car trip the family don facial masks and protective goggles, which points forward to the spacesuits later in the film. The dust storms that strike with regular intervals in this flat landscape mirrors the giant waves that periodically and relentlessly roll over the quiet water surface of Miller’s planet – and the storms will eventually make Earth inhospitable, exactly what the waves have already done to the other planet.
A central element of the space missions is that the crew go into hibernation (“the long nap”, to save resources and oxygen, and prevent aging). This is reflected in Cooper and Murph’s own little car expedition to find out what lies at the co-ordinates they have stumbled upon, since Murph is asleep during a large part of their journey. When Cooper wakes up from hibernation by Saturn he wraps himself in a blanket, precisely like Murph when she has got up after the night that Cooper has spent “reading” the co-ordinates in the lines of dust on the floor. One of the most bittersweetly resonant mirrorings in the film occurs when Cooper on his way to join the space mission lifts up the red blanket in the passenger seat; during the co-ordinates expedition Murph hid under it as a stowaway, but now she is gone. In that same moment the countdown starts on the soundtrack, in a telling fusion of sorrow about the farewell and joy about the coming adventure.
By Saturn he finds out that Murph refuses to communicate, and afterwards he is wandering around wrapped in the blanket as if carrying the guilt over having left her. Soon he is, tellingly, fatherly and comforting towards the nervous Romilly. Another blanket figures in the moving farewell scene, where Murph, to turn her back on Cooper, “hides” under a blanket on the bed – a heartbreaking echo of the happy moment where the proud father found her under the carpet in the car.
The otherwise somewhat peripheral Tom is also honoured by parallels: on the way to the parent meeting Tom is waiting impatiently in the car and Cooper says “Slow down, Turbo”. He uses precisely the same phrase towards the robot CASE on the ice planet as it pilots one of the vessels. Cooper ends up gifting his car to Tom, and he “gifts” the spaceship to CASE, who will pilot it further on to Edmunds’s planet. (Because Amelia lacks pilot experience.) The robot’s line “Learned from the master” is dry humour, but also a reference to the fatherly “education” it has received from Cooper. Tom is in denial and willing to sacrifice the health of his family, and maybe cause their death, and this is an echo of Dr. Mann’s willingness to sacrifice the rest of the crew to execute his monomaniacal plans. The fact that a crying Dr. Mann embraces Cooper after having woken up from hibernation, as if a child seeking consolation, therefore gives rise to interesting associations, also in light of the embrace between brother and sister later in the film.
Time is utterly important in Interstellar. The waves on the water planet come with metronomical precision. The spaceship is rotating, so external light sources sweep in like rhythmic floodlights through the portholes, a gigantic astronomic clock in relentless reminder of time running out, as well as the time slippage in relation to Earth. Suitably enough, the phenomenon is especially prominent, but with remarkably subtle effect, as Cooper is going through the years of video messages. Since the light from the alien galaxy is also falling discretely on the faces on the screen, father and children are both united and distanced from each other, in poetic and paradoxical fashion.
From inside the Tesseract Cooper manages to code the quantum data from Gargantua into the wristwatch he gave to Murph, a central object in their traumatic farewell. The shot (see this article’s top image) just before the gift is given is staged so that his jacket sleeve has slid a bit up, making his own watch visible. This seems like a foreshadowing, and an extra subconscious underlining to the audience, about how important these two analogue wristwatches are going to become. Already in Cooper’s first scene in the film we can make out in the semi-darkness a circular reflection from his watch.
Circles are built in as a motif in Interstellar on many levels. We see Earth as a rotating circle in the porthole of the spaceship just after the astronauts have began their journey to Saturn. The spaceship too is circular. As the mission starts, a camera angle unique in the film makes the ship look like a wheel rolling away from the enormous Earth. The image has a singular poetry and resonance. Perhaps we sense the technological line from the history-making invention of the wheel to this spaceship? This seems to be Nolan’s very subtle answer to Kubrick’s famous, but more eye-catching cut from the bone – the invention of tools – to the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later the ship’s form and movement is mirrored in the astounding scene on Miller’s planet where TARS suddenly starts to make cartwheels to save Amelia from the giant wave.
The explosion caused by Dr. Mann destroys two of the twelve units forming the spaceship’s circle, in accordance with the two uninhabitable planets Cooper has visited so far, and the two dead out of the twelve astronauts who were originally sent on the reconnaissance mission. Also the circular clock faces are divided into twelve “units”, and thus the spaceship is connected to time (“space-time”?) and via the twelve apostles also to the film’s religious subtext (in article B).
The wormhole and the black hole Gargantua (both as seen from the outside), as well as the Tesseract (before Cooper falls into it) – all of these are formed like a sphere, “a circle in three dimensions”, as Romilly explains. After Cooper has ejected from the craft inside Gargantua his space helmet is filmed from the side, making his visor look like a sphere, in a direct echo of the Tesseract in the previous shot (see above). Among a plethora of other circular forms we find the emblems for the spaceship and the Lazarus project, and not least the extremely fetishised docking mechanisms of the vessels. The motif is further mirrored on Earth, since Professor Brand’s study is circular, with circular lines on the floor. Even the space station humanity finally end up in is cylinder-shaped.
The final contact
The epilogue’s encounter between Cooper and the old Murph is the culmination of several important thematic strands. The arc of the story is emphasised by the fact that the sudden, heavy organ chord as Cooper looks out the window towards the cornfield very early in the film, returns precisely as he is opening the door to Murph’s hospital room. One very important plot point is that relativity makes time go much faster for the population of Earth than for the astronauts, and this “time confusion” is here embedded in the more personal situation. We meet the film’s third “version” of Murph – on top of everything played by three different actresses – while Cooper is completely unchanged. Murph is his daughter, but the visuality of the situation means we have to struggle to make sense of it: her age is suitable for a mother who bids farewell to her son. In a way this situation too echoes Dr. Mann’s claim, since Murph gets the opportunity to see Cooper before she dies, but again the situation is turned on its head – Cooper is of course not her child. (The self-contradictory nature of the situation can be said to reflect, on a micro-level, the paradoxes that often arise in science fiction stories about time travel.)
Alienation as regards age also affects Cooper: his father-in-law says that he is either “born 40 years too late or 40 years too early”, and does not fit into his own time period. In addition to this, he now finds himself on a space station where he has an “Earth age” of 124 years, in a society – if we, in line with his father-in-law’s statement, assume he was 40 when he left – 84 years out of step with him. In the Tesseract sequence the fluid concept of time on Cooper’s side of the bookcase is mirrored in the situation in Murph’s room. She intensely thinks back on her childhood, repeats acts from that time, and the film constantly cuts between Murph as child and adult. Finally, as she embraces her brother, these two incarnations have merged: the otherwise cool and collected scientist is excited like a child.
In the epilogue Cooper and Murph take each other’s hands; after all the yearning and the film’s many indirect contacts, finally a physical contact after 84 years! She is wearing the all-important wristwatch, on the same hand that Cooper is now clasping. When Cooper left his 10-year-old daughter, he told her that the “function” of parents was “to be memories for our kids,” and also used the term ghosts as a metaphor for the relationship (and as a parable for why he left: “I can’t be your ghost right now – I need to exist”). When Cooper now turns up again, he looks exactly like before – the embodiment of a memory, etched into Murph’s mind during their traumatic farewell. The ghost metaphor too suits his unchanged appearance: in popular belief ghosts are frozen at a fixed age and state, and, like the characters of Interstellar, they are often victims of a trauma that prevents them from achieving peace.
At a point in the film TARS, with his rough robot humour, rephrases Newton’s third law as “the only way humans have ever figured out of getting somewhere is to leave something behind.” In the same way as contact and dockings, their opposites, farewells and detachments, are deeply embedded in Interstellar.
The entire plot revolves around the necessity for humanity to let go of Earth, put it behind them to travel to a new world. When the astronauts take off they are launched by an expendable rocket, and Interstellar lingers on how two separate stages – one for each child Cooper has left, in two separate situations – are falling down towards Earth. The expression “letting go” runs through the film: Tom’s wife says to him that he has to come to terms with the probable death of Cooper on his mission, and finally Tom lets go of his father.
Murph is wavering in her belief that her father can still be alive. When Professor Brand on his deathbed reveals that the entirety of Plan A is a ruse, Murph is threefold left behind: the Professor has become a father figure who now dies from her, and at the same time both he and Cooper seem to be traitors. Her response is a video message with the extraordinarily bitter accusation that Cooper has left his own daughter behind to be both suffocated and starved to death. Interstellar provides Murph’s accusation with a visual echo and added resonance: as the message arrives the camera is panning along a communication room that is empty, as if emphasising that she is speaking to deaf ears – “nobody cares” – and continues towards a porthole, where we see a craft that has left the spaceship, on its way down to Dr. Mann’s planet. Again Cooper has “left behind” Murph.
Several casualties are also left behind during the film. The body of Romilly remains behind on Dr. Mann’s planet after he dies in the explosion, but a nice touch is that the otherwise very human TARS suddenly speaks in a staccato and robotlike manner: “Romilly did not survive. I could not save him,” as if the death has shocked the robot, to the extent that it forgets to maintain a human persona. Furthermore, we see Doyle lie dead in the water on Miller’s planet, and Amelia in a brief glance spots Dr. Mann hovering among the debris after the explosion. (A reference to the lifeless astronaut floating in the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey?) Cooper’s craft is also left behind, as a wreck inside Gargantua.
The film’s epilogue gives the leaving-behind motif a small cascade of closures. Cooper and the old Murph bid each other a mutual, reconciled farewell – in strong contrast to Professor Brand’s own death scene. Thereafter both say goodbye to humanity: Murph through her imminent death; Cooper through stealing a craft and leaving the space station. In the film’s dying seconds we see Amelia bid farewell to her beloved Edmunds, whom she has found dead on his planet. And Humanity has left Earth behind. (The old Murph did not arrive from Earth in the epilogue but from another station.)
A particularly moving moment in Interstellar comes as the Tesseract is dismantled, softly and gracefully, before our eyes – which means Cooper’s farewell with the five-dimensional beings who built it, as well as the possibility (he thinks) to see his daughter again. This is nothing, however, against the unbearable departure scene between Cooper and Amelia, where Interstellar is at its most intensely emotional, majestic and operatic. The relationship between the film’s docking and detachment motifs here acts like magnets that repel each other: After Cooper through superhuman efforts (“It’s not possible!”; “No… it’s necessary!”) has managed to dock with the mothership, he must immediately detach again – as if in some sort of poetic echo of Newton’s third law.
A central reason that Dr. Mann’s own docking attempt was so riveting is the repetitive use of elements: The minimalist, mechanical, metallic, sirenlike theme in the film music. The screeching siren set off inside the vessel for each failed docking attempt. Dr. Mann with increasingly glassy eyes as he tries new overrides and tricks to force himself into the ship. The docking bolts that wriggle “in the air” instead of connecting. Both these bolts and the exquisitely irritating brief musical motif that seems to wriggle along with them, seem to mock Dr. Mann.
The same strategy of streching the situation out in time and create a riveting rhythm by relentless repetition returns during the detachments. In both situations the goal is to make a composition of a musical nature through image, sound and editing. The detachments, however, are carried out with a mixture of solemnity and ecstasy, and appears as lingering, stage-by-stage, majestically emotional, with crystal-clear lucidity: Motors that ignite in close-up with bursts of flame. Human bodies that twist with the sudden increase in g-force. Hans Zimmer‘s organ that roars for each ignition, virtually lifting the characters out of their seats. These gestures are performed three times, methodically rendered, ignition of motors to lift the spaceship out of Gargantua’s gravitational field.
Then, in a mirroring of the falling stages of the launch rocket at the expedition’s start, it is time for two stages of detachment: TARS and Cooper let themselves, one after each other, fall into Gargantua, every time accompanied by a shot of the fuel indicator, to signal that it is time for a farewell, before we see the motor die. Every time the word “detach” is announced, as if to enunciate the motif, in an echo of the majestic “stage two, separation” during the take-off from Earth and the grinding “Eject. Eject. Eject.” before Cooper abandons the vessel inside Gargantua. Every time we see a new craft detach: it lets itself fall, mechanically yet inconceivably gracefully, to subdued music, the sudden brief calm in contrast to all the other expansive, majestic devices. For each ignition of motors, every detachment, it is enunciated, as if a ritualistic chorus, the countdown “3-2-1” – the very essence of space travel – the last time in the background, as Cooper gives a little speech to Amelia.
For once he is using her first name. He evokes the motif “we agreed on 90%” – as TARS said, absolute honesty is not ideal in “communication with emotional beings” – but his open, clear gaze up through the hatch now signals the truth: it is not enough resources for both of them to reach Edmunds’s planet. Cooper sacrifices himself and embarks upon a suicide mission, Amelia devotes herself to create a future for humanity as a species. These two represent the best of humanity, an idea that earlier was discussed between them, but at that time with considerable arrogance and naivety.
The way Cooper sacrifices himself by deceiving someone else must be one of the biggest cliches in the art of storytelling. It is quite miraculous then how Christopher Nolan makes this so poignant – it feels as if a light is shining through us. The fact that the scene is a construction is obvious, but the patterns, even if not noticed consciously, nevertheless engage both our intellect and emotions, intensifying the experience. In this author’s experience, situations can be felt even more intensely when the patterns are exposed, so that we can almost wallow in the feeling of the interconnectivity of things, and the methodical construction of the sequence.
“Alone. In a strange galaxy.”
Nolan the king of crosscutting is not as evident in Interstellar, even though the four-dimensional orchestration centred around the fight on the ice planet is masterful. But in the film’s last seconds – a coda to the epilogue – he again turns to his sharpest weapon, but now in a subdued lyrical framework that shows him from an entirely new side.
Intertwined in a scene where Cooper steals a vessel to travel through the wormhole to join up with Amelia, we see five brief segments where Amelia is on Edmunds’s planet. They tell a story: Edmunds has died (in a rockslide?), Amelia buries him, removes her helmet so that we can see the planet has a “human” atmosphere, and has built a camp.
Echoes abound. Edmunds’s grave connects to the old Murph’s coming death. The “gravestone” is a sign marked “Edmunds-12”, taken from his hibernation tank to mark his final sleep. Its number polishes off the motif chain that includes the 12 astronauts sent out on reconnaissance 12 years ago, the pictures of them in the NASA conference room, the number of chairs around the table there, and the 12 units on the spaceship’s circle. The film’s circle motif is rounded off when Amelia takes off her helmet and the “collar” of her spacesuit forms a circle around her head. She throws her head backwards, eagerly breathing in the new planet’s air, thus bringing closure to the film’s constant threat of suffocation. (If Cooper manages to reach her, TARS and CASE too will be reunited – we can see the latter in activity on the planet.)
In the coda there is again a caress across galaxies: When Cooper puts on his helmet, there is a direct cut to Amelia taking off her own. The soundtrack is encouraging this poetic “simultaneity”, since during each of Amelia’s five segments we can hear the old Murph’s voice-over:
She’s out there. Setting up camp.
Alone. In a strange galaxy.
Maybe right now she’s settling in for the long nap
In the light of our new sun
In our new home.
Poeticised by the interaction with the images of Amelia, it is as if Interstellar has created its own poem to replace “Do not go gentle into that good night” which for each mention in the film has seemed increasingly tainted by the follies of the human race.
Even though images and words are hopeful, it cannot be denied that “Alone. In a strange galaxy,” can also be interpreted as an ominous metaphor of depression and general existential anxiety. Here our memories of Interstellar‘s darkest moments are stirred, for example the messages from Earth – as if from some sort of Hell – with accusations that Cooper has left Murph behind to suffocate and starve to death. The fact that Amelia is named after pilot legend Amelia Earhart, who disappeared for good during an expedition, also casts a certain shadow. The phrase “settling in for the long nap” forms a more neutral but resonant echo of Murph’s own death.
The images of Amelia are lyricised through camera movements – away from her, getting closer – with a gentle sense of rhythm. A shot where she still has her helmet on and the camera is closing in while she stands there with an impassive face, forms an echo with an image of Cooper with the same properties. In her frozen features we perceive a quiet grief about Edmunds’s death; in his, the expectation of new adventures. His shot is businesslike/action-oriented and her shot is thoughtful/poetic, mirroring their personalities.
In many ways Cooper is a ghost from the past, a representative of an irrepressible pioneer spirit, which is reflected in how he makes his own rules when he steals the vessel. But on Edmunds’s planet these two characters will merge the qualities that Cooper earlier in the film regarded as incompatible: Cooper and Amelia are forced to be both “explorers, pioneers” and “caretakers” in the new colony, where the population of fertilised human eggs of Plan B must be cultivated. This is a curious play on Cooper’s “split personality” earlier in the film: he tried to be a farmer, but was deep down a pioneer. But as he was suffering as a farmer, the astronaut in him was physically present, ironically enough, in the form of the future incarnation of himself, on the other side of the bookcase.
This can be related to a number of other substitutions and identity displacements. In their new home Cooper will replace Amelia’s dead lover, and Amelia will replace Cooper’s dead wife. At the same time Amelia is in a way a mother figure to Murph, and to an even stronger degree, Amelia’s own father, Professor Brand, became a father figure to Murph. Her voice-over to the images of Amelia suggests that the old Murph is projecting herself into her, and on some level she will live on through this other woman in Cooper’s life. The fact that the prominent pump organ theme in the score that so far has been centred on Cooper and Murph now accompanies the coda reinforces this suggestion.
The voice of the old Murph both starts – in the video recording, speaking about her father in the second shot – and ends Interstellar. The last seconds of the film are coloured by her poetic gaze. To Murph, Amelia too is a memory and a ghost. Precisely like Cooper at her hospital bed, Amelia looks exactly like before, in the images that Murph conjures up for us.
So a film that spans two galaxies, several thousand light years, black holes and stormy planets, can also be about the memory of a woman who for a few hours took a 10-year-old girl under her wings, a long, long time ago.
In Montages’ podcast (in Norwegian) on Interstellar there was an eager discussion in the commentary field (start here) about the possibility that Cooper actually lost his life inside Gargantua, and that the epilogue is some kind of hallucination/wishful dream from a dying man. One could even envision the space station as a metaphor of the Heaven of Christian faith, with its purity, happiness and all problems miraculously out of the world. The undermining of reality in the corresponding epilogue of Nolan’s Inception, could make us think back on Dr. Mann’s words – that the last you see before your eyes before death is your children – something that could be the equivalent of the famous spinning top in Nolan’s film of dreams. Inside the Tesseract Cooper after all sees Murph again, and in the epilogue Murph too gets the opportunity to see Cooper before she herself dies.
Another possibility is that the epilogue consists of false memories implanted in Cooper to make him continue his space missions, which would be in line with all the lies in the film, whose purpose is to manipulate people to act in the interest of the species instead of their own, limited interest. An illusion about a happy reconciliation with his daughter and everyone he has left on Earth seeming to have a good life – what could be a better backdrop for making him go, totally without guilt or worries, to Edmunds’s planet to continue Plan B? This would also be in line with the implantation of dreams – as if they were reality – in Inception, and the false memory that became so central in Memento. This approach also mirrors the falsified history books in Interstellar where the Apollo missions never took place, and the teacher who herself believes in the lies.
A third, less founded, possibility is that the epilogue is a story Amelia tells herself to avoid Dr. Mann’s fate. To avoid going crazy with loneliness, she convinces herself that everything is dandy in the old galaxy and that Cooper is on the way to join her. So in this interpretation it is only the images from Edmunds’s planet that are real, and the voice-over’s “Alone. In a strange galaxy,” is given a more acute and somber tone.
“Too good to be true,” I thought during my first encounter with the epilogue of Interstellar, a small let-down since it at first glance seemed saccharine and with easy resolution. After many repeat viewings I do not agree any more with the death/Heaven interpretation I contributed to myself in the commentary field. It is true, however, that there are a plethora of elements undermining the epilogue as reality:
- the image fading to white before the epilogue starts, a traditional demarcation of death
- the strong, “heavenly” lighting in the hospital room where Cooper wakes up
- the sky of the space station is bending, like Paris got folded in one of the dreams in Inception
- Cooper’s house is preserved fully intact, like Cobb’s earlier living quarters in another Inception dream
- his name on a memorial plaque for everyone who has lost their life during the project
- the false information that Cooper enjoyed being a farmer (even though this is explained)
- everything looks a bit too idyllic
- Cooper remarks that everything is too clean, and he says: “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started,” and at a point we see his mirror image in a reflective surface
- and even though Murph’s family are looking at Cooper as he enters the hospital room, he seems strangely disconnected from everyone else there
My theory, however, is that these elements are meant to underline Cooper’s alienation in relation to humanity’s new society on the station. What happens inside the Tesseract has too strong an emotional power that it feels right to “brush it away” as a fantasy. It is also built into the film’s story arc that an enormous breakthrough has in fact happened, both on a scientific and personal level.
As Cooper floats seemingly lifeless around in space, we can see there are movements behind his closed eyelids, an indication that he is merely unconscious. Far away there is a spacecraft, probably from the station and coming to pick him up – an element for narrative coherence that seems unnecessary if it is supposed to lead up to an illusion. Finally, the scene where Cooper steals a craft (TARS has been hiding inside the hangar and lets Cooper in, before a functionary discovers that the vessel is gone) seems too realistic and detailed to fit a fantasy.
There have also been internet speculations that almost the entire Interstellar can be a dream. Cooper’s early nightmare has been given as a clue, and that the rest of the film might be Murph’s dream after she has possibly gone to bed again. The film’s emphasis on sleep through the astronauts’ constant use of hibernation could also play into this, and the Tesseract collapses in a way not unlike the dreams in Inception. This interpretation, however, is weakly founded and laughably unsatisfactory considering the characters’ emotional development.
But there can be little doubt that the film has an undercurrent of wish fulfilment or daydreaming. When Cooper’s mood is at its lowest, he suddenly learns that both NASA and his father figure Professor Brand still exists. As if that were not enough, overnight, literally speaking, he gets to fulfil his dream of being an astronaut, even on a mission decisive for the survival of mankind. At the same time, in Amelia he meets a very attractive woman who can replace his dead wife. When things look at their most hopeless, he finds the solution inside the Tesseract, and the mood becomes almost exaggeratedly ecstatic, ditto for Murph’s behaviour as she embraces her brother and later throws the scientific papers around with an “Eureka!!”.
Here are some motifs that have surfaced during the analysis, either through overrepresentation or connections to other important elements of the film.
Ghost, Gravity, Gargantua, God (implicitly, see article B), Professor Brand’s dying words “do not go gentle” from the film’s very important poem. There are a conspicuously large amount of central notions with this initial. (Two of them are also explicitly connected through dialogue: “It’s not a ghost. It’s gravity.”) Seen through motif-searching eyes, one could even claim that the film is literally announcing the letter G as a motif: after Cooper has set the spaceship in motion to simulate Earth gravity, he yells to the others: “1 G. How is the gravity back there?”
Gravitational force is often given as a percentage: on Miller’s planet it is 130% of Earth’s gravity and on Dr. Mann’s world 80%. Incidentally, there are many other percentage numbers in the film, mostly through the robots’ various settings for honesty and humour, which are both given prominent attention in Interstellar.
While the “G spot” is less founded in the film, this number is connected to the spaceship, time and the twelve apostles, the latter are, by the way, connecting the number to the film’s religious subtext (in article B).
- 12 units on the spaceship’s circle
- 12 hours on the clock face of the two important wristwatches
- 12 astronauts in the Lazarus project
- as the characters arrives in the other galaxy it is 12 years since the Lazarus astronauts left (10 years when the film starts, plus a two-year journey to Saturn)
- “Edmunds-12” tellingly closes the motif in the epilogue, where the sign from his hibernation tank has become a gravestone (for his eternal hibernation)
- a 12-tone motif in the score’s most dramatic passage, a fast and heavy organ theme: during Murph’s dramatic turning point on the road when she spots the children on the truck, and as Cooper starts his docking manoeuvre with the rotating ship
- “12 minutes out,” Doyle says when he sees the mothership through a porthole before the first docking (see the above screenshot)
- 12 large yellow dots beside TARS’ name, and probably the same for CASE (because these robots were originally dedicated for the Lazarus project?)
- 12 pockets in the large object hanging on the inside of the door to Murph’s room, when she has barricaded it (this is a highly visible, colourful mark so that the audience shall easily recognise the situation as Cooper observes it from inside the Tesseract)
- 12 chairs around the table in the NASA conference room, and 12 photographs on the wall portraying the Lazarus astronauts (Amelia’s lover Edmunds, in the rightmost photo, seems to be a bald man quite older than her, a bit odd perhaps)
This motif seems of paramount importance. Some instances are surely coincidental, and one can explain away each single item, but it is harder to do with the collective amount. (12 is divisible by 3, by the way.) The following enumeration also provides a nice summary of the film.
- 3 plans for humanity: Plan A and B, and the five-dimensional beings’ plan for us
- 3 central characters: Cooper, Murph and Amelia
- 3 “versions” of Murph, played by 3 different actresses, with 3 personality types (playful girl, cool scientist, loving matriarch)
- 3 messages via the bookcase: “stay”, NASA co-ordinates, quantum data
- 3 members in both Cooper’s nuclear family (Cooper, Murph, Tom) and Tom’s family (Tom, Lois, Coop)
- 3 planets in the other galaxy
- 3 people die during the mission: Doyle, Romilly, Dr. Mann
- 3 vessels are destroyed during the mission: a Ranger goes up in flames as a consequence of Dr. Mann’s explosion, a Ranger is crushed when Cooper enters the black hole, and we have to assume that TARS’ Lander suffered the same fate
- 3 crew members land on each of the first two planets (each time one dies, and on both planets there is a fourth person: Miller is already dead, and Dr. Mann is going to die – the latter is incidentally explicitly marked as “the fourth”, through the sign “Dr. Mann-04” on his hibernation tank)
- 3 father figures: Cooper, his father-in-law Donald, Professor Brand
- 3 saviour figures: Cooper, Murph, Dr. Mann (plus Professor Brand, but he has left the story when the others “declare” themselves)
- 3 robots: TARS, CASE and the ruined KIPP
- 3 scenes of dockings of smaller craft to the mothership
- 3 marked stages in the ignition of motors, on 3 different craft, as Cooper and Amelia are escaping Gargantua’s gravitational pull
- 3 motors each with its exhaust jet pipe on the mothership and on the Lander vessels, which are lingered on in the film:
- 3 times Dr. Mann turns towards the dying Cooper (and he is 3 times spoken of as “remarkable”)
- 3 timeless states for Cooper in the epilogue: memory, ghost, pioneer spirit
- 3 “endless loops“: Cooper sending himself messages so he will go into space, Cooper touching Amelia in the wormhole infecting her with love so he will find his way in the Tesseract, the five-dimensional beings preserving their own future by Cooper travelling back in time to relay data to Murph
- 3 times in 3 different time planes at which Cooper is in his own house: before he leaves Earth, via the black hole behind the bookcase, in the epilogue in a perfect copy at the space station
- 3 characters “co-operate” to save humanity by the bookcase: Cooper, TARS and the adult Murph
- 3 journeys through inhospitable terrain, given by the film’s structure: through the cornfield, through the wormhole, and into the black hole
- Newton’s 3rd law, and only that, is emphasised in the film
- Professor Brand dies on the 3rd floor of the NASA headquarters (the floor number can be seen on the corridor wall as Murph hurries into his room)
- Cooper wants to set up 3 camps on Dr. Mann’s planet, and he says to TARS that they will leave for Earth in 72 hours, which is 3 days
- 3-2-1 is a countdown that occurs as many as five times during the extensive ignition and detachment scene outside Gargantua
- 3 lids on the mothership’s docking mechanism, heavily fetishised in the film
- 3 times Murph has written down the important message “Stay” in her notebook
- 3 graves behind the farm house: Cooper’s wife, Cooper’s father-in-law, Tom’s dead son Jesse
- 3 video messages from Tom from 3 stages of his life when Cooper goes through 23 years of messages
- 3 times Amelia closes her eyes in tense situations: during the first docking, third docking and landing on Miller’s planet
- 3 touches between Cooper and Amelia
- 3 times Cooper addresses Amelia with her first name
- 3 awakenings for Cooper: after the dream at the beginning of the film, in the hospital at the beginning of the epilogue, and after having fainted just before his vessel is torn to pieces inside the black hole
- Tom burns off parts of his crop and assumes he will lose a 3rd
- 33 is the only NASA co-ordinate that is stated in the film, the same “co-ordinate” as for the school headmaster’s behind: “What’s your waistline? About what, 32? About a 33 inseam? … It takes two numbers to measure your ass but only one to measure my son’s future?” This must be an intentional joke, since there are 98 other double-digit numbers to choose from.
- on 3 places on the space vessels there are sets of 3 red-orange bags: near the airlock of the Ranger, in the mothership’s control room and its communication room (they are also playing a visual part in shots during important moments: they are right in front of Amelia as she closes her eyes in tension during the first docking; are visible during the handshake in the wormhole; and in the background as Cooper looks through the video messages):
- 3 different colours on the crayons used for the equation on Professor Brand’s blackboard
- More little things: 39 can be read on the car’s dashbord as they have reached the end point for the NASA co-ordinates; after take-off Cooper deactivates “probe heater 1, 2 and 3” as well as checks “fuel cells 1, 2, 3”; and by Saturn Amelia announces that they will reach the wormhole in 3 hours
- Given the religious undercurrent we discuss in Article B, it seems reasonable to mention that Jesus is supposed to have died at 33. (We will also discuss Jesus’s 3 temptations and Peter’s 3 denials of Jesus.)
Here there is something odd, however. Murph is 10 when the action starts and has become 23 years older while the astronauts are on Miller’s planet. The plot seems to indicate that she is meant to be as old as Jesus when she saves the world by solving the equation. But then there are the two years it takes for the astronauts to reach Saturn, which spoils the whole thing. The adult Murph’s narrative plane seems to take place at the same time as the explorers’ plane. Even if the first video message is posted on her 33rd birthday, her first scene on Earth’s narrative plane then has to be a flashback, since in that scene we see her end the recording. There are no clear marker, however, that her later scenes are supposed to happen two years later. The conclusion must be that she is 35 when solving the equation. On his side, Cooper, the other Jesus/saviour candidate, seems too old to be only 33 at the start of the mission. (McConaughey was almost 45 during the shoot.) In that case, he must have been a very young ace pilot, since NASA appears to have closed its doors at least 10 years ago. (It is stated that the drone mission control went down at that time.)
The farewell scene is only the third time Cooper has used Amelia Brand’s first name. The discussion whether to go to Edmunds’s or Dr. Mann’s planet ended with: “All right, Cooper… yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” “Honestly, Amelia… it might.” Their next scene, after a decision in her disfavour, starts with: “Amelia, I’m sorry.” Both lines have to do with honest emotions, which is definitely also the case with the farewell scene, so it can be said to end a small pattern.