Article A on Interstellar had a close look at the film and its network of motifs, parallels and structural echoes. Article C will explore it as an experience, and its music, editing and consistency, among other things. Christopher Nolan‘s science fiction epic is also rich in thematic strands. Interstellar has a clear ambition of creating a modern myth that speaks to our anxiety for the future, on a planet marked by multiple threats.
The protagonists of this myth are lonely, weighed down by their own secrets, imprisoned in isolated worlds. At the same time the film weaves the characters together into a complex and resonant whole. This article will wind up thematic strands connected to identity, religion, lies and truth, inflexible perspectives and reprogramming of the human being, and the difference between the imagined and the experienced.
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.
Cooper and his son Tom embody the conflict of the above quote. Cooper is pioneer, science, exploratory urge, mobility. Tom is farmer and stationary. Interstellar feels so immersive, tightly packed and event-filled that it is easy to overlook the extremes to which this conflict is drawn. Tom is so stationary that he lets his family die and waste away rather than leave the farm. Cooper is so mobile that he ends up transcending time and space. Ironically enough, Cooper’s movement constitutes a giant circle back to his point of departure, and the car he left in has been replaced by a spaceship.
Cooper in his essence appears to be a split character. The casting of Matthew McConaughey is brilliant. He radiates down-to-earthness in fruitful contrast to the expedition’s scientists, and to the majestic, solemn aspect of Interstellar. At the same time McConaughey’s persona is a perfect fit for an emotional character, but Cooper is also a follower of science. This gives his character a stimulating dynamism, embodying both emotions and intellect, but not necessarily in harmony.
During the discussion after the disaster on Miller’s planet he is the one who defends rationality against Amelia’s declarations about love as a physical power. When TARS explains that 100% honesty is not ideal when interacting with “emotional beings”, Cooper agrees and adopts TARS’ setting of 90% towards Amelia, whom he teasingly regards as an emotional being. Towards the end of the film the two aspects of him are united: Emotions, his love for Murph, have led him to the correct place inside the Tesseract, but it is the rational discussion with TARS that is required to solve the problem of transmitting the quantum data.
Early in the film, before he sacrifices himself for/throws himself happily into the space adventure, Cooper is torn between the practical necessity of being a farmer and his calling as a pioneer serving science. His two personalities are split among his children: Tom becomes a farmer, Murph a scientist. It is telling that Murph at a point repeats Cooper’s act during the drone hunt by ploughing her car through the cornfield, thus causing damage to the crops. After Cooper has left for the stars, his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) continues his role as a substitute father for the children. Even though Cooper obviously loves and (not least) favours Murph, Donald seems to do the actual parenting for both children. The adult Tom confirms this during the bitter confrontation with Murph (“Dad didn’t raise me, Grandpa did.”). When Donald dies and Tom at the same time gives up hope of his father ever returning, he truly becomes a lost son. (One wonders how important Cooper favouring Murph was for turning Tom towards Donald and the latter’s down-to-earth mentality.)
Murph, however, is provided with as many as three (substitute) father figures, each corresponding to the three “versions” of Murph. For the child it is in reality Donald. For the adult Professor Brand takes over as father figure. Not until the epilogue, for the old Murph, Cooper is there for her, without reservations. Their encounter is brief, but all the more intense – quality time! – and their reconciliation, resolution and not least honesty, after all the lies in the film, are 100%. (Even TARS, Cooper’s fellow adventurer and closest “friend” has to be content in the epilogue with a promotion from 90 to 95% honesty.)
During the parent meeting the headmaster claims that Cooper’s grandchildren will have a better life than his own generation, and in the epilogue he actually meets them – plus an extra generation – in passing in Murph’s hospital room. (This addendum discusses how his son Tom, however, seems to be wholly forgotten.)
An apparently less important but still central scene is Professor Brand coming to the farm with Cooper’s car. Here Christopher Nolan painstakingly creates a visual echo between Cooper’s departure and Brand’s arrival. As Cooper is leaving, Donald and Tom are positioned like figures, virtually motionless, studiously stationary in contrast to Cooper speeding away. Only Murph is mobile, as she storms out just after he has driven off, in correspondence with her sharing Cooper’s dynamic personality. One camera position is almost identical in both scenes, first near the porch before the camera moves out into the yard:
Professor Brand’s scene contains two handovers, which mirror Cooper’s relationship with his children. Like many father-son relationships, this too is governed by material and practical things: Tom gets to take over Cooper’s car. At the same time the car is inseparably linked to Cooper’s farewell – where it was subjected to powerful visual iconisation – so there is ironic resonance to the fact that the vehicle is now returned as some sort of atonement gift. (It is also amusing that an object of mobility becomes a present to the stationary Tom.)
In addition, Brand – ironically enough, the man who stole Cooper away from Murph – takes over the relay baton from Donald as substitute father for the girl, with his suggestion to take her under his wings “to fan the flame”. The blending of Cooper and Brand is emphasised during the car’s arrival: Murph runs out, asking, hoping it is Cooper, “Is it him?” This wording creates a simple, but striking echo across the film. When she as an adult embraces her brother after the breakthrough at the bookcase, she shouts, “It was him!” In the epilogue Cooper himself says to the old Murph, “It was me.”
The relationship between the substitute figures Donald and Professor Brand is measured, and in contrast to the many other touches in the film, they do not shake hands. These two men of roughly the same age form another link in the central opposition in Interstellar: Donald stands for stationary/farmer and Professor Brand for mobility/science. (The latter is a truth with some modifications: Brand allegedly stands so much for mobility that he intends to break the boundaries of gravity to move the whole of humanity to another planet, but since Plan A is a lie, he actually stands for the absolute status quo.)
In a visual reflection of their reserved relationship, they have not yet shared the same shot on an “equal” basis, just through over-the-shoulder constellations. But during the scene’s dying seconds, they are suddenly placed in the same boat, in wonderment, concern and hope about Cooper’s fate. Now the pattern of the visual echo is repeated: The two surrogate fathers occupy each their edge of the framing, standing in the yard, while the camera is leaving them, in a forward movement (and here also upwards), towards the place where the real father is, again on his way off, but the car is now replaced by a spacecraft…
Professor Brand is also a father figure to Cooper. (We never hear anything about the latter’s own parents.) Like Tom, Cooper is a lost son, until Professor Brand and NASA take him into the fold again, restoring meaning to his life. Later the professor does the same for Murph. So when Brand dies she has lost two father figures – and her “You can’t leave” line recalls the bitter farewell with Cooper. In one fell swoop she also loses her belief in both. The lie about Plan A is revealed and she grows increasingly certain that Cooper knew the truth and thus has left her to die on Earth.
In the farmyard, however, the arena for so much earlier trauma, Murph and Tom will both experience a powerful reconciliation and resolution, and again the car has its role to play. After Murph has realised that the quantum data are coded into the wristwatch, she storms out of the house and embraces her brother. She shouts “Dad’s gonna save us”.
The camera swings around them, ending up in a close shot of Tom. Like brother and sister unite in embrace, the scene elegantly links up their father’s farewell presents. For Murph is ecstatically brandishing the wristwatch, clutching it during the hug, and Tom has just arrived in the car Cooper left him. Tom’s final shot, his last appearance in the film, has for good measure the car as a backdrop.
Furthermore, one can claim that the embrace is an indirect touch between Cooper and Tom, since Murph and their father just communicated, and indirectly physically touched each other, through the bookcase in her old room. If nothing else, Cooper has caused the embrace. Cooper’s return can also be said to achieve full closure: He left in the car and ended up behind the bookcase, but now the car too has returned.
Finally, we should not forget Murph’s dead mother. It is reasonable to assume that the watch Cooper gave Murph in the farewell scene originally belonged to her. Thus the mother too becomes part of this vast embrace, which metaphorically joins all four family members. The memento after her also actively helped save mankind through the data encoded in her watch. And science prevailed, through the object of a woman who died due to lack of science, the MRI that could have found “the cyst in my wife’s brain before she died instead of afterwards.”
Fluid identities: “You told them I like farming”
During the farewell between father and daughter in the epilogue it looks like – in purely visual terms – a mother saying goodbye to her son, since Murph’s physical age is now much higher than Cooper’s, turning the start of the film on its head. It is not until Murph becomes his mother in the epilogue that Cooper becomes a proper father to her. Not only must he go to another galaxy, he also has to transcend time and space – this difficult it is to be a proper father to your children in this film.
Cooper and Murph have the same substitute father figure, Professor Brand. In the epilogue Murph looks like a mother, and she is definitely a daughter. What female role in a nuclear family is then left? If we apply the same visual logic from the epilogue to the time plane where she is an adult, we can play around with the thought that Murph in Interstellar undergoes three transformations, and appears as Cooper’s daughter, sister and mother. For is it not emphasised that we meet the adult Murph on exactly the day she has become as old as Cooper when he left? When we speak of people of the same age in a nuclear family, it is only the sister role that fits. They are also twin souls in the sense that both follow science and fight for humanity’s survival.
The synchronicity between Cooper and Murph is in this case highly peculiar. It is her birthday on exactly the same day Cooper has just returned from Miller’s planet after 23 years, in a situation with a time and geographical difference of cosmic proportions between the parties. And in Article A we were quite sure that her video message is transmitted live on exactly the same point in time as he sits before the screen in the other galaxy…! Wisely, these correlations are merely hinted at – otherwise this could have come across as the least plausible coincidence in film history. (Nolan the illusionist distracts our attention in a number of other ways too. The emotional toll of Tom’s collected messages. The brief pause before the live transmission. The fact that it is the famous Jessica Chastain who suddenly materialises, as the adult Murph. Her penetrating, raw acting. Our curiosity to find out what happens on Earth, through the direct cut to her world just after.)
Murph does not only span three family member roles, but three personalities: the lively and capricious girl, the cool scientist, the loving matriarch and famous, society-wide mother figure. While Murph is morphing wildly through all of these states, Cooper is on the other hand timeless, unchangeable. He looks exactly like when he left: he is a memory and a ghost. In another context it comes in extremely handy that he does not age: he is the incarnation of the eternal pioneer spirit.
This can also be deciphered in the film’s last image of Cooper, his face frozen in an unmoving mask, as he is radiant with quiet expectation for new adventures. This forms a beautiful and meaningful contrast to his first image, another pilot situation: his dream of the crash, where his dream of becoming a pilot turns into a nightmare. The chaos in the cockpit has at the end of the film become stillness, blackest trauma has become utter satisfaction, frenetic activity turned into determined calm.
Murph’s dead mother is also activated in the film. At a certain point during the moving farewell scene, Cooper holds his hand so that his marriage ring stands out in the shot. This bit of mise-en-scène now casts a gaze into the past, for at the same moment Cooper is talking about something his wife used to say; that the “function” of parents is to be memories for their children. Now comes one of Interstellar‘s most beautiful formal ideas…
…as the camera is lowered, it softly reveals that Murph is crying silently down into the bedspread. To Cooper the ring represents his recollection of a wife, but to Murph it is a memory of her mother, thus a manifestation of her mother’s saying. In this way it is suggested that the farewell scene is exceptionally bitter for Murph: like her mother died from her, she is now losing her father. The ring plays an equal part in both camera positions, as if to emphasise its meaning to both characters.
Multiplicity reigns in Interstellar: since Professor Brand is either the biological father or father figure to them all, not only Cooper and Murph, but also Amelia are in a way siblings. This gets quite complicated, because at the same time Amelia is kind of a mother figure to Murph, in the sense that she took Murph under her wings when the 10-year-old girl visited the NASA centre. On Edmunds’s planet (in the epilogue) one can envision that Amelia will replace Cooper’s dead wife, and that Cooper will replace Amelia’s dead lover Edmunds. Through the combination of images and voice-over, it also seems that the dying Murph is projecting herself into Amelia on the planet.
These two women in Cooper’s life are so tightly bound that they become twin souls. Both Murph and Amelia are scientists. They are subjects for Cooper’s love as well as traumatic farewells with him. They are touched by him via his travel through time: Murph indirectly through the bookcase and Amelia in the wormhole. In the epilogue we see that Murph has become a mother to a large number of children, and on Edmunds’s planet Amelia will become “mother” to the many children from the fertilised eggs of Plan B. Murph and Amelia are responsible for Plan A and Plan B, respectively. Article A showed that a long list of situations in space are mirrored in smaller format on Earth, in something called the big in the small. This is also the case, to the highest extent, for one of the film’s most elegant hidden echoes: both Cooper Station, the giant flagship of Plan A, and the small containers with the eggs of Plan B are full of “people” – and has the same cylindrical form.
Finally, and this is highly speculative, there is an odd undertone inside the black hole. When TARS is communicating with Cooper one perceives an echo of Romilly’s personality in the robot. The radio distorts its voice, making it difficult to be sure, but the otherwise cocky TARS seems more calm and reflected, and its voice, tone and knowledge are reminiscent of the dead scientist. Is it conceivable that TARS, who could not save Romilly, lets him “live on”, so that he can be part of the adventure? On a daring mission he himself suggested, Romilly gets his scientific dream fulfilled: to look inside a black hole. Is this merely cinematic poetry on Nolan’s part, or do the five-dimensional beings play a part here, so that Romilly actually transcends death?
There are more split personalities in the film than Cooper. Amelia is eventually torn between emotions and science, and Murph feels she ought to listen to intuition and something as unscientific as a ghost from childhood. Professor Brand looks like a good-natured grandfather, but at the same time, according to Dr. Mann, he has sacrificed his humanity. The by far most split character is Dr. Mann, however, with ample evidence in his monologues during the little expedition with Cooper.
Dr. Mann was the leading figure among the 12 Lazarus astronauts, “the best of us”, the one who inspired the others and made the entire reconnaissance mission possible. He was also Professor Brand’s closest confidant, and the only one who knows the Professor’s big lie that Plan A is a sham. It is tempting to draw biblical analogies to the 12 apostles and Brand as a kind of saviour or Jesus figure. Dr. Mann himself combines the disciples Peter and Judas – the best and the worst of them.
Professor Brand is a false saviour, however. The real Jesus is Cooper. After Dr. Mann has ruined Cooper’s helmet, he starts to walk away from the helpless man. But he turns around three times, on each occasion to make a little speech, and this “trinity” leads our thoughts to Peter’s three denials of Jesus. (The speeches do not exactly brim with encouraging signals about Cooper’s future.) This does not constitute a direct analogy to the Bible – rather, basic elements of the myth are put into play to give rise to fruitful associations, which in any case will be felt subconsciously. The fact that Dr. Mann stops as many as three times also emphasises how his behaviour connects to the film’s farewell motif – he leaves Cooper in a reflection of Cooper and Professor Brand leaving various other characters.
The film’s important father relationships are also central in the Bible: Jesus on the cross accused his Heavenly Father of having left him – incidentally, the three crucified people fit a pattern of the film, with important elements occurring three times – in a parallel to Cooper’s children reproaching him for this. In Christianity one speaks of The Holy Trinity. In Interstellar Cooper is Jesus. He also fills the role as The Holy Ghost (or The Holy Spirit), a clear echo of the “ghost” in the bookcase. We only miss God.
It is here the five-dimensional beings enter the picture, with godlike abilities. They cannot be understood, have probably no physical shape as we know it, located in dimensions we cannot grasp. One can actually claim that Interstellar tries to give a poetic-scientific explanation of the existence of God: from the earliest times, humankind’s sensations of a divine presence, a helping hand, have actually been caused by future humans from a far-away evolutionary plane. This explains why the Bible says we are created in the image of God. The beings have achieved a state where they have the ability to travel through time – Amelia describes it like a valley they can climb down into (the past) and a mountain they can climb up (the future). Donald’s grumpy remark that it looks like Cooper sits praying to the dust lines on the floor, can be connected to the religious aspect, since the lines are formed by gravity, the beings’ speciality.
Why would they help us? Dr. Mann again gives us a helping hand – it is always amusing when it is the “villain” of a film that articulates its important themes (think Se7en) – by pointing out that mankind at the present stage of evolution is still hitting the same barrier: they engage deeply with those closest to them, but are not so inclined towards the rest of humanity. Therefore one may speculate that the five-dimensional beings have evolved so far that they have actually achieved a state of love for absolutely every human being – right back to the dawn of time – and that they now help us fight our greatest threat. (They also have a self-interest in the survival of mankind, since we are a precondition for their own existence – unless one opens for the possibility of parallel universes, something that Interstellar does not seem to do.)
Furthermore for our biblical interpretation, it is interesting that the core of a black hole is called a singularity, with a Christian echo in the Trinity. The expression “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” must be said to fit very well into the film, except for the father-daughter relationship being the most important. Like in Interstellar, fathers betraying their children for the sake of the greater good is a prominent theme in the Bible. Cooper has to return to Murph to atone for failing her, and this act can also be read as a metaphor of the sins of earlier generations, which have affected their descendants – here the destruction of Earth. (We get the impression that humanity is to blame for the unfolding disaster in Interstellar.)
Also fitting in is Cooper’s half godlike appearance in the wormhole, where one of his eyes looks like a circle of light. In a religious chain of associations his hand touching Amelia leads to Michelangelo‘s famous painting in the Sistine Chapel, “The Creation of Adam“, with the hand of God. (The subject of this painting has become a cliche, referred to and parodied countless times – here for example – but has also been evoked in as serious a film as Soderbergh’s Solaris, and in Nolan it is much more discreet.) Since the father-daughter relationship is central to Interstellar, it is very fitting that it is “Eve” who now gets to experience the touch of God. Here it becomes interesting that Edmunds’s planet – in the beginning – probably will hold only two people. They will become Eve and Adam in the new world. The fact that Amelia is the first to arrive fits nicely with “The Creation of Eve” in the wormhole. (Christopher Nolan here corrects the unfortunate gender imbalance of the story of Genesis…! We also should note that the male robots TARS and CASE will be reunited on the new planet.)
The extensive use of organ in Hans Zimmer‘s score is another source of religious associations. The Bible is very concretely brought into the picture through the name of the reconnaissance project, Lazarus, who like Jesus woke up from the dead. Dr. Mann says, after being revived from hibernation, “You have literally raised me from the dead”. Cooper too is “raised” from the dead in the epilogue – on the space station there is even a memorial stone with his name – and Murph’s ecstatic “He came back!” and “Dad’s gonna save us” out in the yard have a religious ring. In addition, he sacrifices himself, by casting himself into the abyss of the black hole to save mankind. He is ready to die for our sins (the destruction of Earth) – like Jesus, according to the Bible, died on the cross for the same reason, to save and set us free, and give us eternal life. (In Cooper’s case: eternal life for humanity as a species.) Furthermore, it goes seven years between the plant diseases that killed wheat and okra, possibly an allusion to the story of Joseph, who asked the Pharaoh of Egypt to store up grain because seven good years would be followed by seven lean ones, and the Seven Plagues that according to the book of Revelation will strike Earth during the Last Days.
Dr. Mann’s old-fashioned way with words is also interesting: “Pray [his first word in the film!] you never learn just how good it can be to see another face,” and later “I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention…”. This helps lift him out of the concrete situation of Interstellar into some kind of timeless figure. After having revealed himself as Judas, he says, “Don’t judge me, Cooper. You were never tested like I was. Few men have been.” Again biblical associations are evoked, The three Temptations of Christ. While Jesus fasted in a desert, Dr. Mann is languishing in an icy desolation. The first temptation, turning stones into bread to quench his hunger, corresponds to Dr. Mann’s temptation to save himself. Unlike the biblical saviour he gives in.
The film’s dialogue has a prodigious use of the word “save”. (“Sorry” also occurs innumerable times, and article A discussed the enunciations of detachment and contact.) During a short period of the extensive crosscutting sequence, a number of characters are declared as (false) saviours. Tom evokes the term about his father, but Murph shouts back: “He never was coming back” and follows up with “It’s up to me.” Back in the other galaxy, on his march away from the fallen Cooper, Dr. Mann exclaims, as if doing self-hypnosis, “I want to save all of us”. (Here they speak all the time about humanity. But as part of the film’s constant mirroring of the big in the small, the following now happens: Amelia embarks upon a mission to save the individual Cooper, and Murph returns to the farm to save the individuals of Tom’s family.) Just afterwards, Romilly too has to be saved, but TARS fails. When he reports that “Romilly did not survive. I could not save him,” the apparently superfluous last sentence seems like an intentional link to the saviour motif.
On his deathbed the false saviour Professor Brand says to Murph: “You had faith all those years.” In many ways Brand is a leader of a sect, who alone has possessed the full insight and (at least in scientific matters) unrestricted power. The equation that is the foundation of Plan A could perhaps be seen as some sort of mysterious religious object?
Interstellar is also discussing evil. In eager expectation Amelia claims that the best thing about the upcoming adventures is that they will not encounter evil out there – “Is a lion evil because it rips a gazelle to shreds?” Cooper is sceptical and obviously thinks that humanity will bring evil with them. These opposing attitudes are mirrored on the two planets – where each time a new member of the crew dies – in the impersonal, relentless waves on Miller’s planet, and the chaotic spiral of human violence on Dr. Mann’s planet.
Lies and truth: “But the lie. That monstrous lie?”
Interstellar is drenched in lies. The largest one comes courtesy of Professor Brand and his Plan A: the equation supposed to represent the final mathematical truth is bogus. The film is almost methodically working its way through many types of lies. (You can see ten of them in this addendum.) TARS claims that 100% “…absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic, nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings,” and this becomes a recurring figure of the film – especially the robot’s own setting of 90%, culminating in Cooper’s majestic farewell with Amelia.
Interstellar itself demonstrates how the naked truth may be anti-productive. After having examined Tom’s family the doctor is very upset and approaches Tom with a raised index finger: “Let me make something abundantly clear: You have a responsibility…” The protest leads to Tom knocking him down. Then Murph attacks him harshly: “You gonna wait for your next kid to die?” She gets thrown out.
In this situation Murph completely lets go of her level-headed scientist persona, in despair about Tom’s inflexible, irrational attitude. (Many will recognise themselves in this in our present age’s debates with anti-scientific forces.) The bitter tone recalls her behaviour in the second video message. After her initial lie that Professor Brand had a peaceful death, she completely breaks down, accusing Amelia of having known about the lie of Plan A, and intentionally left humanity behind to die. In a poisonous tone she asks if her own father knew about it – if he has left her, and the rest of mankind, to suffocate and starve to death. Since it is technically impossible to get an answer, the only thing she achieves is hurting the recipients’ feelings if the accusations are untrue.
CASE takes its time before it passes on the message. It is alone on the spaceship and the rest of the crew have landed on Dr. Mann’s planet. They have time to wake him up from hibernation and go on some reconnaissance, and are deep in a strategic discussion as the message finally arrives. This may seem like an emergency solution in the script – a hardly plausible withholding of information from the characters – but it could easily be because of CASE’s judgement. It holds back the truth until the humans have made the initial investigation, which is extremely important for the mission. Had they got the message at once, there would be a risk of the lander turning back, or of a full emotional breakdown down at the planet. Incidentally, it is striking that the message is transmitted immediately after Dr. Mann has declined TARS’ suggestion to have a look at the wrecked KIPP, with the remark “He needs a human touch”. Has CASE by now seen through Dr. Mann’s own lie and decided it is time that the crew hear the truth from Earth? It is pretty rich, by the way, that Dr. Mann explains the reason for KIPP’s demise as “degeneration”, considering his own psychological state.
In one fell swoop the sham is now revealed. On his side, Dr. Mann can disclose that he knew about the lie of Plan A before the 12 Lazarus astronauts started their mission years ago, and that the equation had been abandoned as insolvable already then. Amelia tilts her head and with a grimace she exclaims “But the lie. That monstrous lie?” Both the choice of words and acting seem intentionally theatrical to create a contrast to Dr. Mann’s coldness: with the utmost calm he shrugs his shoulders and says “Unforgivable”, but the lie was necessary.
In dramatic circumstances Dr. Mann’s own lie will be revealed: his planet is not hospitable after all. The outstanding scientist has become a traitor. His character appears accordingly split. During the discussion he is rationality personified. On the expedition with Cooper his forced half-smile and the radio’s crackling distortion create an undertone of desperation and depression. When Cooper confronts him about the truth, his long monologues are strikingly replaced by merely “Yes” or “No”. But even now he is conflicted, both overwhelmed with shame and relieved the lie is over. The ensuing fight between them is 100% truth – kill or be killed.
Inflexible perspectives and reprogramming: “Override. Override!”
With great intensity Interstellar is mirroring one-track mindsets and conceptual blindness in our real world. Virtually the whole cast of characters find themselves in their own worlds, alone with their secrets. The fact that Earth has ended up growing only corn could be seen as a monomaniacal reflection of the many obsessed characters in the film. In contemporary USA there is a debate about whether the over-production of corn, the sturdiest strain, has injurious health consequences. In the film humanity has become dependent on precisely corn, but they are also trapped by it. This is embedded on a personal level through Cooper: after his terrible dream he stands looking out over the vast cornfield, as if he was trapped in yet another, waking nightmare. No hope of becoming a pioneer. Just an endless existence as a “caretaker”.
Tom’s insistence on continuing to grow corn even though his family are dying around him, can be read as a metaphor of our age’s dependence on fossil fuels, and that we just continue to pump up oil even though both we and the planet risk adverse effects. Tellingly in this context is the situation where the status quo figure Tom would have driven the whole family over a cliff – “the old if-I-asked-you-to-drive-off-a-cliff scenario,” his father laconically remarks – if Cooper had not stopped him. Other than that, much of the power of Interstellar lies in the fact that it puts into words and images our fear that global warming shall make Earth difficult, and eventually inhospitable, for humans. Murph’s video message accusing her father to have “left us here to suffocate, to starve” may well be taken as a metaphorical indictment from our own descendants. One of the two children we see on the back of truck, members of a family fleeing from the environmental disaster, is played by Nolan’s daughter Flora, a possible expression of his anxiety about her future.
Interstellar also connects to one of our age’s most crazy phenomena: conspiracy theories. Despite its studious ordinariness, the parent meeting is one of the most frightening scenes of the film. Textbooks have been revised, claiming that the lunar landings never took place – a popular conspiracy theory today – they were just a brilliant propaganda trick to bankrupt the Soviet Union. In a starving world humanity must be manipulated towards down-to-earth issues like food production. The teacher who wholeheartedly believes in the propaganda is a victim of reprogramming of the human being.
Such a narrowing down of worldview is put into relief through two conceptual breakthroughs. Both have to do with time and are set off by remarks from others. Professor Brand says “I’m not afraid of death … I’m afraid of time”. Just afterwards Murph stands before the blackboard with the equation and says (Jessica Chastain‘s perfectly modulated intonation makes the lines toneless and melodious at the same time): “Time. You’re afraid of time.” Suddenly she realises there is a great deficiency about Brand’s treatment of time in the equation, and this sows the first seed of suspicion that there is something fishy about the whole project.
Later Cooper is inside the Tesseract, where TARS says “They didn’t bring us here to change the past.” Suddenly Cooper understands the futility of attempting to regain access to his family’s childhood by stopping himself (via the first message “STAY”) from leaving on the space mission. He is doomed to do what has happened in the past – so his next message is to etch the co-ordinates of the NASA centre into the lines of dust on the floor. (Amusingly, the first message is to prevent him from leaving, the second one to ensure that he leaves.) Both breakthroughs are connected to the equation: Murph realises it is only half-solved, and Cooper’s third message, the quantum data that he encodes into the wristwatch, will resolve the equation, making it complete.
A pivotal issue in the film is the survival of humanity versus the individuals’ tendency to only care about their family and close circle. How to reprogram humanity to see “beyond our line of sight”, as Dr. Mann puts it? In Article A we saw that the big docking scenes could be said to express the film’s theme of human need for contact. Dr. Mann’s frenetic attempts to “override” various systems on the spaceship as he tries to force himself in, forms (on a lesser scale) a parallel to the necessity for human reprogramming. Echoing the theme, Dr. Mann fails completely. As for Cooper, he can reprogram the drone to steer a combine harvester, but he is unable to repress his inner pioneer and become a farmer. During the discussion about which planet to go to, Cooper’s rationality overrides Amelia’s line of argument based on love. In the dream of the crash the on-board computer overrides Cooper’s decisions. The film music and the camera placement on the fuselage create a subtle echo between the start of both the dream and the descent to Miller’s planet, where Cooper now proves he can handle the vessel in a dangerous situation, overruling CASE’s protests. (The man-machine antagonism is resolved during the Tesseract climax with its harmonious co-operation between Cooper and TARS.)
Professor Brand acted with the best of intentions when launching Plan A – echoing the greater good behind the textbook’s lie about the Apollo project, which his plan totally inverts, ironically enough, instead steering humanity towards hope for salvation in space. As Dr. Mann says, the Professor sacrificed his own humanity for the best of the species. In a certain light, Brand almost becomes a heroic figure, taking all guilt upon himself. He alone has to live with the knowledge that there is no hope for the population of Earth, not even those he meets every day, working on the project full of hope. Without the carrot of being able to save their closest ones, Brand would not have got anyone to embark on space missions to put Plan B into effect, where the entire Earth population has to be given up, to grow new human cultures on other planets.
As Interstellar unfolds, it turns out that Brand’s lie about Plan A also has unintentional yet all-important consequences. Without it Cooper would never have gone into space on what turns out to be a necessary journey – to leave behind the messages in the past in Murph’s room. And without several decades of head start, thanks to the lie, of building the space station, it is not sure that humanity would have been able to save itself even with the quantum data.
Moving on to Dr. Mann, reducing his actions to evil or madness would lack nuance. It is also good reason to believe that he actually was a hero – the “best of us”, as Amelia says. Without the possibility to fool gravity and lift humanity from Earth in space stations, it was only Plan B that could save the species itself. But Dr. Mann too discovered that it was not possible to reprogram oneself. Like Amelia’s lion cannot help kill the gazelle, after several years of resistance he finally had to give in to temptation. To save himself he sent out a fraudulent signal that his planet was hospitable. His fall is extreme and he emerges as tragic figure.
When Dr. Mann learns there are bad prospects for saving any of the other Lazarus astronauts, this means a huge embarrassment. (He looks down, unable to hide that he is shaken about the information.) This outstanding person endangered his own life to save humanity, but now his own personal weakness has, in practice, brought the species a huge step closer to its demise. Because he knows that Plan A was a lie and there is no hope for the current population on Earth. His own planet is inhospitable and the last chance for Plan B is Edmunds’s planet. But the expedition has only fuel for either returning home or setting the controls for that planet.
Why does Dr. Mann not simply admit his planet is unsuitable, so that the astronauts can get out of this sidetrack, without any violence? Well, most people would have hesitated owning up to the fact that one’s own cowardice has put the entire humanity in danger. It is understandable, in his initial shock about the status, that he takes a spontaneous decision to go on with the lie. He gets trapped in it, however.
Because Cooper soon insists on returning to Earth with the spaceship. After Murph’s traumatising message Dr. Mann realises it will be impossible to reprogram Cooper away from the urge of seeing his daughter again. He makes a last attempt by mentioning that the expedition could use an extra engineer, but Cooper does not waver. Cooper is now merely one single individual who stands in the way of the survival of the species. Therefore Dr. Mann tries to kill him – in his own eyes a completely rational act. His very deepest motivations raise many questions, however.
Was Dr. Mann afraid of being left behind? Was it his ego that refused to let it be reprogrammed? Would having been revealed as a liar be too humiliating for someone whom everyone so far always has looked up to as a leading figure? Has he developed some form of saviour complex – since it was his actions that have put humankind’s survival in imminent danger, must it then be precisely him who undertakes a last attempt to save it? Is it then himself or the species he is saving, deepest down? Did he intend to kill/leave behind all the others? His statement “We are the future” is put into ironic relief.
Theory and practice: “You eggheads have the survival skills of a Boy Scout troop!”
The wormhole is referred to as a shortcut, but actually turns out to be a detour, since Cooper has to close the circle by returning to the farm. The detour is necessary, however, for his character development. To be able to leave behind the messages via Murph’s room, it is necessary to have lived through the future and the space mission – acquire the necessary knowledge and experiences. He must realise he cannot change the past. He has to give himself the NASA co-ordinates. He needs to have lived through the entire trajectory of the story – casting himself down into the black hole is after all a last desperate resort – to have any quantum data to transmit. The bookcase’s decisive role in the transmission is eminently suitable, since the book collection in itself is a universe of experiences, with the most central, red lexicon as a pocket universe. The bookcase is strongly iconised as the door to the room is opened for the first time, after a long hesitation before the shut door: the mise-en-scène plays like an unveiling, and as the camera follows Cooper into the room, soon the case is dominating the entire screen.
The difference between the imagined and the experienced, theory and practice, is central to the development of the characters in Interstellar. This is established early on, almost in passing, as Cooper the experienced pilot is compared to the other candidates, who have “never left the simulator”. One can imagine how a black hole operates, but nothing can compare with the experience as Cooper lets himself fall into Gargantua. He goes back in time with the idea of changing the past, but practice shows it is impossible.
As regards these issues, Dr. Mann is, literally speaking, a wandering lexicon. During the ultimately dramatic trip down to his planet’s alleged surface together with Cooper, he articulates the theme in a constant stream of new variations. He thought he was not afraid of death, but when he actually reached the planet and concluded it did not provide a basis for life, he was unable to resist the temptation to send out the signal that gave him hope of survival. He also believed he could attack Cooper and thereafter provide consolation and ease the other’s death. He turns away, however, walks off and cannot manage anything more than “I’m here for you” via the radio. Finally, he cannot even deal with that – to escape Cooper’s sounds of suffocation he turns it off. (Before the attack Dr. Mann gives a little speech that the last thing you think of before you die is your own children. In addition to announcing an idea that will provide resonance for the film’s later events, its purpose is probably to plant an idea that may ease Cooper’s death.)
The exceptionally verbal Dr. Mann ends this part of his performance by reciting a stanza of the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, one of the film’s many recurring motifs. This is the fourth and last time the poem is evoked, after having been introduced by Professor Brand during the start of the mission. It is very fitting that Dr. Mann gets the honour of rounding off the motif, because of his close relationship with both Professor Brand and his lie about Plan A.
His muffled, strained recitation forms a telling contrast, however, to Brand’s majestic, well-modulated and calm delivery. The idealistic and optimistic tone of the first performance has become perverted by the chaotic realities of the mission. The third time we hear the poem the Professor cannot manage more than “Do not go gentle” before he dies. The second time only the first line is heard, in a video message, whereupon Amelia – in the other galaxy – turns away, almost in disgust, after she herself has experienced a brutal encounter with the reality of Miller’s planet.
Romilly is central to the learning curve of several characters. As Amelia and Cooper return from the disastrous episode on Miller’s planet, Romilly has become (according to TARS) 23 years, 4 months and 8 days older. The sight of the now almost stooping man with white in his beard is not just a gimmick. He is the embodiment of the consequences of relativity and the time slippage inherent in space travel. Amelia exclaims “I thought I was prepared. I knew the theory. Reality’s different”.
She is mainly shocked about Romilly’s own fate, but to Cooper, who leans against the wall – as if he were as weak as Romilly – he is a harbinger of all the years Cooper has lost in relation to his own children. Romilly’s statement that he had stopped believing the others would return, points forward to yet another essential element of the next scene. Cooper has of course been aware of the consequences of relativity. Nothing could have prepared him, however, for 23 years of messages from his children’s coming-of-age and time’s unfortunate passage on Earth, cut off, even now, from giving any sign of life back – the most absent father in history.
Amelia starts the film as a businesslike and self-confident scientist. In the early dialogue scene with Cooper before they go into hibernation, she cannot wait to hurl herself into the mysteries and challenges of the universe. In the course of the film, however, she is shaken in several ways. She touches the white “phantom hand” in the wormhole, a nearly religious experience. Doyle dies on Miller’s planet and she is partly to blame, leading to an agonising quarrel with Cooper. She is further shocked by Romilly’s aging and meets her father’s video message with ambivalence.
After all this, it is understandable that she has begun wavering about her worldview. So when discussing which planet to go to next, she declares that they have followed their intellects and theories a bit too long. It is about time to start also to listen to the heart. Some have reacted unfavourably towards this speech (also this author was initially a bit baffled) and perhaps it could have been better prepared. The scene is highly central to the film, however, because it presents the idea of love as something “quantifiable” – and it is his love for Murph that will lead Cooper to the right place in the Tesseract. Seen in the light of the trajectory discussed above, the development in Amelia is much more plausible than at first sight, and upon revisits of the film, armed with a broader familiarity with its themes, the scene works absolutely fine.
We should also not forget that after his stay in the Tesseract Cooper shines with love as he touches Amelia in the wormhole. Here she might have been infected by Cooper’s love, which in turn leads to her conveying her idea about love to Cooper, which leads him to the correct place in the Tesseract – in an endless loop reminiscent of his messages to himself through the bookcase.
Cooper too undergoes a development. When Amelia admits that the mere thought of seeing her beloved Edmunds again “excites me” and that this does not necessarily make her decision wrong, Cooper answers “It might.” These three elements of the dialogue form a direct echo of the conversation with his father-in-law, where Cooper claims that it is not necessarily wrong to follow one’s natural urge for the stars, and here it is the older man who is voicing doubts.
These insights and dialogues are of course not brilliant in themselves, but what is important is that the echo measures Cooper’s personal trajectory: experiencing the video messages from his left-behind children leads him to doubt his natural instincts. Besides, he has just experienced that his daring landing on Miller’s planet – his personal triumph over the defeat in his dream about the crash – has been rendered completely meaningless, a trivial matter compared against the nightmarish events down there.
During the discussion with Amelia and after the descent to Dr. Mann’s planet, Cooper’s behaviour is almost numb, even when Dr. Mann cries like a child against his chest (an action that clearly evokes both Cooper’s own lost children and their current state as adults). The numbness turns into determination, however, when they receive Murph’s second video message, where she despairingly demands an answer to whether it is really true that her father knowingly left her to die on Earth.
The film’s scientific discussions also fit the theory-practice pattern. First the crew discuss what to do and how things might be, but reality wants it differently: they are swept away like flies on Miller’s planet, and everything spins out of control on Dr. Mann’s planet.
It is perhaps during these pitch-black passages, when everything goes to hell, Interstellar is at its very best. The world for both humanity and its individuals becomes increasingly narrowed down, the resources more limited, the possibility for survival slimmer. The sudden deaths, the bitter accusations, the desperate struggles, the all-encompassing chaos around the last representatives of humanity. All of this is poetically expressed through the wounded spaceship with two blown-away units in silhouette against the infernal light from Gargantua.
It feels right to give the last word to Dr. Mann, our indefatigable commentator on the themes of Interstellar, as he stands with Cooper looking down into the abyss: “Nothing worked out the way it was supposed to.”
I am indebted to Britt Sørensen for inspiration, discussion and suggestions about the chapter on religion.
- (the necessary) Murph keeps Professor Brand’s secret about Plan A to herself and tells only her close friend, the doctor. But in contrast to her mentor, she has not resigned on behalf of humanity, and she realises telling the truth will lead to panic. (Here she actually lives up to TARS’ principle that 100% honesty is not always desirable.)
- (the amusing) The old Murph makes her own age and the entire population of Earth believe that Cooper enjoyed being a farmer.
- (the self-deceptive) Tom refuses to admit that his wife and son are ill, and that they will die if the family keep on living at the farm.
- (the consoling) Murph exaggerates, telling Professor Brand on his deathbed that they are very close to solving the equation. She also says that she is still sure that Cooper is alive and that he will return. (One also wonders whether Cooper’s comforting remark to the nervous Romilly really can be true: “You know that some of the finest solo yachtsmen in the world don’t know how to swim?”)
- (the customary) Murph tells Amelia that her father died with a peaceful mind.
- (the heroic) Cooper pretends to Amelia that there are enough resources to get both of them to Edmunds’s planet, but in reality he has planned to let himself fall into the black hole.
- (the partly) Cooper promises that he will return to Murph, although Donald has admonished him not to promise anything he cannot be sure to keep. Cooper seems already to be aware of the black hole in the system to which they are going. Big time slippages could then arise, and it is impossible to know when he can come back. (Murph sees through this.)
- (the convenient) Cooper tells Donald that his farewell with Murph went well.
- (the considerate) Cooper’s highest priority is that his children shall feel safe, and then he cannot tell a 10-year-old girl that the world is about to go under.
- (propaganda) The new textbooks claim that the Apollo missions were a ruse to bankrupt the Soviet Union (and the teacher believes them).
No one seems to have noticed or called for an explanation for Tom disappearing without a trace from the film. When Cooper wakes up in the epilogue he never asks about Tom – only Murph is on his mind. (I caught on about this from a Facebook thread at the psychologist Marius Presterud, for even after nine screenings at that point I had not given a thought to Tom’s fate.)
Nolan wanted to focus on the father-daughter relationship, and probably felt that the father-son one receives closure at an earlier point, during the embrace between Murph and Tom. Still it is strange that Cooper in the epilogue does not express even a hint of grief and yearning for the son. This might be a telling manifestation of the fact that he favours his daughter, but at this stage Cooper has experienced an enormous personal breakthrough. Tom’s traceless disappearance possibly smacks of a wound left by cut material or that the closure through the embrace might not function as well as intended. On the other hand: if virtually no one has missed Tom, maybe it works after all?
(Interstellar actually suggests that Tom is drinking. When Murph declines the invitation to stay the night with the reason “too many memories”, Tom answers, “We might have something for that”. Soon he comes back with a bottle of liquor and three glasses. But this return is almost “invisible”, since he is forced into the outskirts of a frame that concentrates on his wife’s embarrassed attempt to wriggle out of Murph’s offer about a medical examination of his son. Since Tom too has bad memories, about his father’s disappearance and the death of his first-born, we ought to assume that this is his self-medication. His possible drinking problem will bring a nuance to Tom’s quick-tempered, violent reaction to the doctor’s later presence.)