Christopher Nolan’s cosmic epic is his first venture into the sci-fi genre, an emotionally powerful experience, and his most ambitious project. For his magnum opus, Nolan addresses a range of sub-themes that are tied together by an overarching mood in this deeply philosophic picture that challenges the limits we have confined ourselves to.
Within the first few minutes of the film, we are greeted with images of a home powdered with dust. These scenes cut to brief interviews of the elderly recounting their experiences during what we can presume to be the Blight: a global crop epidemic depleting the world’s food. Aside from a fictional interview with the main character’s daughter, these are actual recordings of people who have lived through the Dust Bowl. Referencing a historical ecological threat caused by human activities sets the tone for the issues that characters face with the Blight and acts as an analogue to our present day world battling climate change. Our modern Blight is carbon emission, deforestation, and the dominance of a patented seed on a massive scale. Scenes of a family dinner consisting exclusively of corn strike a nervous chord given the wide array of uses our country has for this cash crop. The first act of the film serves as a cautionary tale of tampering with our environment without adequately assessing the risks we pose to ourselves or future generations.
Interstellar is just as much a story about Cooper and his children as it is a mission to save mankind. Key plot points in the film are influenced by time dilation as a result of gravity. After a near catastrophe on Miller’s planet, they are stuck on the surface until their ship can return to their base, the Endurance. This setback costs them two decades of Earth time as a result of the neighboring black hole, Gargantua, whose gravity drastically slows the flow of time on Miller’s planet. The whole film is a race against time for Cooper as he loses precious time with his children, hoping to return before their deaths. In our subjective human experience, we feel time expand and contract during periods of boredom and excitement, and with every year that passes, time seems to slip by more rapidly. In this regard, Interstellar is partly a meditation on parents seeing their children grow older. Part of the difficulty in being a parent is balancing the work that you do to provide for your kids with having a presence in their lives. Preoccupied with the mission at hand, Cooper tries to make up for lost time as he watches 23 years worth of video from his son Tom and daughter Murph. They grow older, find love, and have children. In Cooper’s time, between cryosleep and time dilation, it seemed like only a few days ago that his children were still his little boy and girl, a feeling that all parents can relate to.
Personal and Social Responsibility
Very early on, it is suggested that beings are interfering in the course of human events, known to us cryptically as “them”. On a small scale, they communicate with Murph at a level that will affect her personally. On a large scale, they introduce a wormhole that will shape the course of human events. So much of what the team of astronauts accomplishes is owed to “them,” the figures hailed as our saviors. In the face of such all-knowing, benevolent beings, a comparison can be made that “they” are a divine force. At the very heart of the mission is a belief that humanity is incapable of saving itself and must look out into the cosmos for its salvation. Arriving to Dr. Mann’s planet, the team of explorers set foot on a beautiful landscape of frozen clouds. Reviving Mann from years of cryosleep (In his own words, “You have literally raised me from the dead.”), they look to this heavenly figure for hope that they have found a new paradise. Indeed, it would appear so for a time until Mann’s true intentions are revealed. He is but a man scared of wasting his life away marooned on a barren planet in total isolation. Once again, the crew must find their own answers to the question of mankind’s survival. As the film comes to a close, the beings pulling all the strings are unmasked as mankind itself, but as our highly evolved descendants, suggesting that we alone are responsible for our own welfare. We cannot wait for a benevolent hand to intervene and clean up our mess. We cannot be children in the face of our annihilation. Instead, we must grow bolder and go forth into what we are afraid to discover.
The Survival Instinct and the Love Impulse
A multitude of interpretations can be extracted from Interstellar, but these readings all derive from an all-encompassing theme that Nolan uses to address the scientific community. Through science, we are able to approximate the natural laws which govern the universe. Through these laws, we form borders for what is possible, and the more exact our understanding of the world becomes, the more limited the possibilities would seem. In order to explore this theme, Nolan forms a dichotomy between reason and passion. In the film, in order to fulfill its objective of saving mankind, Cooper and his team have two potential courses of action: Plan A and Plan B. Plan A strives to save lives on Earth by solving Professor Brand’s equation for harnessing gravity, enabling the transport of all people to a habitable world with limited resources. Should Plan A fail, Plan B will repopulate human life anew on another planet using a mass bank of frozen zygotes. We will begin with the fail-safe, Plan B, as the counterpart to reason and proceed to Plan A as a counterpart to passion.
Plan B is a sure bet. It hinges on the success of finding just one habitable world out of a list of candidates. It is the path of least resistance, and the most likely to succeed, hence it is the safety net to our extinction should Plan A fail. In matters of survival, we are most likely to grab whatever can grant us the most security. Dr. Mann survived many years alone on his planet in the harshest of conditions. It was his dear survival instinct that allowed him to persevere and maintain some semblance of an existence. Plan B is an example of that resourcefulness to persevere. Yet, as Mann admits, it is difficult to rally the people of the world behind a mission that deems their own lives hopeless. This mission would surely accomplish what it would set out to do, but it hardly creates a future that we would find livable. Mann was willing to sacrifice the lives of his comrades for a higher purpose. Undoubtedly, his motives are sound given the extreme circumstances, yet his actions still seem reprehensible to us, making him a tragic hero and a victim of his own thirst to live. Cold reason may fight off death, but it castrates our existence of its humanity.
Plan A is the riskier but more ambitious project, and its outcome fits our concept of what saving the world should look like. Amelia Brand, daughter of Professor Brand and fellow crew member, gives an idealized vision of how she sees love fit within the grand scheme of the cosmos. Cooper believes her notion of quantifiable love as romantic whimsy. The idea appears farfetched but there is some measure of value in elevating our experience of love as having a greater importance. Love acts as a motivator. When Dr. Mann discusses survival with Cooper, he describes how at the moment of death, a parent might experience a vision of their child to propel them to survive. Though a firm proponent of survival, he concedes that the impulse for love can supercede that. Indeed, it can even override that instinct when we would die for our loved ones. The point of Amelia’s vision of love is that it is a viewpoint that does not marginalize the subjective human experience that bears the greatest importance to us. The difference between the instinct to survive and the impulse to love is the difference between a push and a pull factor. Immense passion can lead us into irrational situations and break barriers that were previously thought unbreakable.
The consequences of passion vs. reason dichotomy manifest themselves in Cooper’s children, Tom and Murph. It demonstrates how either orientation would operate within a scientific school of thought. Both Tom and Murph are gifted children, but we see that Tom is stunted in comparison to Murph’s potential. Tom is conservative and rational. In the case of a flat tire or becoming a farmer, he finds reasons why plans may fail. Rather than take risks, he would continue to follow what he knows. He becomes a farmer, like his father, because he plays a visible role in contributing to society’s welfare. Murph on the other hand, is imaginative. To Murph, “science is about admitting what we do not know,” and this unquenchable curiosity leads her to become a scientist for NASA, also following in her father’s footsteps. Murph models what it means to apply spiritualism to science. This is not in the sense of a New Age mysticism, but something more akin to Carl Sagan’s view that we are all made of stardust. Interstellar sought to revive our sense of awe and wonder for the world, motivating us to follow our passions wherever they may lead and to whatever it may discover.