How ‘Interstellar’ Tests the Loneliness of Space

In Christopher Nolan’s space epic, very few things transcend the barriers of time and space. But love sure is one of them.
Matthew Mcconaughey Interstellar
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on September 19th, 2019

Many of Christopher Nolan’s films involve a quest for personal catharsis. In gems like MementoThe Dark Knight trilogy, and Inception, the director closely examines many conflicts of the self. Such fundamental emotional tethers are essential ingredients in Nolan’s groundbreaking cinematic brew. Yet, rarely do his heroes actually operate alone. The filmmaker additionally taps into the communal nature of his big stories and is apt to discussing broader humanistic notions of love, connection, and relationships in his work.

None of Nolan’s films champions these concepts more resolutely than Interstellar. This ambitious space epic tells a tale of civilization’s eleventh hour on an ailing Earth. In the movie, humankind attempts to chase evidently impossible odds of survival among the stars. Interstellar banks on little except sheer blind faith that there is a cosmic solution to saving the species. Doing so acutely draws together juxtaposed themes of survivalist isolation and unbridled intimacy, resulting in a film that serves as a surprisingly positive allegory about humanity’s prospects.

Interstellar appears complicated in its scientific jargon related to space phenomena and time travel. However, the film is invested in a father-daughter relationship that transcends these intricate concerns. Interstellar starts off by establishing such familial ties. The first words in the movie come from an old woman, who states, “My dad was a farmer. Of course, he didn’t start that way.”

This quote leads into interview footage featuring various elderly folk, who describe in subjective terms the backdrop of apocalyptic horror that plagues Interstellar. The Earth’s resources have been rapidly exhausted after years of greedy consumerism. Now, everyone is barely scraping by while the soil beneath their feet dries out, causing food supplies to drastically deplete and formidable dust clouds to pollute the air.

These interview snippets are interspersed with the introduction of Interstellar’s main protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He is one of the many farmers caught up in nature’s unrelenting fury; an especially restless one, at that. The audience meets him when he wakes from a bad dream of a lander crash, only to find his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), watching him closely with some concern. She acknowledges that his nightmares recur and wonders if he has some ghosts to face, much like she does; specifically, the kind that haunts people rather than places.

Although clearly unsettled, Cooper adamantly dismisses Murph’s theory that apparitions exist. This response is supposedly rational, but her keen observations do come from a place of personal understanding between the two. Cooper is only a farmer out of necessity. His foreboding nightmare actually rehashes a real dreadful memory; a remnant of his past as a trained NASA pilot. Unfortunately, a man of his talents – one as both a pilot and highly-educated engineer – seemingly doesn’t possess the required skill set to keep the Earth livable these days.

Cooper is perennially grounded, and this dire day-to-day existence leaves little room for his innate inquisitiveness to flourish. He is caught between two worlds: one of disillusioned pragmatism and another of blatant, nagging curiosity. Both aspects of his personality are reflected in his two children. His son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) leans towards unquestioning realism, embracing his likely future as a farmer and keeping his gaze firmly planted on the ground; on tangible – if ominous – truths of his reality.

In contrast, Murph very much inherits Cooper’s inquiring mind. Her namesake – Murphy’s Law – itself invokes this promising fact and in practice, Murph lives up to the notion that “whatever can happen will happen.” She is always posing questions, even ones that don’t immediately make sense to more rationally inclined individuals. Murph is also quick-witted and stubborn, challenging Cooper whenever he downplays his own desire for discovery:

“You said science was about admitting what we don’t know.”

Belief and practicality often come to a head in Interstellar. Frankly, it’s easy to see why the agricultural society of a deprived Earth would reject pioneer mentality outright. Even when disenchantment is expressed in a more tempered and considerate fashion in the movie, it characterizes people as “caretakers” of a dying planet who are heading towards certain doom.

Unceasing despondency and desperation may give humanity cause to adopt a self-interested – borderline selfish – mentality, but Interstellar implores an examination of personal values and motivations nonetheless. The film notably emphasizes that this logical survivalist approach is most effective when tied to a community-driven promise of innovation.

Murph and Cooper’s bond is a powerful personification of this thesis. Their quest to save the world mysteriously begins at home, when an unseen force cryptically communicates with Murph through her bookcase. This inspires an obsession with ghosts that was previously hinted at, although Cooper – as he demonstrates at the beginning of the film – is dismissive of her theory.

Whatever the force is, it eventually leads both father and daughter to an underground NASA facility, where a group of scientists led by physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is priming for one last shot at space travel. “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it,” says Brand.

For decades, the now-secret government organization has been gathering data based on various gravitational anomalies – happenings that are not unlike the “apparition” haunting Murph’s room. One of NASA’s most pertinent findings constitutes a wormhole that randomly appeared near Saturn almost 50 years ago. As enigmatic fate would have it, it is a perfectly-placed pathway that will guide explorers to brand-new solar systems as they search for new homes.

Several manned missions through the wormhole confirm that there are three possibly habitable worlds near a black hole that scientists have dubbed “Gargantua.” This inspires Brand to conceive Plan A; the utilization of gravitational propulsion to execute a mass exodus via the NASA facility, which doubles as a large spacecraft.

That said, Plan A requires Brand to solve a complex equation of gravity. In the meantime, NASA will enact Plan B, wherein Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), her colleagues Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and the robots TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) will board NASA’s last orbiting spacecraft, the Endurance, and transport 5,000 frozen fertilized embryos onto one of the livable worlds for colonization.

Plan B could use a pilot of Cooper’s caliber for near-perfect execution. Yet, despite NASA providing him with the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream of visiting the stars, the decision to leave his family behind for an untold number of years understandably weighs heavily on him. Cooper must contend with the fact that he cannot know when – or indeed, if – he would come home. Finally, he agrees to the mission primarily on the grounds of selflessness, aiming to save the world for his children.

The vastness of space and the relativity of time combine to create a deeply lonesome environment for Cooper and his family once they separate. He and Murph leave on especially bad terms when he fails to adequately explain his impetuses to her. Moreover, the harshness of space travel creates several unexpected problems for Cooper and his crew, making it difficult for them to stay on the same page during the mission.

The unyielding gravitational force of Gargantua causes severe time dilation that affects the flight crew’s reconnaissance expeditions. Every hour spent on their first stop alone sets them back seven years due to the planet’s proximity to the black hole. And due to overwhelming and dangerous surface conditions, Cooper is stuck there longer than planned, causing the group to lose tens of years back on Earth. This eats away at the Endurance crew’s collective conscience. They cannot help but think about those they’ve left behind due to these presumably wasted pockets of time.

Regardless of the time slippage, hope is not entirely lost. Despite being estranged from her father for so long, a grown-up Murph (now played by Jessica Chastain) is now Professor Brand’s protégé. She is an active proponent of Plan A, working tirelessly to solve Brand’s equation.

However, Murph is gravely disappointed when she realizes that the professor has been lying about the plan’s feasibility all along. He had solved his iteration of the gravity equation long ago, but rather than admit that his scientific parameters have been inordinately limited – at least not without further elusive gravitational data to work the problem – he quickly determines Earth to be a lost cause.

For the second time in her life, Murph has seemingly been betrayed by a father figure. She can’t help but wonder if her dad had always been privy to Brand’s bald-faced falsehoods; whether Cooper had boarded the Endurance with nothing but selfish escape in mind. Just as Murph discovers Plan A to be futile, Cooper begins to deal with the same realization after the Endurance crew’s trip to the second tenable planet proves fruitless.

Thankfully, Cooper blood is hardy and perseverant. Murph knows that Brand only had “half the answer” to his gravity problem and she has a “feeling” she knows where to find the rest of it. For as long as Murph can remember, the nagging whispers of her erstwhile phantom have provided her with inexplicable messages informing all her life decisions. Listening to the “ghost” in her wall once gave Murph and even Cooper purpose, more so than many were willing to believe, including themselves. Murph states:

“I was never scared of it. I called it a ghost because it felt…like a person. It was trying to tell me something.”

Now committed to both of Brand’s plans, Murph and Cooper have to trust these unknown forces once more. The former returns to her childhood home to find answers hidden among her old possessions. Meanwhile, the latter propels what’s left of his crew towards the remaining viable planet to ensure Plan B’s completion.

Both father and daughter’s timelines slowly converge. Cooper has one last trick up his sleeve to aid in the success of Plan A, expelling himself and the robot TARS into Gargantua’s event horizon in hopes of finding the solution of gravity hiding within it. With any luck, TARS could then transmit that data to NASA.

Instead, the pair end up in an unknown dimension, where communication is greatly limited. Cooper and TARS find themselves in a tesseract, a cubed reality built from moments of history; a specific someone’s past, in fact. This physical manifestation of time provides accessible snapshots into different points in Murph’s life. It is in this moment that the characters and audience alike are privy to the truth of the guiding hands behind Interstellar’s far-reaching cosmic missions.

Every message passed through Murph’s bedroom had come from Cooper. He kickstarted her journey as a bona fide hero by first delivering the coordinates to NASA to her in the first place. The entire film would not have worked without the mutual understanding and special familial language that they both possess. Now, Cooper can relay TARS’ quantum data to Murph through one final coded message. He was her ghost all along; a key that allows humanity to save itself.

Interstellar uses the conceit of the onerous space travel story to explain that to love one another is to retain a sense of invaluable promise. It is sheer realistic sentiment. The film does not shy away from depicting incompatible viewpoints; oftentimes, these conflicting expressions are empathetic to a degree, too. Moreover, Interstellar certainly chastises humankind’s less-reputable characteristics, putting the onus of the Earth’s survival firmly in our hands. Nevertheless, it leaves audiences with a heart-warming message alongside this heavy responsibility; that during times of interminable strife, fortitude must go hand-in-hand with unshakeable faith.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)