Whether you love him or hate him, filmmaker Christopher Nolan has continued to find new ways to challenge his audience, and paradigms of filmmaking as a whole, throughout his remarkable career. His breakout hit Memento shattered audiences' expectations of a traditional narrative story, while The Dark Knight trilogy redefined the superhero genre in ways nobody even knew they wanted, until they saw it with their very eyes. Inception proved that one does not need to induce hallucinogenic drugs to get the head trip of a lifetime, and even his more straight-forward films like Insomnia and The Prestige are exceptionally bold. Regardless of what you might think of his latest offering Interstellar, most will likely agree that Christopher Nolan has outdone himself, offering truly outstanding visuals coupled with a mind-shattering narrative that still has filmgoers talking weeks after opening day.
With all that being said, Interstellar, all 169 minutes of it, isn't exactly the easiest cinematic pill to swallow, with several questions still lingering about different aspects of this incredibly complex story, which we'll try to answer for you right here. But first, let's go through the basic plot of Interstellar.
Be warned, there will be SPOILERS after this point, so read on at your own risk.
The story centers on Matthew McConaughey's Cooper, a former NASA pilot turned farmer, who discovers mysterious coordinates to a top-secret government project. He is recruited by his old colleague Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to lead a journey into the nether regions of space to, essentially, find a new home for humanity. While it's somewhat glossed over in the film, the reason for this mission is because the Earth's resources are dwindling rapidly, with the "blight" rendering the planet incapable of yielding any crops except for corn, although that will be over soon as well.
At any rate, despite the protests of his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper joins this all-important mission aboard the Endurance spacecraft alongside Brand's daughter and biologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romily (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two androids known as TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). Their mission is to enter a wormhole and explore the three planets orbiting the black hole Gargantua, which are named Miller, Mann and Edmunds, after the astronauts who explored them in the previous Lazarus missions.
With the fundamentals all laid out, let's explore some of the more puzzling and intriguing aspects of Interstellar's ingeniously complex story.
Plan A vs. Plan B - The Classic Misdirect
As complicated as Interstellar's plot is, Christopher Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonathan Nolan employ a classic trope, where the government or the powers that be essentially "trick" the protagonist into participating in a mission, by either not telling said protagonist the entire truth, or offering empty promises that cannot be fulfilled. The one example of this trope that immediately comes to mind is Predator, where Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch isn't told the whole truth about his supposedly simple "rescue mission" by his old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers).
In Interstellar, Cooper wrestles with the decision to join the Endurance, since he knows he will be separated from his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) for an unknown amount of time. He doesn't know then that years upon years will pass, with Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) growing up never knowing if and/or when their father will come back. It's Murph's undying faith that Coop will return that provides a heart-wrenching payoff, but we're getting sidetracked here.
It breaks down like this. Plan A centers on Coop's mission succeeding in obtaining data from the planets surrounding the black hole Gargantua, to find a suitable place for humanity to call home. However, this plan largely rests on Professor Brand's ability to solve a physics equation that would allow for humans to access the "fifth dimension" physics, enabling an enormous space station carrying all of humanity to travel through the wormhole and to their new home. Plan B would be enacted if Plan A fails, with the Endurance team settling on the most habitable planet and raising harvested human embryos that NASA has been secretly fertilizing, to ensure humanity's survival.
What Professor Brand didn't tell Coop before embarking on this mission is that Plan A was never expected to succeed. He had already solved the physics equation and deemed it impossible for humanity to be saved. Plan A was only championed to get world leaders to rally around this idea together to build the infrastructure for both plans, even though Brand was the only one who knew Plan A wouldn't work. Regardless, even after learning that Plan A was never expected to work, Coop still presses on with the mission at hand, which leads to the jaw-dropping and perplexing reveal of the "tesseract," the true nature of "they," while proving that Brand was wrong all along.
Tesseract, Fifth Dimension and "They"
First off, the tesseract in Interstellar does not have any Marvel implications whatsoever, but it does play an integral part in the story. The Tesseract is where Cooper lands after ejecting himself from the ship into the black hole, a.k.a. Gargantua. While he meant to sacrifice himself to ensure the success of Plan B, Cooper doesn't die, but instead lands in this area where all of time is laid out in front of him. Coop uses the Tesseract to communicate with his young daughter Murph in her room, essentially becoming the "ghost" Murph thought she saw at the beginning of the film, as Coop relays the data collected by TARS to young Murph for her to use in the future, making "Plan A" a success and inevitably saving the human race.
The Tesseract was constructed by "they," which are initially thought to be some sort of alien race giving humanity little hints at how to survive before being annihilated. As it turns out, "they" are actually future humans, using their knowledge and mastery of "fifth dimension" physics to construct the Tesseract in the future, while leaving it in the past for Coop to communicate with Murph, who are both later seen as the saviors of humanity.
While it is never explicitly stated what this "fifth dimension" is in Interstellar, Christopher Nolan used another well-worn plot device in new and unique ways. The trope is known as a "bootstrap paradox," where objects or information are passed from the future to the past. The most notable example of this in film is The Terminator, where John Connor sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time to protect his mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Since Kyle ends up becoming John's father, John essentially creates himself from the future, which also rings true for Skynet, since the Terminator's arm from the future that was discovered at Cyberdyne, essentially lead to Skynet's creation. A "bootstrap paradox" is also prevalent in 12 Monkeys and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Time Travel Relativity In a Nutshell
One of the most fascinating aspects of Interstellar is how the passage of time differentiates exponentially between Earth and the vast outer reaches of space. In the first planet visited by the Endurance, for every hour spent on the planet, seven years pass on Earth, which explains how Coop's children Murph and Tom become full-grown adults while their father is on this mission, and why Coop wants to get off this planet as quickly as possible.
The reason for this massive time discrepancy is due to the first planet's proximity to the black hole known as Gargantua, whose gravitational anomalies makes time pass exponentially slower. Ironically, it's this anomaly that makes this trip to the first planet, Miller's, a bust, since what was perceived as years of positive beacon readings were actually just minutes, since she was killed by a wave shortly after landing on the planet. This is also shown by Christopher Nolan's decision to leave Romily on the Endurance, far from the black hole. In the three hours the rest of the team was gone, he had lived 23 years, and we also see video messages from back home of Coop's children as adults.
What's most interesting is Coop's ejection from the tesseract only takes a few seconds for him, but over 50 years have passed for the rest of humanity, and conversely, while Coop and TARS were believed to be floating in space for 90 years, that only spanned a few seconds as well for the astronaut and android.
The film ends with Coop, after seeing his now-elderly daughter Murph (Ellen Burstyn) on the enormous space station, setting off on a new journey to reunite with Amelia, who is on Edmonds planet setting up the aforementioned "Plan B." Even though nearly 100 years have passed on Earth since the first Endurance mission, Coop knows that time moves much slower on the other side of the wormhole, which means that he could reunite with Amelia shortly after he sacrificed himself and was dropped into the tesseract.
To wrap everything up, we have an incredibly comprehensive timeline by Dogan Can Gundogdu that explains what happens to the main characters in a thorough and visual manner. We also have a video with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson offering his own explanation regarding the ending of Interstellar, which you can check out below.
Is there anything else that left you scratching your head after watching Interstellar? Chime in with your thoughts below.