Note: Contains spoilers
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an epic, metaphysical poem addressing the question of ultimate human survival in both an individual and collective sense. Like Inception, it uses a strong science-fiction narrative as a means of thinking about time and reality, but unlike Inception it looks outwards to distant galaxies rather than inwards to manipulated dream states. Certainly, Interstellar is Nolan’s most visionary film to date and, if much attention has been paid to the quantum physics that underpins the film, it is ultimately a meditation on what, if anything, lies behind the mundane dimensions of reality.
At the beginning of the film we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who is an ex-astronaut turned farmer in the Midwest. The reason that he has turned to farming is a blight that is killing off food crops and causing dramatic food shortages. Scientific research and higher education have been shelved whilst everyone is pushed into farming to try to maximize the declining food supply. There is a residual technology; drones fly around to no purpose and we see one being hijacked by Cooper to salvage its technology. This is very much the sort of future envisioned by John Michael Greer in his book The Long Descent and his influential blog The Archdruid Report. Whereas Greer sees the end of the industrial age being caused by fossil fuel depletion, Interstellar less controversially puts it down to an act of nature. In both scenarios, technological development reaches a plateau and gradually fades into the past. Cooper’s young daughter, Murph, gets into trouble at school because she spreads a conspiracy theory that NASA once landed a man on the moon. What was once orthodoxy has become conspiracy theory, and vice versa, in a small but neat presentation of Spengler’s observation that strange, cultish religious imperatives arise at a time of civilizational death. In the world of Interstellar, the techno-Faustian drives of the 20th century have become a sinful heresy.
Murph believes that a ghost in her bedroom is trying to communicate with her by pushing books from her bookshelf. During one of the many severe dust storms that have become commonplace, she accidentally leaves a window open and she and Cooper notice that the dust falls to her bedroom floor in very particular, non-random ways. In fact, it lands as Morse code spelling out map coordinates. Cooper seeks to understand the anomalous incident and the “ghost” as gravitational phenomena of some sort. Upon tracking down the map coordinates they discover a secret NASA base. The space program has been forced to operate in complete secrecy because it is seen as a wasteful luxury that can no longer be afforded. Despite this, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) believes that interstellar colonization is the only hope for saving the human race from the blight. He reveals that a wormhole in space was discovered close to Saturn some years ago and that a number of manned missions were sent through it to investigate the suitability for colonization of planets on the other side. As Cooper is an ex-astronaut, and a heretic for believing in the desirability of space exploration despite the prevailing economic circumstances, he volunteers to pilot a new mission to follow up the data that has been sent back from those first pioneers.
The central bulk of the film follows the mission as it explores two of those worlds. The first is in close proximity to a black hole and the astronauts who explore its surface find it to be inhospitable. Due to the slowing down of time caused by the proximity of a black hole, the astronauts return after a couple of hours to find that 23 years have passed on the mother ship. Ultimately, Cooper decides that he needs to enter the black hole with one of the mission’s robots. This will enable the robot to send “quantum data” from the black hole’s singularity back to Earth to provide the missing piece of an equation that will solve the problem of gravity and allow for the mass emigration of humanity from Earth. Once inside the black hole, Cooper discovers a large projection, or light installation of some sort, representing his daughter’s childhood bedroom. Essentially, the projection is an embodiment of the bedroom’s instantiations in time when viewed from a higher dimension. By intersecting with this exteriorly manifested object of time, Cooper is able to distort space-time and cause the gravitational phenomena that Murph had originally attributed to the ghost at the beginning of the film. Cooper is thus causing the anomalous incidents that were responsible for him finding the NASA base and beginning his mission. It is also evident that the worm hole and the room within the black hole were created by a suprahumanity of the future who put them there to save the humanity of the past. Thus, Cooper’s personal temporal paradox is a small arc within a greater temporal paradox for all humanity.
All of this preoccupation with gravity and its effects inevitably brings to mind comparison with last year’s blockbuster space movie, Gravity. Gravity follows two astronauts who are left free floating in space after their shuttle is destroyed. Clooney and Bullock’s performances were highly rated and the film achieves a real frisson of terror as the characters are seen as lost, vulnerable specks against the immensity of space. But the interesting thing is how these characters are decontextualized, how they exist for us as severed from earthly concerns. True, Bullock’s character has a back story about her young daughter who died aged four, but this comes across as mere filler, a gestural procedure to humanize the character. Her biography is an anecdotal discourse. In essence, both of the characters are somehow less than human: rootless, single, atomized individuals. Surely we are meant to read them as angels, humanlike in form but strangely distant and ethereal? This reading is reinforced by the inclusion of the Hank Williams song “Angels are Hard to Find” in the soundtrack. The event that is responsible for destroying their shuttle, and leaving them hanging like Daliesque Christs in space, is a missile strike on a satellite which creates a chain reaction of debris orbiting through the satellite belt and taking out more satellites as it goes. This event is a quintessentially contemporary disaster. What could be worse than a devastating trail of destruction taking out communication satellites? As Clooney’s character remarks, “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.” This is the worst thing in the world and the true existential horror lying behind Gravity’s action. The lone astronaut spinning helplessly into infinite space is a metaphor for the contemporary experience of disorientation caused by internet downtime.
By contrast, Interstellar attempts to grapple with much bigger issues. The looming prospect of the death of all humanity is always present but, as already mentioned, this futuristic scenario plays out against a “lost futures” backdrop. It isn’t quite an archeofuturist vision because the technological advances that Faye anticipates have not come to fruition, so there is a sense of spiritual regression (accompanying the transition to an agrarian society), and a scavenging of extant technologies. In this context it is worth mentioning Kubrick’s 2001, which Interstellar has been compared to. Famously, HAL became the epitome of everything threatening about artificial intelligence. Due to his vastly superior intelligence and rationality he was given control of the spacecraft with consequences as bad for the crew as they were felicitous for cinema. The evil AI genius was also addressed more recently in the Nolan-produced Transcendence, where the notion of uploading a human’s consciousness to an online network was considered. In Interstellar, AI is shown to have become stuck in retro-looking robots who are basically very clever servants.
In place of the AI evil genius, Nolan instead has references to the mysterious intelligences who are responsible for the appearance of the worm hole: “they.” “They” are revealed to be a future form of humanity, one which has overcome the limitations of time (fifth-dimensional beings). It is surely worthy of note that, in this parable of the indomitability of the Faustian spirit, the higher beings are not aliens, gods or intelligent machines, but human beings. The messianic urge towards a savior figure, Nolan seems to be telling us, should be directed towards our own sense of self-overcoming, our own transcending of natural boundaries. But within all of this there is a very human story about a man who has to leave his daughter behind in pursuit of his ideals. Unlike the astronauts in Gravity we never forget that Cooper has made a real sacrifice in leaving his children behind to carry out this mission. When, at the end of the film, Cooper is reunited with Murph he has aged little, due to the slowing down of time in the area around the black hole where he has been exploring. She, however, is now an old lady on her death bed. When the two meet the father is decades younger than his dying daughter. Despite constituting the film’s emotional resolution the scene is uncomfortable to watch; it feels unnatural and a little creepy due to the age discrepancy. The effect is to make you wonder whether transcending time in this sense is really desirable. It is as though Nolan is subtly throwing in a warning about the consequences of exceeding natural boundaries to temper the Faustian message he sends elsewhere.
And the ambiguity doesn’t end there. This being Nolan, the consummate trickster, there has to be some doubt about the film’s ending. My understanding of physics is not at a very high level, but I believe that it is the case that nothing can escape from beyond the event horizon of a black hole. If this is so then when Cooper crosses the boundary that would be the last anyone would hear of him. Similarly, the “quantum data” would have no chance of being transmitted to Earth. In the film, we see Cooper reunited with his daughter on a space station in the Saturn region having been rescued from the black hole. One of the characters earlier in the film mentioned that the last thing you see before dying is your children. Perhaps we are meant to conclude that the end sequence is all psychological wish fulfillment on the part of a dying man. In which case humanity is stranded on a dying planet and we still don’t really know who “they” are. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; both scenarios are still concerned with man’s Gnostic quest for self-overcoming, and an ultimate resolution to such a quest will never be reached.
The genius of Christopher Nolan is in bringing so many interesting ideas to such entertaining films. With Interstellar he has demonstrated his competence as a metaphysical poet using scientific ideas as striking metaphors for human emotions and fears. It’s too ambitious to hang together perfectly but it is an extraordinary film that demands to be seen and seen again. Nolan’s eight previous films, spanning the period from 2000–2012, marked him out as the pre-eminent film director of the 21st century. Interstellar confirms this judgment.