My buddy Mikey recently posted this incredible video talking through what he loves about Interstellar.
I love this movie too, it’s my favorite Christopher Nolan film (don’t email me). Here’s a list of some things I love about the film. (Spoilers for the whole movie ahead; also you have to watch Mikey’s video if you want to understand what I’m talking about).
- Mikey frames the dramatic stakes of the film as the power of science to save humanity meeting the love we have for one another that drives us to explore and discover. I read darker themes into the film. In my interpretation, science and technological progress are a tool that has the power to destroy or redeem us. Our human desires will ultimately determine how we wield that power. The film has many metaphors that explore this; Cooper repurposes a military drone as farm equipment; the Marine robot TARS is sent on a peaceful mission of exploration by NASA. Cooper represents a selfless spirit of discovery and an ideal person to weird science and technology. Everyone else… not as much.
- Each of the possible planets that McConaughey investigates through the wormhole represent the many false paths that humanity might take or the ways that we might fail; they’re each depicted as one of the four classic story archetypes. The fast-time wavy waterworld planet represents man’s struggle against nature. Matt Damon’s ice planet represents man’s struggle against man (hint: Damon’s character is named Dr. Mann). The third planet represents man’s struggle against himself — McConaughey believes he has to sacrifice himself and seeing his family again to get there (of course in the end this sacrifice is the thing that returns him; conquering this struggle is the path to our salvation). The failure of Earth probably represents man vs. society for obvious reasons.
- But really I think Interstellar is about movies, and specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me, the entire film can be understood as Christopher Nolan’s meditation on what it means to tell stories and make movies in a post-2001 world. There are obviously parallels. Both films open with man struggling for survival; in 2001 you get the primitive apes, in Interstellar Cooper says, “We used to look up and dream at our place in the stars. Now we look down and wonder at our place in the dirt.” In 2001 man’s problems (and the inciting incidents of the film) are external; aliens, gateways, HAL. In Interstellar, Nolan sees our problems as coming from within (more on this later). On the podcast Reply All, someone once observed that the central question of 2001 is whether man and machine can replace woman and child. Interstellar deconstructs those binaries. In Interstellar, machines will do exactly what we tell them — they are only as noble as we are.
- Not convinced Interstellar is really about 2001? The last chord of 2001’s signature music, Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, is the motif that fuels the entire Interstellar soundtrack:
- The film has some obvious dad emotions in it, and speaks to the cost of sacrificing time with your family for a noble endeavor like finding a new world or (just guessing here) making a film. Nolan is a self-aware filmmaker, his films are about film. He said about his film The Prestige, “It is very much about filmmaking. It’s also intended to suggest how the film itself is spooling its narrative out to the audience. We want people really to be aware of the effect the film is having on them as it’s unfolding before their eyes.” Here’s what he had to say about Interstellar:
“The connection between us and our kids and us and our parents and the fragility of that. It’s no coincidence that it’s a bookcase that is the symbol for that sequence in the film, because there’s no better symbol for the repository of information passed down from one generation to the next. Look at anyone’s bookcase at home, no matter how modest, and you’re going to find a book that contains wisdom or ideas or a language that’s at least a thousand years old. And the idea that humans have created a mechanism to time travel, to hurl ideas into the future, it sort of bookends. Books are a time machine.”
- Hey speaking of The Prestige, the story in Interstellar loosely conforms to the rules about what makes a great magic trick: “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’
- McConaughey’s triumphant return at the end of the film is one of the big knocks against it — people love to complain that this doesn’t make sense, that it’s mystical, that the film doesn’t explain it. The film actually does explain this moment, albeit totally visually. In the establishing shot of the post-Earth space station, you see a baseball being thrown, striking a bat, abruptly changing direction, and getting launched back into window of a house in the cylindrical space station. This represents how McConaughey gets back home.
- That crazy space tube that humanity is living in at the end of the film is called an O’Neill Cylinder. There is an incredible 99% Invisible episode about the politics, history, and architecture of the physicist and futurist Gerry O’Neill. Many of his ideas about space exploration and conservation are at play in Interstellar. The O’Neill Cylinder in Interstellar is probably floating in stasis at a Lagrangian point, just like Gerry O’Neill described.
- O’Neill talked about space as a place that ordinary people could live in and explore — this was a radical new idea. He faces political criticism on two fronts: first, that his proposals essentially spelled out the expansion of the U.S. military-industrial complex into space, and second, that his ideas represented the ultimate fantasy of white flight… rich whites could flee the civil rights advances of the 60’s and 70’s by literally leaving the planet. I think Interstellar is about these ideas — if we continue on our current path on Earth, will we survive? And if we leave Earth, won’t we just bring our dirty laundry with us into space, eventually spreading our unsustainable, violent way of life across the entire universe? To solve our biggest problems, we have to look within.
- My friend Lucianne Walkowicz gave a great talk about this neo-colonialist attitude towards space exploration: Let’s not use Mars as a backup planet. As she says, “The more you look for planets like Earth, the more you appreciate our own planet.”
- Interstellar captures the cold reality of trying to find a place to live other than Earth. This is a serious environmental point worth thinking about for a second. We are precisely evolved for this specific environment. It would take millions of years (or more likely be impossible) for us to adapt to a planet that is only 1% different. Even being in space long enough to get to another planet destroys our bodies; being in microgravity for just a short time is enough to permanently degrade astronauts’ eyesight from 20/20 to 20/100. Go to the ISS as a fighter jet pilot; come back and you can’t pass a DMV exam without glasses for the rest of your life. Also the lethal radiation will be an issue.
- Another great thing to read about this idea is Ross Andersen’s interview with Elon Musk about settling Mars. Here’s an excerpt:
Great migrations are often a matter of timing, of waiting for a strait to freeze, a sea to part, or a planet to draw near. The distance between Earth and Mars fluctuates widely as the two worlds whirl around in their orbits. At its furthest, Mars is a thousand times further than the Moon. But every 26 months they align, when the faster moving Earth swings into position between Mars and the Sun. When this alignment occurs where their orbits are tightest, Mars can come within 36 million miles, only 150 times further than the Moon. The next such window is only four years away, too soon to send a crewed ship. But in the mid-2030s, Mars will once again burn bright and orange in our sky, and by then [Elon Musk] might be ready to send his first flurry of missions, to seed a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.
Musk told me this first group of settlers will need to pay their own way. “There needs to be an intersection of the set of people who wish to go, and the set of people who can afford to go,” he said. “And that intersection of sets has to be enough to establish a self-sustaining civilisation. My rough guess is that for a half-million dollars, there are enough people that could afford to go and would want to go. But it’s not going to be a vacation jaunt. It’s going to be saving up all your money and selling all your stuff, like when people moved to the early American colonies.”
Even at that price, a one-way trip to Mars could be a tough sell. It would be fascinating to experience a deep space mission, to see the Earth receding behind you, to feel that you were afloat between worlds, to walk a strange desert under an alien sky. But one of the stars in that sky would be Earth, and one night, you might look up at it, through a telescope. At first, it might look like a blurry sapphire sphere, but as your eyes adjusted, you might be able to make out its oceans and continents. You might begin to long for its mountains and rivers, its flowers and trees, the astonishing array of life forms that roam its rainforests and seas. You might see a network of light sparkling on its dark side, and realise that its nodes were cities, where millions of lives are coming into collision. You might think of your family and friends, and the billions of other people you left behind, any one of which you could one day come to love.
The austerity of life on Mars might nurture these longings into regret, or even psychosis. From afar, the Martian desert evokes sweltering landscapes like the Sahara or the American West, but its climate is colder than the interior of Antarctica. Mars used to be wrapped in a thick blanket of atmosphere, but something in the depths of time blew it away, and the patchy remains are too thin to hold in heat or pressure. If you were to stroll onto its surface without a spacesuit, your eyes and skin would peel away like sheets of burning paper, and your blood would turn to steam, killing you within 30 seconds. Never again would you feel the sun and wind on your skin, unmediated. Indeed, you would probably be living underground at first, in a windowless cave, only this time there would be no wild horses to sketch on the ceiling.
Cabin fever might set in quickly on Mars, and it might be contagious. Quarters would be tight. Governments would be fragile. Reinforcements would be seven months away. Colonies might descend into civil war, anarchy or even cannibalism, given the potential for scarcity. US colonies from Roanoke to Jamestown suffered similar social breakdowns, in environments that were Edenic by comparison.
Before I left SpaceX, I wanted to know how far Musk thought human exploration would go. When a man tells you that a million people will live on Mars within a century, you want to know his limits, if only for credibility’s sake. “Do you think we will go to the stars?” I asked him.
“Wow,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to get to another star system. Alpha Centauri is four light years away, so if you go at 10 per cent of the speed of light, it’s going to take you 40 years, and that’s assuming you can instantly reach that speed, which isn’t going to be the case. You have to accelerate. You have to build up to 20 or 30 per cent and then slow down, assuming you want to stay at Alpha Centauri and not go zipping past.” To accentuate this last point, Musk made a high-pitched zooming noise, like kids make when playing with toy spaceships.
- Finally, in the future of Interstellar, NASA uses the old “worm” logo, and not the lamentable “meatball” of our current era. Everyone I know at NASA prefers the superior 70's logo — the reversion will certainly happen when they go rogue and save the planet.