Warning: Major ‘Interstellar’ spoilers lie ahead!
Interstellar is the most and least confusing movie that Christopher Nolan has ever made. The most confusing, because the spacefaring odyssey takes the filmmaker’s usual Rubik’s-cube narrative structure and blends in a hearty dose of upper-level astrophysics. Some of the astrophysics is real; all of it is really confusing. But Interstellar is also the most straightforward story of Nolan’s career—more emotionally clear-cut than the story-within-a-story nesting-doll epics The Prestige and Inception, and unencumbered by the globo-metropolitan sociopolitics of his Dark Knight trilogy.
Spoilers from here—but if you feel like you need a roadmap going into Interstellar, then all you really need to know is this: The fifth element is love.
Prologue and Epilogue: The Fifth Dimension and the Bookshelf at the End of the Universe
Interstellar begins on a farm somewhere in America, USA, where a pilot-turned-farmer named Cooper lives with his important daughter Murph and his unimportant son Tom. Murph believes that their house is haunted by a ghost, which constantly pushes books off of Murph’s insanely well-maintained bookshelf. Cooper assures Murph that there is no ghost.
But then there is a gigantic dust storm. The dust storms are caused by the Blight, a plague of general horror that has killed Earth’s crops. The Blight is never explained; certain theories persist that the Blight is caused by Sauron.
During the dust storm, Murph accidentally leaves her window open…and the dust begins to accumulate on her floor in a pattern that resembles morse code. Cooper decides that what’s happening inside of Murph’s room isn’t supernatural; it’s just a curious gravitational anomaly. An anomaly which writes the coordinates of the local top-secret NASA headquarters in morse code.
When Cooper shows up at the local top-secret NASA headquarters, the scientists completely believe his story about a weird gravity ghost in his daughter’s bedroom. This is because the top-secret NASA scientists believe that they have discovered, indirectly, a new alien race. This alien race is not located in outer space, but rather, in the Fifth Dimension: A semi-theoretical place located above, below, and beyond our own reality. The NASA scientists believe that the Fifth Dimensional beings are communicating with humanity. They communicate with humanity in two ways: By opening up a wormhole nearby Saturn, and by pushing books off a bookshelf in the bedroom of a young farmer’s daughter.
By way of visual explanation, here’s what the plot of Interstellar looks like in our third dimension:
And now imagine that there is a fifth dimensional being who floats above everything that happens in Interstellar. From that being’s perspective, everything that happens in Interstellar is happening all at once. Indeed, everything that has ever happened from our three-dimensional perspective is happening simultaneously. Here’s a rough outline of how time looks from the fifth dimension:
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the fifth-dimensional being looks exactly like Mr. Mxyzptlk, the fifth dimensional prankster who often taunts Superman, shown here in his original purple-suited incarnation because Christopher Nolan loves three-pieces.
Before Cooper departs on his mission to the wormhole, Murph tells him that she has decoded more morse code communicated via her magic bookshelf by Mr. Mxyzptlk. The message reads: “STAY.” Cooper assures Murph that ghosts aren’t real, even if fifth dimensional beings are definitely real, and leaves.
Interstellar happens. Then, on the far end of the galaxy, Cooper goes into the black hole Gargantua. Once he is inside this black hole, Cooper finds himself in a “tesseract,” which is essentially the back side of his daughter’s bookcase. But it’s the back side of every single moment in time that his daughter’s bookcase has ever existed. Cooper is told by helpful robot buddy Tars that Mr. Mxyzptlk built this magical Infinite Bookshelf, so that Cooper could communicate with his daughter at the start of the movie. Cooper: “I was the ghost all along!”
The first thing that Cooper communicates to his daughter is the coordinates of the NASA space station—which means that the plot of Interstellar is a closed-circle time loop, like this:
Interstellar gilds its version of time travel with a lot of chatter about gravity and relativity, but on a pure plot level, this is time travel by way of Terminator. In the first Terminator, John Connor sends his father back in time, so that his father can meet his mother and thus give birth to John Connor. In Interstellar, Cooper sends messages to his past self so that his past self can become his own future self.
While he’s inside of the Tesseract, Cooper also has an epiphany. The fifth dimensional beings are not aliens; the fifth dimensional beings are humans from the far, far, far future, who have evolved beyond the limits of the third dimension. These far future humans are now helping to create themselves by giving humanity the wormhole to a new galaxy. So, the history of humanity after Interstellar looks like this:
Cooper uses his new powers of bookshelf-based intergalactic telecommunication to tell Murph how to solve an unsolvable equation. More on this later; for now, all you need to know is that the fifth dimensional beings shut down the tesseract and send Cooper back through through the wormhole; we know this because, along the way, he meets up with his past self when the Endurance was coming through the wormhole, and shakes Anne Hathaway’s hand.
The fifth dimensional beings then deposit Cooper back in our solar system. This is because the fifth dimensional beings are really swell people and want Cooper to see his daughter again. You might ask yourself why the fifth dimensional beings are nice enough to bend the rules of space and time for Cooper, when most of the other people in the movie die pointless deaths on the far side of the universe from their loved ones. The simple answer: Mr. Mxyzptlk doesn’t give a f– about Wes Bentley.
Love is Science, and Vice Versa
“Love is the one thing that transcends time and space” is something that Anne Hathaway says in Interstellar. It’s a nice thought, and it’s also the thing that explains everything that happens in Interstellar. Hathaway gives her “love” monologue when she’s explaining why the Endurance should go to Edmunds’ world instead of Mann’s world. Hathaway’s character, Brand, happens to be in love with Wolf Edmunds, and her gut tells her that the mission should follow her heart and go to his world, even though Dr. Mann has been broadcasting that his (much closer) world is perfect for human life.
Brand is, it turns out, completely correct to throw aside all her years of scientific training on a love-hunch. Dr. Mann has been lying: A victim of Space Madness, he was only broadcasting good results so that someone would come save him. At the end of Interstellar, Brand arrives on Edmunds’ world, which is a much better than the other worlds visited by the Endurance. (The first world they visit is a planet covered by a one-foot-deep ocean and skyscraper-sized waves; the second world they visit is Hoth, basically.)
And Love appears to be the main reason why, when Cooper falls into the black hole, the fifth dimensional beings put him directly in contact with the person he loves most in the universe: His daughter. (The fifth dimensional beings do not put him in contact with Tom, his useless son, because Mr. Mxyzptlk doesn’t give a f— about Casey Affleck.) In fact, you could argue that Cooper’s love for his daughter is what makes him special; we’re told early in the movie that none of the other astronauts sent through the wormhole had any family, and certainly no attachments as strong as Cooper’s attachment to his daughter.
Essentially, Interstellar’s time travel is from The Terminator and its astrophysics are from The Fifth Element, where it turns out that the fifth element is love. I’m being silly but not really: As far as Interstellar is concerned, love is a literal potent physical concept, strong enough to bend the elaborate cosmic architecture of wormholes and black holes and far-flung star systems.
While Cooper and his merry gang of astronauts are maurading around the furthest reaches of the galaxy, Cooper’s daughter Renesmee grows up into brilliant astrophysicist Jessica Chastain. Chastain spends her entire life under the tutelage of Michael Caine, attempting to solve an apparently unsolvable equation. This is Plan A: If NASA can solve this equation, then they will be able to launch awesome space stations into space, and save all of the humans who are still on Earth. (Plan B is bleaker: The Endurance carries a flock of human embryos, which will be unfrozen and brought to term on a new Earth, thus creating a whole new human race led by Anne Hathaway.)
There’s a lot of physics involved in this mysterious equation—most of which gets reduced, in the movie, to the notion that they have to “solve gravity.” At one point in the movie, Chastain expresses some skepticism about Caine’s equation, implying that he has been making the job of solving the equation more difficult. Then Michael Caine starts dying, and with his dying breath, he reveals that he already solved the equation, and it didn’t offer any salvation.
At least, I thought he said that he solved the equation. A couple of my fellow moviegoers claimed that he never solved the equation, because of a lack of evidence. And one of my editors insists that, in fact, Caine believed the equation could never be solved: That Plan A was always a complete sham.
There’s only one way to get the information required to make Plan A possible: Go into a black hole and record everything inside of the black hole
and then transmit information from inside that black hole to your daughter using morse code on the minute hand of the watch you gave her during the movie’s neverending prologue.
At this point, Brilliant Astrophysicist Jessica Chastain tells her boyfriend Topher Grace that the only way to solve this equation is to return to the bookshelf in her old family home and wait for the gravity ghost from the fifth dimension to communicate with her. Miraculously, this happens. (See above.) With the information recorded from the black hole, Jessica Chastain is able to solve gravity. Decades later, Brilliant Astrophysicist Jessica Chastain has aged into Dying Sassy Grandma Ellen Burstyn. When Cooper wakes up back in Earth’s solar system, he’s on a space station orbiting nearby Saturn; it’s strongly implied that there are many other space stations like this one, all of them designed to look like the small town from a Norman Rockwell painting crossed with the Halo from Halo.
Intriguingly, based on what we see at the end of the movie, it would appear that the humans in our solar system have not crossed the wormhole yet; as Dying Sassy Grandma Ellen Burstyn dies, she tells Cooper that Anne Hathaway is waiting on the far side of the wormhole, on Edmunds’ world, with a lot of human embryos.
Basically, if Brilliant Astrophysicist Jessica “Murph” Chastain were to attempt to create a quantum physics proof of Interstellar on her chalkboard, it would look something like this:
IMPORTANT QUESTION: If several decades have passed since Brilliant Astrophysicist Jessica Chastain “solved” gravity, why is it that Anne Hathaway is still all alone on Edmunds’ world, with her beautiful embryos and her bad haircut?
One theory is that time is still moving slower for Hathaway, either because of close proximity to the black hole, or because time moves slower in general on the other side of the wormhole, or because that pesky Mr. Mxyzptlk is up to his old tricks again. It’s also possible that Dying Sassy Grandma Ellen Burstyn is speaking more generally: Like, Hathaway discovered Edmunds’ world decades ago, then went into suspended hibernation, and now she’s waiting for a dashing pilot with Matthew McConaughey’s face to come to her world and help her raise her little embryos into the people of the future.
Stray Theory Time
Interstellar is the story of a daughter telling her widowed father to start dating again.
Consider: Cooper never expresses any romantic interest in anyone ever, which is especially noticeable because Cooper is played by Matthew McConaughey, who usually appears to be flirting with every human onscreen and also some of the plant life.
Cooper meets Brand, who is suffering from her own romantic problems: She’s still in love with an old boyfriend who she hasn’t seen in a decade and who might be dead. The entire movie, Cooper is focused on his daughter, and Brand is focused on her old boyfriend.
But at the end of the movie, Cooper’s daughter tells him that he doesn’t have to worry about her anymore. What he needs to do is get back out there into the dating game. Meanwhile, Brand has finally made found closure with her old boyfriend, because her old boyfriend is dead. Like, the last line of Interstellar is basically: “Hey dad! I love you, but I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me anymore. Maybe you should go meet up with your super smart, very attractive, currently single co-worker!”