To Explore is to Take Care of Us All: Interstellar

Once Interstellar came to an end and the lot of us walked back out into the light of the world, I wondered: what was the rest of the audience thinking at that moment? My own head was ringing with mono-syllabic exclamations stretching to infinity. I was happy. I was bursting. I was still there in the world of the film.

But I am an easy catch for this film. I adore astronomy and identify heavily with those who seek to bridge the chasm of awareness between the forces of the heavens and our day to day lives. Interstellar is a reinforcement of those desires, a widening of the bridge, but I would argue that I am in the minority in that regard. For most of the audience, Interstellar will be the first inkling they have that understanding space and overcoming the obstacles of travel within it is vital to our well-being here on Earth.

Was this the case? What were they thinking right now?

(Spoilers ahead for the movie.)

If I allow myself to be frustrated (and I do. A lot.) then I worry that the events of Interstellar still seem too unbelievable to audiences at large and that the great lengths that the film went to in order to tie together the present day and the near future still seem too much like science fiction. Further, I worry that the negative aspects of the movie’s dust bowl setting correlate falsely with the great leaps in technology and methodology in space travel that reverse the dwindling fate of the human race. In essence, that the conclusion for the viewer might be that we don’t need to go to these great lengths unless humanity is stuck in a decades-long diminishment.

My mind focuses on this kind of conjecture because I occasionally stumble across surprisingly fierce rejections of space travel, NASA, and the value of scientific methods from hardcore science fiction readers. It throws me every time, because my assumption is that fans of sci-fi are by their nature explorative and curious. The arguments against NASA and space travel (and there are several) tend to be bafflingly dissonant to my assumed desires of that reader, to the point where I can’t tell whether that reader is aware of the ongoing cycle between the fiction they love, the inspiration it provides to real life scientists and engineers, and the benefits of the material product of that inspiration. There’s a perception that NASA hasn’t done anything since we sent someone to the moon, and what was the use of that, anyway? There’s a lack of awareness of the number and size of technological leaps that the offshoots of NASA’s research has provided for our society, from huge futuristic tech like space shuttles to basic needs like DIY water filtration systems that can provide clean water for millions without electricity.

Beyond the filter of sci-fi, these arguments tend to feed into an overall point that NASA has been a waste and why should we keep pouring money into something that has been a waste when we have very real societal, humanistic, and resource issues here on Earth? That NASA is leading our focus astray seems to be the point that is being made. It’s a pundit’s argument, a politician’s smokescreen, and it’s a baffling conclusion for a curious reader of science fiction to make. Space travel is not an either/or proposition. The bettering of our day to day lives and the dreamily titanic engineering efforts of space travel can be accomplished side by side without either effort suffering.

Interstellar grapples with all of these arguments in the course of its story, determined to prove them wrong and couching them in examples so extreme that you have no choice but to watch them fall apart. Humanity’s problems have only multiplied in the near-future that the film takes place in. Even with the majority of the human race gone, resources are thin, and everyone goes about their business in hope of a better year to come, in hope that someone or something elsewhere will do something amazing and reverse the decline.

And yet, as Michael Caine’s Professor Brand tells Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, the government has to pour money into actually developing a solution in secret, because no one will accept that spending money on a secret NASA is actually devoting resources to solving the global food crisis. It’s a huge jump from “We need crops that will grow” to “We need to move to another planet.” Both are impossible problems in Interstellar but one of these problems is in front of your face and the other isn’t.

Both problems are worked on side by side, however, and in doing so the most unlikely problem actually nears a solution. Crops continue to fail and work continues to be done on the blight even as NASA prepares to send a last-ditch team to another galaxy. Oddly enough, it’s now the money being poured into crop research that is producing nothing but waste, but would stopping that research actually alleviate the problem, even with another habitable planet located?

It’s a small question that looms large in the characters that we follow throughout Interstellar. Cooper, after an especially infuriating parent-teacher conference, laments how his kids are now being dishonestly educated into caretaker roles, with any history or achievements that don’t have a focus on food production now being recategorized. Not everyone can be a caretaker, he says outright. Humanity needs explorers, too.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t let Cooper’s statements go unchallenged. His father points out that Cooper is speaking from his own personal frustration at having his own dreams curtailed by the changing circumstances of the world. They’re obviously both right, despite being in opposition. Cooper’s actions remain fixated on lost opportunity even after he’s given that opportunity back, and he leaves his family behind, regretfully but inevitably.

The extremes of the needs of this near-future world are represented in his children. Cooper’s son Tom devotes himself fully to his role as a caretaker in this new world. He’s not bright, but he’s the most stable member of the entire family, and he does the best that he can. He maintains.

Cooper’s daughter Murph(y) lays at the other end of the spectrum, extremely bright, singularly focused, and practiced in sacrificing what’s in front of her for the sake of larger ideals. So practiced, in fact, that she’s mean and distant towards most everyone in her life.

They’re the Earth and the stars, these two, and although you don’t really like them you still sympathize with them and their separate desires. You don’t want Tom’s family to starve any more than you want Murph to fail in her mission to solve an equation that will allow humanity to manipulate gravity.

Grounding its larger thematic struggle in the Cooper family is what makes Interstellar succeed, for me. Cooper’s mission has enormous stakes for humanity, but the stakes in relation to his family loom even larger and the movie never loses sight of that. There are moments in this movie where its larger ideals, its science, merge beautifully with its human story, and Interstellar never forgets to show this when it can. There’s a point early on where Cooper, many galaxies away, visits a planet orbiting a black hole for only three hours while 23 years pass on Earth. Now, that’s an awesome singular experience for a human, but it doesn’t feel real for us until he realizes he has 23 years worth of messages from his family. Watching him watch the maturation of his family unspool in a distant instant is devastating. Here, we see one of the many personal impacts that an idea as huge as interstellar space travel has on our day-to-day lives.

In three hours, his children suffer an abandonment lasting decades, pushing them further into extremes, into roles that won’t help humanity until either of them learns that this isn’t an either/or proposition. Murph has to reconnect her focus on theory with her feelings about her father. Tom has to continue to maintain a farm that allows a sister he despises to work on that theory.

And it takes a Crazy Matt Damon to really spell it out for us, but Interstellar eventually takes this message beyond the science of what we know, leaving us only with characters who are fiercely determined to do what they feel is right, based on their love for their families, based on the notion that they will fight against death itself to connect one final time with those whom they love. It’s an implicitly understandable notion, and it helps us care about the climax of the film, where reality falls apart completely.

That’s the real strength to Interstellar. It’s able to carry this powerful emotional throughline right up to the finish, even if you don’t understand the whole fifth-dimensional time loop black hole wormhole stuff. The big shock at the end isn’t that Cooper survives his trip into the black hole, it’s that his daughter gets to see him one last time. It’s that Cooper gets to see that everything worked. Humanity survived its decline. The family is reunited. And the future is full of possibility.

I was sad to see the movie end, because I just wanted to keep exploring that future. Here was the emotional connection to huge astronomical ideas that I always knew was there. Here was the argument against abandoning exploration in times of crisis.

Because really, there will always be a time of crisis, won’t there? There will always be a need for caretakers and there will always be a need for explorers. They are, in fact, an inclusive concept. Exploring is caretaking and caretaking is exploring and Interstellar brings us a story about a family that boldly asserts the need for humanity to keep caretaking and exploring.

Hopefully, as the lot of us walk back out into the light of the world, that’s what we’re thinking.

 

Thoughts:

  • I choose to believe that Brand successfully created a human colony on the third planet. Mostly because I love the idea of a second arm of humanity growing on a planet in a distant galaxy.
  • This was a really hard review/recap/essay to write. For a while it was just the passage “Fuck you. Space is awesome.”
  • How cool were those planets? Frozen clouds… Tidal forces that turn entire oceans into massive waves that circle the planet… And all of it warmed by the trapped starstuff of a massive black hole! That’s one hell of a solar system. Er, rather, singularity system.
  • The only part of the movie that jarred for me was Crazy Matt Damon. Not that he wasn’t fun to watch, but I was confused as to why he got all murdery, so that sequence came off pretty false.
  • Oh wow did I not like TARS when the movie began. That opinion changed completely. Looks like we another candidate for the robot hall of fame.
  • About that science: Bad Astronomer Phil Plait breaks down how impossible a lot of the movie’s settings are and how that doesn’t really matter to the story. He also just straight up hated the movie, which I obviously disagree with, but the not-science is there for the picking apart, if you like.
  • They don’t give a year during the events of the movie but I bet we can figure it out. John Lithgow’s character seems like someone who was born during our current consumptive era, judging by his comments on “new products every day.” So let’s say he was born in the year 2000 and that he’s in his 60s when we first see him. (Cooper is in his 30s so it makes sense that his dad would be around that age.) So our movie kicks off in the 2060s. It’s arbitrary as to when but for the sake of resonance let’s say 2065 since in the old world Lithgow’s character would get to retire instead of having to continue working while watching the world dwindle away.
  • So we start in 2065. Then we give NASA a year to prep Cooper’s mission. They seem pretty far along already but Cooper needs training for such a complex mission and it looks like Murph ages a little in between the beginning of the movie and when he leaves. So he heads off into space in 2066.
  • Then he spends two years in freeze while on the way to Saturn, so now we’re in 2068. Then they lose 23 years visiting the first planet, accelerating Earth-time to 2091. Murph is probably 35/36 years old, which means she was born in the mid-2050s. If she’s the same age as her dad was when he left, that means Cooper was born in 2030 therabouts.
  • Brand’s timeline splits off after this and she colonizes the third world, but Cooper loses 51 more years just slingshotting around the black hole, putting Earth-time at 2142. He probably loses more years after that, but we have no way of knowing since time gets excessively wacky in and around the black hole.
  • So let’s just say he’s found in the 2140s, because that lines up with what we hear and see. The doctor comments that Cooper looks great even though he’s pushing 120 and Murph is too old to travel, which is feasible since she would be in her 90s at that point and grew up in a nutritionally deficient environment.
  • Humanity undergoes quite a transformation in the next 150 years!

Chris Lough is working on a theory that will connect the movie version of Contact with Interstellar and is probably only a couple more shots of whiskey away from completing it.

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