Interstellar has completed its journey through the heart of pop culture, and with that landing comes the inevitable fallout of all Christopher Nolan films. What did it mean? How visually stunning was it? Did that ending make sense?
For my money, Interstellar is a beautiful experience that operates on the grandeur of David Lean, with the sentimentality of early Steven Spielberg, and in the same ambitious, high-concept headspace of Stanley Kubrick. Yet, it still remains irrevocably a Christopher Nolan film through-and-through, including in its twisty (and expository) third act finale. This is an ending that will undoubtedly leave some viewers thrilled and others thoroughly frustrated. But first and foremost, let’s all get on the same page by trying to figure out exactly how the film ended, as well as what wormholes it opens on its own—with pathways yet untraveled.
Time is a Circle
The third act of the Interstellar plot kicks into high gear when Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) proves to be as fallible as his surname would suggest by leaving Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) for dead in the hopes of commandeering his and Ameilia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) Endurance spaceship. Whether he intended to pilot it back to Earth or attempt to find another habitable planet for “Plan B” remains a mystery. However, it ultimately proves inconsequential when he fails to properly enter the Endurance and gets himself sucked out into the cold vastness of space.
But that is not the real climax of the movie, despite the blaring Hans Zimmer score and crosscut-heavy editing with the secondary subplot, here involving adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) saving her sister-in-law and nephew from the backward/anti-science hick her brother (Casey Affleck) grew up to be. While this knotty mise en scene trick marked the point of highest tension in Nolan’s last five films, it is merely the appetizer before the main course of hard science fiction weirdness: partially destroyed due to Mann’s meddling, the Endurance has neither enough fuel to travel home to Earth, nor the lightness needed for Brand, Cooper, and TARS to reach planetary option three. Thus in a Hail Mary play by Coop to save Brand and their mission, he jettisons first TARS into the omnipresent black hole leering over their new solar system, and then himself. As a result, Brand is left to finish the mission—and Cooper is forced to enter what can be safely described as Nolan’s cosmic hotel suite/star child moment.
But unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, this ending is fairly straightforward and self-explanatory, even if it is the definition of bizarre.
Once Cooper is falling through the black hole, he is forced to escape into the darkness of space as the ship around him collapses in on itself. But instead of being crushed by any manner of unknowable forces while trapped in a void so dense that even light cannot escape, Cooper enters a “tesseract,” or what can best be described as a giant archive center for dark-colored polyester chords clinging to the walls. It is not an actual space that Cooper has entered, but rather a projection of a human being’s lifespan from the fifth-dimension, which has been “simplified” for his (and our) fourth-dimensional thinking. Also, the space he’s trapped in is actually a physical representation of a bookshelf that watches over an entire lifespan: his daughter Murphy’s to be exact.
The first and most important question people might still have after only a single viewing of Interstellar is how did this happen again? As it turns out, the beings that sent Cooper and NASA on this quest across the stars were not the hinted extraterrestrial (or divine) life that the characters all expected them to be, but rather human beings from the future. While we never see the fifth-dimensional “they,” it is helpfully (perhaps too much so) explained via telecommunication between Coop and TARS that they are humans from our very distant future who will one day master the use of gravity and the quantum mechanics needed to time travel with the ease that you use your phone to jump around your musical library.
Through whatever gravitational method imaginable, they have built for Cooper this visual representation of a “library” with only one special collection: the life of his daughter Murph.
The purpose? So, that he can pass along the data required for Murphy to save humanity. She realized earlier on Earth that Professor Brand’s equation was flawed, but the schematics that TARS took on the internal quantum mechanics of the black hole—when he first plunged into darkness—will fill in the gap. With this missing information, Murph will have what is necessary for mankind to technologically master gravity (and presumably time travel one day). Cooper shares this intelligence with her via Morse Code first through her bookshelf and eventually in the watch he gave her before he left Earth.
Thematically, the real importance of this scene is Cooper realizing, much to his belated sorrow, that he has become a true “ghost” in his daughter’s life and that in his drive to do something important, he missed his daughter’s childhood, not to mention everything else. In a sort of nifty reversal of the “third dream state” in Inception—the endless dream space where Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard spent an eternity in the blink of an eye—Cooper in a few days missed decades of his daughter’s life. Whether as a husband or a father, the rules of time always end up seeming to devastate the best intentions of Christopher Nolan male protagonists.
Still, Interstellar is a far more hopeful movie than his previous work, as it is implicitly a validation of the power of love between a father and daughter. This mission was never about finding another habitable world, at least not fully. The futuristic humans knew that it was Murphy Cooper who saved them with an equation, and they made sure that she could do it by communicating with her in the only language that is universal: a parent’s love. Cooper was brought here, so that he and TARS could traverse the black hole, and share its secrets with the brilliance of his daughter.
Granted, there is a time travel paradox in this, like so much with science fiction, which ultimately suggests that humanity only survived because Cooper was sent by future beings into this black hole to communicate with Murph, thereby necessitating Cooper having already made the journey before “they” first summoned him with gravitational anomalies, but…does your head hurt yet? In the end, another Matthew McConaughey character from premium cable may have been right all along: time is a circle.
Where This Interstellar Voyage Didn’t Go
The actual ending of Interstellar is a fabulous concession to sentiment and familial good tidings on the part of Nolan when Cooper is released from his daughter’s timeline (and his own) somewhere by the rings of Saturn about a century after he left our solar system. Why did “they” force him to return over 120 years after he left? Because as Kip Thorne and the movie explains, we who live in third-dimensional space can never travel backwards in time; only forward. Cooper was allowed to enter fifth-dimensional space to communicate with Murph, but not to break through it and hug her.
He is found floating in space by the descendents of his success when space station-living humans bring him in from the cold. He is soon accorded a teary-eyed reunion with his daughter who he came just in time to keep his promise for (barely, as she apparently had to be cryogenically frozen for the last few years to ensure she’d be there for his arrival), but too late to actually be part of the family. After a bittersweet reunion, she sends him off on a new mission to find Brand and their new home.
Of course, this raises many more questions about the movie and where the humans of Interstellar are headed. As helpfully relayed via more expository dialogue that’s courtesy of old Murph (played by the invaluable Ellen Burstyn), we know that Brand is alone—as lonely as Dr. Mann was in his desperation—and waiting for Coop in mankind’s new Garden of Eden…we think.
It is never actually explained if the third planet in this wormhole-accessible solar system is inhabitable for sustained human populations. Amelia Brand’s lover who scouted out/willingly marooned himself there for a decade apparently could not survive the environment, as we see during a montage with Amelia burying her long-lost lover. What exactly killed him, and is it safe for humanity to move in across the street?
Further, if this planet is habitable enough to be our new Earth, then why has no other expedition traveled through the wormhole to inhabit it? This is not really a plot hole so much as a mystery. The way that Murph sends her father away, much like a parent pushing a child out of the nest in a nice bit of role reversal, may suggest there is some sort of disagreement amongst humans (as there always is) about where we could be headed next. After all, the last 13 space missions that flew into that wormhole never came back, nor did the Endurance ask anyone to join them. Once again, it’s called upon Cooper to push us forward. Yet, when he gets there, will he find Brand in cryo-sleep or awake (it’s only been a few years Brand time) and with a colony of babies being homegrown from test tubes around her like she had reached the second stage of General Zod’s Man of Steel schemes?
Much like the fate of the other nine explorers who went to planets that the Endurance blew right by, it is a mystery that we will never know the answer to. Instead, our minds must wonder just where the next evolutionary step begins, and where the time traveling benevolence of “they” ends.
I have my own theories about what this story means or aims to say about its genre and our species, but that is a feature unto itself—which you can find my thoughts on by clicking right here—but for the moment, I just want to stare up at the stars. That is perhaps the true intended ending of Interstellar.
This article was first published on November 7, 2014.