Interstellar – Survival and Family

Christopher Nolan has been well known for his film making style, everything seems so dark, calculating, dramatic, but with an added resonance of hope. The last three films he directed explored different themes. The Dark Knight explored the concept of heroes, and what makes someone a symbol of hope. Inception challenged people in their perceptions of reality and mental stability. While the Dark Knight Rises was essentially about people overcoming their past and trying to build a future. Likewise Interstellar has different themes. While pegged as a space exploration film/Sci Fi epic, its more than that. Even before the film was released, in an interview Nolan remarked that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was an influence. Indeed both films share a strong Mise en scene. However Nolan introduces some elements of space travel , many filmmakers probably wouldn’t think of when they think of space. Specifically morality, family, and relationships. When people think of space travel, a picture that might pop in their heads are the few astronauts. All of whom are stringent, grounded in a world of science, who probably don’t rely on emotion when making decisions, but rather facts. Family, love, or more broadly relationships are an important theme in the movie. The film is of course held together by the concepts of physics and theoretical time travel.


The main protagonist is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA astronaught who is widowed with two kids, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and his son Tom. Its very clear from the start of the film that Cooper is a typical family man. He has a strong attachment to his kids, although he has a special bond with his Murph. The setting of the movie is very bleak, dosed with an inkling of hope. Its the future, though perhaps not too far off from the present. America’s government, maybe even the world, has devolved into a society dependent on food, more specifically agriculture. Earth is dying, as a result so is the world’s variety of readily available food. The only food source that is still commonly on hand is corn. All the other types of crops have been killed off by blight. On top of that, much of the world is being ravaged by dust storms, causing many people to become sick and eventually die. This whole setting of a world nearing its end continually drives home the concept of humanity’s need to survive. This is reflected in Cooper and his children, as they all react to this idea differently. In Cooper’s case he initially feels that mankind will pull through their food shortages.

In Murph’s room, books fall from her shelf on occasion. This leads her to believe that theres a ghost trying to communicate with her. However Cooper tries to help Murph get over her belief by challenging her to prove the ghost is sending her a message. Through the books falling over, Murph uses an algorithm, and is able to come up with some coordinates. Cooper is intrigued and decides to take Murph to the location.

It turns out that the location is a secret NASA base. Cooper and Murph encounter TARS, a Marine robot. It plays an essential role with humans being able to maintain their morals, TARS also provides some comedic relief. The remnants of NASA are headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), someone Cooper worked with while he was still a test pilot for them. Brand explains that NASA’s mission is to try and a find a planet humanity can colonize, aka the Endurance mission. He goes on to explain that years ago a worm hole appeared, that was close enough for NASA to explore. This brings up some interesting questions as none of the scientists are able to figure out why a worm hole is there. Their only conclusions is that some kind of alien lifeforms, or “they,” put the worm hole there to help humanity survive. On the other side is another galaxy, which could have a habitable world. Astronauts were sent to 12 different worlds, aka the Lazarus Missions, to asses their habitability. Brand further explains, that Earth cannot be saved, and that the corn is slowly succumbing to blight. This is major turning point for Cooper, as to him surviving meant providing food for his kids and protecting them. He then feels that he must find a new home for his family, as well as humanity. Brand is able to convince Cooper to head the Endurance mission. Though Cooper is worried that he will never be able to return to Earth in time to see his kids again. As he leaves, Murph is extremely distraught and tries to stop her father from leaving. She deciphers a new message, which suggests that Cooper should stay. He of course does not leave, and Murph holds a great grudge against him.

The Endurance Mission has two plan.  The crew is made of Cooper, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Amelia Brand (Professors Brand’s daughter), Romilly (David Gyasi), CASE (another robot), and TARS. Plan A is to find a habitable world and go back to Earth. So that hopefully Humanity will be able to send out mass colonies, so that humanity will survive. However Plan B is more radical. It would involve the Endurance crew to stay stationed on a habitable world and populate the planet with fertilized eggs. In that scenario Earth is abandoned. This presents a difficult question about moralities. As the fate of Earth is literally in the hands of a few people, who at any time, could decide to leave Earth behind and create a new civilization. Cooper is of course going on the mission believing that Plan A will work, he is further motivated in returning to Earth to see Murph again. Amelia (Anne Hathaway) seems committed to going through with Plan B, if necessary. Though in general no one, save for Cooper, has any strong relational ties to Earth. Nonetheless Cooper continues to think of his family and on occasion argues that the crew must also think of the billions of other people stuck on Earth. Cooper occasionally receives video messages from his son and father, though Murph refuses to send him any messages as she feels abandoned by him.

As the months pass on the Endurance finally crosses into the wormhole and encounters an alien that seemingly shakes Amelia’s hand. While on the other side of the hole three planets are chosen to survey: Miller, Mann, and Edmund. Its noted that Miller is close to Gargantua, a black hole, this will cause time to move slower on the planet than on Earth. Its predicted that an hour on Miller will equal seven years on Earth. While Cooper is against visiting Miller, he is able to figure out a route, which will allow them to avoid losing many years on Miller. Romilly and TARS stay on Endurance. While on Miller its discovered the planet is covered in water and that huge tidal waves are moving across the surface. Amelia is able to grab Miller’s onboard computer. A huge tidal wave approach which hits Doyle, killing him. However TARS and Amelia get to the ship on time. They are delayed from leaving due to the ship having to empty excess water. This greatly affects Cooper as he knows he is losing many years of being with his family, especially Murph. This helps to iterate that time is precious. Not just for Cooper and his family, but for humanity’s survival, as food shortages are likely increasing while hope many continue to decrease.

Amelia discovered that Miller’s ship only landed an hour ago, so her calculations, as well as the other scientist’s are very wrong. She shows how unprepared humans are for traversing interstellar space, Cooper further chastises her for her reckless actions of grabbing Miller’s computer. Once Cooper and the others get back to the Endurance its revealed that 23 years have passed. Romilly, with some graying hairs, laments how lonely and hopeless he was becoming. He helps to demonstrate that the scientists attitude of solitude does little to help them out in space, and in ways impacts them negatively. As a result of the lost 23 years, the Endurance only has enough fuel to visit one more planet and possibly return home.

Romilly reveals that they continued to get messages from Earth, but can’t send any back. Cooper watches the videos over the last 23 years and sees his son grow into a man. However he gets no videos from Murph over the years. The last two videos focus on Cooper’s kids believing he is dead. Tom (Casey Affleck), who has a family and is now grown up, finally lets go of the hope that his father is alive. Whereas Murph (Jessica Chastain), who is now her dad’s age, sends one video to Cooper saying that while she regrets not sending videos to him, shes lived with her decision and is ready to let go of their memories together. This of course fuels Cooper’s drive to get home and back to his family.

Back on Earth Tom is now farming the same crops his dad did, he continues to believe that his family’s survival is dependent on the crops. Murph is now at NASA, working as Dr. Brand’s assistant. She eventually notices that Brand seems to be repeating the same approaches to solving the equation to gravity. Earth is being hit with more devastating dust storms. Hope is fading. Brand ends up in the hospital and on his deathbed reveals to Murph that he solved his equation many years ago. However he requires more data, which is impossible to obtain. He further explains that he believed Plan A wouldn’t work, and the he actually sent the Endurance away to hopefully initiate Plan B.

The Endurance crew debate on which planet they should visit next, because if the next planet is uninhabitable, then they will likely commence Plan B. Amelia expresses her choice of Edmunds, while Cooper chooses Mann. Dr Mann headed the Lazarus Mission and was seen as so heroic that he managed to convince 11 other scientists to join the mission. Romilly is at odds to which planet to choose. Until Cooper accuses Amelia of being in love with Edmunds, and thus it being a factor for why she chose his planet. She concedes she loves Edmunds, but defends her choice, regardless the team heads for Mann.

Planet Mann seems to be made of nothing but ice. They find Dr Mann’s base and discover its in somewhat bad condition. His robot KIPP has been disassembled. They awaken Mann, who is extremely  ecstatic to see them. He explains that while he didn’t have much hope of returning home, he was falling into despair due to prolonged isolation. When questioned about his planet’s lack of life, he persists that theres a lower surface which contains alien life. They are soon sent a video message from TARS by Murph. She informs Amelia that her dad died, then addresses her father if knew that the Endurance mission was a shame. Mann proceeds to explain that he knew of Professor Brand’s true intentions.

This information devastates the crew. Again Cooper’s objectives change. Instead of following through with the journey to Edmunds he plans to take the Endurance home and abandon the mission. TARS proposed an idea in which it will be sent into Gargantua and send the data back to the Endurance so that hopefully they will have enough information to enact Plan A. Everyone seems onboard with the idea. Mann decides to show Cooper the inhabitants of the planet.

They reach a cliff, at which time Mann discards Cooper’s comm link and tries to kill him by cracking his helmet. Mann had faked his findings and disabled KIPP so it wouldn’t stop him. He further talks about survival and that while he has always been a person who prefers to be alone, he couldn’t bare to die alone. Cooper accuses Mann of being a coward, which he sorrily admits to. Not wanting to see Cooper die, Dr Mann heads for the base, determined to assure his survival by moving forward with Plan B. Cooper is able to find his comm and warn the others of Mann’s treachery. Amelia heads to Cooper’s location with Mann’s ship, while at the same time Romilly powers up KIPP only for it to explode. This scene shows that while Mann was seen as a somewhat mythical hero, he is still a human who, despite his high intelligence is motivated by his basic instincts to survive.

The next scene is very intense, as Mann and Cooper’s team both try to beat one another to the Endurance. While Mann makes it to the airlock, CASE has previously locked their ship’s autopilot. Mann keeps trying to manually dock Cooper’s ship, but fails. Desperate he manually opens the airlock, only to be killed by the depressurization. The Endurance is forced into a spin, Cooper is able to manually dock the ship, with some very hard maneuvering. However Mann’s actions have damaged the Endurance. They no longer have enough life support to make it to Earth.

The revelation that Cooper won’t be able to see Murph weighs on him. Again his priorities change. The team plan use Gargantua’s gravity to slingshot them to Edmund, while still planning to send TARS into it to collect data which hopefully will help humanity’s journey into space. Cooper has a short conversation with TARS in which the robot expresses its desire to help humanity to which Cooper and Amelia show regret that they will likely never never see TARS again. Once TARS is ejected into Gargantua, surprisingly Cooper also ejects himself. He likely does this, as he no longer has a drive to live since he will not see his family again. This helps Amelia and CASE escape Gargantua and head for Edmund.

On Earth Murph visits Tom, and notices that his wife and child seem to be sick. She asks Tom to join them at NASA, At which point Tom angrily refuses as he feels staying at the farm will ensure his family’s survival. Back at NASA she persuades Getty to help her convince Tom to move to NASA. Despite Getty’s warning that Tom’s family will die due to dust poisoning, he again stands his ground. Murph sets fire to Tom’s crops on the far side of his property, as a distraction in an attempt to smuggle Tom’s wife and son to the NASA base. While she tries to leave she is drawn back to her room, specifically to an old watch her dad gave her. There shes stuck in thought about the old messages she received as a kid.

Cooper is sucked into Gargantua, he ejects as his ship sustains heavy damage. Strangely he ends up in a mysterious space, theoretically a tesseract. In it he sees various moments in time which apparently are focusing on himself and his daughter Murph. While he cannot pierce the barriers and go into these moments of time, he realizes that gravity is able to travel through the barriers.  Likewise he comes to the conclusion that he was the ghost in Murph’s room as well as the alien that shook Amelia’s hand. Surprisingly Cooper discovers that TARS is alive and has collected the data. TARS explains that “they” created this space for Cooper to understand time. Cooper theorizes that they are a future form of humanity that has evolved into fifth dimensional beings. With all this new information Cooper is able to send Gargantua’s information via morse code to the watch he gave Murph.

Murph realizes Cooper was her ghost, and understands hes sending her an equation. She relates to Tom that their dad is indeed alive and has saved humanity. Back at NASA she is able to solve the problem of gravity, thus allowing humanity to begin preparations for their journey into interstellar space.

Once Cooper has relaid all the data he is seemingly ejected from the tesseract and floats aimlessly in space until he passes out. He awakens in a hospital, believing he is back on Earth. Only to realize hes actually on a colony ship in space. The doctor informs Coopers hes 124 years old. Meaning that his kids have not seen him in 90 years. Though he is informed that Murph is coming to visit him. He is shown a museum which is modeled after his farm, there are various kiosks that feature interviews with people he knows and of course his kids. inside the house he finds a nonfunctional TARS. TARS is given a new battery and both discuss the success of Plan A. Back in the hospital Cooper is finally reunited with Murph, her large family is also present. Both are visibly emotional over finally seeing each other again. They talk alone, Cooper wants to keep Murph company as she is on her deathbed. However she laments that she doesn’t want Cooper to see her die, instead she encourages Cooper to go to Edmund to find Amelia, as Murph insists that her family will see her through her final moments of life. On planet Edmund Amelia can be seen, presumably burying Edmund, with her and CASE being the only inhabitants. An emotional Cooper obliges his daughters wishes, he and TARS board a modern Ranger and set off towards Edmund to retrieve Amelia.


There are different themes about the film that can be examined. Although the main points seem to be the value of family, more broadly love, and even survival. Cooper’s family takes center stage in examining these concepts. Another element is that there is no main antagonist, instead emphasis is put on humans trying to traverse the frontier that is space.

The idea of survival has different meanings for key characters. Cooper’s concept for survival is being able to save his family from hunger, this later evolves into his need to find a new planet where he can take his family to. Cooper is heavily motivated by his deep desire to see his kids again, Murph in particular. When planning out Endurance’s routes he takes extra precautions to ensure that the ship will make it back to Earth. This likely aided him in his fight with Mann, as he refused to succumb to death. Cooper’s actions were heavily influenced by his ties to his family. Theres also Tom, who is likewise influenced by his father’s old idea of survival. In particular his desire to sustain crop production for his wife and child. However this goes to the extreme, in that he believes that the only suitable place to live is on his family’s old farm. Despite experts advising otherwise, though he possibly stays due to his various memories attached to the farm. Murph is a bit different as she believes in a bigger picture of survival, somewhat closer to Brand’s ideals. She heavily believes that humanity must solve the equation that would enable space travel for all of humanity. She is nonetheless motivated by family, as she had a strong desire to shelter her brother and his family from the dust storms. Then there is Brand’s concept of survival. Professor Brand had a very broad idea of survival, he was trying to save humanity as a species, thus thinking of the future. His daughter Amelia, more or less agreed with his ideals. She was determined to save humanity. Of course she tried to make Plan A work, however she would have also followed through with Plan B if needed. Although she has a father, she was obviously ready to leave him behind, so her concept of survival is driven by practicality. While of course being motivated, by a bit of love. Lastly there is Dr Mann. Unlike the other main and supporting characters, Mann seems to have no family or loved ones. He seems alone in life, hes heavily motivated by science, reason, and instinct. Mann saw Plan B as the only option, for his and humanity’s survival. Though he is accustomed to being alone, he understands that instinctively he does not want to die alone. This prompts him to fake his planet’s data as being inhabitable, so that he can hopefully be saved. Of course his actions prove troublesome, as he knows that faking his data will jeopardize humanity’s survival, this could result in his arrest and even death. Mann has little reason to go back to Earth, of course Cooper’s plan prompts Mann to try and kill him. Once Mann is almost docked to the Endurance, his instincts kick in. This proves to be fatal, as a scientist he knew that opening the airlock while his ship was not docked properly would kill him. Being in a desperate situation caused him to rely too much on his instincts. He became too focused with trying to get into the Endurance by any means necessary.

Even TARS and CASE play a significant role with survival and morality. Firstly both are robots, whose primary programming is of course to ensure the survival of their human superiors. Moreover humanity in general. However they tend to almost be a symbol of hope. TARS is often used to lighten the mood. Being AIs they are aware of people’s fear and try to ease their nerves. This can be noted when the team is first launching into space. TARS tells a joke to calm the Endurance team, save for Cooper, as its their first time in space. Later in the film when TARS is reactivated by Cooper, it cracks a joke that it will soon self destruct, in response he lowers TARS’ comedy setting. It likely does this because Cooper has been on quite a dramatic journey, and needs to feel something other than being humanity’s savior. Beyond this both robots seem more human than the humans. In one scene TARS is seen briefly talking to CASE who has been lying dormant for a few years. The exchange isn’t even about anything technical, instead TARS inquires how CASE is doing. Later CASE sees Dr Mann’s robot KIPP, and asks him if he would like CASE to try and fix KIPP. With this questioning, the viewer can assume that the robots have some sense of compassion, if their concern for humans isn’t real, their concern for their own kind is. This is in contrast to the scientists who all seem to prefer their own space, and who seem to either dislike each other or generally show apathy. Even towards the end of the film, TARS decides to sacrifice itself by going into the black hole, without being ordered to. Regardless TARS did not need to volunteer itself, nor did it have to propose the idea.

Finally the last theme to explore is the theme of family, or more broadly relationships. In the case of Cooper and his family, everyone is motivated by their families. Cooper embarks on the Endurance mission because of his family, he never loses hope and he puts more thought into his actions because he knows that in the end he will be reunited with his children. One could that Cooper was able to derail Mann’s plans, because of his strong parental drives. Whereas Mann was dependent on himself. Cooper follows through with his mission as he knows it will save his children. If someone else had been trapped in the tesseract, someone without a family, someone who had no strong ties to another person, they probably would have lost all hope within the tesseract. Family is especially important to Tom, who basically refuses to move his family from, what he believes is the most secure place for them to live. Family is even important to Murph, while throughout the movie she shows great defiance towards her father’s actions, she nevertheless returns to her old room, and examines the old watch given to her by her father. If she really did want to let go of her memories of Cooper, she wouldn’t have picked up the watch. This in turn could have meant Earth’s demise. To a lesser extent, Amelia is also driven by relationships, specifically love. Theres a certain scene in which she explains the importance of love, and even argues that love is something that can be measured scientifically. It likely played a role in her decision to explore Edmund instead of Mann. She seemed so certain that Edmund would be habitable planet, in the end it seems she may have been correct. Her love for Edmund is possibly why Cooper tries to sacrifice himself. He probably figured that Amelia would be more determined to pilot the Endurance to Edmund and continue the mission because someone she loved was on the planet. Even at the end of the film, an elderly Murph reiterates the need for family and love as it acts as a catalyst that can help people achieve more.

Besides all of the various themes sprinkled throughout Christopher Nolan’s Sci Fi epic, there are also technical things that make the film more enticing to see. The entire film was shot on 70mm IMAX film, making it a beautifully shot film. Nolan stated that CGI was used minimally as possible, and that miniatures were used as much as possible. This helps brings a greater authenticity to the movie, and it shows. Theres no sloppy effects and the shots of the ships are probably the nicest things to look at. For science buffs looking for an accurate movie, well astrophysicist Kip Thorne helped make the black hole and other science related elements more accurate. Interstellar’s plot is long and sometimes it might be hard to follow, it may also be hard to understand some concepts. However this movie is worth a watch, and other rewatches.


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