Intersteller Explained (Spoiler Alert!)

Interstellar ExplainedIf you’ve watched Christopher Nolan’s movie, Interstellar, then chances are you had some questions about the plot. If you haven’t watched it, the following post will contain major spoilers as I will attempt to explain the movie, including the complicated ending.

The Plot

The basic premise involves Earth facing an environmental catastrophe that is sure to wipe out the human race. In a last-ditch effort to save the species, a secret NASA space project from the 50’s has been searching for a habitable planet for humans to colonize.

Act One

Single dad/ corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is made aware of a strange gravitational anomaly occurring in his 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom. The daughter is convinced it is a ghost attempting to communicate with her by strategically knocking books off a shelf, which may represent some kind of code.

Cooper and MurphThe environment has gone to hell and crops are not producing food due to blight. The situation on Earth is getting bleak for its inhabitants as crop failure and dust storms are rampant. In one of the many dust storms that ravage the land, the window is left open in the daughter’s bedroom. After the dust settles, it is collected on the floor in a mysterious pattern. Again, the daughter believes it is a message from the ghost. The dad becomes curious, and discovers that it is not Morse code, rather they are coordinates to a particular location on Earth. Fortunately, it is within driving distance! The dad and daughter make the day-long trek out to see where the road leads.

As it turns out, it is a top-secret NASA base, where a team of scientists have been working on a space station. They had previously sent probes to scour the universe for habitable planets, and upon the discovery of a wormhole, they sent several human-piloted crafts for further investigation. Data was transmitted back, but those initial pioneers did not return.

Several of the data from the early missions showed promising results for potentially habitable planets within reach. With hopes of saving humankind, NASA planned to send another human-piloted craft to further investigate one of these new planets to save the remaining people on Earth. As it turns out, Cooper happens to be a former NASA pilot, and was persuaded to do the noble act of leaving his family behind and journeying through space.

Cooper drivingTwo plans are presented for human salvation:

Plan A: While Cooper’s team is off in space, the lead NASA scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), will remain on Earth and continue to work on a complex equation that will allow humans to harness gravity. Figuring out this equation will enable NASA to launch a massive space station into space, providing a home for many of the Earth’s inhabitants.

Plan B: If Brand does not solve this complex equation, and therefore cannot lift the space station into space, Cooper’s team will have to start a new civilization themselves, leaving everyone on Earth to die. To ensure genetic diversity, they have brought a bank of fertilized human embryos.

Act Two

Professor Brand reveals that an unknown species, which he refers to as “They”, have strategically created a wormhole near Saturn, which acts as a bridge connecting two distant points in the universe. The prior human-piloted missions took advantage of this shortcut and visited planets, which could have the potential for human colonization. The astronauts cannot communicate directly with NASA, but have set up beacons relaying information about their newly discovered planet back to Earth. There are three potential candidates (planets), each with relative merits, and it is up to Cooper and his crew to decide which planet provides the best hope for humanity.

Interstellar water planetEinstein’s theory of relativity played a prominent role in the film. As the theory states, time is not universal, it slows down the faster you go. So, while in large gravitational forces, time will appear normal relative to Cooper and his crew, but for each hour they spend on the planet, 7 years will have passed by on Earth. The first planet they went to was covered in water and would not be suitable. After a harrowing escape, they return to their docking bay after 3 hours. One crew member remained on the docking bay and to him and everyone on Earth, 23 years had passed. Cooper received 23 years of one-way video messages from his kids, who by now are all grown up with families of their own.

Cooper’s once 10-year-old daughter is now in her forties and is a scientist at the secret NASA facility. Professor Brand is now on death’s door and reveals to her that Plan A was never possible – stating that he had solved the equation years ago. He kept the information a secret, leading his team to believe it was still a possibility. He did this as a way to keep hope and spirits high so that his team would continue working together for their own personal salvation.

Cooper’s daughter sends a video message to the crew, informing them that Plan A was hopeless. Cooper and Professor Brand’s daughter, Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) commit to Plan B, but can only go to one of two remaining planets, but not both. Amelia suggests one particular planet, but Cooper has reason to believe her rationale has been corrupted because her lover had been sent to that planet. Despite this, the lover’s planet was reporting positive information from his beacon. Cooper decides against Amelia for reasons stated, and chooses the other planet, which has been relaying positive data as well.

Matt DamonUpon landing on this planet, they discover Matt Damon. At first he was saying how wonderful the planet is, but for some reason (sorry, I didn’t understand his rationale) tries to kill Cooper. It turned out that Matt Damon lied about his data so he would get rescued, which I get, but I’m not sure how killing Cooper had anything to do with his selfish plans. Why could he not have just explained why he lied (douchey, but understandable) and they could all leave together?

Anyway, Cooper survives the attack, but Matt Damon flees on one of their ships. Oh, and the only black character dies in a horrific explosion, which was orchestrated by Matt Damon. Meanwhile, Matt Damon says toodaloo and uses his ship to try to dock with the space station that Cooper’s team rolled in on. Due to a malfunction, he died in a horrific explosion.

Ensconced in my ‘suspension-of-disbelief hat’, I watched on as Cooper and his team docked a spinning space station, by matching the spin on the…. yeah, anyway, moving on. Cooper remained unconvinced that Plan A is impossible and conjured up another impossible feat of using a nearby black hole called Gargantua to slingshot their craft toward Edmonds’ planet (the final planet). Cooper sends TARS (the crew’s sarcastic helper robot) into the centre of the black hole with the hopes of learning more about it, which may allow NASA to use the data to revive Plan A.

AmeliaTo reduce the weight on their craft, Cooper detaches, sacrificing himself for Amelia so that she can make it to Edmonds’ planet and enact Plan B, should Plan A fail. However, instead of dying alone in space, Cooper is pulled inside the black hole, where he wakes up falling through the Tesseract — a wormhole created by the aforementioned “They”.

“They” Explained

NASA scientists assume “They” are an advanced extraterrestrial race trying to communicate with humans using binary messages (in the form of the gravitational anomaly of the dust, and by knocking over bookshelves in Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom, among other things to other humans), and are also responsible for creating the wormhole. The NASA team believe these beings have transcended three-dimensional space and are operating in fourth and fifth dimensions.

Act Three

With Cooper in this weird fourth and fifth dimension, he finds himself back in his 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom, behind the bookshelf. In an attempt to communicate with her, he begins banging on the bookshelf to get her attention. In do so, he causes the books to fall off. He then realizes that he is in fact the ‘ghost’ from the beginning of the movie. Upon this realization, he starts to understand the macro-level picture. The once-thought alien race (“They”) is actually future humans.

Interstellar bookshelfDue to Cooper’s message to his daughter through the dust, the books, and eventually the second hand of a wrist watch, Cooper’s daughter solves the Plan A equation, lifts the space station into space (all of this isn’t show, but implied), and saves the human race. As for Amelia, she made it to the Edmonds’ planet, which seems to have a small colony of humans. Edmonds died at some point, which wasn’t explained.

After delivering the message through the watch (through Morse code), the Tesseract folds up and Cooper is left drifting in space. He is discovered by the future human race and brought aboard the space station (not shown, but implied), where his daughter is now in her 90’s and on death’s door. Since Cooper’s daughter saved everyone, she is heralded as a saviour and is highly praised. Cooper reunites with his long-lost daughter and shares a touching moment. Cooper’s daughter told him to go save Amelia and the others on Edmonds’ planet.

Some final thoughts:

Question: How does the Tesseract exist before Cooper sends the message?

Answer: According to Neil deGrasse Tyson (I had to look it up), he explains how we live in four dimensions. He says, if we want to meet a friend, we usually need four sets of numbers. The X and a Y axis may represent a particular street and its cross-street, and the Z axis may represent the floor of a building. But as he points out, we also need a fourth dimension — time. It would make no sense to say, “Meet me for coffee at the corner of Union and Lexington, on the second floor.” The friend would say, “What time shall I be there?” or if you say, “Meet me for coffee at 2:00 pm.” The friend would ask, “Where shall I meet you?”

In our four dimensional existence, time is a liner path where events happen sequentially — birth, graduation, marriage… death. So to ask, “when did I graduate?”, there is a precise time. However, in the fifth dimension, time is not liner. It would therefore be non-nonsensical to ask, “when did I graduate?” or “what year was I born?” because you would have access to all those events any time you wanted. You would always be born, you would always be graduating, you would always be getting married… Each event is always happening as if they were laid out like objects on a table, and you could essentially jump in and out of any moment.

Neil deGrasse Tyson fourth dimension

Question: Why does Cooper spell out the message “Stay” if he knows leaving ultimately becomes the catalyst that will save the world?

Answer: He made this message before he came to this realization.

See Also:

Transcendence Explained

Cloud Atlas Explained

Oblivion Explained

Life of Pi Explained

Looper Explained

books and social media image

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One thought on “Intersteller Explained (Spoiler Alert!)

  1. KevinMe UX says:

    Hi plato’s Academy
    Big sci fi fan here. Your analyse of the movie is of great work, thank you for that! At some point it is implied in the movie that those higher dimensional beings are actually humans. I remember Cooper saying something like “they didn’t put the tesseract there, WE did”.

    I presumed he meant humans from a distant future (which is odd because then, our definition of future is meaningless to them). In a way, we can say that we, humans, are stuck in four dimensions because of our senses. In other words, we are stuck in 4D due to the condition of being human. To have access to information from other dimensions in a direct manner to the point that we can operate in a way that feels natural must mean to transcend humanity. So at the least, if Cooper is right, those humans from a distant future are “transcents” but that is as far as I can speculate based on that quote and IF he is right. Do you anything about it?

    You used the expression death’s door twice which made me think. While the catalyst, the mere loophole of the whole scenario is the word STAY, the whole movie is about leaving. Cooper’s career and the parts he play, plan A, Damon who desperately wants to be rescued, all those who die kind of leave too, Murph who wants to have her nephew leave their home to get treated, old Murph who is about to “leave” and asks of her father to leave save Amelia. Disregarding wether or not it is a consequence of a way to design a story, I find it kind of clever that the catalyst is wrong but ends up being the right message.


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