As in the Batman trilogy, Nolan’s structuring metaphor in Interstellar is Eden imagery. The film starts with Cooper falling out of the sky, and transitions to shots of dusty corn fields that suggest a metaphorical fallen garden, with dust literally burying the farm in death imagery (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”). Themes of destruction and death worsen through the film until the garden becomes an inferno of flames, with man’s hellish descent reversed only at the climax as humanity uplifts itself and returns to a recreated garden in the heavens.
This religious imagery establishes Interstellar as a fall-and-redemption story, and one in which the cause of earth’s downfall is linked to the nature of man himself. According to the story, the planet’s collapse is superficially linked to the rise of war among nations (a failure of love) but also more deeply the abandonment of the scientific quest for the stars (metaphorically, for divinity). While NASA may end Interstellar as a healing hospital, the organization’s malevolence at the start is evident through its complicity in the “stratospheric bombing” and “killing” of civilians. The education system is similarly degraded, teaching the Apollo moon landings as a fiction of Cold War geopolitics and transforming its students into less engineers than “caretakers”, a term not-coincidentally used to describe those who serve the burial of the dead.
As in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which Nolan has cited as an influence on his work, Interstellar establishes its philosophical perspective by showing how different characters in this environment make difference choices which prove either self-destructive or socially-redemptive. Cooper’s son will show us the consequences of stunted intellectualism. Mann will demonstrate the destructive force of selfish egoism, while Professor Brand will show apathy in the face of death. Against all of these flawed characters, only Cooper and Murph are shown to be redemptive figures, struggling to rescue humanity through a focus on social welfare that subordinates and shackles science to the needs of faith and love.
Nolan’s focus on character commentary starts from the very first scenes in the film, with the flying drone sequence offering a particularly notable example of the director weaving character commentary deeply into his narrative. After Cooper’s son establishes his intellectual passivity by failing to change a tire, he almost drives their truck off a cliff at his father’s command, an action which anticipates his mule-headed adherence to his father’s later instruction to care for the family farm. Cooper meanwhile seeks to transform the downed plane into a harvester in a change which parallels and thus comments upon Cooper’s own transformation from fighter to farmer. The importance of prioritizing “social responsibility” over individual desire will resurface in Cooper’s later discussion of love with Amelia Brand, and while Murph has not yet made this realization (her character is the one who changes over the film) her protests that the drone is “not hurting anyone” and should be let free to continue exploring nonetheless establish her as a scientist in whom the quest for knowledge needs no outside justification, something also signaled by Nolan’s positioning of the symbolic library in Murph’s room (it resurfaces at NASA), the girl’s scholastic excellence, as well as her very name, which stresses that it is in Murph’s nature is to achieve everything that humanity can accomplish.
The fact that Murph will become the redemptive character makes Interstellar an unapologetically pro-science film and puts it in sharp contrast to Kubrick’s 2001, in which David Bowman’s spiritual journey is assisted by benevolent aliens. For in Interstellar we are told explicitly that God does not exist in the material world and mankind must be the agent of its own salvation. The film’s allusions to the Wizard of Oz serve this point, as does the time-travel paradox at the heart of the narrative twist: the journey into the cosmos may be a metaphorical quest for God, but it is one that will reveal nothing more than man himself behind the Wizard’s curtain. And thus Nolan savages characters who expect rescue from without yet do not struggle for their own salvation. Donald ends up buried in the garden, Professor Brand dies in despair, Murph’s misplaced faith in him costs her precious time, and Cooper and Brand’s trust of Mann almost destroys their mission, with the Endurance only saved through the opposing force of science.
This focus on the scientific struggle as a redemptive force that can help man transcend death is why the positive characters in Interstellar (Cooper and Murph) are repeatedly framed as scientists investigating mortality itself. Just as Murph will “observe and record” her ghost at the start of the film, Nolan has her father “observe and record” both his passage through the wormhole as well as his journey into the black hole. Both of these investigations are investigations into death itself, and the deliberate repetition of the father/daughter dialogue is thematically significant, linking Murph to her father while contrasting both with Donald, a man whose fear of death inclines him to superstition. The same traits are also used to differentiate Cooper from his son. When Murph lambasts her brother, telling him that “Dad didn’t raise you to be this dumb,” Tom replies that “Dad didn’t raise me, grandpa did,” thematically re-aligning him with the father figure he more closely resembles.
And yet Interstellar is not simply cheerleading for NASA, for the idea that science can be a destructive as well as constructive force is one of the underlying themes of the film, something that comes to the forefront not only with the duel nature of NASA, but also very clearly with the robot characters. In contrast to his peaceful and obedient nature when TARS travels into the black hole with Cooper, for instance, the script emphasizes that the robot is “unpredictable” and erratic when he makes his first appearance as a gun-wielding marine on loan from the Army. This same duality is present in the scenes of the Indian military drone (a former weapon) as well as with the robot KIPP which descends into madness. The ambiguous relationship that exists between man and science (which will end up serving which?) is even the thematic point behind TARS’ off-the-cuff joke that the Endurance mission’s real purpose might very well be to found a “robot colony” with “human slaves”.
Given this, it is interesting that the robots seem to be getting used to comment on the nature of the various human characters with whom they are associated. Although the evidence for this is weakest with Amelia, it is possible to interpret CASE, KIPP and TARS as commenting on Brand, Mann, and Cooper respectively. CASE seems to be associated with Brand in the way that it serves her on Miller and Edmunds’ planets. KIPP absolutely mirrors Mann (a destructive psychopath who also “explodes” and who becomes thematically associated with homicidal science through his HAL-like blowing of the airlock). And TARS makes the same transcendent self-sacrificial journey as Cooper, ending the film seemingly more human than before, with his personality settings apparently independent of Cooper’s attempts to control them.
Regardless of whether the robots are intended to deliberately mirror their human counterparts, the explanation Interstellar offers for the dualism of science is the idea that I believe lies at the heart of the film: the message that man’s scientific struggle is redemptive, but only to the extent it is guided by love and faith. Speaking to Cooper about his desire to join the Endurance mission, Donald makes this theme explicit, explaining that the “why” of any action is more important than the “how”. Professor Brand’s lies may serve the interests of peace (i.e. religion as social fiction necessary for encouraging men to produce “rivets not bullets”) but his actions are negative because they are not driven by a desire to rescue his fellow man from death. Nolan paints Mann as a destructive psychopath for falsifying his data, yet Cooper’s deceit of his children is positive because he does it for their own protection, just as his lying to Brand about their fuel reserves is driven by a self-sacrificial act of love for her and the future of mankind she represents as the maternal figure. Lying is even referred to by the script as “discretion” rather than deceit if done for the right reasons, such as sheltering one’s children from the fear of death.
More subtle literary symbolism reinforces the idea that what love redeems mankind from is death itself. The sense that the mission into space is a voyage towards death is implicit in the Dylan Thomas poem that equates death with night, making it no accident this poem is read both when the Endurance leaves earth for the black beyond as well as by Brand himself on his deathbed. The literary association Nolan frequently uses between water and death also stresses that Cooper’s journey is a journey into death, whether in the sleep caskets which fill with water and sink into the earth like coffins, or in Cooper’s comparison of their mission to a journey across the seas. In this theme of maritime exploration, Brand’s comments about being “marooned” by Mann, or her concern about humanity being “adrift” carry much more significance than their casual delivery would attest. Likewise, it is no accident that both worlds visited by the mission are water-saturated death planets unfit for human habitation, and that in the case of Mann’s planet, which has floating clouds hiding a frozen core, our very first image of the planet is that of a false paradise.
So how does mankind transcend death? As stated above, the core requirement seems to be that individuals persist in the struggle to do so, with Interstellar going to far as to suggest that it is only love that enables people to do this. This is why it is Cooper (the father) who succeeds at an “impossible” task where the childless Mann fails. The journey into Gargantua to solve the gravity equation offers another case in point: death is transcended through acts of self-sacrificial love. And cross-cutting editing in the Cooper/Mann fight links this battle to the Murph/Tom conflict where the same themes are on display. This is presumably why both fights start at the same time, and why Murph’s decision to turn back and rescue her family (motivated by a vision of children) occurs simultaneous with Cooper’s own renewed struggle to save her and Tom.
Although Interstellar invites us to read Cooper’s love for Murph as a metaphor for Jesus’s love for mankind (the coming of God into man is theologically necessary in this view precisely because God exists beyond time and space), there is a deeper message that the reason love matters is that it permits us to live virtuously in the face of death itself. Amelia Brand’s surprise at the effects of relativity on Romilly are meant to indicate that she lacks this emotional grounding: her understanding of time (death) is theoretical and so she is shocked when she sees it in practice. Her failure is later mirrored by Mann who explains that he also thought he understood death until he faced it in practice, a trait confirmed in his fight scene with Cooper, where Mann shows his literal inability to face death when he turns away from Cooper’s suffering. In contrast with both of these characters, while the horror of death may still exist for Cooper, it is his connection with his children that allows him to accept his own destruction as necessary if done for their sake.
And this leads us to the heart of the film and Nolan’s answer about how mankind can transcend death. The solution, the script seems to claim, comes through a literary version of Newton’s third law: the leaving of something behind. Humanity makes itself divine, in short, because the love parents have for their children straddles generations and drives them to make the necessary sacrifices that push man towards the stars. More succinctly, as TARS puts it, “the only way humans have ever figured out how to get anywhere is to leave something behind.”
And this seems to be why, as the central character who accomplishes this, Cooper becomes a symbolic a force of divinity, associated with the Christ figure who represents God incarnate as man. As the “good father” who has promised to return and now does, Cooper fulfills his Christlike portrayal as the redeemer who hears the prayers of his children from the darkness and saves them through a love which transcends time. His awakening of Mann thus echoes Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead, while his self-sacrificial journey into the “gentle” black hole transforms him into a “ghost” who moves beyond the realm of the living to the strains of Hans Zimmer’s cathedral-like organ music. Cooper descends into the black hole to visuals of matter pouring towards the camera like the waters of death, becoming a Christ figure (reaching out to Amelia like God from the Sistine Chapel) with a love for manking which becomes redemptive once it is recognized. Thus Murph falls in love and has a family and rescues the planet only after she stops being “mad” and recognizes that her father loved her. And her father is finally resurrected in the white light and plays out the last minutes of the film as Jesus, coming back to earth before taking off again into the heavens in search of another lost lamb.
With all of that said, there are some ambiguities in this reading and it would be dishonest not to mention them. For one, I am unclear of exactly how positively we should view Amelia. Her speech about evil existing within man seems to be part of the philosophical message of the film, but at other times she is naive (in her judgment of Mann) and perhaps fatally idealistic. Her name also signals a certain degree of negativity in the sense that it is apparently a reference to doomed explorer Amelia Earhart. And when Brand is stranded on Edmunds’ planet at the end, the message is complicated. As with earth, her new home is a dusty wasteland that will take love, struggle and scientific persistence to transform into a garden planet. And yet that negativity is also somewhat offset by the symbolism of a resurgent America, and in the implied and redeeming love that now pulls Cooper across the galaxy towards her, and the sense that perhaps this new home is better than an ossified museum: outer space becomes the place of hope and the struggle for a better future.
Ultimately, given the intellectual complexity of Nolan’s previous films, it is likely that there is much more to say. If you have any suggestions or feedback or noticed something I didn’t, please do drop a line.