Astronoetic Cinema: Interstellar (2014)

by Michael Uhall

In terms of astronoetics, Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014) enlarges the anthropocentric vision of Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997) into a full-blown anthropological myth of human dominion over nature that founds itself upon the primal self-creation of the human. It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film synthesizes vocabularies of popular scientism and deracinated Christian dialectics. The former occurs not only in the immense attention to technical detail evident throughout the film, largely employed to specify memorably elemental planetary settings—as well as to justify its denouement—but also in the plot itself, summarized as the need for humanity to abandon an exhausted Earth and apply itself to the exploration of space. This is the astronoetics of Interstellar. The latter vocabulary provides the motive force of the film, however, contrasting the subtle evil of a deterministic, entropically saturated nature with the overwhelming power of love. Let’s see how this unfolds.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

The film begins by contextualizing its setting. Earth is afflicted by a slowly escalating crop blight, the causes of which, curiously, are abstracted from any possible ecological reason. We’re in the domain of a Dying Earth narrative here, not a climate change apocalypse. One difference between the two is that the former isn’t anthropogenic. This matters in Interstellar because it warrants the disdain for earthly caretaking exemplified by engineer/pilot Joseph Cooper’s charismatic go-get-‘em libertarian space cowboy restlessness. (Contrast Cooper with the protagonist Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast [dir. Peter Weir, 1986], whose strikingly similar personality leads him into tyranny and destruction.) It’s not that humans have damaged the planet – thereby implying that humans might be able to learn to adapt or mitigate the damage they have caused – but that planetary conditions ultimately have failed us.

 “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Cooper later inquires of Brand, surprised.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Resentfully (“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are […] Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”), the widowed Coop works a farm with his stepfather and two children, Tom and Murphy. After encountering the remnants of NASA, Cooper agrees to pilot an exploratory mission to an artificial wormhole discovered in orbit around Saturn. On the other side of this wormhole, Professor John Brand informs him, there are potentially inhabitable planets, as well as three human scouts sent ahead to investigate. There are two options for mission completion: Plan A, Professor Brand will solve an equation he’s been working on, achieving the theoretical grounds for a gravitational theory of propulsion; or, Plan B, Cooper and his crew, including the Professor’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand, will begin to colonize a viable planet with the cargo of embryos loaded onto their ship, the Endurance.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Cooper’s departure deeply aggrieves his daughter, Murphy, although Cooper promises to return. In the background of the narrative, there are a series of gravitational anomalies centered on Murphy’s bedroom, resulting in both the provision of the NASA base coordinates and the scrambling of nearby navigational computers, although no one investigates this thoroughly. The young Murphy wonders if it is a ghost, while Cooper and others dismiss her observations – even when the word “STAY” is spelled out as Cooper informs Murphy of his imminent departure.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

The Endurance enters the wormhole that has been placed in our solar system, at which point Dr. Brand apparently makes contact briefly with a mysterious being residing therein. In the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew decide which of the three potential planets to visit first.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Located in a gravity well near a black hole, visiting the surface of the first planet entails a price – in time. Due to the circumstances of relativity, every hour on the surface translates to seven years outside of the well. Accordingly, when the planet is discovered to be beset with monstrous waves making it uninhabitable, the cost of the expedition is revealed to have been twenty-three years. Cooper and Brand are devastated, and the melancholy tone of the messages received from Earth in the interim only sharpens the difficulty of their circumstances. Murphy sends a bitter message to Cooper, informing him that she is now the age he was when he left home.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

The Endurance departs for the second planet, although this expedition is significantly more catastrophic. They encounter the surviving scout, Dr. Mann, but he intends to hijack their spaceship in order to save himself. This misadventure results in the death of the remaining crew, save for Brand and Cooper, as well as notable damage to the Endurance, making return to the Milky Way impossible. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Murphy has become a physicist under the tutelage of Professor Brand, who reveals on his deathbed that Plan A was never possible, since his equations lack necessary but unobtainable quantum data. Plan A was always a lie, intended to comfort those left behind by the Endurance. Murphy is distraught: “I just want to know if you left me here to die,” she rails at Cooper in another video dispatch.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

In the new galaxy, Cooper severs the wreckage of the Endurance from Dr. Brand and her cargo of embryos, slinging her onto a trajectory toward the third planet and away from the black hole. Trapped by gravity, Cooper descends into the black hole.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

There, he finds himself within an artifact called the Tesseract, which he discovers to be a four-dimensional environment co-located with Murphy’s bedroom at every possible moment in time. At first, Cooper despairs, stuck in a repetitious superposition and forced to observe scenes from his former life, but after manipulating tensile threads of spacetime to transmit a message (“STAY”), he realizes that the Tesseract enables him to transmit the quantum data needed for the solution of Professor Brand’s equation. All that is needed is for Murphy to notice the small ways in which Cooper sends the message – in binary, expressed in gaps in a bookshelf, through lines of falling dust.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

In the present, a grieving Murphy returns to the Cooper household to persuade her brother to leave. Visiting her childhood bedroom, she has a epiphany, realizing that, somehow, Cooper has been communicating with her for her entire life. She transcribes the quantum data and solves Professor Brand’s equation, thereby enabling the human diaspora from Earth. Cooper realizes that the Tesseract must be an artifact constructed by future humanity (“People couldn’t build this.” / “Not yet”) to ensure the transmission of the quantum data, thereby embodying a temporal “strange loop” in which the future secures its existence by producing its own past. If this seems confusing, consider a similar temporal loop in Predestination (dirs. Michael and Peter Spierig, 2014), in which a similarly self-reproductive narrative telegraphs more emphatically the underlying antagonism toward dependence that author Robert Heinlein wrote into his original short story: “The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from – but where did all you zombies come from?”

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

In the epilogue, Cooper is ejected into space (by passing through the wormhole, where he reaches out to touch Dr. Brand in the Endurance as she travels to the new galaxy), but soon he’s picked up and taken to a space habitat orbiting the wormhole. Informed that decades have passed, he learns that Murphy’s solution of the equation enabled humanity to depart Earth and survive. He meets with an aged Murphy for a final reconciliation before again departing through the wormhole to find and help Dr. Brand with the new colony.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Something astonishing about Interstellar is the degree to which the film causally places Cooper at its narrative center. He is positioned as the savior of humanity, whose paternal love and presence subtends the entire film in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Much like the imputed need for humanity to leave behind Earth in order to secure its future, Cooper’s apparent abandonment of his family for the stars is precisely the mechanism that both ensures their survival and returns him to them, albeit briefly: “We have to shed the weight to escape the gravity. […] The only way humans have ever figured out of getting somewhere is to leave something behind.”

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

There’s something structurally narcissistic about this structure. Cooper’s descent into the black hole results not only in the discovery of meaning, or a resolution of an emotional or technical problem, but in the discovery of… himself. Effectively, Cooper creates himself – out of himself – to encounter himself – to save himself. Likewise, what obtains for Cooper obtains for humanity, which effectively exists in Cooper’s shadow, as it is his journey of self-creation that saves and uplifts humanity. Even Murphy’s apparent solution of Professor Brand’s equation is merely a transcription of the quantum data Cooper provides. This effectively reduces her position in the film to that of a mere stenographer, and her resentment for her father reveals itself to be only a lack of faith in his efficacy. His late comment to Murphy “I was your ghost” reflects and inverts his early lament to her that “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future. […] Murph, look at me. I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist.”

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

The subsuming dialectic between love and nature foregrounds itself constantly. As noted above, terrestrial nature always figures as an antagonist, be it Cooper’s wife’s brain cyst, the Earth’s failure to provide for its occupants, the mindless cruelty of the two uninhabitable planets, and even the drives of the “natural” human as articulated by Dr. Mann. “The survival instinct,” he exposits while he and Cooper struggle. “That’s what drove me. It’s what drives all of us. And it’s what’s gonna save us.” The film dramatically negates this claim, however, elevating love to the position of a cosmic force. As Dr. Amelia Brand argues in a key scene: “Love isn’t something we invented – it’s observable, powerful. Why shouldn’t it mean something? […] Maybe it means more – something we can’t understand, yet. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen for a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it.” Likewise, Cooper in the Tesseract: “It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!”

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

In astronoetic terms, Interstellar culminates with the effective elimination of nature, conceived entirely in terms of constraint and impingement, in lieu of humanity’s dominion over its conditions. As Cooper relates, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” The identification of earthly conditions with death, with natural evil, gets sublated into the bright future made possible through love – specifically, the power of paternal love (the child-like dependence or the need for assurance found in Contact gets wholly inverted here). Culturally, Interstellar directly abuts the virulently anti-ecological attitude engendered by manic techno-optimism. In no small part, this is evident in how its disdain for caretaking (of any kind) gets endorsed and justified by its invocation of humanity’s destinal departure from the conditions of dependence. Hence why Cooper is always departing. Unintentionally, the film consumes itself. Murphy: “You go.” Cooper: “Where?” Murphy: “She’s out there, setting up camp. Alone in a strange galaxy. Maybe right now she’s settling in for the long nap, by the light of our new sun. In our new home.”

But the conditions of home are impossible here. Humans have no home in nature, only in its conquest, and that constitutes a process of accelerating expansion that structurally precludes any terminus. Consider the road movie Vanishing Point (dir. Richard C. Sarafian, 1971), in which Kowalski, a freelance driver, drives across the country at increasingly high speed, refusing to stop because it’s only in the process of infinite acceleration that he can sustain his need for meaning (= speed). Of course, the film concludes with Kowalski’s decision to crash into a roadblock intended to stop him, preferring the freedom of death to deceleration. There’s no posthuman speculation here, as there is in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973): “two semi-metallic human beings of the distant future making love in a chromium bower”. Kowalski is a true nihilist; perhaps so is Cooper.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Vanishing Point (dir. Richard C. Sarafian, 1971)


* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).