My wife and I went to watch “Interstellar” on an IMAX screen yesterday, and, let me tell you… This movie is my generation’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for many reasons. Spoilers ahead, so read at your own peril.
THE FIRST ACT
The movie begins with us getting to know “Cooper” and his small family. His son Tom is a lot like Cooper. He’s bright, hard-working, and he wants to be a farmer. Murphy, the daughter, is a lot like her father as well. She’s intelligent and likes to buck the system. The family is rounded-out by Donald, Cooper’s father-in-law. We learn early on that Cooper’s wife died from a brain infection and was not saved because technology has failed around the world in a pretty much catastrophic way.
We are told that the big reason why this catastrophe is happening is because the world was overcrowded, and everyone wanted to have more and more, stripping the world of resources. To make things worse, a blight has been killing every crop one-by-one. Wheat is gone. Okra is gone. All there is left is corn, and that will soon be gone as well. The same blight is taking out the world’s oxygen supply.
By some somewhat supernatural accident that is explained at the end of the movie, Murphy and Cooper learn the secret location of NASA. Because the world is more concerned with stopping the blight and getting food on the table, NASA has gone underground. They don’t send ships up into space anymore because everyone wants to focus their attention on Earth. Yet a few scientists are determined to go out into space one more time (one last time?) because there is a wormhole floating around Saturn. NASA had previously sent twelve astronauts through the wormhole and into exploring planets on the other side. Only three of them are reporting back.
Cooper, having been a pilot and an engineer, is recruited into going up to the wormhole and across it to another galaxy to find habitable planets for humanity. There is a plan A, which is to find a habitable planet and fly up what is rest of humanity. (More on that in a second.) Plan B is to find a habitable planet and start making babies from frozen embryos.
That is the end of the first act. We’ve learned that we cannot continue to grow and grow as a species on this planet because we’re going to run out of resources. Something is going to happen to tip us over into the abyss. We’ve been explorers since day one, always going to the next frontier and beyond, so we’ll need to tap into that spirit again to save us. There are a lot of themes in this first third of the movie: environmentalism, conservation, and reproductive health. There is also the theme that science will save us, and it just might.
THE SECOND ACT
There is a scene at the beginning where Cooper meets with Murphy’s teachers because she’s in trouble. She’s in trouble because she dared bring a book to school that depicted the lunar landings. The new line of thinking is that the lunar missions were all about tricking the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by making the USSR compete in space against the US. As a former NASA pilot, Cooper is appalled, as were some of the people sitting around us. The reason for this revisionism is that we need to stop dreaming of going up into space and save the Earth.
The second part of the movie is the mission to the wormhole, through it, and into exploring two of the three habitable planets found on the other side. The trip to and through the wormhole goes fine. The music was very loud, and so were the special effects, but it was otherwise stunning. When our four heroes get to the other side, they decide to land on a planet that is covered in water. Also, because the planet is very close to a giant black hole, time is going to be a little tricky for them. Every hour on the water planet will be seven years back on the main ship, and back on Earth.
Three of the heroes land on the planet and are quickly almost wiped out by a giant tidal wave. The trio finds out that the original astronaut that landed there perished from the waves, and they themselves lose one (a minor character) to a wave. Cooper and Brand go back to their mothership and find out that they were gone for 23 years in Earth time. In those 23 years, Cooper’s kids grew up. He became a grandfather to Jesse, Tom’s first baby. His daughter, however, refuses to make contact with him.
The three remaining astronauts decide on the next planet, an icy planet where an astronaut named Mann landed and has been reporting that it is habitable. They head over there and find Mann in suspended animation. Remember, Mann had been there for decades — all alone — by the time Cooper and company arrive. As they make preparations for more exploration of the planet, a message comes from Earth that Brand’s father has died. The message was sent by Murphy. She became Brand Sr.’s protege and tried to help him solve “the problem of gravity.”
Remember how plan A was to get what was left of humanity up into space and toward the planets on the other side of the wormhole? Well, that can only be done if a huge space station being assembled on Earth can escape Earth’s gravity. Murphy and Brand Sr. had worked on how to do it, but Brand dies telling Murphy that it was all a sham. He never solved the problem, and he wasn’t even close. He realized that he needed information from within a black hole to know how to handle gravity. And, as we all know, no one survives a trip into a black hole. (Or do they?)
Faced with the knowledge that plan A was a scam to get explorers to agree to go look for planets, the original trio and Mann decide to start a colony on the planet and use the embryos to help humanity start again. Everyone on Earth is to die of asphyxiation as the blight continues to wipe out plants and dust storms continue to cover anything that is left to produce oxygen. However, Mann will have none of it. He tricks Cooper out into the open and almost kills him. Mann then tries to get back to the mother ship and dies a horrible death as he finds out that the vacuum of space is unforgiving if you don’t dock a ship correctly.
Back on the ice planet, Romilly, the third of the original group of heroes, is killed when he trips a boobytrap set by Mann. Brand and Cooper head back to stop the mothership from falling into the planet after Mann’s misadventure. With some wild special effects and very loud and intense music, they save it. But they realize that they cannot go to the third planet and then back to Earth. It’s a one-way trip. While Cooper wants to go back to his children, Brand wants to go on to the last planet, where the man she loved is probably still alive.
That is the end of the second act, and we learn that love is a powerful thing. While Cooper’s love for his children draws him back to Earth and the annihilation of humanity, Brand’s love for Edmunds (the last astronaut on the third planet) draws her there though she knows Edmunds is probably dead. There is some discussion about love being more powerful than gravity, or just another force along with gravity. They couldn’t get away from this kind of thing, I guess. It makes for good drama. And it makes for interesting questions, which I’ll present to you at the end.
THE THIRD ACT
The third act is all about getting Brand to Edmunds and Cooper back to his children. Well, Cooper is not exactly going to his children, really. He and one of the two robots they took with them on the mission have decided to go into the black hole nearby and see what happens. Cooper hopes that the robot, TARS, will survive and send back information to be relayed to Murphy somehow. That information is to be used to get humanity off of Earth somehow.
There are a lot of holes that are never truly explained, and we as an audience need to just go with it.
So Cooper and TARS fall into the black hole and somehow (again) survive. They find themselves in a sort of extra dimension where Cooper sees instants in his daughter’s past. As it turns out, Cooper becomes the driving force that initially led him and his daughter to NASA, and then tried telling his daughter not to let him go… And then, with input from TARS, tells his daughter about the singularity inside the black hole and helps her solve the problem of gravity.
Once his mission is accomplished, Cooper and TARS are sent through the wormhole back to our solar system, where they are picked up by humans who now colonize one of several space stations. About 80 years have passed since Cooper first left Earth. He has a touching reunion with his now-elderly daughter, and they understand that stuff has happened which they can’t explain. Murphy finally tells Cooper to head out and find Brand as we see Brand on the last of the three planets, starting an enclave of some sort. (Perhaps she has the embryos?)
In the last scenes of the movie, Cooper and TARS head out to continue to explore.
From the third act we learn that love is indeed powerful, that magical things happen inside of black holes, and that we humans were meant to be explorers. And that’s okay with me because we have no clue what happens inside of black holes. Anything could happen, so why not a way for a human to survive the “spaghettification” that would occur from diving into a black hole? Why couldn’t said human then enter some sort of “fifth dimension” and communicate back to his daughter? And why couldn’t humans evolve to the point of being the ones placing random wormholes around Saturn as is implied in the end of the movie?
Hey, it’s a movie.
OR IS IT?
Interstellar was also a movie that got me thinking. One of the things I like to say is that we need to get off this rock. We really do. Our planet is only going to feed and clothe us for so long, and we are doing more and more damage to it every day. We need to find a way to continue our species in some other world. At the same time, I get the feeling that we should probably not continue as a species if we manage to screw up the planet. There are no “reset” buttons in real life. Why should we be rewarded with colonizing space if we failed so miserably at colonizing the planet?
My wife asked me why I worked in public health if I believed we needed to get off the planet? What’s the use of saving people if people are the problem?
I don’t know. One of the characters in the movie said that the reason the initial twelve astronauts were convinced to go through the wormhole was that they were guaranteed that their loved ones would follow (which was plan A, remember). He said that our good nature goes as far as our line of sight. I agree, but I think that some of us want to do more than help only those around us. Some of us are driven to help everyone and anyone, and reduce pain and suffering wherever it is found. We don’t want to do it to be heroes. We don’t want to be famous, either.
Some of us are just good people. Some of those good people will buy us time by saving humanity here while other good people must go out there into space and save all of us on a species-level. And we will, given enough time. The petty differences that divide us, like political ideology and the color of our skin, will surely be overcome because of the good among us and not in spite of the evil around us.
And I’m very happy to know so many of you good people out there.
I don’t blame you if you think that it is silly to take a movie and read so much into it. It is, and I am not at all advocating that we change the way we live or any of our laws because of this movie. However, I will say that we need to change things because of the situations presented in this movie. We really are polluting the planet a lot, and we are overpopulating the Earth. We also have finite resources that are going to run out. They might not run out in our time, but they will run out at some time.
So why can’t we come together and push ourselves to clean energy like we pushed ourselves to land on the moon or build the atom bomb? Why can’t saving the planet from all that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere be our Manhattan Project? Are our political and ideological differences really that hard-coded, really that important?
As far as overpopulation, we know how to solve that. Better access to birth control, more healthy children surviving to a productive age, and allowing women to be part of the society on an equal level all lead to lower births per woman. Societies thrive when that happens; they don’t fade away.
So let’s not fade away.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.