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Interstellar Explained

Updated on January 2, 2015
Interstellar Movie Poster
Interstellar Movie Poster

Interstellar The Movie

Interstellar is a complex, thrilling, thought-provoking, and visually beautiful epic science fiction film that follows a crew of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in a last-ditch effort to find a new home for humanity. In order to save the people on Earth, Cooper leaves behind his own family to journey across space.

Warning: There be Interstellar spoilers from this point forward… and you are expected to have seen the movie, as there will be little plot overview

Plans A & B Explained

Early in the film, we discover that the US Government has been secretly funding a NASA project to find mankind a new home, as Earth can no longer sustain agriculture.

When Cooper meets with Professor Brand, NASA has already sent thirteen humans through a wormhole, each on a mission to find out if nearby planets on the other side of the wormhole can sustain human life. Of all the planets visited, only three beacons are still active.

Cooper is added to the Endurance team. The Endurance teams' mission is to find out the fate of the three other astronauts and report back to make an informed decision about which planet is mankind's best hope.

Professor Brand tells Cooper that NASA has two plans for mankind's survival:

Plan A: While the Endurance team is fulfilling their mission, Brand promises to continue working on the advanced gravity equation to harness the 5th dimension. Brand tells Cooper that when he succeeds, NASA will be able to defy our current understanding of physics and launch a gigantic space station into space. The space station will be able to carry the remaining population of Earth. The facility that Cooper and Murph had stumbled on (and you can continuously see construction within), is not just a NASA research station, but also a construction zone for mankind's space-traveling ark.

Plan B: Should Brand fail or the Endurance team take too long in their mission, NASA has harvested a bank of fertilized human embryos to ensure mankind's survival, after the rest of the humans on Earth have perished. In order to ensure diversity, NASA was successful in getting a large variety of DNA from sources across the world. In plan B, the Endurance team would also just settle down on the most habitable planet, and raise the first generation of embryos.

We later learn in the movie, when Brand makes a deathbed confession to Murph, that Brand never believed that Plan A was possible, even after secretly having solved the gravity equation decades ago. He states that he had only told Plan A to people so that Earth's leaders would rally and work together, so that they would be able to build the infrastructure to support Plan B.

When Cooper and Amelia find out through a message from Murph that Plan A is impossible, Cooper still remains committed and unconvinced. Cooper send TARS (the crew's robot helper) into the center of the black hole in order to hopefully translate the data to help NASA refine Brand's equation and calculations.

Cooper also sacrifices himself, and plummets right behind TARS into the blackhole, so that the weight on the Endurance space-craft is reduced, enabling Amelia to make it to the third planet to enact Plan B should TARS fail.

Interstellar Tesseract Explained
Interstellar Tesseract Explained

However, instead of dying in the blackhole, Cooper finds himself inside The Tesseract (the gravitational singularity that is maintaining the wormhole; the place with all the different iterations of the bookshelves). Up until this moment, everyone has been placing the creation of the wormhole on an aforementioned, "They."

Who are "They"

Cooper and the other NASA scientists throughout most of the movie assumed that "They" are an advanced supernatural (alien) race that have unlocked the secrets of dimensional manipulation and have decided to help mankind (for some unknown reason). NASA believes that "They" are able to directly communicate with humans because they have transcended our three-dimensional ways of understanding the universe. Professor Brand believes that "They" have been sending and communicating through binary messages and advanced technology, such as wormholes, for humans to follow to salvation.

However, Cooper discovers, while in The Tesseract, that while NASA believed "They" was a single alien race is actually two separate entities:

  1. Future humans who have mastered the laws of our universe, which allow them to manipulate both time and space.
  2. Cooper attempting to communicate while being inside the custom Tesseract built for him (by the future humans)

While in the Tesseract, we can see all the odd phenomenons that have occurred through the movie (the "ghost" in Murph's room, the hand that Amelia touches while in the wormhole, and so forth) having been the actions of Cooper himself. As the Tesseract is a place where the laws of space and time become infinite.

Interstellar Watch Explained
Interstellar Watch Explained

The custom Tesseract for Cooper was built for the single purpose of Cooper using it to observe past, present, and future, so that he could communicate with his daughter in the past to relay the data that TARS collected while inside the singularity. Cooper ends up relaying the information in binary through the watch that he had given Murph before he left (and which Murph had put on her bookshelf).

Some of you may wonder, well isn't this part of the movie a paradox? Many say "Yes." There is currently a debate going on about how there would need to have been future humans to first survive in order to make a Tesseract for Cooper- given that there would have been no Tesseract to save them. Director Nolan does not answer the question within the movie, leaving it open-ended.

But how can the future humans manipulate space and time? And why is time faster on some planets than others? And how does Cooper time travel back to Amelia at the end of the movie?

Time and Space Relativity Explained

Theoretical physicist Kip Throne was the scientific consultant for the movie in order to ensure that the depictions of wormholes and relativity were as accurate as possible. When he was asked to join the Interstellar project, he laid down two guidelines, "First that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations ... would spring from science ...". And those two rules were met. The wild speculations made in the movie do actually come from science, and most of the scientific concepts in the film (although wild and exemplified) cannot be definitively disproved.

Through certain theories, we know that it is possible for certain forces to impact other dimensions. In the movie, the film relies on gravity bleeding through the dimensions. This is displayed in the first planet that Endurance visits. Time on our side of the wormhole moves faster than time in the new planet. Because of the proximity of the planet (the water planet with the large tides) to Gargantua (the black hole), time moves much faster. For every hour that the team spends on the planet is 7 years back on Earth.

The concept is really brought home when Amelia recognizes that Miller (who was the astronaut who had been sent to the water planet) had probably been killed within minutes of arriving, and while the positive beacon readings were perceived to NASA as years of positive readings, they were really just a couple hours worth of data on the water planet. Also driving the concept home was how much Romilly - who had stayed on the Endurance to gather data - had aged while the crew was on the water planet. While the Endurance team was gone for only about three hours, he had lived 23 years alone on the Endurance.

Moving forward, a tangible by-product of gravity on space-time was responsible for the ability of Cooper to communicate with young Murph while he was inside the Tesseract. He spelled out the word "S-T-A-Y") by pushing books off of her shelf. She was also able to communicate the map coordinates the his prior self by spreading dust on the floor. And finally, and most importantly, he was able to manipulate Murph's watch in order to give Murph the data TARS collected, which would be necessary to complete Plan A.

For how Cooper survives the Tesseract, and how he flies back to Amelia in the end, we must simply re-apply the same theory that has been active throughout the movie, but in reverse. Remember how the ratio of time on Miller's water planet was 1 hour for every 7 years on Earth? Well, the proportion would be skewed exponentially in the opposite direction at the center of the Tesseract singularity. Thus, while it appears to the people on Earth that Cooper and TARS have been out in space for 90 years, Cooper and TARS have actually just been there for a couple minutes in their own perception.

Water planet, 1 hour here is 7 years on Earth
Water planet, 1 hour here is 7 years on Earth

Due to the disproportionate change in time, Cooper is able to survive and reunite with Murph- who is now more than 100 years old. Murph reminds her father that, just through the wormhole, Amelia is just now beginning to set-up Plan B on Edmond's planet. Murph tells her father to go because Cooper no longer has anything to live for in the post-Earth existence. He has missed Tom's life (Tom is presumed dead), and Murph will also soon die herself. Murph tells Cooper that she has lived a happy and full life.

It is also revealed that though Edmonds' planet is habitable, the astronaut that had stayed there and activated the beacon had not survived the landing, leaving Amelia alone at the site.

Cooper hops into a ship with the knowledge that, based on the reversal of the film's primary relativity theory, a second trip should allow him to reunite with Amelia on Edmonds' planet only what would appear to Amelia as a short time after Cooper had first sacrificed himself by dropping into the black hole.

We do not see the actual reunion, so Cooper's fate is left up to some interpretation (similar to the spinning top at the end of Nolan's other epic movie, Inception). However, there is reason to be optimistic that Cooper reaches Amelia.

Interstellar Movie Brief Explanation in 7 Minutes

The Lesson of the Movie

Nolan's Interstellar is a movie about going into and exploring the unknown. Again, we have an ending very similar - in idea and execution - to that of Nolan's Inception. Within Interstellar, the take-away of the film isn't whether Cooper reunited with Amelia. Just as in Inception the key takeaway wasn't about whether the spinning top kept spinning.

The key take-away in Interstellar was an illustration of Professor Brand's repeated poem by Dylan Thomas:

"Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rage at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

The movie pushed the suggestion that humanity is at its best when mankind throws itself into the unknown - whether for love or discovery. And that's what Cooper does throughout the movie and in his final act.


NASA's budget continues to be cut, and is now under 0.5% of the Federal Budget. Should NASA's funding be restored and/or improved?

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