Monday, March 7, 2016

Temporal Play in Interstellar

Interstellar begins sometime in the near future.  A blight ravages mankind and makes farming anything beyond corn an impossibility.   Cooper, played by Mathew McConaughey, is an ex-NASA pilot who runs a farm with his father-in-law, son, and daughter Murphy.  Murphy believes that there is a ghost in her room because her books fall off her shelf without cause.  Coop doesn’t believe her at first, but when a dust storm blows in across the valley and the dust settles in Murphy’s room in a defined pattern, Coop reconsiders.  The dust pattern is actually a set of geographic coordinates written in binary code.  Cooper determines that someone or something is using gravity to communicate. Cooper and Murphy follow the coordinates and discover a hidden NASA compound under the leadership of Dr. Brand, Cooper’s ex-professor.

Dr. Brand asks how Cooper was able to find the facility and Cooper answers that it was due to something supernatural.  Dr. Brand believes that ‘They’ led Cooper to the facility, though he doesn’t know who ‘They’ are.  He tells Cooper that the crops are eventually going to fail.  Mankind will either die of starvation or of suffocation due to a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere.  His facility is searching for a hospitable planet to move the human race to.  A task made easier by the appearance, 48 years prior, of a wormhole thought to be created by a higher intelligence.  The wormhole leads to a distant galaxy with 12 potentially habitable planets.  By the time Cooper finds Dr. Brand, Dr. Brand has already sent an expeditionary crew into the wormhole and discovered that of the twelve planets, only three of them might be suited for human life.  Only three of the members from the original expeditionary crew gave indication that there planet was hospitable.  Dr. Brand plans to send one more crew into the wormhole to find out what happened to the expeditionary crew and find a new home for mankind.

Dr. Brand has two plans to insure the survival of the human race.  Plan A: discover a solution that will answer the problem of gravity.  With this question answered, Dr. Brand can harness gravity to evacuate humanity from Earth. Plan B: Send Cooper with a small crew carrying frozen embryos into the wormhole and hopefully set up a base camp for the rest of humanity to meet at.  If the issue of gravity is not resolved, then at least mankind will be insured by Cooper’s mission.  Cooper agrees to the leave his family because Dr. Brand assures him that he will be able to solve the gravity issue.

Cooper’s crew travel into the wormhole and head to the first planet.  Because of the planets proximity to a black hole called Gargantua, time is dilated.  For every hour on the planet, seven years will pass on earth.  Cooper does not like this prospect because he wants to make it home to his kids.  Cooper leaves a robot called TARS and Romilly on the space station as he and two more members head to the planet.  The expedition is failed from the start and after the death of one crew member and several hours of ship repairs, Cooper and Dr. Brand’s daughter, Amelia, lose approximately 23 years.  When they meet Romilly back at the space station, he has aged significantly.  What was only three hours for Cooper and Amelia has been 23 years for Romilly. 

After their first excursion, the crew determine that they can only hope to make it to one more planet.  Of the planets, only one has continued to emit a distress beacon, the other one has gone silent.  They decide to go to the planet with the distress beacon and there they find a member of the first expeditionary force, Dr. Mann, played by Matt Damon. Coop soon learns that Dr. Mann has falsified his data in order to be rescued.  He attempts to kill Cooper and with a booby trap, succeeds in killing Romilly.  Amelia saves Cooper and together they race Dr. Mann to the space station.  Dr. Mann unsuccessfully attempts to dock with the space station and blows a large percentage of the station apart, dying in the process.  Coop and Amelia successfully dock with the station but do not have enough fuel to make it back to earth. 

In a last ditch effort, Cooper uses the gravitational pull of Gargantua to slingshot Amelia to the last habitable planet, losing 51 years of time due to the proximity of the black hole.  Cooper ejects himself and the robot TARS into the black hole to give Amelia a chance to make it to the planet.  The two slip past the event horizon, the point of no return, and find themselves floating in a tesseract outside of space and time.  Cooper determines that ‘They’ are 5th dimensional beings, or beings able to manipulate at least 5 dimensions.  The tesseract appears as a never-ending stream of Murphy’s bookshelf.  It is essentially every moment of time that ever occurred in Murphy’s room.  By navigating the tesseract, Cooper can communicate with Murphy throughout her life.

The ghost Murphy believed in at the beginning of the film ends up being Cooper from a 5th dimensional space outside time itself.  The coordinates that appeared in the beginning of the movie in lines of dust were actually sent by Cooper as well.  So who sent Cooper to the hidden NASA facility? Cooper sent Cooper.  His position outside of time allows Cooper to help his daughter figure out the problem of gravity, eventually leading to humanities successful escape from Earth. 

After Cooper helps his daughter, the tesseract closes and ejects Cooper out into space where he is rescued by a space station.  The space station is named after his daughter because she was able to solve the issue of gravity and rescue humanity from Earth.  When Cooper finally gets to meet his daughter, she is 124 years old while he is still the same age from the beginning of the movie. 

This movie essentially looks at time as if it were a solid state.  Similar to the way the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five view time.  The past, present, and future, are just an illusion created by our experience of time.  Time is depicted in an interconnected way in Interstellar. Cooper directly influences himself in the past to find the NASA facility, which then leads to his future in the black hole, which then allows him to help mankind with the issue of gravity. The movie takes it an extra step further by implying that the tesseract was made by a future colony of humans who can manipulate time. 

If you were to look at this film in reverse: A future colony of humans insures their existence by creating a wormhole in the past that allows mankind to travel to a different galaxy.  They build a tesseract in this galaxy so that Cooper can communicate with Murphy in the past, then allowing Murphy to solve the problem of gravity and rescue mankind from earth.  If any one of these moments doesn’t occur, than the future colony of mankind would cease to exist. 

With stories like these, often the question comes up of what event came first.  How could Cooper influence himself from the future?  Wouldn’t there be an initial Cooper who had to figure out everything on his own in order to get to the black hole?  Who told that first Cooper the location of the NASA facility? Much like the question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”  It is important to keep in mind that the film does not look at time in this way.  The film represents time as if it were a solid state, predetermined if you will.  In this predetermined time, the past, present, and the future are all interconnected and happening all at once.  The film moves away from linear cause and effect, and instead gives us something very different and difficult to conceptualize. 


  1. It's very interesting that this movie took the aspect of time as a solid state. It feels as though many things dealing with time tend to make it flexible and changeable. Within your movie, the idea I found interesting was the fact that it almost seemed like time, in any sense, was working in a loop until something could change. Since we are supposed to connect movies, I found that Looper actually played out a scene almost the same way. When my character, Joe, first meets his loop, he gets knocked unconscious. As he moves through his timeline to find his loop, he falls out of a window falling unconscious once again. It is here where we see the beginning of a time loop taking place. The first time his future self is taken back, he kills him no issue and the story moves forward. It keeps going to the point where we see his Loop come back and escape, which takes us to the present in the movie. It seems as though both our movies were playing with the fact that time could also be influenced by the future. With yours, it feels as though they continued to push for the idea of time being influenced from an outside perspective with time, aka the fifth dimension. With mine, time is simply influenced from the future. The idea of time and events having a major effect on other historical moments in individual lives seems to be a theme within movies dealing with some influence on future time in the past.

  2. This is the first reviewed movie that I have not seen, so I am relying completely on your information, which adds an element of memory or lack of memory to my response.

    I like the idea of watching the movie but trying to understand it by examining it in reverse. And the comparison to the Tralfamadorians seems particularly apt. It would be interesting to ask the screenwriters if they were inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five to create the fifth dimension and the concept of all time at once. Having access to all time at once seems like a logical solution to so many problems; if I could just be in more than one place at the same time, or warn myself about mistakes in the past to improve my future. I think it's easier to accept the nonlinear time premises of movies that are obviously science fiction. The space setting lets me suspend disbelief and enjoy the story more than the setting in contemporary USA for both Looper and Source Code. But since I now know the ending, will I enjoy the movie as much if I choose to watch it?

  3. I can definitely agree with the idea of something "very different and difficult to conceptualize," as this film (from your review) seems to really push our expectations of nonlinear narrative in ways that make it hard to understand. I like the series of questions you pose, especially in regard to the chicken-and-egg speculation—perhaps what the film is doing is somewhat similar to all of our classroom conversations about the butterfly effect. Like you state so nicely, "If any one of these moments doesn’t occur, [then] the future colony of mankind would cease to exist." Are you speaking of each specific moment as it is, or any variation of that event, as well? This sounds like a great film!

  4. Reading through, I was making connections to Slaughterhouse-Five as well. Like the Tralfamadorians, this movie seems to treat time as fixed, or as the aliens, would say, "It just is." Events always happen just as they are supposed to. The use of the space station theme also made me connect this to the short story we read at the beginning of the semester, The Tempernauts.

  5. I have to admit, when I first heard of "Interstellar," I didn't bother to find out much about it, as Mathew McConaughey seemed an odd choice for the lead role, but your review has made me very interested! Your observation of pondering the movie's plot in reverse made me think of Both Grandma (from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)and Billy's (from Slaughterhouse Five) reversal of the falling bombs at Dresden, in that the Foer and Vonnegut artistically reverse events that are seen as apocalyptic, while Interstellar presents what is truly an apocalyptic situation that must be interpreted through the lens of time manipulation through the 5th dimension--an intriguing concept that has left me puzzled and intrigued, which is what all great art should do.

  6. Trevor, you make some very solid points about the film in relation to the use of time, time travel, and work we've read so far. How you describe it makes it very similar to the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five in that all everything exists everywhere in all time and space simultaneously, that there is no "past, present, and future," at least in the way we understand it on Earth. You pose some important questions at the end of your post that are seemingly difficult to answer outside of what we know from science (the film was heavily scientifically influenced and researched prior to production). Your questions about his influencing himself from the future is not unlike the short story we read, "A Little Something for Us Tempunauts" by Philip K. Dick, in which the characters themselves are experiencing what one of them perceives to be a time loop. While the initial causality of the time loop is indeterminate (the characters reemerging once before their ship then implodes on reemergence), the finality of the time loop comes only from the character becoming conscious of the time loop (thus causing the ship implosion that they saw prior, their own deaths). In similar fashion, Cooper (and the universe) is in this time loop that they are unaware of until one loop (the one the viewer gets to see) in which Cooper becomes aware of what is going on (subsequently leading to the end of the time loop once it is perceived). This causal loop indeed causes a paradox between both works (and many more like it) in which the audience must question the nature of the loop, whether or not the loop would exist without an initial causal element (that exists outside of the loop). This, as you point out, leads us to question predestination (which also happens to be the name of another recent time travel film) of everything that happens around us.

  7. I was going to mention the Tralfamadorians as well, but everyone has got that covered. I loved your idea about watching the movie in reverse. I think this is one of the few movies where you can actually do that. The whole idea of time moving differently in different places (like moving slower closer to a black hole) reminds me of one of our beginning readings. That was merely about how time felt to different people. I know that the difference in the passage of time is based off science, but I can't also help but think of it somehow relates to how each person experiences time. Some people feel life passes so quickly, in the blink of an eye (Cooper) while others labor on (Murphy).