Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of those movies who have captivated their audience in all possible dimensions: the interest in scientific theories, the monumental visuals filmed in IMAX, the stellar performances of the starring actors, the deep, meaningful storytelling and the awe-inspiring soundtrack, that has swiftly risen up to the ranks of the most played soundtracks in the world. In all these aspects, Interstellar is a masterpiece of true science fiction. It is storytelling about humanity in its broader scope, beyond Earth, beyond our present day.
Despite the interest in the physical theories concerning the theory of gravity as well as quantum physics, which we have our own ideas upon, in this essay we will focus on the fiction aspect of Interstellar and explore its deeper meaning, hopefully not failing to shed light onto the relationship between the story and the other aspects.
What is the story of Interstellar? It is the story of mankind at the brink of extinction. A group of NASA scientists plans to find another habitable planet and to colonize this new world. To make this possible, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has been working on a formula to “harness gravity” in a way to make it possible to catapult as many humans as possible into space by means of a giant centrifuge that at the same time functions as a space station. He asks Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-Nasa pilot who used to work with Brand many years ago, to fly the spaceship through a wormhole that leads to a system that shows 3 possible candidates for habitable planets. The catch about this whole operation is that the spaceship supposed to carry the colonists will only be able to take off if Prof. Brand manages to solve the gravitational formula. He tells Cooper that he has almost solved the equation, but Cooper is reluctant to leave his 2 children based on an “almost”, risking to never see them again. Brand asks Cooper to trust him, and Cooper agrees.
But besides this greater story about saving mankind there is another story. It is the story of a father who has to leave his own children to save the world, which his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later played by Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn) is not happy about. Father and daughter share a strong bond of an adventurous spirit with each other. Yet, despite this adventurous spirit, the child is unhappy about her father leaving. She feels abandoned. She feels that if her father loved her, he would not leave her. She is too young to understand why her father needs to leave her, and that he doesn’t do it out of neglect.
What does all of this mean?
Let us assume there is a crisis. Crises happen all the time. They are a fundamental part of being, and every mature adult can or should easily understand that there can be no life without problems. The problem needs to be addressed. Somebody has to step up and do something, try something, to solve it.
Fear of Abandonment
The child sees no difference between itself and his parent. Its concept of love is codependent. This is natural, because children are dependent on their parental caretaker. They are not yet mature enough to take care of themselves, and have not yet gone through the process of individuation. In some cases, even adults have missed out on this process of individuation, especially when there is trauma involved. This causes adult people to remain stuck in codependent concepts of relationships where they see no boundaries between themselves and their partners. Instead, they see other people as mere externalizations of themselves; this is what we call narcissism.
But Murph is no narcissist. She’s a child, a young girl who grieves the departure of her father. She needs to mature to understand his decision.
The Love of Spiritual Growth, or: The Father
Cooper, on the other hand, is the embodyment of the Father. His adventurous spirit, his competence, his love and kindness are the qualities which have this huge imprint on Murph. And these essential traits are the same thing she fears to lose with him: the loss of love, the loss of guidance to solve problems, the loss of hope. The loss of safety.
As much as she argues that the morse signals in her bookshelf are saying “Stay”, Cooper knows that he has to go. He sees the broader scope. He needs to leave his children to find a solution to save mankind. He might aswell just stay and do nothing, but then no solution will be found and humanity will be doomed to become extinct.
The 2 dialogues between Cooper and his father-in-law shed more light into this:
“This world was never enough for you, was it, Coop?”
“What, because heading out there is what I feel like I was born to do? And it excites me? (…) We farmers, we sit here every year when the rains fail, and we say: ‘Next year.’ Well, next year ain’t gonna save us, nor the one after that. “
And in the first dialogue with his father-in-law, Cooper says: “We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt. It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.”
These dialogues reveal Coopers attitude towards humanity’s situation. He describes how not taking action will keep us stuck in the comfort zone of our current misery. To understand this properly, we need to listen to these words on a personal level. This is not about mere activism, and doing “something” is not always the right thing to do.
Cooper makes a sacrifice. Making a sacrifice means doing something you don’t want to do, but you have to do to avoid an even more unwanted outcome later in the future. He sacrifices the possibility of never seeing his children again for the comfortable bliss of staying with them until they die. The latter would be the codependent decision – the one the girl Murph wants him to take. But his love is the Father’s love. He sees that love is separateness. Love is the will to leave into your own individuality, make yourself and the world better through addressing our own faults and then return – instead of being stuck in the codependent illusion of oneness.
In his wonderful book “The Road Less Travelled”, psychotherapist M. Scott Peck explains that love is “the will to grow spiritually”. Everybody has to conserve his own hunger for life, follow his own goals that are separate from the goals from the ones he loves. “(…) ‘sacrifices’ on behalf of the growth of the other result in equal or greater growth of the self. It is the return of the individual to the nurturing marriage or society from the peaks he or she has traveled alone which serves to elevate this marriage or that society to new heights.” Seeking codepenence results in remaining stuck – and thus prevents us from growing as well as the other, because it does not allow for separateness. Codependent attachment is not love. It is the opposite of love.
As human beings we should always be driven to grow spiritually. It’s not about merely growing in a material sense or about “being happy”. It is about improving our characters, correcting our own faulty nature and maturing, so we can solve the new problems that life throws at us. The road to success or happiness is not the road to a particular attainment of something material. It is the road to becoming another person, a better, stronger, spiritually healthier human being that develops the ability to confront problems and “keep real darkness away”, as Jordan Peterson says.
The comfort zone is avoidance. Going through life avoiding problems will not hold them at bay. Quite the opposite. M. Scott Peck says, “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.” And, as the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said: “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”
Redemption through the Spirit of the Father
So Cooper leaves and tries to find the habitable planet, which leads to the adventures we witness throughout the movie: the giant wave, Dr. Mann’s betrayal, the Black Hole. Cooper has to go through time and space to find the solution for the problems threatening Earth.
But at the same time, it is Murph who manages to solve the equation on how to harness gravity, after Prof. Brand reveals on his deathbed that he had been lying about it. He doesn’t answer her question whether her father knew it was a lie. But her pain from the abandonment drives her to find a solution. And not only that. The help Murph receives to solve the equation comes from her father while he’s in the tesseract, through the watch he gave her before he left.
What this means is that Cooper has to go through time and space to enter the black hole and the tesseract therein. It is there that he transcends the 4 dimensions of spacetime and reconnects to Murph, to give her the information to solve the equation. And he helps her grow and find the solution not by staying with her, but by having left her and inspiring her through his spirit.
This event is the symbolic representation of God creator saving humanity, redeeming humanity through his own child. Murph is fundamentally a messianic character. Obviously she is a girl and not a boy – but there are some characteristics that move her close to the archetype of Christ. Firstly her name is not a typical girl’s name. When she asks Cooper why they called her Murph, he explains: “Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.” This resonates strongly with the ending scene in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, in which Neil says: “What’s happened’s happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.” Hence, the name Murph is an expression of faith in contingency, which is the belief that whatever happens is good as it is. It is the faith in the goodness of the world and a fundamental belief in God.
The second point is that she is pervaded with her father’s spirit through and through. And thirdly, as already mentioned, she redeems mankind through her father’s love. If you want, you might even say that Cooper sacrifices Murph, just like Christ was sacrificed, because he never gets to live a life with her. I might even want to speculate that the “Cooper Station”, which was named after Murph, and not after Joseph Cooper, might be symbolic for Christianity – with the “C” in Cooper’s name being the chiffre for the redemption through God’s Son, which is Christianity.
How do we connect this with the first half of this essay? We solve problems by having faith in God and in the outcome of the events. We do not run away from them or regress into our comfort zone, but face our legitimate suffering to grow spiritually, overcome our own flaws and expand. This is what true belief in God means. It means the will to accept whatever life, or God, throws at us, and accept the separateness from others to grow individually. Truly loving God means to believe that every obstacle is an opportunity to grow spiritually – which essentially means: to fight and overcome our own defects to become better, stronger, more honest and more resilient human beings.
As much as Interstellar might present itself as a movie about science, I believe that it is essentially a story about God’s love for humanity. It was Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack that first ignited this idea in me. I asked myself: Why would you have such an overly present organ in a soundtrack? That’s an unusual instrument for a movie. Are we in a church? And then it dawned upon me: Yes, we are. And we are here worshipping God Father who saved us, his children, by sacrificing his favourite child.