Interstellar (2014): stories we tell about sacrifice

Red and black abstract swirl.

Unpacking sacrifice as plot device and moral message in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar.

Earth in the near future is a hostile planet. Blight has killed most crops, leaving the human race on the verge of starvation. Worse yet, the disease thrives on nitrogen, draining the atmosphere of oxygen. Even if humans can survive without food, eventually, they’ll suffocate.

Now only one hope remains.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) may be just another farmer battling dust and dying crops, but he used to be an astronaut. In fact, he’s the only man around with hands-on flying experience.

When a set of mysterious coordinates lead him to NASA – now a secret, underground organisation – he faces an awful choice.

As pilot of NASA’s final mission to find a new planet, Cooper could have a hand in saving the human race. Going means being away from his kids for years; staying behind condemns them to extinction along with the rest of the planet.

With no option of saying no, all Cooper can do is pray the mission runs to schedule. But as the crew of the Endeavour leave the solar system, it soon looks like a one-way trip into disaster.

Storytelling echoes in Interstellar

Look, no one ever agrees on anything any more, but let’s say that Interstellar is inventive, immersive storytelling. It takes us on a journey through space from the unthinkable – the end of humanity – to the improbable: wormholes and fifth dimensional time.

Ultimately, this movie composed of endless choices offers us a question. When we’re facing the end of everything, do we put out trust in science or the divine unseen?

These are big questions, framed by a plot which runs rather like the black hole at its centre, complete with time loops, paradoxes and great leaps of faith.

And yet, for all the film’s complexity and ambitious storytelling, it repeatedly returns to and reinforces themes and messages that are common in sci-fi cinema.

For starters, consider how much Interstellar’s set-up echoes 2002 sci-fi horror Signs. Both stories are about widowers with two kids – one boy, one girl – who stare down the end of the world from a remote farmhouse. Both question whether faith or logic can see us through catastrophe.

Now, this could be coincidence or even homage, but equally it might just be that some character combos are inseparable from their genres.

If we’re talking disaster movies (which both films are), there’s always a good chance the hero is a widower or estranged father. See also Knowing or, for more context, Children of Men.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is how Interstellar incorporates motifs of selflessness, connecting its story to countless other sci-fi and disaster narratives.

Sacrifice powers this plot and resolves its moral message. So what does that look like?

The first 12 and the monstrous lie

As Cooper’s team leaves Earth, NASA boffin Professor Brand (Michael Caine) channels the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night rails against the inevitability of death; in Interstellar, it captures humanity’s drive to conquer it.

They’re fine words – and yet Endeavour’s success rests on men and women who won’t “rage against the dying of the light”. Instead, they must embrace the ultimate sacrifice.

Ten years earlier NASA sent 12 astronauts through a wormhole on the edge of our solar system. Carrying life support for two years (plus hibernation pods), each is tasked with assessing if a newly discovered planet is viable for humans. Crucially, each knows theirs may be a one-way trip.

There’s no chance of rescue if things go wrong. Even if they find a habitable world, they might never again see another person. All they can do is broadcast data that tells the Endeavour whether or not to follow in their footsteps.

It’s a brave attempt to outpace destruction, but what comes next is built on monstrous lies.

The first is Professor Brand’s gravity equation. Solving it means NASA can get its gigantic space station off the ground and carry survivors to the new world. This “Plan A” ends with the Endeavour returning to or reuniting with them.

Years later, however, Professor Brand admits to Cooper’s now grown-up daughter, Murph (Jessica Chastain), that he can’t solve the equation. In fact, it’s unsolvable. Hence his goal was always “Plan B”: Endeavour will never return, but carry human embryos to a new start among distant stars.

Given what we know about Cooper and Murph’s relationship this is devastating – but it isn’t the end of the betrayal. On the other side of the universe, Dr Mann is about to replicate the lie.

Interstellar’s two dads

As background characters, the fates of most of the original 12 remain a mystery. Instead, their role is to establish our expectations of astronauts, heroes … and fathers.

The mission backstory is a ticking clock; one more layer of urgency in a story filled with doom and dust storms. It also foreshadows Cooper’s destiny: others have done their duty, now it’s his turn.

In fact, these earlier missions are a giant red flag. If 12 were sent out with little hope of return, why should things be different for the Endeavour?

Professor Brand pulls off the ultimate smokescreen by sending daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) along, too. In fact, he never expects her to come back at all.

Because the prof thinks the gravity problem is unsolvable, he sends Amelia on ahead to ensure she and/or the mission survives. Any dad would, right? Only then he convinces Cooper to leave his kids, a choice that not only severs their relationship but effectively seals their deaths.

As fathers, Brand and Cooper illustrate the film’s two choices: science or the leap of faith.

In Brand’s mindset, you can’t beat gravity – so why try? He decides his fellow humans must die because he can’t see an alternative. His mission is duping others into giving their lives for the greater good. His comeuppance is pretty light, all things considered: he dies without seeing his daughter, or realising his plan.

In contrast, we know Cooper is a heroic character precisely because he’s not fatalistic, and because he’s willing to die to save others (his kids, Amelia, humanity). And yes, the plot rewards him for it.

Ultimately, Brand is blinded by pessimism, while Cooper makes the leap of faith and wins back both his daughter and his life.

Dr Mann: the opposite of sacrifice

As one of the original 12, Dr Mann (Matt Damon) is ready to trade his life for the future of humanity – but when it comes to it, he can’t face either dying or being alone. Instead he fakes data about his planet’s viability, then signals the Endeavour.

Perhaps Mann’s self-interest here isn’t unmitigated villainy. After all, dying to save strangers is a big ask – plus we’re hardwired to survive at all costs. Where Mann crosses the line is in sacrificing his rescuers.

Why does he betray them? Presumably it’s a mix of cowardice, selfishness and saving face. And, as Sunshine and Ad Astra show, because the other side of deep-space isolation is madness.

Either way, Mann’s lie brings about Plan B: his planet is humanity’s new home, ergo fire up the population bomb. However, Mann already knows this is impossible, because the planet can’t support human life. When Murph’s message arrives from Earth, it forces his hand.

Actually, Mann already knows the professor’s lie; it’s their shared duplicity. Mann even frames the prof as the real hero. This subverted notion of sacrifice speaks volumes about his true character:

“He was prepared to destroy his own humanity in order to save the species. He made an incredible sacrifice.”

Devastated, Cooper decides to return to Earth while the others populate Mann’s planet. Mann can’t let this happen, though: he can’t die for the mission, but won’t give up on it either. His faulty logic is to kill Cooper, take the Endeavour and colonise a better planet.

Ironically, Mann even reveals his true motivation, but frames it as the failings of others.

“We can care deeply, selflessly, about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.”

Dr Mann

Archetypes of Christ: Cooper, TARS and Lazarus

When Cooper pulls him out of cryosleep, Dr Mann notes:

“You have literally raised me from the dead.”

This is particularly significant given the first 12 astronauts were part of the Lazarus missions.

Professor Brand claims the name foreshadows success because the Bible’s Lazarus died but came back to life. What it actually signals is that the astronauts will die so that others can live.

PS: this includes Cooper as the pilot most able to pull off Plan B, and therefore both mission-critical and expendable.

In Interstellar, the Lazarus motif comes full circle as the story’s subliminal moral message. Like the sacrifice Jesus models, those who give themselves for humanity earn salvation.

Initially, Cooper isn’t ready to die for the planet. His motives for leaving Earth are primarily ego and excitement; accordingly, his punishment is to lose his daughter. It’s only once he lets go of life, and embraces love beyond the realms of hard science, that he can return to her.

Dr Mann, who only values his own skin, quails in the face of sacrifice. His reward? He’s blasted into oblivion when he tries to board the Endeavour. In contrast, Cooper and the robot TARS drop into a black hole to save the world … and are redeemed.

This is practical and paradoxical as well as miraculous, by the way. By selflessly sending the black hole’s quantum data across time and space to Murph, they give her what she needs to solve Brand’s gravity equation.

Hence, while the black hole should pulverise Cooper, instead the tesseract spits him out years later – thank you, relativity and fifth-dimensional time – near the successfully launched space station.

While waiting to meet a now elderly Murph, Cooper pays forward salvation when he reanimates TARS … like a modern-day Jesus and Lazarus.

Myths of Man

Our stories repeatedly tell us that heroes aren’t cowed by death. Or, as Rudyard Kipling’s poem If puts it, it’s only when you can gamble everything you have “And never breathe a word about your loss”, that you can call yourself a man.

It’s stirring stuff, and yet the flip side in modern sci-fi and disaster narratives is that men – mostly – are routinely expected to die for others, and cheerfully.

Thus, in keeping with sci-fi’s typical treatment of [male] heroes, TARS and Cooper face death with almost gay abandon: see also Prometheus.

Manly mythology aside, sci-fi stories routinely trade in spiritual symbolism. Space is, quite literally, the heavens, but its dark vacuum also hellish (sometimes literally – hello, Event Horizon). Ad Astra goes looking for God among the aliens; the Alien franchise subverts creationism.

In Interstellar, we find fragments of Jesus, though again, it’s common across sci-fi: see Neo in The Matrix. It’s there too in Life, a story which delivers its twist precisely by subverting what we know and expect from sacrificial heroes.

Anyway, in the end, sacrifice and stoicism are story shortcuts; they guide us through the narrative, and embellish heroes and scoundrels. They also give us hope: in endless, empty outer space it isn’t the divine that saves humanity, but altruism.

Sacrifice in these terms ennobles our species – it separates us from the animals. If we tell this story enough times, we come to believe in it; a new religion in which humanity is both deserving of salvation, and the agent of it. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the face of failure in this story is the one that sounds most like us: Mann.

Interstellar (2014), directed by Christopher Nolan

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Picture credit: John Paul Summers