November 15, 2014 at 8:28AM

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Interstellar: A commentary on the human condition

Christopher Nolan's latest offering, Interstellar, is as much about exploring the uncharted territories of the human mind as it is about venturing into the great vastness of the outer space. Interstellar is a magnificent space drama in its own right, but it also addresses themes - of our needs and deepest fears - which are at the core of the human condition.

Warning: Spoilers ahead! Please go and watch the film before you continue!

Interstellar is an excellent study of the following themes, each central to the human existence:

Our Fear of Change
Our Fear of Time
Our Need for Society
Our Need for Heroes
Our dilemma of Head v/s Heart

Read on to find out how..

Our Fear of Change
The Spirit of Exploration and Dealing with Change

The threat of change and learning to deal with it - often involving the challenge of changing oneself to survive - is one of the greatest fears we have. Books written to address this fear have turned out to be bestsellers (think Who Moved My Cheese?). And the question of facing change becomes perhaps the most manifest when one is forced to migrate. Leaving one's home and motherland behind requires great resolve. In fact, migrant populations often survive and thrive better than indigenous inhabitants - which goes to show the superior life skills of those who can successfully migrate over those who haven't. Interstellar takes the issue of migration to an entirely different level, asking us if we are bold enough to leave even the planet behind for a new one if necessary.
The film strongly expounds the virtues of an explorer mindset. In science, in business and in life, we need to muster the courage to undertake missions into the unknown. The biggest risk, one must remember, is not taking any risks at all.

Our Fear of Time

The idea of Time as a resource is magnified in Interstellar due to the extraterrestrial phenomenon of time dilation.
But even in our earthly lives, the limited availability of time and its uni-directional character is something we wrestle with eternally. Hence we hear the invocations of treating time like currency, which is put into our accounts each day for the unused amount to expire at day-end.
In terms of lifespan, calculating how much time we and the people closest to us have left in our accounts is often the biggest cause of agony for us. The fact that we can neither pause nor turn back in time haunts us, a motif which is played upon tragically in Interstellar.

Our Need for Society

Like food, water and sleep fuel our bodies, human company and emotional attachments feed the mind.
It is hence that even the two robots in Interstellar's space mission, CASE and TARS, are programmed to make conversation with the humans and crack jokes. It is their blabbering (very much like George Clooney in Gravity last year) which keeps the team going through the long haul even when the chips are down. Talking of blabbering, one can't miss that remarkable aspect of conversation: humour.
Humour is a uniquely human trait which keeps us going. The ability to look at the lighter side of things - to take disasters in stride and have a laugh about it - is a skill that helps to last us through crises. The more trying our circumstances, the deeper is the need for humour as a survival aid.

Our Need for Heroes

In the film, a man revered as a hero for a long time turns out to be, after all, an ordinary being susceptible to narrow temptations. Society needs idols to look up to. They could be entrepreneurs, movie/ rock stars, philanthropists or sporting greats. Idols set the lesser mortals an ideal to strive towards, a milestone to measure their lives with, a model to build their dreams around.
Losing an idol is one of the most depressing things that can happen to us. Think Maradona. Think Lance Armstrong. Interstellar brings out this fear nicely frighteningly.

.. and Decision-making: Cold Logic v/s Warm Sensitivity

As they say, we are the decisions we make. The quality of our decisions determine what we achieve: as individuals, as organizations and as societies. While hindsight is always 20/20 and luck is a factor hard to ignore, the process of decision-making remains critical for our fates. (This is why we spend so many hours on behavioural economics and its teachings, in the hope of learning to make better decisions!).
When the team in Interstellar is faced with an either-or situation, we find two characters accusing the other's judgement of being clouded by sentimentality while they think of their own choice as being the logical one. The film tackles the question of the evolutionary value of our sentiments and if these can be trusted to influence our decisions.
Is being "irrationally rational" the best way to make choices? Or is information condensed into our gut feelings? It's the eternal battle of the head and the heart, that we encounter nearly every day of our lives.

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The mysteries of the great unknown of outer space are perhaps matched only by the mysteries within us.

Note: This article was first published at bit.ly/interstellarthoughts

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