Get ready to travel through time and space with Christopher Nolan.
Interstellar is loud, sentimental, and filled with advanced scientific theories that work for the story, but are mostly theoretical in real life. I'm not one of those people who sit down to pluck apart the scientific plausibility of a screenplay unless I think it takes away from the story. In the case of Interstellar, I think it adds to it.
Interstellar juggles many different timeframes for the story. We cross from what's going on within Earth to the surface level of foreign planets, to the circling ship, and then to a fifth dimension that unites all of them. That's a lot to explain, so we're going to try to do it together.
Today, I want to get into the meaning and explanation for the movie Interstellar and even go over what happens in the movie. We'll talk about Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan working on the movie together and examine its ongoing themes. I'm excited to dive into this one.
So let's get started.
Table of Contents
The Interstellar Movie: Explained
Christopher Nolan is one of the most interesting directors out there. He tackles huge concepts and doesn't dumb them down. A lot of times the audience is working to learn along with the characters, and on the edge of our seats as certain plot points jump out. Let's go through the summary of Interstellar and then tackle explaining the movie and the Interstellar premise.
The Interstellar movie characters
- Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper, a widower and NASA pilot who became a farmer.
- Anne Hathaway as Dr. Amelia Brand, a NASA scientist, and astronaut
- Jessica Chastain as Murphy "Murph" Cooper, Joseph's daughter, who eventually becomes a NASA scientist
- Mackenzie Foy as young Murph
- Ellen Burstyn as old Murph
- John Lithgow as Donald, Cooper's elderly father-in-law
- Michael Caine as Professor John Brand, a high-ranking NASA scientist, ideator of Plan A, former mentor of Cooper, and father of Amelia
- David Gyasi as Romilly, another high-ranking NASA member, and Endurance crew member
- Wes Bentley as Doyle, a high-ranking NASA member, and Endurance crew member
- Casey Affleck as Tom Cooper, Joseph's son, who eventually grows up to become a farmer
- Timothée Chalamet as young Tom
- Matt Damon as Mann, a NASA astronaut sent to an icy planet during the Lazarus program
- Bill Irwin as TARS (voice and puppetry) and CASE (puppetry)
- Josh Stewart as CASE (voice)
- Topher Grace as Getty, Murph's colleague and love interest
- Leah Cairns as Lois, Tom's wife
- David Oyelowo as School Principal
- Collette Wolfe as Ms. Hanley
- William Devane as Williams, another NASA member
- Elyes Gabel as Administrator
- Jeff Hephner as Doctor
- Russ Fega as Crew Chief
Interstellar plot and summary
The year is 2067, and crop shortages and dust storms have devastated humanity. We meet Cooper, a widower, engineer, and former NASA pilot. Now he’s a mediocre farmer. He and his two kids live with his father-in-law, Donald. His kids are the teenage son, Tom, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murph.
A terrible dust storm leaves a pattern on Murph's bedroom floor. Murph thinks a ghost created them, but the scientific-minded Cooper realizes the patterns were made by gravity variations. After some math, he thinks they represent geographic coordinates in binary code. Cooper and Murph follow the coordinates to a secret NASA facility headed by Professor John Brand, whom Cooper knows from his past life working at NASA.
The NASA scientists fill them in on what’s been going on. Forty-eight years ago, unknown beings placed a wormhole near Saturn, opening a path to a distant galaxy with 12 potentially habitable worlds located near a supermassive black hole named Gargantua. Twelve volunteers traveled through the wormhole to survey the planets, and three—Dr. Mann, Laura Miller, and Wolf Edmunds—reported positive results. The rest are presumed dead.
Brand presents them with two plans to ensure humanity’s survival. Plan A involves developing an antigravitational propulsion theory to propel settlements into space. That is years ahead of the science they have and seems futile. In contrast, Plan B involves launching the Endurance spacecraft carrying 5,000 frozen human embryos to settle on a habitable planet and commence repopulation from there. Then other humans will follow.
Cooper is one of the only pilots left on Earth who can complete a mission like Plan B, so he decides to lead the charge, leaving his family behind. Also going are Dr. Amelia Brand (Prof. Brand's daughter), Dr. Doyle, and Romilly. Before leaving, Cooper gives an upset Murph his watch to track the time for when he returns. She’s so sad she won’t even say goodbye.
What happens on the water planet?
The wormhole takes the crew to Miller's planet. Due to Gargantua's proximity, time is severely dilated. Every hour on the planet equals seven Earth years. Romilly remains aboard Endurance to research Gargantua, while Cooper, Doyle, and Brand descend in a landing craft to investigate the water planet for one hour. The group finds Miller's shipwreck just before a giant wave kills Doyle.
Cooper and Brand barely survive, and their delayed departure results in them reaching Endurance 23 years later in Earth time, though only a few hours for them.
What happens to Cooper’s family?
It’s a brutal blow to start the mission. Back aboard, Cooper is forced to watch videos to catch up on what’s happened in the 23 years he left earth. Seeing his kids grow, his father-in-law die, and even getting some grandkids. His son has become a farmer like his father-in-law. His daughter now works at NASA like him. They're both doing their best to figure out what life is like without a dad.
Cooper and his crew are forced to soldier on. The crew travels to Mann's planet, where they revive him from cryostasis.
Meanwhile, now a NASA scientist herself, Murph has transmitted a message claiming Cooper and Brand knew that Plan A was never viable because it required tech and data from inside the black hole. Cooper intends to return to Earth to be with his daughter, while Brand and Romilly will remain on Mann's planet for permanent habitation. But in a big twist, Mann reveals that he sent falsified data to be rescued—the planet is not fit for human life. He attempts to kill Cooper and then steals a lander and heads for Endurance. Romilly is killed by a booby trap. Brand and Cooper pursue Mann in another lander.
What happens in the docking scene?
Mann is killed during a failed docking operation, severely damaging the ship Endurance.
Mann and Cooper manage to board, but now don’t have enough fuel to reach Edmunds' planet—which is their last hope for finding a place for humanity to relocate. They do some complex math and decide to attempt a slingshot maneuver so close to Gargantua that time dilation adds another 51 years to the already long journey.
The Ending of Interstellar
Cooper and the robot TARS actually jettison from the rocket to shed weight and then propel Endurance so it can reach Edmunds' planet. In turn, Cooper and TARS land inside a massive four-dimensional space called a tesseract.
As he drifts inside, Cooper sees through the bookcases of Murph's old bedroom and weakly interacts with its gravity, realizing he was Murph's "ghost." He sent the coordinates.
The Interstellar bookshelf scene
Cooper theorizes that the tesseract was constructed by humans from the far future who have access to infinite time and space.
He thinks Cooper realizes he and TARS were brought there to relay information to Murph that is critical to the survival of humankind. Cooper uses gravitational waves to encode NASA's coordinates in the dust patterns in Murph's room before manipulating the second hand of Murph's wristwatch using Morse code to transmit all the data that TARS collected from within Gargantua so that Plan A can work.
On Earth, the adult Murph realizes the "ghost" is her father and deciphers the message to solve for Plan A.
The Interstellar ending scene
The tesseract spits Cooper out, and he wakes up on a futuristic space habitat orbiting Saturn, where he reunites with an elderly Murph—who is on her deathbed. Using the quantum data Cooper sent, the younger Murph solved the gravitational theory for Plan A, enabling humanity's exodus from Earth and transformation into a spacefaring civilization.
Murph urges Cooper to return to Brand to have the rest of his life. Her life is now complete. Cooper and TARS take a spacecraft to fly to Edmunds' planet, where Brand prepares a base for Plan B.
Interstellar movie breakdown
Interstellar Movie Timeline Infographic
To actually understand all the timelines and to explain the movie Interstellar, I thought it might help to see the visuals.
This infographic is the work of Frametale, an entertainment marketing agency with offices in Los Angeles and Istanbul, led by creative director Dogan Can Gundogdu. They have work that's appeared in lots of different films, commercials, and television shows. It explains the time dilation at the center of the story.
The Interstellar meaning and movie explanation
Set in a future where a failing Earth puts humanity on the brink of extinction, it sees a team of NASA scientists, engineers, and pilots attempt to find a new habitable planet via interstellar travel. Of course, the trip has a lot of bumps along the way. And we see humanity suffer as they try to become a multi-planetary species.
At its core, this is a movie about humanity's sacrifices to survive. It's about how pioneers are willing to lay down their own lives so that an entire species might go on.
At the center of this is one family, the Coopers, who dedicate their lives to space travel so that others might live.
What happened to Earth in Interstellar?
Our pollutants made the earth unstable for human life, so everyone leaves to travel to another planet.
Does Brand die in interstellar?
The older Dr. Brand does die during the pursuit of Plan A. The younger Dr. Brand is able to get to the Plan B planet and is waiting there for Cooper at the end of the movie.
How long was Cooper in space in Interstellar?
While we don't know the exact amount of time, you can guess by Murph's age that he's spent almost 100 years looking for planets, but to him, it may have only been a matter of weeks.
The theme of Interstellar and the movie's meaning
For me, I think the themes of this movie lie in the story of family and survival. We're all one humankind, and despite our differences, the ability to survive and move on should trump anything we have against each other.
We need to see past the problems and unite for the much bigger and much more important causes. When it comes to family, love can transcend generations and keep us united although far apart. Sometimes you have to sacrifice to make sure the best happens for you and your offspring.
Summarizing the Interstellar movie, explained
Hopefully, by reading all of these parts, you've gotten your biggest questions about the movie answered. It's a deep journey into humanity and our quest to live amongst the stars. While the journey might be confusing with all the time jumps and multiple planets and plans, I think it just requires rewatching and concentration.
Roger Ebert once called film the ultimate empathy machine. It's a window into all kinds of humanity. A way to see more of the world and to confront what makes us human.
It's hard to find a better example of this sentiment than Nolan's Interstellar. It's a movie about the sacrifices we make to ensure humanity continues to survive, even as the lead character watches his own children die from afar. And somehow, humanity gets better for it, and his grandchildren get to live.
Let me know what you think in the comments.