Interstellar Explained: Our FAQ for Christopher Nolan’s Latest Movie

Christopher Nolan does not shy away from dense stories, and Interstellar is almost certainly his most complicated movie so far. With all of its theoretical physics and time manipulation, there’s a lot to digest, and that’s without having to keep up with the plot in general. So if you’re confused, don’t worry, here’s our take on Interstellar‘s big questions.

Why is the Earth all screwed up?

More or less because all of our plants and crops are dying to blight. As we find out later, this is going to lead to either mass starvation, or we’re all going to run out of oxygen first.

What the heck is blight?

Blight is a blanket term of sorts for when diseases or organisms cause plants to brown up and die. The Irish Potato Famine was caused by a mold that led to blight for example. We’re never told what kind of disease is affecting the crops on Earth, but it’s apparently pretty bad, as it’s killed all of the wheat and okra, with corn just barely hanging in there.

I thought it was all that dust?

The dust is likely a result of the blight and all of the plant-life dying, similar to how droughts led to the Dust Bowl in the 30s, just on a much bigger scale.

Okay, so who the heck is this Cooper guy?

Cooper is a former NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer (a lot of people became farmers due to the shortages of food after the blight). He lives with his father-in-law, his son Tom, and his daughter Murphy, who is named after Murphy’s Law.

What’s Murphy’s Law?

Murphy’s Law is an adage that typically goes, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

In the film however, Cooper interprets it to mean that, “Anything that can happen, will happen,” which is slightly more optimistic.

Why are they chasing a plane?

That plane they’re driving after is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a drone basically. More specifically, it’s an Indian spy drone. From the sound of it though, the Indian government either collapsed, or they’re no longer keeping track of their drones, so it’s been up there for years just flying about collecting data that no one is looking at. Cooper wants to chase it down because the power supply inside is pretty valuable.

What’s all this about ghosts?

Murphy believes there’s some kind of ghost haunting her room, due to the fact that things from her shelf keep getting knocked off. The “ghost” that Murphy is talking about is actually a weird gravitational anomaly, one that appears to be trying to communicate.

Communicate?

Yeah, it’s trying to lead Cooper somewhere, so it draws him coordinates written in binary in a pile of dust. These take him to a top secret NASA facility.

Holy crap, is that a robot?

Yup. They were apparently created by the military (Cooper mentions that this one still thinks it’s a marine), and while they’re a little outdated, they’re all NASA could get their hands on.

Why are they all blocky?

This one is probably easier to explain if you’re good at math (which I am not), but basically the robots have four sections that can be linked together in three ways. Each of those sections have even more sections, which can in turn be subdivided further and further, allowing them form parts of their body into a wide variety of different shapes.

So explain what’s going on at NASA.

Basically, at some point after the blight, public opinion rapidly shifted against science and technology. Research into anything that didn’t have to do with food was seen as wasteful, and NASA was eventually shut down. Well, more specifically, they were shut down after refusing to nuke starving people to reduce the world’s population.

Holy shit.

Yeah. Off the books though, the US government kept NASA running, knowing that if they couldn’t get people off-world somehow, that food and oxygen were going to run out in a generation.

So what’s the plan?

About 50 years before the start of the movie, a wormhole appeared near Saturn, and NASA’s probes discovered that it leads to a new galaxy. This galaxy has a bunch of potentially habitable worlds, so NASA sent a one-man team to each of the dozen or so candidate worlds.

The people they sent in can’t communicate full messages back through the wormhole, but they can send binary pings. From these, NASA has gathered that there are three potential planets that could sustain life. They want Cooper to fly the final mission through the wormhole, and figure out which of those three humanity can escape to.

How did the wormhole get there?

They’re not sure, but they theorize that it could be the work of “fifth dimensional beings” who are trying to help us survive.

What the heck is the fifth dimension?

They’re not sure about that either, but Anne Hathaway’s character thinks it may be “love.”

What?

Well, the intangible quality of love. She points out that although love is a biological function that helps humans form groups and protect their mates and offspring, some aspects of it don’t make sense in that regard. For example, there’s the fact that we still love people who have died, or that we can love people who are so far away that our minds can’t even fathom that distance.

She thinks that this means that love transcends the three observable dimensions and the fourth dimension of time. The only other force that does this is gravity.

That’s wrinkling my brain, let’s just talk about Matthew McConaughey again. Why do they need Cooper to fly the mission?

He was one of NASA’s last pilots before the organization was officially shut down. After they sent pretty much every other pilot they had into the wormhole on those initial missions, Cooper by default became the best space pilot on Earth. None of his other teammates have even had any experience outside of a simulator.

Okay, so Cooper and crew go through the wormhole, find a habitable planet, then what?

Well, there’s two plans. Plan A involves launching a massive ship filled with people into space, to colonize the new planet (the NASA facility itself is this ship). Unfortunately, to do that, NASA (well, Michael Caine’s character) needs to crack an equation that will let them beat Earth’s gravitational pull and launch such a huge vessel.

And Plan B?

If Michael Caine can’t finagle the math in time, there’s a backup plan. The ship they’re launching through the wormhole is storing fertilized human embryos that can be used to populate the new planet. Plan B sucks though because it means giving up on everyone on Earth, who will be left there to suffocate and/or starve.

So Cooper and crew fly off into space, make it through the wormhole, and pop out in the new galaxy… but now they can’t land on the closest planet because it will take too long?

This is where Nolan really starts to play with relativity. Basically, the one closest to them (called Miller, after the astronaut who was sent there) is near a black hole, which causes a time distortion on the surface of the planet. Because of the gravitational force of the black hole, time moves at a fraction of the pace relative to Earth-time. For every hour they spend on the planet’s surface, seven years pass elsewhere.

So they land, but can’t find Miller, what happened?

Giant tidal waves killed him.

That ocean is super shallow, how are the waves so big?

Waves are a result of gravitational pull. On Earth, it’s from the moon; on this planet, it’s presumably from the nearby black hole.

How come they couldn’t detect them from space?

Story convenience? It’s hard to say. It’s possible that because time moves so slowly on the surface of the planet, the waves appeared to be standing still, and thus, could be confused with mountains or something. That doesn’t really explain why their sensors didn’t pick up giant walls of stationary water though. It’s a little silly.

Why was Miller pinging that the planet was habitable when it clearly wasn’t?

Due to the time distortion, he was only on the planet for a very short amount of time before Cooper and them arrived. They say they might’ve missed his death by mere minutes.

Matthew McConaughey is really mad at Anne Hathaway.

Well, her insistence on retrieving Miller’s probe got one of their teammates killed, but more importantly, it delayed their exit from the planet by several hours. When they get back into orbit, they discover that they’ve been gone for 23 years.

Yeah I guess I’d be pretty mad too. So on to planet #2.

This is the one that the leader of the initial team, a guy named Dr. Mann, ended up surveying. When they arrive, they find that he’s still alive, and that the planet is super hospitable and nothing fishy is happening.

What’s going on back on Earth during all of this?

In the 23 years that they’re on planet #1, Murphy turned into Jessica Chastain and became a scientist, working with Michael Caine’s character on the gravity equation; while Tom turned into Casey Affleck and became a farmer (and a bit of a jerk).

Shit gets real though when Michael Caine’s character (on his deathbed no less) admits that Plan A was never going to work. He had actually solved the gravity equation decades ago, but it’s useless without additional data, data that can only be gathered from inside a black hole. He kept this fact hidden to give people on Earth hope as they worked on Plan B.

Cooper’s crew finds out about this, and everyone is sad.

So why did Matt Damon get all murder-y?

Basically, he’s a liar liar pants on fire. It turns out his planet is not hospitable at all, but knowing this means he’s doomed to die there alone, he fakes the “thumbs up” ping to pretend like it can support life. After he’s rescued, he plans on traveling to the third planet and enacting Plan B there.

Cooper has to die because he insisted on seeing the planet’s surface, and will soon discover that Mann is full of shit.

Why did the base explode?

Mann rigged his robot to self-destruct if anyone tried to access the data he gathered on the planet (the data that shows his planet totally sucks).

His story about the robot breaking down is also probably bullshit. Mann says that it misreported data, when it’s probably more likely that he “killed” it to keep it from transmitting the actual data about the planet.

So planet #2 sucked, what’s the plan now?

Well after Mann blew himself up, and Cooper had to waste a crap-ton of fuel to link up with the ship, they have to come up with a creative plan. It’s basically a combination of Plan A and B.

Cooper decides to use the black hole’s gravitational pull to slingshot the ship in the direction of the final planet, where they’ll begin populating it with the frozen embryos. At the same time, they’ll launch their robot into the black hole itself, in the hopes of it transmitting the data that Murphy needs to finish the equation for real this time.

So Cooper sacrifices himself to let Anne Hathaway escape to planet #3, where did he end up?

This is where things get really wonky. He ends up in what they call a “tesseract.” No, not the Marvel one, the science kind. A tesseract is basically a cube that exists in four dimensions instead of three. It’s confusing stuff, but the more important thing is that he ends up in a construct built by the fifth dimensional beings.

They built the backside of a bookshelf?

According to the robot, it’s what the fifth dimensional beings created to represent four dimensions in three dimensions. To put it in actual English, it’s a way for Cooper to see time as a physical construct.

Why the bookshelf?

It goes back to what Anne Hathaway was saying in regards to love transcending time and space. Because of Cooper’s connection to his daughter, and also to that specific place in time with her, he is able to hone in on that particular intersection of time and space.

How was he moving stuff?

Gravity. Remember when they said that there’s only one force we know of that transcends time and physical space? Cooper is pretty much manipulating gravity at different points in time in order to send a rudimentary messages to his daughter.

It turns out that Cooper himself is Murphy’s “ghost.” He sent the coordinates to the NASA facility and the message to stay to himself.

That’s not how time travel works.

Not traditionally, no. He’s not really time traveling though, he’s existing outside of time itself.

It helps if you imagine that all of these events are happening simultaneously. Time is no longer linear if you exist outside of it, it’s just various intersections of the four dimensions. Because the tesseract lets him perceive it as if it was physical space though, Cooper can manipulate different points in time using gravity.

And the watch? What was that all about?

Cooper used the second hand on the watch to communicate through Morse Code. He was relaying the data that the robot had gathered while traveling through the black hole, the data that Murphy needed to solve the equation.

That must’ve taken a long time.

Yeah probably.

So why were the fifth dimensional aliens so interested in us?

At this point, all of this becomes Cooper’s conjecture, so take that as you will; but he believes that they aren’t aliens at all, but actually hyper-evolved humans from a distant, distant future. He believes that at some point, maybe millennia later, humans will have transcended space and time to become fifth dimensional beings.

They in turn open a wormhole in the “past,” and open the tesseract for Cooper in the “present,” although as we discussed earlier, there is no past or present for them.

Why couldn’t the future humans do it themselves?

Again, this is all Cooper’s theorizing, but he thinks it’s because they have decoupled themselves from the four dimensions, and thus, don’t have the “love” bond with people that would allow them to manipulate physical space directly. Or something to that effect.

So what you’re telling me is…

Yeah, future humans helped Matthew McConaughey send a message to himself to go on a mission to save the future humans who are helping Matthew McConaughey send a message to himself. The fifth dimension is whack man.

So how did he get out of the black hole?

The fifth dimensionals presumably jettisoned him out of it. Since he very conveniently ended up right next to the colony ship, we have to assume that his placement was intentional. Due to time distortion, he is now also well over 100 years old in Earth-time.

What is Cooper Station?

I think Cooper Station is meant to be the NASA facility from the beginning, only launched in to space thanks to the solved equation. Or it’s potentially another station of similar construction.

What’s it for?

The movie isn’t completely clear on this (as far as I could tell). It’s probably one of two things though: either the ship that’s carrying humanity to their new planet; or, a staging ground for launching subsequent ships through the wormhole to the new planet.

I’m leaning towards the latter, since it doesn’t seem like they’re preparing to go through the wormhole anytime soon.

Why is it round?

The ship is cylindrical so that it can rotate around the center axis in order to create artificial gravity. It’s similar to how Cooper’s ship worked with the centrifuge, just on a much larger scale. Check out Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama for a more in-depth exploration of this kind of theoretical ship.

Where is Cooper going at the end?

He’s off to find Anne Hathaway, who is currently stranded on planet #3, enacting Plan B, and likely believing she is the last human alive (you can see her burying the astronaut who arrived before her).

Presumably, the bulk of humanity will arrive on her planet someday, but considering how slow it seems to be going on the other side of the wormhole (and factoring in possible time distortion on the planet #3’s surface), it could be a very long time before they get to her. Cooper doesn’t want her to be all alone, because love and junk.

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