IN THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT FUTURE, the human race is on the brink. A mysterious blight has infected the staple crops, leading to a worldwide scarcity of food and continual dust storms. Cooper, a former pilot and now reluctant farmer (played affably by Matthew Mcconaughey) struggles to maintain his corn crop while parenting his teenage children.
When his daughter Murph discovers a “ghost” communicating with her through her bookshelf, she enlists the help of her father – they discover coordinates to a location that turns out to be the last remaining NASA base. Their office reveals sobering facts: the last of the crops will die, along with the remainder of the human race – unless we can find another hospitable planet to inhabit.
Luckily, a few decades prior, a mysterious worm hole appeared auspiciously near Saturn, put there deliberately by the ones only referred to as “Them” – ostensibly a benevolent alien race with a saviour complex. NASA sent 10 astronauts into the hole to explore 10 possible words that may support life. Only 3 responded with promising data, leaving it to Cooper and a new crew to confirm their one chance to save the human race.
There are two plans upon finding the habitable world:
- Plan A: the rest of the human race will follow once NASA scientist Dr. Brand solves the riddle of harnessing gravity.
- Plan B: the ship carries a payload of human embryos to populate this new Earth. The rest of humanity back home will perish.
I’ll admit. I’ve been a huge fan of Christopher Nolan since his breakout ‘Memento,’ a film that messes with our understanding of memory. His follow-up, ‘Insomnia’, with the late Robin Williams, played the line between dreams and reality, a theme he explored more deeply in ‘Inception’. Even his trio of Batman films offered more than the usual comic-book faire, destabilizing our faith in the distinct boundaries of good/evil and order/chaos. With ‘Interstellar’, Nolan offers a similarly mind-bending odyssey into the science of star travel, deftly weaving cosmos and pathos, accompanied by an overwhelming soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.
The critics seem somewhat divided on the film’s merit. Some praise the film for its visual achievements and grand reach, while others outright criticize the film for its lack of coherent logic and clunky writing. They proclaim the overall themes to be about the human longing for home and the continual quest for exploring the unknown.
I believe that none of these reviewers have discerned the deeper meaning behind Interstellar, not because of their filmic tastes, but because of their unquestioned perception of time.
*** Spoiler Alert – Don’t continue unless you’ve seen the film or don’t mind spoilers.***
The Relativity of Time
Time, both visually and metaphorically, shows up continually throughout the film. From Cooper’s gift to his daughter (a synchronized watch) to the dizzying articulations of space-time and relativity. I caught many phrases of dialogue about not having enough time, for their mission to reach the potential planets, to the lost time between the astronauts and their families on Earth. And finally, the experience of time as the fourth dimension, as when Cooper enters the Tesseract in the finale, where time is represented in the physical realm like an Escher painting.
With time figuring so prominently, it’s telling that every reviewer glossed over the deeper implications of time. This is not an accident.
Those of us conditioned by the dominant culture are bound by a strict perception of time that relies upon three tenses: the past, the present and the future. The past lies behind us, lost to those remaining in the present, dreaming toward a glorious future that has yet to come. This understanding of time confines us unconsciously to a psychological apartheid: we are not permitted to exist in more than one time at a time. Not only that, we hold an unquestioned faith that this perception of time is universal. It is not possible to conceive of another relationship to time that involves our human subjectivity.
Before you leap into Einstein’s theory of relativity, let us first concede that the dominant culture operates on these linear-time beliefs. We worship the god Kronos, every clock a reminder, every minute lost in a finite lifespan ticking away until you are dead and gone.
The consequences of this are hard to overstate. Rebecca Walker explains the Western origins of this view of time:
“Greek dualistic thinking makes the distinction between the idea of objective and subjective time; ‘separating the temporal, natural world from the non-temporal, eternal world of ideals’. This idea means that we see chronological time as something distinct from and different to the eternal.”
This is the linear “arrow of time”, marching ad infinitum despite the desires or protests of those able to perceive it. Likewise, this universal time gives birth to the modernist idea of “progress”, from cavemen to star explorers:
“Human history was marching onward and upward to a sublime new age of humanity brought about by the triumph of human reason and science. Meaning was to be found in the glorious future that awaited us. The past was what we had come from, and was not a place that we wanted to return, or indeed would consider returning to.”
In recent years, Einstein’s theory of relativity has shaken, but not dislodged the dominant culture’s faith. Brian Edgar explains: “The theory of relativity has reminded us that there is no absolute time. Just as there is no space without an object, so too there is no moment without an action and no person without a relation. Time is the form and shape of our actions and we must talk of time for whom”.
The Spiral of Life
“The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In ‘Interstellar’, we are led to believe a mysterious alien species has placed the wormhole to offer humanity an escape hatch from their dying planet. They are fifth-dimensional beings, able to transcend the barriers of space and time, reaching from beyond the perceptible reality of humans, who are bound to their limited three-dimensions.
This begs the question: is it possible for humans to proceed free from the tyranny of linear time, even if they (supposedly) cannot directly perceive it? In truth, that has been the norm for human cultures until very recently.
Indigenous conceptions of time are not linear but spiral. Not only is it possible to exist within multiple tenses of time, many indigenous languages are devoid of words that extricate the subject from their interwoven relationship to time. This worldview relies on a wisdom that is much more obedient to the rhythms of life: from the flow of seasons to the arc of planets across the night sky.
Particularly in North America, and other colonized nations, the descendants of settlers continually struggle with how to handle the legacy of theft and genocide. Under the weight of shame and guilt, they proclaim “what’s done is done. The past is gone, and we must move forward.”
Rebecca Walker reveals:
“[This response] fails to take into account the [indigenous] vertical stacked view of time, where the past, present and future are all bound up into the eternal now […]. Everything that happens ‘in time’ has eternal implications and is elaborately interconnected.”
The Mystery of They
In the final acts of Interstellar, we learn upon Dr. Brand’s deathbed that Plan A was a lie. He knew the riddle of gravity could never be solved, condemning humanity on Earth to perish. Plan B, a new human colony seeded from frozen embryos, was our only hope.
As a final bid to ensure the safe passage of Amelia Brand and the embryos, Cooper deploys himself into the blackhole Gargantuan. He crosses the rubicon… and the audience is treated to the theoretical world inside a black hole, a dazzling shower of light and cosmic sparks, before he ends up in the Tesseract – an alien-constructed machine within the singularity that allows Cooper to exist in five dimensions.
He is surrounded by a visual representation of time, allowing him to peer into his daughter’s bedroom through the ether behind her bookshelf. As numerous clues hinted in the beginning of the film, he has become his daughter’s ghost.
With tearful recognition, Cooper manages to communicate through knocking books from the shelf, and eventually, with the help of his robot Tars (also in the blackhole) discovers the mysterious alien race has gifted them the key to harnessing gravity. Using the watch he’d given his daughter upon his departure, he taps the data via Morse code. She receives the message, revealing that love itself is the fifth dimension.
“Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”
– Amelia Brand
Before you leap to accusations of sentimentality, consider: in the film, love is not articulated as a feeling. Love is an action. Love is a done thing. Love is way of proceeding in the world, as if there is such a thing as life beyond your own life span.
The mystery of “They” is eventually revealed, that in fact, an advanced race of humans evolved to transcend their three-dimensional origins, reaching back in time to intervene in the fate of their kin. While others have named this a time-travel paradox (how could the humans first survive without Cooper to reach back in time to save themselves?) I believe another understanding of time and consciousness provides the answer.
The Tyranny of I
“It’s a little hard to tell if the seed is the youngest part of the plant or the oldest, or mysteriously both at once.”
– Stephen Jenkinson
From a linear perspective of time, there is only one possible world: the world you are experiencing, right now, from moment to moment. Every decision inevitably navigates you through the singular track of your life, every finite second ticks by and is lost, forever, never to return.
Once you break the trance of linear time, you crack an alternate possibility. Consider: what if our limited consciousness, often praised as the greatest gift bestowed to humankind, was instead skillfully understood as the vehicle which binds us to linearity at the expense of infinite time? What if the cost of being an “I” – a discrete entity able to discern the difference between “me” and “not me” – ensured the ongoing collapse of the potential field into a unified experience known as “you”?
From this perspective, every decision generates a stream of alternate worlds, all of which are true, and all of which are happening “now” – within the indigenous understanding of stacked time. Past, present, and future, there is no separation. Our task is to encode and re-member this truth in our way of being in the world, through song, ceremony, and ritual.
The future humans who reached “back” in time to save their kin from the perils of a dying planet could very well have reached “forward” – from the understanding of cyclical time, it is the perspective of the observer which determines where they reside in the spiral.
Older cultures would have a different name for the sacred relationship between the seen and unseen – between the living and the dead. They would call them: ancestors.
Linear time blinds us to our kinship that stretches beyond three dimensions. “It fails to take into account the interconnectedness of people through their ancestors and descendants,” writes Rebecca Walker. “It fails to see that from an [indigenous] perspective we are as bound to our ancestors as they are to theirs. What our ancestors did to their ancestors is played out today. What our generation does will be played out in the lives of our descendants.”
Just as Cooper became the ghost of his children, reaching from beyond space-time to offer his daughter the key to their future, our own ancestors reach out with the key to our own. As we falter under the weight of climate change, social breakdown, and possible extinction, they crafted their own mindbomb, articulated unbeknownst via Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest filmmakers of our time.
The Key To The Future
“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.” ― Cloud Atlas
Last year, I attended a screening of the animated classic The Last Unicorn – a surprising metaphor for the return of the Feminine in western culture. In the audience was the book’s author Peter S. Beagle, who spoke about the origins of the story. He revealed that he never intended to write about a unicorn, especially a female one. Until the late 1960’s, all unicorns throughout the ages had been male. “But something made me write, Her” he confessed.
Peter Behrens is a Canadian author who wrote the award-winning book “The Law of Dreams.” The harrowing story follows the young Fergus O’Brien, an Irishman who escapes the Great Famine by fleeing to Canada, an unflinching testament to the authors’ own origins and many settlers who arrived in North America. During an interview Peter revealed that he also planned on writing a different novel, except The Law of Dreams kept intervening.
Both authors admit to the mysterious muse that possessed their pens. In this same way, consider the possibility that scriptwriters Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan, may have been under the guiding influence of forces beyond this realm.
How would we know if it’s possible to transcend the dimensions of space and time? How would we know if those who came before proceeded as if the seeds of us were already present?
You know because you are here. Your ancestors loved you, arcing beyond space and time, before you walked this earth. And they continue to reach out to us, offering guidance toward our potential collective future.
Interstellar IS the inception.
We must break the spell of linear time.