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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Interstellar : A Journey Through Human Minds

Interstellar Poster

One of the criticism Interstellar faces resulting in being snubbed in awards ceremonies, is the lack of character development. Most science fiction have little room for character development which is justifiable given the nature of the plots, it would be difficult to incorporate elements of emotional states people go through in every day life while narrating a fast moving story based in a fictitious world where laws of science are bended to accommodate thrill. Yet, Nolan doesn't do such a bad job in Interstellar,since the story is one about mankind's bid for survival by leaving Earth for another habitable planet and theme is an epic space journey largely based on real science, the characters are archetypes rather than regular people. In absence of character development, Nolan bases his story on philosophy and bare emotions, both simple and deep as well as with all their complexities.

Spoiler Alert!

The basic premise of the movie is drawn from a philosophical/scientific argument on the risky consequence of unchecked progression of technological civilization. In the beginning we find that a massively diminished human population has turned into an agrarian society, shunning technology for the most part. The reason given is that shortage of food has led to a situation where NASA's trained pilot is forced to take up farming. From a philosophical perspective there could be another reason. Enrico Fermi proposed in response to the question why we haven't encountered any form of communication from extra-terrestrial civilization (in the famous Fermi Paradox) that one of reasons could that an intelligent civilization that has developed technology for space travel would also have developed the capability to self-destruct. This seems all the more true when we look at our history to find that we developed the atom bomb and nuclear arsenal for MAD (mutually assured destruction) before we landed on the moon. And I am not even looking at climate change scenario. For a world with hugely diminished human population and facing starvation ,the only way to avoid complete annihilation of the species would be to forsake industrial civilization and return to basic survival methods. It is not surprising that the school teachers talk about them being a caretaker generation and things getting better.

This is a rather cold rationalist perspective on survivalism which relies more on instinctual drives not sentiments that bind people into families and towards society, especially when it comes to making irrational sacrifices or perishing with stoic calmness. One of the earliest statements in the movie made by Professor Brand indicates the strong role that the doctrine of evolutionary survivalism has to play is:

Dr. Brand: Then get out there and save them. We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species. We must confront the reality of interstellar travel. 
I might mention here that ideologically, nothing is good or bad here, only points of views. As Amelia puts it in the start of the journey:

Amelia: You know out there, we would face great odds, Death but, not evil.
Cooper: You don't think nature can be evil?
Amelia: No,formidable, frightening. But, no, not evil. Is a lion evil because it rips a gazelle to shreds?
Cooper: Just what we take with us then?
Amelia: Yeah. This crew represents the best of humanity.
Cooper: Even me, huh?
Amelia: You know what? We agreed, 90%
This banter brings out the fact that the members of the Lazarus mission do not share a single ideology or priorities. Cooper makes the tongue-in-cheek remark rather self-deprecatingly because he seems quite selfish being concerned mostly about saving his kids. But it is just not that, Cooper comes across as a different kind of person than the rest of the crew even before he had stumbled into NASA secret base. From the very first scene, Cooper is shown as someone who dreams of stars but is still content with farming to take care of his children. He is concerned about the species but it doesn't mean as much to him without his kids.
Cooper: We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.
Yet, when given the chance to pilot the Endurance, he hesitates because he has kids to take care of and only agrees after learning that they wouldn't survive if they didn't find a new home soon. Throughout his extraordinary journey, Cooper never for a moment forgets that he has to return home. Dr Mann, while making a statement in a different context tells Cooper
Dr. Mann: Because he knew how hard it would be to get people to work together to save the species instead of themselves. Or their children.
Cooper: Bullshit.
Dr. Mann: You never would have come here unless you believed you were going to save them. Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier. We can care deeply - selflessly - about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.
I find Dr Mann's character fascinating,he seems absolutely convinced that the only way to save the species is overcome petty attachments and even be ready sacrifice one's own life to save the human species. But when put to test he realises the power that the instinct of self-preservation has over human will when he transmits fake data to get someone to rescue him. He probably realises that being with other humans is integral part of the human nature but still doesn't understand that the strength of human emotions over the abstract idea of saving the species. While the interpretation that Mann is egoistical and wants to take all the credit of saving humanity himself does have merit, given the fact that he knows his planet doesn't support life and are Cooper intends to take back Endurance to Earth thus unwittingly scuttling Plan B does give Mann a reason to try killing Cooper, at least from his perspective. (Here is the official comic book giving backstory of Dr. Mann's expedition)

The reason I am sympathetic towards Mann is that he raises a profound philosophical question. What makes us human ?
Dr. Mann: You  have  attachments, but even without a family, I promise you that, that yearning to be with other people is remarkable. That emotion is, at the foundation, of what makes us humans.
Yet despite pontificating on what it means to be human, he doesn't really understand how complex human emotions really are.  Emotional beings need not necessarily follow the diktats of evolution or as for that matter, always act rational. For instance, people like the school teachers,Donald and Tom are satisfied with the way things are. Donald and Tom ( who are likely aware of impending apocalypse) face the situation with stoic calm, they are the kind of people who would rather die attempting to grow food rather than seek shelter in underground bunkers. For farmers, Earth is mother, even when she is poisoning them.

But the real balancing act is done by Amelia who tries reconciling cold rationalism with human emotions. She is scientifically sound enough to suggest that Mann's planet has less chances of supporting human life because it lies to close to Gargantua :
Amelia: Accidents are the first building block of evolution, but when you're orbiting a black hole,not enough can happen, it sucks in asteroids, comets,other events which would otherwise reach you.
Yet, when Cooper accuses her of favoring Edmunds' planet because she is in love with him, makes the most profound statement of the movie
Cooper: You're a scientist, Brand.
Amelia : So listen to me when I say love isn't something that we invented. It's observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.
Cooper: Love has meaning, yes. Social utility, social bonding, child rearing...
Amelia : We love people who have died. Where's the social utility in that?
Cooper: None.
Amelia : Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it. All right Cooper. Yes, the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn't mean I'm wrong.
Cooper: Honestly, Amelia, it might. 
Amelia reveals herself to be far more complex and mature than her father and his protegee Dr. Mann, who are so convinced of their knowledge of how universe works that they are unwilling to even consider that there could be more than they know. The Lazarus mission's plan B intends to start a new colony of humans with on-board fertilized embryos in order to save the species but they aren't making slightest effort to save the human civilization. Humans aren't just biological organisms, those born on a different planet with the help of incubators and surrogacy and growing up oblivious to the way human life used to be on Earth, its vast heritage of  ideas, philosophies, arts and culture and science wouldn't really be a continuation of human civilization. Without the indescribable deep bonding or love between parents and their children, between siblings, friends and two individuals; without equally strong affiliations towards family,community,society and the civilization, such a colony can be a collection of the species but not continuation of human race. While Professor Brand living on Earth doesn't really understand this, Dr. Mann's bizarre behaviour indicates deep rooted conflicted within him between what he believes and what isolation for a decade on a barren planet  reveals to him about human nature. Yet, he is arrogant enough to disregard it and pays the price for it.



Cooper too is not a character without flaws, in the beginning he doesn't give much thought to finding a solution , his focus is more on piloting the spaceship and returning home. Amelia's argument about love being capable of transcending space and time, even if we don't know how it works, reminds Cooper  that deep down he his decision to pilot the Endurance has always been about his feeling to come up here, to fulfil his destiny even if he doesn't quite know how to do it.
Cooper: We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we've barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us. [source: IMDb ]
It is after Dr. Mann's disastrous docking attempt sends Endurance down towards Mann's planet  that Cooper starts to reflect the undauntable human spirit in him that seeks to overcome the impossible.
Brand: What are you doing?
Cooper: Docking.
CASE Endurance rotation sixty-seven, sixty-eight rotations per minute.
Cooper: Get ready to match it on the retro thrusters.
CASE: It’s not possible.
CooperNo. It's necessary.
Moments after the spectacular docking sequence, the Endurance starts getting pulled into the black hole. Cooper comes up with a plan to allow Gargantua to pull Endurance closer until the critical orbit and then make a powered slingshot launching towards Edmunds' planet using a lander and a ranger as rocket boosters. But after their fuel had been spent they needed to detached and as linkages had been broken the modules had to be controlled manually.  a lander and a ranger after their fuel had been spent acting as rocket boosters to lift Endurance out of the pull and send it towards Edmunds' planet. After TARS detaches in lander 1, much to Amelia's horror, Cooper detaches too and plunges towards the event horizon of Gargantua.

While detaching, Cooper tells Amelia that it is necessary to shed weight to allow Endurance to escape but TARS final remarks "see you on the other side, Coop" hints, Cooper may indeed be thinking he could work with TARS to relay the information the latter finds. It may be the same feeling that led him to space in the first place. Finally, in the tesseract, love triumphs over survival instinct. The fifth dimension beings, existing outside our four dimensional brane may have access to every event in time and possess capability to send message through gravity, they wouldn't know how to really communicate. Communication requires that information transmitted is understood which is nearly impossible if both the sides aren't aware of the context in which the information should be interpreted or decrypted. More importantly with the father-daughter bonding, the information Cooper sends couldn't have been seen as such and perhaps dismissed as anomalies.


It is a father's love for his daughter that partly motivates Cooper to plunge towards the black hole from which he is sucked into the artificial construct in the fifth dimension and from where TARS is able to gather quantum data after observing the singularity. Cooper's love for Murph is quantifiable, the matrix of cubes, each representing six different views of Murph's bedroom in every instance of time makes it possible for him to navigate specific instance of time to send message by exerting force on world-lines of specific objects such as books and hands in a watch to create gravitational waves that affect these objects. Similarly, Murph's love for his father transcends space and time. Her father has been gone for more than 25 years and if alive is thousands of millions of light years away, but she is still drawn to her bedroom where both of them started investigating the anomalies and where she believes she can find the answers. And she does. She finds the quantum data encoded in the seconds hand of the watch her father had given her and decodes the message to complete the gravity equation so that the space station is able to take off and mankind is saved from extinction.


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