Explaining the Ending of “Interstellar”

Interstellar ship

by Gabriel Valdez

If there’s one thing Interstellar does badly, it’s accessibility. You can slow things down and have characters explain each challenging scientific concept, or you can speed things up and just let the audience experience a film’s craziest moments in a more surreal manner.

Interstellar sometimes sits uncomfortably in the middle, so that if you haven’t watched countless hours of NOVA, read back issues of Scientific American, and written an entire script based around Lee Smolin’s fecund universe theory like some huge nerd (hi!) you might find yourself left a little in the dust. At the same time, there’s enough explanation left in the film that – like a rushed lesson – you fuzzily grasp at the basics while the plot moves on before you fully comprehend it all.

That said, I’ve been a bit disappointed in the critical community’s reaction to Interstellar. While critics have liked it, I’m frustrated that film experts have looked at something many don’t understand and, instead of criticizing Interstellar for rushing the explanations, they’ve simply said Interstellar is wrong or scientifically inaccurate. Because they’re experts in one thing (film), they don’t want to admit that they’re not experts in something else (astrophysics). They worry that lacking a reader’s trust in one area will influence the reader to distrust them in others. (That doesn’t put much faith in their readers.) They seem to forget that the first step to being an expert about anything is to say, “I don’t understand.”

There are plenty of things on which I’m not an expert. I am, at best, a talented layperson when it comes to astrophysics, but that’s enough to explain what Interstellar is doing.

OBVIOUSLY, THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR. YOU SHOULD REALLY SEE THE FILM BEFORE READING ON, BECAUSE IT IS A RARE AND INCREDIBLE FILM EXPERIENCE.

Interstellar space

Interstellar ends with our pilot, Cooper, falling into a black hole. He doesn’t die, however. Instead, he arrives in a complex built for him to see all of time at once in a fixed place – his daughter’s bedroom. It is built specifically for Cooper to be able to influence the time line of his daughter Murphy. He even says this out loud.

Critics have derided this as scientifically inaccurate because a black hole would tear your body apart before you got to any interior complex built inside of it. I hadn’t known critics were experts on building complexes inside of black holes that allow you to change time itself. Obviously, I’m not taking full advantage of the career.

It stands to reason that, if you can build such a complex specifically for Cooper to use, you can remember to flip the “Don’t tear Cooper apart on the way in” switch.

It’s said time and again in Interstellar that the wormhole is a tool sent from aliens. It turns out to be from future humans, but for the purposes of this next explanation, it doesn’t matter. Point is, it’s a tool. One criticism insists that the wormhole, like the black hole, would tear Cooper’s spaceship apart.

So the wormhole and black hole are both tools. If both are tools, then it’s safe to assume they’re user friendly. We don’t make hammers and screwdrivers that tear the user into shreds when he hits a nail or turns a screw. It stands to reason that if the black hole is a tool built for Cooper, and it’s on the other side of a wormhole, then the wormhole is a tool put there for Cooper, too.

If both the wormhole and black hole are tools designed to one day be used by Cooper, let’s assume they BOTH have “Don’t tear Cooper apart on the way in” switches. Future humans? Big on toggle settings.

Why build this time-hopping facility inside a black hole? Because, in astrophysics, black holes are the only things that are theoretically capable of inverting time and space. Supposedly, future humans might wander through time as they please, but Cooper’s a modern human. He still can’t – he needs a bit of help.

We see a black hole the same way an ant might see a car – as something that can’t be fully understood with the knowledge at hand. Ants get crushed if they get rolled over by the tire of a car. That doesn’t mean we humans don’t use the car as a tool to get somewhere, and if the ant climbs into the car and hitches a ride elsewhere, it doesn’t mean his journey is scientifically inaccurate.

The whole idea of the ending is that, if time is a dimension, causality can be designed. Just as Cooper floats through time to create the causalities that get him there – knocking books off his daughter’s shelf, writing coordinates in falling dust – the future humans create these tools (wormholes and black holes) as causalities intended for Cooper’s use.

In essence, future humans create causalities that allow Cooper to create causalities.

It’s a bit complicated, but if A leads to B leads to C, and time is as easy to walk through as your living room, then C can lead to B can lead to A without breaking a sweat.

Cooper doesn’t beat the universe with the power of love, as many critics have misunderstood. He is briefly given the tools to create new causes and effects in time itself. These tools are supplied him by a future human race.

Humans have taught dogs to drive cars in controlled situations (sorry about all the car metaphors). The car’s locked at 5 miles an hour in an empty parking lot and sometimes the human has to gesture for the dog to make a correction. Because it’s impossible for dogs to understand how the engine of a car works, however, does not mean the dog is driving that car with the power of love for his owner. They’re using their feet and specially designed pedals and why are we teaching dogs to drive cars again? But the point is, you have an animal using a tool that’s been adapted specifically for that animal to use in a controlled circumstance. That’s all the ending of Interstellar is.

Obviously, director Christopher Nolan wants this to be visually vibrant and metaphorically meaningful, so he doesn’t put Matthew McConaughey in an empty parking lot and have some magical future human energy being going, “No, left! Go left!” The sequence needs to be more intuitive than that, but when boiled down, that’s what’s happening.

The last complaint I’ll address is Cooper being transported back to our solar system at the end of it all. With everything else we’ve seen, I don’t think it’s a stretch that future humans might flip the “transport Cooper back because we’re not sadistic jerks” switch.

(The “transport TARS back because he’s awesome” switch was probably a given when future humans were blueprinting this. I bet it was the first idea they came up with. I can picture them in their future human conference room going, “TARS is going to be OK, right,” before anyone even introduced themselves.)

In brief, future humans build the wormhole and black hole specifically to draw Cooper there so that he can use the tools they’ve retrofitted for him to change his daughter’s time line so that she can save the human race so that there can be future humans who build a wormhole and black hole specifically for…causality, everyone. We might not understand causality that way yet, but dogs driving cars are probably going, “I am a pioneer bravely going into the unknown via the power of magic – look at me!”

Interstellar fits this all together very neatly. Many of the plot holes and scientific inaccuracies some critics complain about just aren’t there. It’s OK to not understand Interstellar fully, because that’s partly the movie’s fault. The blame for that absolutely lies with Nolan wanting to explain a little, but cutting a lot of it out for pacing. And sometimes composer Hans Zimmer couldn’t care less about you hearing the explanation because he’d rather you go deaf to his ridiculously awesome organ music.

There’s a difference, though, between not understanding fully because Interstellar doesn’t always explain things well, and pretending you understand everything perfectly and insisting it’s wrong. Criticize Interstellar for what it fails to do: explain. Don’t criticize it for what it actually does very right, very tightly, and far more bravely than most films would ever try.

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