Reflections on Interstellar
2. The ‘explorer’ type vs. the ‘family’ type
3. Survival of the human race
5. The collective being more important than the individual
6. Gravity as a ‘cross-dimensional’ link
7. Higher dimensional beings
b. As seen from a higher dimension
Themes – In Detail
1. Love – This theme is made apparent mainly through Cooper’s connection with his daughter but it also gets a conspicuous mention from Brand when she explicitly suggests that there is something ‘transcendent’ about it when she expresses her desire to travel to the planet the man she loves was sent to. In the higher dimensional background context of Interstellar it would seem that she was intimating that love is a ‘force’ of some kind rather than a mere emotion.
The same interpretation, ‘love-as-binding/connecting-force’ can be read (although quite tenuously) when Cooper connects with his daughter from within the tesseract.
Overall this theme wasn’t pushed strongly and remained completely undeveloped in the movie. This is just as well in my opinion. Nolan had much more work to do to convince us that love is something more than a merely human emotion.
2. The ‘explorer’ type vs. the ‘family’ type – Cooper represents the stereotypical ‘explorer’ always looking beyond the visible horizon and dreaming of what might be, sometimes at the expense of what actually is. The cost of this impulse going unchecked was made abundantly clear in the painful scenes when Cooper left his daughter, lost 23 years on the first planet, and futilely tried to warn his past self to S-T-A-Y.
His son was the conservative opposite to his father, never leaving the family home, raising a family of his own, and being completely content to keep with the familiar whatever happens. The cost of this attitude was made clear when he refused to leave his home even when his first child died and the second was dying from inhaling the ever-worsening dust.
Murphy represented the harmonious balance between the two, managing to become a pioneer while also successfully raising a family.
3. Survival of the human race – This was a central theme of the movie. The entire plot turned around the fact that Earth was failing and could no longer sustain humanity. Interestingly, the reason for this wasn’t given in the movie. There is no indication whether the crop failures were due to human interference or natural in origin.
4. Isolation – Nolan’s commentary on how important human contact is to us was made abundantly clear with Dr. Mann. Despite the fact that Mann was the ‘best of the best’, in the end he deliberately broadcast his signal knowing that his planet was uninhabitable and was even prepared to murder and sentence others to the same fate, all in order to get back to civilisation. His lofty ideal of saving the human race turned out to count for nothing in the fact of his desperate need for human contact.
In an odd, although de-emphasised, contradiction to this theme, Romilly survived happily by himself for 23 years in orbit around Gargantuan even though he admitted that he thought Cobb and Brand had died.
5. The collective being more important than the individual – This theme was emphasised several times throughout the movie. The whole point of plan B was to ensure the survival of the human species even though everybody (all the individuals) on Earth would die.
The eventual revelation that Professor Brand knew all along that plan A was impossible but nevertheless elected to lie to everyone and sentence the crew of the Endurance to permanent exile, in effect choosing the survival of the species over basic morality, was a strong commentary on this subject. Professor Brand was the central motif for the message that the collective is more important than the individual.
In the end, Cooper sacrificing his life so that Brand might survive to carry her precious payload to the only hospitable planet reinforced this theme.
The importance of their mission (preserving the human race) was also emphasised when Cooper expressed a desire to go home and see his children. The other members of the Endurance reminded him of the duty that was weighing on their shoulders and how it was more important than any of their individual desires.
6. Gravity as a ‘cross-dimensional’ link – The ability of gravity to act across dimensions was what allowed Cooper to communicate back in time with his daughter from within the higher dimensional world of the tesseract. This was a neat feature of the movie and echoes some thoughts in serious scientific circles. It is a long-standing mystery why gravity is so much weaker than the other 3 fundamental forces in the universe. One possible explanation is that gravity is ‘split’ in some way across different dimensions. The other dimensions (six according to one branch of string theory) would contain stronger gravity than our four dimensional universe does. Although the article I read didn’t go as far as to suggest gravity could be used to communicate across these two universes, it is at least a possibility.
It was a particularly clever device for another reason too; I doubt that a higher dimensional being would be able to directly interfere with events that take place in our dimension. Imagine a 2-D world populated by 2-D beings. Their world (and the beings themselves) is completely flat, being comprised of only length and breadth. Now we, from our third dimensional vantage point, can look onto their world and see everything happening just the same way we can see everything happening on a drawing. Their rooms have walls they cannot see through (2-D lines) but we can see directly into them (‘through’ the third dimension). You might imagine that we would be able to communicate with a 2-D being by drawing a picture on their universe (a flat plane to us), but this is wrong. In order to draw a picture, the pencil we use has to deposit a layer of lead (albeit a thin one) on the flat plane of their universe. This layer is then, by necessity, raised in the third dimension. A 2-D dimensional being would never see it. If a 2-D universe was spread out on the ground and we walked directly on top of a 2-D being, she wouldn’t notice anything because we are walking on their universe, not in it. It seems that direct communication across dimensions is truly impossible… which is why using gravity as the medium was such a good idea.
7. Higher dimensional beings – This was another interesting and thought-provoking theme in Interstellar. The beings (“They”, as they were called throughout most of the movie) turn out to be human beings who have ‘evolved’ beyond our four dimensions. The wormhole that “they” created manifested in our universe as a sphere, not as a ‘hole’ and this was a nice touch. A 4 (spatial) dimensional wormhole would appear in our universe as a 3-dimensional sphere, not as a 2-dimensional hole.
Brand’s “handshake” with the higher dimensional beings was also nicely done. If a higher dimensional being appeared in our universe, we wouldn’t be able to see it in any way that would make sense to our 3 (spatial) dimensional brains. We would see just what Nolan depicted, an amorphous, constantly changing, 3-dimensional ‘blob’.
When Cooper was in the tesseract (a 4-dimensional cube), he gave a reason why “they” couldn’t manipulate things in Murphy’s bedroom but I can’t remember what he said. I need to update this later.
8. Time (a) Relativity – This was another nice touch. The effects of relativity appeared when Cooper and Brand went down onto the first planet. Because the planet was so close to the immensely massive black hole, ‘Gargantua’, time (and space) was warped. The more massive the object the more time (and space) is warped around it. The result of this warping of time is that time passes slower near that object than further away from it. I’m not sure that the warping of time would be as dramatic as it was (approximately one hour on the planet’s surface turned out to be 23 Earth years), but the central idea was at least on well-tested ground.
Time (b) As seen from a higher dimension – This was probably the most interesting plot feature in Interstellar. Early on, Brand commented that a higher dimensional being might be able to see time as easily as we can see length and height. The inference she made from this is that travelling in time for such a being might be as simple as it is for us to go up and down a hill.
From within the tesseract, Cooper was able to ‘travel’ to every moment in Murphy’s bedroom (although he couldn’t communicate with her directly). He saw each moment as a short video clip and was able to visit earlier or later moments by moving through the tesseract.
This was the most intriguing element in the movie but also the one most fraught with potential problems. I will discuss these problems in the next section.
Problematic Plot Elements
1. Time as viewed from a higher dimension
2. The signal from the transponder on the first planet broadcasting constantly back to Earth
3. Cooper surviving the descent into a black hole
4. TARS recording all the ‘quantum data’ as it fell into the black hole (and surviving)
5. Cooper encoding the ‘quantum data’ into the second hand of the watch in the form of Morse code
6. Cooper gaining access to time from the perspective of a higher dimensional being
7. Cooper surviving and making it back to Saturn
Problematic Plot Elements – (in detail)
1. Time from a higher dimension – as with almost every time travel movie ever made, Nolan took advantage of a temporal paradox in which the protagonist travels back through time and gives his past self information that leads to him/her being able to travel back to the past from some future point. The paradox appears when we ask how the protagonist could have received the information from his future self when he needed that information in order to be in a position to send the information back from the future in the first place. In Interstellar, this paradox appears in the following way; how did Cooper get to the hidden NASA base and join the mission? He got the coordinates from his future self. But how did he send the information back to his past self? He went to the NASA base and joined the mission. Which happened first? Both events had to have happened at the same time. Time travel movies usually have the protagonist travel through time but Nolan introduced a novel element in having his protagonist access our ‘time’ from a higher dimension.
Let’s analyse this theme. What’s wrong with the picture Nolan paints?
First, I doubt different events in our universe would appear to a higher dimensional being as if they were watching a video. From a higher dimension, (if they would even be able to see them at all; it isn’t perfectly clear that they would) our events would have to appear as a static sequence of ‘photos’, not a moving video. If they are looking ‘in’ from a place ‘outside’ our temporal dimension, then they would not perceive time ‘flowing’ the same way we do. Indeed, Nolan’s depiction has the higher dimensional being (HDB) (or Cooper from inside the tesseract) able to view any event in time, both past and future, which means that every event has already happened and therefore the events would not be ‘flowing’ in any temporal sequence. Furthermore, if they appeared as a moving video, how long would each segment be? Would the scene just keep looping forever? Why would it be that length and not some other length? (This question can also be asked of the photos but I think we might get away with this because it is quite possible that time is discrete and not continuous, hence, the ‘quantum’ nature of reality, i.e. reality is broken up into discrete packets of data, it is not a continuous stream)
Second, we have to consider what would happen if an HDB were to change something in one of those photos. Let’s say the HDB made dust fall in a strange pattern (because she can influence gravity). Would every other ‘photo’ then change instantly to reflect this initial change? If HDB 1 were to change photo 1 in some way, would an HDB 2 (continuously looking at photo 10) see his photo change at exactly the same time as an HDB 3 sees her photo change at position 1,000, or would there be a ripple of change we could watch from the higher dimension? An even more fundamental problem though is exactly how this change could ‘flow’ down the temporal line if there is no actual ‘flow’ of time (viewed from a higher dimension everything is supposed to have ‘already’ happened). What mechanism connects the individual scenes (which I have already stated I think would have to be static) together which could allow a change in picture 1 to affect picture 2, and so on?
Third, if an HDB could look in on our dimension and see each moment of time (past and future) that means that our lives are 100% pre-determined. (This is something that its eminently plausible but a) it would pose problems for those who want to maintain some degree of freewill and b) determinism is not the same as saying that our futures have already been completed.)
Fourth, the paradox I outlined at the beginning of this section is a problem. If Cooper hadn’t gone into space and sent the co-ordinates back to himself he would never have found the base and gone into space. And if he hadn’t gone into space, he would never have been able to send the coordinates back to his earlier self. This is quite simply impossible. The only way to escape this paradox is to claim that it only seems to be a paradox when viewed from our human perspective, trapped in time. If everything happens in a higher dimensional ‘present’ then ‘time’ as we view it is an illusion. Trying to think of which event could have happened ‘first’ (Cooper going into space or Cooper getting the coordinates) is doomed to failure because neither happened ‘first’, they both happened together.
Initial thoughts on what it might actually be like to look on our universe from a higher temporal dimension (assuming such a thing is even possible):
We would have to be clear to separate the three spatial and the one temporal dimension from each other. Yes, they make a unified whole (space-time) in physics but we still live in a universe comprised of three spatial dimensions and one temporal one. When considering higher dimensions, the spatial/temporal difference may be significant.
So space in our universe is comprised of three dimensions; length, breadth, and height. What is the equivalent dimension in time? We tend not to ask ourselves this question but time is not a dimension, just as space isn’t. I propose that our temporal dimension is duration.
Now we can’t visualise higher dimensions but we can visualise lower dimensions and so gain some kind of perspective on them through that. We can see how an imaginary, two spatially dimensional ‘Flatland’ can be extended to a three dimensional universe (ours) although a Flatland dweller would never be able to conceive of a mysterious dimension called ‘height’, so we can relatively easily understand how a fourth spatial dimension might lay ‘adjacent’ to our three. We can even predict what a fourth dimensional being would be able to do that we would consider impossible. In the same way that we could see inside a locked two-dimensional room or look into the bodies of two dimensional beings, a fourth dimensional being would be able to see inside all of our enclosed three dimensional shapes.
In theory then, a second temporal dimension could exist outside our single temporal dimension but the challenge is determining what the temporal equivalents are with going higher in spatial dimensions. What would the perspective of an HDB be like from a dimension, duration+?
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to make as much progress temporally as we can spatially because in our universe we have a spatial advantage. We live in three spatial dimensions, which means we can easily imagine life for two dimensional beings and understand what advantages there are for three dimensional beings (us). We can then extrapolate into the fourth spatial dimension which even though we can’t visualise, we can draw some conclusions about by simply applying the insights we learned imagining the differences between two and three dimensional beings. We can’t apply this same technique regarding time because we live in a universe that has only one temporal dimension. We are effectively blind when we try to imagine life for a being a temporal dimension above us. Nevertheless, we can say something about it…
Intuitively, it seems to me that an HDB wouldn’t in fact be able to see different moments in our past (or future) at will. A fourth spatial dimensional being can’t see all ‘places’, it just has access to one geographical (spatial) locale in our three (spatial) dimensional universe from a different (higher) perspective meaning that, even though it sees that locale more fully ‘revealed’, in more ‘depth’, as it were (seeing inside locked rooms, etc.). The parallel case with a higher temporal dimension results in the HDB not being able to see all ‘times’, rather, it sees one moment (time) in our single (temporal) dimensional universe from a different (higher) perspective, meaning that it sees that moment more fully ‘revealed’, or in more ‘depth’. Our challenge is to discern what ‘in more depth’ means. The problem is that it is quite probably categorically impossible for us to imagine this with our one (temporal) dimensional brains and we can’t make analogies with lower temporal dimensions (like we can with space) because we are on the lowest rung of that ladder. All we can postulate is that there might be a second temporal dimension (duration+) which extends in some way we can’t imagine adjacent to duration and an HDB can see that, whatever information it may contain.
There is one more thing I can think of to say about this additional dimension, duration+, and it comes from thinking how we experience duration. Duration essentially boils down to change. What I’m getting at here is that it is possible to think of time as nothing more than change. A situation in which everything stopped changing would be identical to a situation in which time stopped ‘flowing’. It is therefore, at least possible that the two are the same. If this is true then it gives some (admittedly vague) hints about what a higher dimension, duration+, might look like. Maybe it would involve perceiving change, as it happens for us, ‘in more depth’ or possibly gaining some insight into causality which is obviously closely related to change.
2. The transponder signal – The problem with this is that according to Brand, the transponder on the first planet (the one near Gargantua) had been continuously broadcasting its signal since the party landed, but because of the time-warping effects of the black hole approximately 23 years passed for Earth while less than an hour passed on the surface of the planet. This means that even if the initial landing team to the first planet set up their transponder as soon as they touched down, the initial signal wouldn’t have been received for years.
3. Cooper falling into the black hole – According to current understanding, there is no way anyone (or anything) could survive falling into a black hole.
4. TARS recording the ‘quantum data’ – The information collected by TARS, ambiguously called “quantum data”, seems highly dubious. No information is given as to what this “data” actually was or how TARS would have been able to obtain it. And although it is true that the laws of physics as we know them break down at the tremendous forces exerted in a black hole (so in theory, we could be able to learn something if we were able to send probes down them) it is virtually impossible that any volume of data obtained would result in the miraculous solution of the mathematical problem that made it possible for humans to leave Earth en masse.
5. Cooper encoding the ‘quantum data’ into the watch – It seems to be a bit of a stretch how Cooper would have ever been able to encode, what must have been vast amounts of raw data, all into Morse code so as to impart it to his daughter. But there is an even bigger problem here, how could Cooper affect the second hand of the watch from the tesseract? The entire premise of the movie was that gravity is the only link across dimensions. But the movement of a watch’s second hand isn’t controlled by gravity. From the higher dimension Cooper shouldn’t have been able to affect it.
6. Cooper seeing as a higher dimensional being – From within the tesseract, Cooper was somehow able to see our temporal dimension the way an HDB would, but this should be impossible. Even if I lifted a two dimensional being off Flatland and tried to get him to see his land the way I see it, he would never be able to because his mind is literally incapable of perceiving in three dimensions. Even if I turned him on his side (so he was perpendicular to Flatland and his eye was looking directly at it) he would only be able to see two dimensional ‘slices’. As far as I can see, it would be physically impossible for an n-dimensional being to perceive n+1 dimensional space.
7. Cooper surviving – All of the preceding problems are forgivable, Nolan is, after all, telling a fictional, sci-fi story that, by nature of the genre, requires a certain amount of belief suspension. One aspect that was profoundly disappointing though was Cooper’s ultimate survival and return to the space around Saturn (presumably by the higher dimensional beings). After delivering a reasonably consistent storyline that stayed close enough to science and reality to be believable, to then have the protagonist suddenly emerge from a five-dimensional cube (the tesseract), out of a black hole, and back through the wormhole to Saturn, was just too much. This is called Deus ex machina and refers to the solution of a seemingly insoluble problem by the contrived intervention of some new character or object. Cooper elected to make the sacrifice for Brand (and the future of humanity) and that was a heroic moment – why take that away from him? Why take that away from the movie? After all the trials and drama everyone went through, after all the obstacles were overcome at such personal loss and grief to the people involved, to then have such a weak resolution at the end was very disappointing. Look at what humanity is capable of, look at the problems we can and do face, see how we tackle and beat them… and then a higher dimensional being wanders on stage, yanks Cooper out of a black hole and deposits him next to Saturn. Well, why didn’t the HDB just do everything for us in the first place?