Interstellar was a beautiful, meaningful, and philosophically brilliant movie. That is how I feel after four full viewings, so I was a little crestfallen when my friend watched it with me and disliked it. We had a good text conversation about how we interpreted it, and agreed that we had different expectations in the beginning that made it more difficult for him and easier for me to accept the unrealistic stretches scattered throughout the nearly 3-hour plot. For me, I expected unapologetic science fiction and was prepared to suspend my disbelief. For him, he was unsure if the movie wanted us to take these ideas seriously as an actual potential path for humanity's future, which made the more outlandish parts that much more discordant.
Our discussion led me to some new insights on Interstellar and a particularly deep revelation that only became clear to me on the fourth viewing, so I wanted to record and share those here. At this point, I'm fairly sure Interstellar is going to be on my top 10 movie list for a long time.
First theme: Binary Breakdown.
I feel like the binary theme was the most overlooked part because it was a significant plot organizer. If you don’t know what I mean, the most obvious instance was Murphy decoding the binary gravity signals in her bedroom, which also was when TARS was transmitting the information to Cooper in binary while they were in the black hole. There was also the binary of Plan A and Plan B, which seemed to be polar opposites of each other in their morality (everyone lives, or everyone dies but a new generation lives). Then there was the binary physics question of the black hole: entering it would give them the information they needed, but having entered it meant that information couldn't be passed back to Earth.
In all of those instances, the binary actually ended up breaking down into a new synthesis. Murphy deciphered the gravity signals into a complex theory of physics. Plan A and Plan B both ended up occurring with the new space stations where humanity migrated to as Cooper saw after he was rescued, and Dr. Brand setting up a new colony in the other galaxy. Cooper entered the black hole and simultaneously witnessed/took part in the information that was needed to solve the gravity equation. Cooper no longer needed to leave the black hole in order to pass on this information - he was able to do it from within. This binary breakdown also involved Cooper himself because an intelligent being was required to harness the five-dimensional construct to communicate the information to Earth - thus Cooper himself was part of the ultimate binary breakdown (what's more immutable in the universe than the interior of a black hole?)
Second theme: Odyssey Done Better.
The next big thing for me with this movie is a kind of small thing. I feel they took what were the most memorable flops of 2001: A Space Odyssey and made them succeed. That movie is to my parents' generation what Interstellar is to mine: an unabashedly visionary portrayal of humanity as a space-based civilization. One of the most visually poignant scenes you’ll remember from Interstellar was the long pan of Saturn with a tiny white dot moving across its shadow - the Endurance. It was like the slow pullback of the ship in Odyssey, but that was so deathly boring because it was just the ship - you understood that it was isolated in space but you got tired of staring at its rivets. Interstellar got those moments right by including more (the scale of Saturn versus the ship). A close second in my opinion was the docking while both ships were spinning. I don’t think there’s been more tension involved in seeing two metal rings meet.
Third theme (not really a theme): Information Spheres
Another science fiction piece I loved was a rather obscure nod the writers/visual designers made to a little-known theory about black holes. The theory posits that black holes contain nothing because they in fact occupy no space. If space-time breaks down inside, then how can they occupy any of our space? So this leads to the paradox that information does disappear into a black hole, we know that from empirical observation… so where is the information going if it doesn’t occupy any space? One can lazily answer this with "other dimensions," but this paradox is resolved more consistently with our known reality by positing that a black hole is actually a sphere of information.
Imagine taking a book and ripping out each page and laying them edge to edge in a sphere. You can kind of recognize it’s a book, but it’s hardly readable. That’s what a black hole does - it stretches out information as it approaches the event horizon - but rather than stretching it in a line with one end closer to the black hole and the other closer to us observers, the information stretches across the surface of the black hole. It can't go any further because there is nothing beyond the surface - remember that the black hole occupies none of our space. The information gets stretched so far by the infinite gravitational force that it covers the surface of the black hole uniformly, and gets mixed up with all the other information that hits the black hole. This is more akin to taking all the ink out of the book's pages and mixing it together then pouring it over a sphere. The information is so far distorted that we can’t understand it at our current level, but theoretically one day we would have enough resources to decode the radiation given off by black holes to reassemble into the original information.
The writers basically took that theory and made it hilariously literal yet fairly poignant by putting an infinite bookshelf inside the black hole. To me, that's the geekiest punchline of 2014.
Finally, the notorious idea that love is a quantifiable force that passes through time as its own dimension. This probably was the most divisive idea in Interstellar and led many to discredit the movie completely. As an aside, I don't think that's a fair stance to take. A ridiculous idea can exist perfectly well alongside a great idea, and we need to accept that especially in science fiction movies. Those types of movies almost never become popular unless they include something so fantastical it captures our emotional imagination, allowing us to get the cooler and more realistic science bits as well. For my part, I'm prepared to forgive that.
Love as a quantifiable force in the universe is most most most likely not true in our universe, but in Interstellar I think it was crucial to making everything in the plot matter. As long as we could accept that love was a product of a higher dimension exerting influence on our space, this factor allowed the time paradox in Interstellar to unfold fully. Some trippy thoughts follow this sentence; be ready.
Cooper was able to leave because he instinctively knew love for his kids would bring him back somehow. Murphy couldn’t understand that yet, and stayed angry about it for many years. Even so, she still eventually figured it out when she went back to the bedroom with the bookshelf. I believe that scene was a very telling clue toward a deeper plot point. Remember that Cooper said Murphy was named after the titular law, but not in a bad way - just that whatever can happen will happen? That refers to the impossible idea of love being a dimension-crossing force much like gravity, which Dr. Brand also started to express during her admission of her love for Edmunds. Keep that in mind, and then remember that Cooper figured out at the end that the bulk beings were in fact humans who had evolved later to reach back through time by communicating through gravitational forces. But how did the bulk beings initially achieve this isn't really answered, and one might think it was simply left unanswered. However, I believe the answer was staring at us when Cooper and Brand (to a lesser extent) realized that love functions like gravity, attracting things to each other.
How does love do as much as electricity? Two people loving each other is great but it doesn’t do much for a generator. Cooper answered this when TARS said it was impossible the bulk beings were humans who did this. Cooper said, “Not you or I. A people.” Humans had unified completely beyond our comprehension in the far future, and this civilization achieved a new form of love that was so unified and concentrated that it could act as a gravitational force exerting influence through time. But what did they love? Humanity itself - young humanity. They were remembering their past, which allowed them to create the wormhole and the tesseract in the black hole - both those things were tied to early humanity. This might not even have been a conscious decision as the bulk beings may have been so vast that the wormhole and tesseract were the unnoticed byproducts of a moment of nostalgia. This might lend less significance to Dr. Brand's belief that "they're looking out for us."
Finally, recall the infinite bookshelf Cooper used to send gravity signals back through time to Murphy. Recall… that infinite bookshelf was infinite. Meaning it went back in time as far back as its very first minute of being built in that house. Meaning Murphy hadn’t been born yet. Meaning Cooper and his wife were exposed to future-Cooper’s presence in the bookshelf (not directly, but he was somewhere in their timeline, as he may well have passed by the early bookshelf while looking for the right moment to communicate with Murphy). It takes a little jump to think that maybe future-Cooper's presence somehow planted the idea in past-Cooper to name his daughter Murphy once future-Cooper had realized that whatever could happen DID happen. Love became a part of physics itself.
Murphy grew up with the idea of whatever can happen will happen and was able to open her mind enough to figure out the gravity equation, saving humanity. Time loop created and self-fulfilled. Mic drop.