There is a scene early on in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar where ex-NASA engineer and pilot Joseph Cooper must go to school and defend his daughter Murphy’s insistence that people once walked on the moon. In this story, set not too far in the future, a global crop blight has created a slow-rolling extinction-level event for humanity. Pretty much any enterprise not devoted toward food production is deemed unworthy. Space exploration is considered such a waste of time that revisionist textbooks even wrote off the moon landings as a distracting myth, nothing more. For a guy like Cooper, who remembers life before the blight, and who was part of the last effort to reach for the stars, this is more than a maddening denial of the truth. It is a betrayal of humanity’s own need to explore beyond our boundaries.
This is not the movie’s moment of truth, but it does establish why a guy like Cooper would ultimately choose to leave Earth behind—including his beloved children—on a last-ditch (and mot likely, one-way) mission to try to find a new planet humanity can colonize before it dies off. Cooper has no desire to leave his kids behind. But he knows he’s one of the few who can make this trip, and so he goes. He really has no choice. This is bigger than him. The truth is, however, that he would likely go on such a mission even if the fate of humanity didn’t depend on it because he is an explorer by nature. Only now, he can do so with a cleaner conscience…not that it will help him much, as we will see.
Joining several other scientists, including Amelia, the daughter of his old mentor, Dr. Brand, Cooper embarks on a trip across time and space as he jaunts through a wormhole and tries to follow up on a previous expedition where a dozen astronauts went through the same wormhole in search of potentially habitable exoplanets. None of them returned, but three found promising leads. Cooper’s ship carries 5,000 frozen human embryos to act as an ark; even if these astronauts die, perhaps humanity will live on. But first, Cooper and Amelia must check out the three leads before them.
The first planet is an uninhabitable waterworld so close to the wormhole that time there is severely distorted, to the tune of one hour there means seven Earth years pass back home. A catastrophic landing there costs Cooper 23 years back home, during which time his daughter grows up, gives up hope on ever seeing her father again, and begins working with Dr. Brand on developing a means of propulsion that will allow humanity’s colony ships to escape their dying world.
Cooper’s second landing is on a frozen world with an ammonia-laden atmosphere, home to Mann, the only astronaut from the original twelve who is still transmitting data. Mann is awakened from cryosleep and assures Cooper and his colleagues that this world can be colonized. As he takes Cooper far from the landing camp to show him more data, Mann turns on Cooper and tries to kill him. This world is also write-off, only Mann couldn’t accept his fate and falsified data in hopes of a rescue. He literally endangered the whole of humanity just to try to save his own life. As he attacks Cooper, we get this long shot of the two fighting on an alien glacier, and it sticks out that there are only five or so living things on this world and one of them is trying to kill the others. If that’s not humanity in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. And for me, that is the movie’s moment of truth, because for much of this film, we wonder if Cooper and Amelia’s mission will be a success, and whether or not Cooper and his rapidly aging daughter will somehow ever make contact with each other again. And yet, ringing in our ears is that schoolhouse scene where the teachers would rather believe a fiction they know to be untrue than to face the near-impossibility of their own survival. They, too, would rather endanger humanity than face the harsh truth. Is that really all humanity can do? Sabotage itself?
By the end of Interstellar, the conclusion of Cooper and Amelia’s mission rests entirely on their rejection of humanity’s baser instincts—such as Mann’s treachery. Their every setback has been because of fear of anger or selfishness. But only when they embrace their highest motivations, their love for each other, their love for a thing so much bigger than themselves that their individuality disappears before it…only then do they succeed. The mission before our heroes is to find a new planet to inhabit because the old one is ruined. But the real quest is to leave behind humanity’s talent for self-destruction. Because if all we do is traverse the galaxy only to bring our worst impulses along as baggage, we will not have gotten very far at all. And as we puzzle through the complexities of this story’s final act, we realize that the distance that matters most is the one between each other. And that bond recognizes neither space nor time.