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To reduce Interstellar to a single-line summary feels unfair, as the movie has had extensive reviews and commentary, even by us, but it is basically the story of a team heading into space to find a new world and way to save humanity from a dying Earth. Naturally, it’s much, much more, and there is great significance beyond that, but for the sake of this examination, and the understanding that if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen this movie and formed your our considerations about what it means. Just having to type that separates Nolan’s work from many others.
I want to discuss one genuinely important moment in Interstellar that has percolated in my mind a lot in the few years since first watching. (Naturally, a lot of this will be full of spoilers, so please, if you have not seen this film and don’t want to know even a few of the remarkable treasures found inside, then read ahead with caution.) Let’s talk about the emotional farewell between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). There is a lot going on here and superficially it is a father faced with leaving his family, probably forever, in hopes of saving not just them but the entirety of humankind. It’s also a child desperately trying to understand what that means. Under all of this is much more and we learn what that is in the final moments as Cooper comes to be inside a tesseract that is a three-dimensional configuration of a five-dimensional space designed so he can communicate through time and space using gravity. (No one ever accused Nolan of making it easy.) Amazingly though, understanding what it is, is not as important as why it is. This is the genius behind this moment, but one I’ll get to.
The first time we watch Cooper and Murph, she has figured out that a ‘ghost’ in her room, who has been leaving strange patterns in lines of dirt on her floor, is trying to message to her. It is a single word: Stay. This suddenly means everything to her as she tries to tell her father that it means he should not leave her. Of course he can’t, and even as skeptical as he is about the ghost and what it means, he is confident that his purpose is to go to space. Convincing a child of why that must be so is not possible and despite his pleas for her to not let him leave like this, he does and walks away, a book falling off the case as he does.
What comes next is a breathtaking cinema moment of such magnificent filmmaking, I sat in wonder as it happened, its sheer simplicity so beautiful, it genuinely moved me. Cooper, Murph, her older bother and Cooper’s father-in-law live on a vast cornfield in the waning days of a blight that is ravaging the food of Earth, turning much of the usable farmland into dustbowls. His crops are some of the last, and his large pick-up truck sits facing a dirt road cleaving a narrow gap through the tall stalks to the horizon. Saying goodbye to the others, he climbs in and speeds away in tears to his destiny, kicking up a cloud of dust as he disappears, not seeing Murph run out of the house to truly say goodbye.
This single sequence is extraordinary as one of the best transitions to space (or any other place) since Kubrick’s tossed femur bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Visually, it’s just Cooper riding away and we are meant to focus on the emotions, the grief all are feeling as this is surely the last time all will see each other. But what’s happening is much more and it tells us everything. Wisely doing away with another lengthy launch scene into space, something we’ve all watched many times in movies, Nolan instead uses the truck, the road, the dust, and the corn to represent that liftoff, signaling his departure from Earth and everything it represents behind. The layered countdown adds the punch. It’s a truly inspiring and creative bit of cinema.
Notice first how one camera shot is looking down the length of the truck back to the house. It is a near duplicate angle and scale of classic NASA footage of their Saturn V rocket launches in the early days of the space program. It jostles and shakes, as does Cooper in the front seat, essentially the cockpit, looking like an astronaut hurdling skyward. The thick cloud of dust behind swirls out like a plume of engine smoke broiling away from boosters as it fires toward the heavens. The straight line of the dirt road is the trajectory and the dark swatch of green on either side is the ebony of approaching space. Under it all, building with delicate care, is Hans Zimmer’s most ambitious score, crescendoing to a heart-aching wail that explodes with the actual rocket firing, taking Cooper to the stars.
So that’s the visual side of this pivotal moment, but let’s examine the story, which hinges a lot on Murph and Cooper’s parting. All we need to know about this touching bit in Murph’s bedroom is her belief in some ethereal power sending her a message with import and Cooper’s critical deciphering of the markings as a binary message. While at first, it seems Cooper it right, as the patterns lead him to the secret NASA complex where they are planning to send a crew through a newly formed wormhole and a potential home for humans.
The callback to the moment comes toward the end, when Cooper jettisons himself into a massive blackhole as a sacrifice to allow Amelia (Anne Hathaway), the last surviving member of their team to finish their quest, itself another powerfully emotional moment. Slipping past the event horizon, Cooper is kept alive by unknown forces and is now floating in the giant tesseract, a seemingly endless configuration and replication of Murph’s bedroom, each visible only from behind the bookshelf. It is here that Cooper realizes that his daughter was right, and in fact, he was her ghost all along. Able to move from room to room or rather time to time, he and TARS, the AI robot accompanying him, deduce that they’ve been brought here for this reason, and that it’s not Cooper who is humanity’s last hope for survival, but his daughter. Using morse code, he transmits quantum data learned on the mission to her watch’s second hand to help her solve the gravitational problems that will hold back the Earth launch.
What’s great about this return to Murph’s bedroom is how we see it now in two different lights. That message Murph deciphered was true: “Stay.” It was sent by her father in hopes to convince him not to leave her. We even see that it was him on the other side of the bookcase and that is was he who knocked down the book as his former self was leaving the room. We also see her as an adult, closing the circle on a comment that Cooper said to young Murph about the oddities of time and space and how maybe the next time they meet, they will be the same age, which is exactly true when she, as a grown woman is back looking at the bookshelf while being watched by her father, the same age he was when he left. While they don’t actually speak, and only Cooper knows what is really going on, he does communicate with her by the morse code.
So now we see how important it was that little Murph shut herself in her room, that she believe in the ghost rather than the patterns, and how that pressing feeling that she is right will bring her back to the same place years later with both science and faith in her father that something more is happening here. This moment is the very core of the film, crucial in establishing a bond from father to daughter, man to Earth. To let them live, one must leave them behind. It is a necessary sacrifice. And here’s the best part.
When Cooper holds little Murph, it is no coincidence how his arms, gold with the color of his coat, embrace around her like the single ring of Gargantua, the black hole. At the center of this massive celestial body with its golden arms is the tesseract, holding the very key to the fate of humanity. So to is Murph, held in the center of Cooper’s powerful grip, the key to saving humanity . . . and her father. It’s a remarkable symbolic link.