Interstellar-A Race Against Time

by Dr. Alvin Burstein

Interstellar is a corker of a film. The Director, Christopher Nolan, has assembled proven ingredients—a spunky young girl, Murph, an echo of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; a wise mentor, Professor Brand, reminiscent of Star Wars’ Obi Wan; a laconic (space) cowboy, Cooper, like his namesake in High Noon; and a computer, TARS, as programmable and likeable as Star Trek’s android Data. Nolan then adds a host of supporting characters, and puts them in a heart-pounding race against time. A race against time in more ways than one.

The movie opens in a not too distant future when the wonders of technology have sputtered out. The world, beset by environmental and ecological disasters, is a dust bowl. The financial resources for NASA have eroded badly and space exploration has ended. Food resources are drying up too, and the world is threatened with starvation. Cooper, a widowed astronaut whose vocation has become irrelevant, now lives a hard-scrabble farming life in a dusty, weather-beaten farmhouse along his father in law, and Coop’s two children, son Tom and the spunky daughter, Murph.

Murph tells Coop about a ghost in bookshelves of her bedroom that is scattering books, and drawing patterns in the dust on the floor of her room. Coop deciphers the markings as the coordinates of a nearby location where Murph and her father stumble into a secret NASA laboratory. Coop’s former mentor, Brand, is leading a last ditch effort to save the world from its death spiral by transporting humans to a new world in space. Brand’s plan A depends on his solving the puzzle of how to use gravity to propel earth’s doomed population to a new home in our galaxy; his plan B is to send an new expedition beyond our galaxy through a worm hole with embryos that can populate a planet there.

Brand persuades Coop, along with Brand’s brilliant, beautiful daughter, Amelia, to lead the plan B, assuring them that he will surely solve the gravity problem, saving the world’s current dwellers before the plan B expedition’s return. There are two races against time. The first is finding a home for earth dwellers before they starve to death. The second race is conditioned by the difference in time rates for earth time and for those on the space expedition. Can Coop, whose time is slow relative to earth time, keep a promise to return to his daughter Murph, aging at a rate much faster than her father’s in space?

Director Nolan treats us to a short course in physics, where we learn about the difference between dark holes in space and worm holes there, about the mystery of gravity, and about how relative time is. He hints that any other intelligent beings in the universe might be our human successors reaching back in time to us.

He also takes us on a psychological journey that highlights the power of love, driving Coop to persevere in efforts to keep his promise to his daughter. The film proposes love as a power that rivals gravity in its potency and mystery.

The movie documents, too, the agony that attends betrayals of trust by parental figures. Murph’s pain and bitter anger at what she perceives as her father’s willingness to sacrifice her to save humanity is re-iterated in Coop’s and Amelia’s shock when they discover that Brand had deliberately misled them. As Kohut’s self-psychology argues, such betrayals tear at the very structure of the self.

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Guest Columnist, Dr. Alvin Burstein, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and a former faculty member of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center with numerous scholarly works to his credit.

Despite the suspenseful catastrophes that propel the film and the psychological traumata that deepen it, there is something disappointing in its “happily ever after” ending, more fairy tale than myth. Amelia is successful at populating a new planet with the embryos. Murph helps to create a haven for current earthlings in our galaxy. Coop makes it home just in time to keep his promise to an aged Murph, and then journeys back into space to rejoin Amelia in that galaxy far away. Happy endings. A grimly realistic Freud would ask, “Are happy endings possible? Don’t we always hurt the ones we love? Are not love and loss necessarily bound together?”

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