There’s no doubt about it: Interstellar was one of the most mentally-stimulating blockbusters of the 2010s. As such, a lot of people were confused about the Interstellar plot, high-concept science, and bold ending. It’s time for Interstellar explained – a deep-dive in which we answer some of the biggest questions audiences asked about the film. By the end, you’ll know the plot and meaning like the back of your hand; you might even say we’ll have an “interstellar explanation” for the fourth dimension.
Interstellar Ending Explained & Beat Sheet Breakdown
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Interstellar plot and summary
Interstellar is a 2014 movie that was directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. The film received four Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing – and the VFX (Visual Effects) were so well regarded that they won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Although Interstellar received good-not-great reviews upon release, it’s since garnered more acclaim and it frequently places on lists of the best sci-fi movies ever made.
Interstellar is about Earth’s last chance to find a habitable planet before a lack of resources causes the human race to go extinct. The film’s protagonist is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot who is tasked with leading a mission through a wormhole to find a habitable planet in another galaxy.
Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) explains to Cooper that NASA previously sent another group (Lazarus) to find a habitable planet but they’ve gone silent.
There are two plans in the Interstellar plot:
- Plan A involves Cooper transmitting quantum data back to Earth in order to develop a gravitational propulsion theory that will allow spacecrafts to carry people off Earth into the other galaxy.
- Plan B involves Cooper’s crew finding the remaining Lazarus crew and establishing a colony on another world.
Interstellar Summary & Setting
When is Interstellar set?
We don’t know for certain when Interstellar is set, but the script implies that it takes place in the not-so-distant future. We imported the Interstellar script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a closer look at the film’s setting. This scene takes place near the beginning of the story and gives us a good hint at how many years in the future Interstellar is set.
We can infer by way of deductive reasoning that Interstellar takes place about 40-70 years into the future. How? Well, we know that Major League Baseball was still played when Donald was a kid. And we know that when Cooper was a kid, things were in such a state of disarray that no baseball was played.
So, if we assume that Cooper is about 40, and that things fell apart sometime before he was born, but not so far before that Donald didn’t live through a period of normalcy, then we can deduce that Interstellar is set between the ages of Donald and Cooper — roughly 40-70 years from “modern time” of 2014.
Water Planet - Interstellar Explained
What happens on the water planet?
The Endurance crew decides to scout out Miller’s planet because it was the one that had most recently transmitted data to them. But since the planet is so close to the black hole, time is extremely dilated — every hour on the water planet is equivalent to seven years on Earth.
Cooper, Brand (Anne Hathaway), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) land on the surface and attempt to locate Miller’s transponder. But just as Brand finds the device, a massive wave rolls in, forcing the crew to flee to the courier ship. Doyle dies but Cooper and Brand narrowly escape — and Brand realizes that Miller must’ve died seconds before they arrived because of the severe time dilation.
Cooper’s Family - Interstellar Explained
What happens to Cooper’s family?
Cooper leaves his family – daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain), son Tom (Timothee Chalamet/Casey Affleck) and father in-law Donald (John Lithgow) – on Earth in order to lead the NASA mission. In his absence, his family develops a contentious relationship; but we don’t learn about it until Cooper does, 23 years into the future while watching old transmissions.
Murph and Tom become foil characters, aka characters who serve to expose attributes in each other. Murph becomes a NASA researcher who desperately wants to solve the gravitational theory to save the people on Earth while Tom takes over the family farm and largely rejects science and the reality of his situation. Their two opposing worldviews work against each other and expose negative and positive aspects of their character.
Mann’s Planet - Interstellar Explained
Where did Matt Damon come from?
Matt Damon plays the role of Dr. Mann, the captain of the Lazarus mission. After the failure of the water planet mission, Cooper is left with a difficult choice – go to Dr. Edmunds’ planet or Dr. Mann’s planet.
Let’s go back to the script to read through one of the best scenes – the one in which Cooper has to make the right decision in order to have any hope of executing the mission.
Cooper chooses Mann’s planet, taking the Endurance on a one-way trip to Matt Damon Town. When the crew arrives, they find Mann in cryosleep. It’s pretty much clear from the get-go that something is wrong with Mann – although considering the fact that he’s been in solitude/cryosleep for years, it’s not hard to see why.
But Mann has more than just a case of cabin fever, he’s full-blown bent on finishing the mission, no matter the cost.
Plan A was a sham
Back on Earth, Dr. Brand reveals to Murph that Plan A was always a sham and there’s no way the people of Earth could ever escape.
Murph transmits a message to Cooper accusing him of knowing Plan A wasn’t possible, effectively leaving her to die. Cooper tells Mann, Brand and Romilly that he’s going to return to Earth to be with his children and the rest of them can stay on Mann’s planet to start a colony.
But Mann’s planet isn’t hospitable – and he needs the ship to go to Edmunds’ planet. In this scene, Nolan intercuts between Cooper’s confrontation with Mann and Murph’s confrontation with Tom.
Murph burns all of the crops in order to make Tom understand he needs to leave the farm. Romilly is killed by a trap mine. Brand and Cooper barely escape back to the Endurance.
What happens in the docking scene?Brand and Cooper escape but they leave Mann behind. Mann foolishly attempts to dock in the Endurance; as a result his courier ship blows up and destroys key functions of the Endurance.
I love Interstellar but, boy oh boy, we’ve got a cringe-worthy exchange of dialogue here:
TARS: Cooper, it’s not possible.
COOPER: No, it’s necessary.
Not great – but it’s hard to pick holes in a script as sharp as Interstellar. After some impressive piloting, Cooper successfully docks his courier ship in the Endurance.
What is the Interstellar black hole?
The Interstellar black hole is called “Gargantua” due to its gargantuan size. For more on how Nolan and the team made Gargantua with CGI (computer generated imagery), check out this awesome video.
When Interstellar was released in 2014, there were no recorded images of a black hole. But in 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope took the first images of a black hole. This is what the central black hole of Messier 87 (a galaxy in the Virgo cluster) looks like.
As it turns out, the scientists and visual artists who worked on Interstellar were pretty close with the design of the black hole. But what is a black hole? To answer that question, we have to first answer the question: what is a wormhole? And to answer that, let’s watch a great analogical scene from the film.
A common misconception is that black holes and wormholes are the same thing. But as Romilly (David Gyasi) explains, wormholes are like funnels that connect two distant points in spacetime. Hypothetically, objects could safely travel through a wormhole – but consequently, black holes are areas of spacetime that have such strong gravity that nothing can escape.
Note: I am not a PhD physicist and most of the astronomical science in Interstellar is theoretical.
Breaking Down the Interstellar Black Hole
Interstellar black hole explained
I think the Interstellar black hole scene is where a lot of people got lost. Up until that point, everything made a good amount of sense:
- Wormholes allow people to travel long distances through spacetime
- Differences in gravity and relative velocity cause time dilation
- Planets need key life-sustaining elements to be hospitable
But the Interstellar black hole scene is where Nolan dove deep into theory – and there’s no way to tell whether he was “right” or “wrong” because we have no idea what exists beyond the event horizon.
The event horizon, as it relates to Einstein’s theory of relativity, is the point in a black hole where nothing can escape nor be observed.
So, for Interstellar, Nolan said, “Let’s send Cooper beyond the event horizon and see what happens.” Let’s look to the film to see what happened — it's abstract and minimalist but a truly thrilling sequence.
Many theoretical physicists believe that the event horizon serves as a barrier to the unknown physics of a black hole’s singularity. It could be compressed spacetime, antimatter, etc. In the case of Interstellar, the singularity is a portal to the fourth dimension. But what is the fourth dimension? Let’s listen to Carl Sagan explain.
So if we’re really trapped inside of a fourth dimension, how can we escape? Well, perhaps the answer exists beyond the event horizon.
Interstellar Movie Explained
Interstellar ending explained
How does Interstellar end? In order to save Brand, Cooper slingshots around Gargantua to generate enough energy to send the Endurance to Edmunds’ planet. As a result, he slips into the black hole and beyond the event horizon. There, he finds himself trapped in the fourth dimension – a tesseract styled as a never-ending bookshelf.
But Cooper realizes that he’s able to interact with Murph through spacetime. He asks TARS to relay the quantum data to him, which he communicates through morse code. Murph picks up on the morse code because she was fascinated by the gravitational anomalies in their house ever since she was a kid.
Turns out, those anomalies were caused by Cooper interacting through another dimension – sending himself on a mission to get the quantum data. Don’t just take my word for it – for more on the Interstellar ending explained, let’s listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The questions raised in this scene aren’t just plot-filler, they’re some of the most profound questions in the universe – epistemological themes, or stances taken on how we understand the world are hallmarks of Christopher Nolan’s directing style.
Interstellar Movie Explained (Continued)
Interstellar ending explained: part II
After Cooper successfully communicates the quantum data to Murph, he’s kicked out of the tesseract. Some time later, he wakes up on “Cooper Station” – a space station that’s orbiting Saturn. There he finds Murph on her deathbed; having saved humanity from extinction with the quantum data. Let’s read through their final conversation together.
The Interstellar meaning lies somewhere between astronomical science and intimate human connection. It’s simultaneously a story about traversing the stars and fighting for what you love. For many critics, it’s this dual-narrative structure that makes the story so good – even if it can be a little scientifically vague and cheesy.
What is Tenet About?
Interstellar isn’t the only Christopher Nolan movie that left audiences scratching their heads. His 2020 film Tenet is just as, if not more confounding than Interstellar. In this next article, we break down the plot of Tenet and analyze some of the film’s biggest events.