Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, floats in space in "Interstellar." (Paramount)

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Human nature vs. moral obligations in ‘Interstellar’

A train is speeding down the railway; shortly ahead there is a split in its tracks, and the direction that the vehicle will continue is determined by a lever on the side of the road. On the main track where the train is currently traveling stands five people, all of whom are oblivious to the…
<a href="" target="_self">Emily Li</a>

Emily Li

November 2, 2021

A train is speeding down the railway; shortly ahead there is a split in its tracks, and the direction that the vehicle will continue is determined by a lever on the side of the road. On the main track where the train is currently traveling stands five people, all of whom are oblivious to the impending danger. However, one person also stands on the opposite split of the track. The train will either kill the group of people or the lone person. What would be the right choice to make?

This classic ethics experiment, known as the Trolley Dilemma, drives people to introspect about their moral values and weigh the consequences of their actions. Killing the single person certainly bears a lighter loss quantitatively, but what if it is a loved one who is standing on that end? Would the choice be as easy as “thinking about the collective over the individual?” Interestingly, Christopher Nolan presents a difficult choice similar to the Trolley Dilemma in his film “Interstellar.”

The story of “Interstellar” revolves around a major conflict that multiple characters in the story encounter, and the audience can’t help but chime in this deliberation: the choice between ensuring a possible future for humanity or giving in to human instincts. The film portrays Earth as a dying planet riddled with constant sand storms, infertile soil, and most crops unable to survive under such harsh environmental conditions.

Since Earth is uninhabitable, humans need to find a new place with adequate living conditions for survival. The main protagonist Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is burdened with the mission to pilot a spaceship along with his team in search of a suitable planet, while scientists remaining on the ground resolve the evacuation method from Earth.

As their “Plan B,” Cooper’s team carries samples of human genomes to ensure human civilization survival in case the attempt to transport people from Earth fails. However, when the team later discovers that the Earth evacuation plan was a scam because it was almost impossible (unless with quantum data) to begin with, the story presents a difficult ethical question: would it be a better option to ensure the future of human civilization or consider loved ones back home?

“Interstellar” embodies trademarks that Nolan implements in his works — exceptional cinematography, dramatic orchestral music, and exciting sci-fi action — these factors ultimately contribute to themes of human nature and the balance of moral obligations, with different approaches presented through key characters that deeply resonate with the audience.


Dr. Brand: Future over Present

John Band, played by Michael Cane, before he speaks his final words in “Interstellar.” (Paramount)

Non-Linear Storytelling

When the characters discover that Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), the scientist who worked on a method to transport people out of Earth, tricked Cooper and his crew to leave the planet because his plan failed, the shock introduces the moral conflict of choosing between future and family. Nolan intensifies the weight of such a decision through his iconic style of non-linear storytelling. Dr. Brand concludes long before Cooper’s mission that there is no way to propel human settlements into space, but Nolan chose to reveal this crucial information in the middle of the film. This non-linear plot structure allows Nolan to control the flow of what is given to the audience, thus emphasizing its weight. In the case of “Interstellar,” the audience knows about this news simultaneously as the other characters, relating themselves with the story. Was Dr. Brand right in making this choice? In this matter of life and death, who can decide which is the better option?

Background music

Music also dramatizes this epiphany. At the crucial scene when Dr. Brand admits to Cooper’s daughter Murph, who remained on Earth to work on propelling settlements, that he has lied, a haunting soundtrack creeps in the background. Nolan is known for utilizing powerful tones in his works, and this film is not an exception. As Brand gradually arrives to tell his secret, the music crescendos in accompaniment and the audience’s surprise rises as well. Along with the shock comes hopelessness, and everyone is driven to consider whether Dr. Brand’s actions are justified. Between people on Earth and the future of humans, he chose the latter and risked keeping an enormous lie until his last breath. He sacrifices his humanity for our species’ civilization, and with Nolan’s signature film techniques, a heavy moral conflict that resonates in viewers emerges because of this character.


The disguised selfish nature

Dr. Hugh Mann, played by Matt Damon, reveals his true hugh-mann nature. (Paramount)

Storytelling structure

Contrary to Dr. Brand, another character in the story chooses his innate survival instincts over the future of humanity. Mann (Matt Damon) is a member from a previous mission that searched for habitable settlements in outer space; each explorer is assigned a planet and has to remain there for the rest of his/her life. Mann’s planet is uninhabitable, but he chose to stay in a sleep chamber and continue sending out live signals so rescue may come in later years. When Cooper’s team arrives, he tells them that his planet is habitable to ease their wariness, then attempts to kill Cooper in order to take off in their spaceship alone. However, Nolan chooses to reveal Mann’s true intentions at the very last second, again displaying his use of non-linear storytelling. This is also a plot twist that Nolan designs to give the audience more surprises and allow Mann’s actions to resonate with more emphasis. As Mann is about to push Cooper down a snowy cliff, eerie music crescendos again in the background, hinting at the sudden twist of events.

The indications made by cinematography

Nolan’s camera shots in this scene also demonstrate the danger of human nature. In one clip, Mann and Cooper fight desperately while the view gradually takes in more of their foreign and desolate surroundings, showing that wherever people end up in this universe, human nature will always drive them to be in conflict with each other. Although many may think that Mann is selfish because he is inconsiderate about the collective, it is also understandable that the desire to live is genetically rooted in human nature. It is easy to blame him for almost ruining the mission to save humanity, but at the same time, no one wants to die alone on an icy, uninhabitable planet that is light-years away from Earth. Unlike Dr. Brand, Mann chose himself over the collective; he is the other end of the moral spectrum, the side that is often viewed as pusillanimous and reveals another facet of human nature.


Cooper’s struggles between time and survival

Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, inside a spacecraft in “Interstellar.” (Paramount)

Example of excellent cinematography

On the other hand, Cooper’s situation is much more complex than those of Brand and Mann. He is torn between going to the mission and staying with his family, whom he cares bout deeply; he ultimately took part in this expedition as he saw the natural deterioration directly impacting his family’s safety. His emotional connection with them runs throughout the film, and the excellent cinematography reinforces this theme. One exceptional scene that stirs thought is when Cooper returns from Miller’s planet and 23 years have passed on Earth. Video logs have piled up, and the camera focuses on Cooper’s reaction as he watches his children grow up. The light from the videos flickers on his face; he smiles, sometimes laughs, but there is also pain that shines through his eyes, unspoken sadness that he wasn’t there to accompany them. He later bursts into tears in the scene as the melancholy music slowly fades into only raw audio of Cooper’s muffled sobs.

Cooper’s sacrifice 

Matthew McConaughey’s acting, complemented by the music and lighting, is a masterpiece that instantly stirs emotion. It provokes thoughts about the most painful way that people realize the value of something only after it’s gone. In this case, Cooper lost years of time with his family and still doesn’t know how much longer he would wait before seeing them again. It is a great sacrifice for Cooper to leave the ones that he loves deeply and pursue a mission into the unknown, which extends his heroism. His story is filled with bittersweet feelings, and it drives the audience to realize the importance of cherishing the times when the presence of loved ones is still the normality.

The famous saying goes, “children are the future of the world,” and “Interstellar” instigated my realization of the immense responsibility my generation carries. As the climate change crisis exacerbates and the United Nations releases a “code red for humanity,” I can’t help but wonder if the scenes in the movie will become an inevitable reality. From a teenager’s perspective, this movie’s sci-fi fantasy and twisted plots make it an extremely thrilling, captivating adventure; however, I also cannot help but wonder what tomorrow will behold for upcoming generations on Earth. What if we are required to choose between choices similar to what is given to Dr. Brand, Mann, and Cooper?

“Interstellar” opened my eyes to the facets of morals and humanity. We can be people like Brand who are willing to lie to provide a future for our civilization, but we can also be Mann who gives in to their survival instincts. Maybe we fall into the same situation as Cooper, who chose to act courageously for the security of his family. This movie has taught me how complex human nature can be, but it also gives me hope that love can push us to exceed our potential and reach the impossible.