Interstellar Explained (Plot, Ending, Plot Holes Too)

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Interstellar was the much-awaited 2014 Nolan film. It was visually stunning and had an incredible storyline. The Interstellar cast includes Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in the leading roles, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine in supporting roles, and Matt Damon in a short cameo. Was it Nolan’s best science-fiction work? I personally don’t think so. In that genre, I still think Inception was his masterpiece, an air-tight piece of work. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Interstellar, the concept, the visuals, and everything that came with the package, but it was so complex it led to a few loose ends. Without further ado, here’s the plot, plot holes, and ending of the film Interstellar explained; spoilers ahead.

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Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

Interstellar: Plot Explained

What happened to Earth? Why was Earth dying?

Earth was dying due to a global agricultural disease, which caused the widespread failure of crops and famine, leading to the collapse of civilization. This was due to a combination of environmental factors, such as climate change and soil degradation, as well as human overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources. The blight was an existential threat to humanity as the Nitrogen levels were increasing, and eventually, everyone would perish by suffocation.

What is NASA up to?

NASA had to operate secretly because people were unhappy to see funds being directed to space exploration when no food was on tables. NASA first observed a wormhole (a shortcut through space) appear near Saturn 48 years ago. Their theory is that it was put there by an alien race that wants to help humans find a new home in another galaxy.

Who is Dr Brand? What does he know?

Dr Brand heads the NASA division and has built a gigantic space station but is unable to come up with a solution as to how to get the station into orbit.

Dr Brand realized 10 years ago that Earth and its people are doomed because there is no way to solve the gravity problem without getting information from inside a black hole. So his secret alternate solution was to save the species instead.

What are Plan A and Plan B, then?

Plan B is the Population Bomb. To take to a planet 5000 fertilized ovaries, incubate the first 10, and then exponentially increase the population to begin a new human colony with surrogacy. Population Bomb is an apt phrase as the plan involves infecting some poor unsuspecting planet with humans.

Plan A, which is to get all the people of Earth to a new world to restart their lives, is a lie. If Dr Brand told people they would all die and yet have to work to save a future human race kept inside containers, no one would do it. Dr Brand creates a false sense of hope so that people would work together.

What is the Lazarus Project?

10 years ago, the Lazarus Project sent 12 astronauts through the wormhole to explore 12 planets in the galaxy on the other side. They were to reach the planet and send a signal via their beacon to say if the world was habitable or not. After that, they were to enter cryosleep and wait till people from Earth arrived with the Population Bomb. 

In the present day, NASA has received 3 positive signals from 3 worlds in one system with Gargantua, a black hole, at the centre. Dr Miller, Dr Edmunds, and Dr Mann are the three astronauts who have sent back positive signals.

Who is Amelia, and what is her connection to Dr Wolf Edmunds?

Amelia is Dr Brand’s daughter, and she loves Dr Edmunds. In the present day, it has been 3 years since there has been any communication from Dr Edmunds, and she secretly hopes to reunite with him as part of the mission.

Who is Cooper?

Cooper is an ex-pilot who once flew for NASA. He now lives as a farmer, but since he’s an engineer, he also salvages machine parts to build stuff for himself and others. At the film’s beginning, Cooper follows a stray Indian Airforce Drone and highjacks it for its remarkable solar cells. Cooper lives with his two kids, Murph and Tom, and his wife’s dad; his wife died from a Tumour.

What is the gravitational anomaly?

Over 50 years, there have been recordings of many gravitational anomalies causing interference with the navigation systems of multiple vehicles; the Indian drone is an example of that.

Murph’s Ghost And The Coordinates In Dust

interstellar bookshelf

Murph believes there are ghosts in her house trying to communicate with her. The ghost pushes her toy down and later knocks down books. One day, when a dust storm hits, Cooper and Murph notice the dust falling to the ground in a specific pattern. Cooper figures it to be Binary Code which spells out coordinates. He sets off to those coordinates, and Murph sneaks into his truck. 

The coordinates lead them to NASA, where Cooper meets Dr Brand, Amelia, Romilly and Doyle. None of them has real flying experience except Cooper, so Dr Brand urges Cooper to take up the mission. Dr Brand also explains that the aliens used gravitational anomaly to help Cooper find NASA just in time. Believing Plan A is real, Cooper agrees.

Murph is furious and refuses to talk to Cooper. She even tries to tell him that her ghost’s message via the fallen books’ morse code pattern spells STAY. Cooper gives her a watch which she throws away. Cooper is unable to reconcile but leaves anyway.

Endurance: To Saturn and into the Wormhole

Cooper joins the crew and two advanced CASE and TARS to begin their mission on a centrifuge ship called Endurance. They get constant video messages from their families and send back responses. Cooper finds out about Amelia and Dr Edmund’s relationship from TARS. After a two-year cryosleep journey to Saturn, they enter the wormhole, and as they do, Amelia gives her first handshake to an extra-terrestrial presence. A wormhole is a shortcut through space, so on the other side, the crew is still in the same time as Earth.

Choosing the first planet

Miller’s planet is the closest to their coordinates but is very close to the black hole Gargantua. This means that as Endurance gets closer, their relative time will become much slower than Earth’s. 1 hour on the planet is about 7 years for the people on Earth. Cooper suggests an alternate route of heading on Endurance till a point and then using the pods to get in and out of the planet. They would lose a few years on Earth, but not enough that everyone back home is dead. Cooper, Amelia and Doyle head in the pod.

Miller’s Planet Explained

interstellar movie Millers planet

Once they set foot on Miller’s Planet, they realize it has only water and massive tidal waves caused due to Gargantua. Due to the enormous time dilation on this planet, it turns out Dr Miller died just moments before they landed. Her initial message about water has just been looping, giving a false impression that she has consistently sent out signals and that the planet was inhabitable.

Interstellar: Why did Doyle die?

Doyle asks TARS to help Amelia, who is stuck under debris trying to get Dr Miller’s data despite Cooper asking her not to. This causes them to lose time, and before Doyle can enter the ranger, he is drowned and killed by a giant tidal wave.

Why can’t they leave Miller’s Planet immediately?

The pod’s engines get flooded and hence have to be drained out, which is a 1-hour wait. What was initially estimated to be a total of an hour’s trip turns out to be over 3 hours, including the wait time. Hence their total time lost is 23 years.

23 Years of Time Dilation

When they return to the Endurance, Romilly and everyone on Earth has aged. Romilly has not become 23 years older because he did go into cryosleep multiple times in between. Romilly has been unable to send any messages but has been receiving many from Earth. Murph is now a grown woman, working with Dr Brand on the gravitation problem. She decides to send out her first message to her father because she is now the same age as Cooper was when he left (Cooper mentions to young Murph that they may both be the same age when he returns). 

Dr Brand confesses and goes out into the night

Soon, Dr Brand starts fading due to old age and tells Murph that he lied about the whole thing. The equation could never be solved without the black hole information, and there is no getting information from the inside of a black hole. And that he sent the team only hoping for the Population Bomb. 

Earlier in the film, we see Murph noticing this about his equations – that Dr Brand has not bothered keeping time a variable while solving it. She tries to confront him, but he evades the topic. Murph relays information to the centrifuge, saying Dr Brand has passed and questions if Amelia and Cooper already knew about this and how her father could leave her to die. 

Choosing their next planet

Because of the 23 extra years, Edurance has lost fuel, and resources are available to visit only one more planet before heading back to Earth. Mann’s planet is closer, but Amelia wants to go to Edmunds’ planet. Cooper brings up Amelia’s relationship with Edmunds, Amelia is voted out, and they decide to go to Mann’s planet.

Mann’s Planet Explained

interstellar Dr Mann's Planet

On landing, Dr Mann is Matt Damon, ooooh, the well-kept secret! They wake Dr Mann from cryosleep, and he shows them awesome planetary readings (which is all a lie). Everyone’s happy. From the Endurance, CASE relays Murph’s message about Dr Brand’s lie. Amelia and Cooper are devastated, but Dr Mann already knows about the lie and says there was never any hope for Earth. Cooper decides to head back to Earth, thinking they have already found an inhabitable planet.

Interstellar: Why did Mann lie about the planet? 

Dr Mann discovered that the planet was inhospitable and unsuitable for human life and wouldn’t be able to survive, and he became desperate for a way to escape. Mann sent a false signal to Cooper’s team, indicating that his planet was habitable and suitable for human life. This lie was intended to lure Cooper’s team to his planet. Mann’s actions were motivated by his fear of dying alone.

Interstellar: Why did Mann attack Cooper? Why did Dr Mann betray?

Dr Mann wants to use Endurance to get to Dr Edmunds’ planet to use the Population Bomb to restart a new human colony. But Cooper intends to take Endurance back to Earth; hence Dr Mann attacks Cooper. Dr Mann throws away Cooper’s comm device and cracks his helmet. Knowing the others would see Dr Mann as a traitor, he decides to head to Endurance alone and head to Edmunds’ planet. Cooper finds his comm and calls out to Amelia for help, and she rushes over to him.

Interstellar: Why did KIPP explode?

Dr Mann had programmed his robot KIPP to detonate when a human authorized themself. It appears Dr Mann contemplated suicide at one point, and an explosion was a quick way to go, but instead, he put himself in an endless cryosleep.

When TARS asked Dr Mann if it could try and restore KIPP, Mann mentioned it needs a human touch. This means Dr Mann rigged KIPP a long time ago, much before the crew arrived. There was no way for him to know how things might pan out when a crew did arrive. So it is unlikely that Dr Mann rigged KIPP to kill the team. On the other hand, KIPP had all the data regarding the uninhabitable planet, and he didn’t want that going out, and in case someone tried to boot it up, kaboom. In this case, Romilly gets killed in the explosion.

Back to Endurance

Cooper and Amelie take the other pod and chase after Dr Mann. Dr Mann gets to the centrifuge and tries to dock manually; he fails and gets blown up. The process sets Endurance into an uncontrolled spin. Cooper performs a spinaroonie with the pod, anchors with the centrifuge and stops the spinning. But by now, they start being pulled by Gargantua’s gravity.

The Sling Shot

Endurance is severely damaged, and there is no way to return to Earth, considering they are falling into Gargantua. Cooper suggests that using the black hole’s gravitational pull, they can slingshot to Edmunds’ planet and work on the Population Bomb. In the process, they prep TARS to drop off into the black hole and try to relay the information required to solve the gravity equation.

Interstellar: Why did cooper detach?

Just as they prepare for the slingshot, Cooper sacrifices himself, disengages and falls into the black hole. The extra weight he and his pod added to Endurance would not allow the slingshot to happen. Cooper sends Amelia alone to Edmunds’ planet.

Interstellar: Ending Explained

Interstellar Ending Explained

The ending of Interstellar reveals that the aliens are humans from a far future who have become 5-dimensional beings and are helping Cooper and Murph save the race, and therefore themselves, from extinction by constructing the Time Tesseract inside the black hole.

Amelia’s theory on love – what did it mean?

The concept of love is crucial in understanding the climax. We perceive love as a human emotion. Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Perhaps it’s some evidence of some artefact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive.

To a being of 2 dimensions, it will view a sphere as only a circle. The 2-dimensional creature can’t consciously perceive the sphere; it only experiences rings that change size based on the sphere’s movement. This is a physical example. What Amelia asks is, what if love is like the circles? What if we perceive only a lower dimension of the actual artefact?

Love is something we can perceive that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it yet. 

Why can’t the 5-dimensional beings just give Murph the data from the black hole?

The 5-dimensional beings are far too evolved to understand and operate like the 3-dimensional humans we are. Every moment is infinitely complex. They have access to infinite time and space, but they’re not bound by anything. Therefore they can’t find a specific place in time to communicate with Murph or Cooper. The 50 years of gravitational anomalies on Earth are probably the numerous failed attempts of the 5-dimensional beings trying to share the data.

The Tesseract: Multi-Dimensional Space Explained

The Tesseract, built by the 5-dimensional beings, represents the 4th dimension of time in 3 dimensions of space. Moving around in this construct takes a person across various points in time but in the same location in space, Murph’s room.

Interstellar: What happened in the black hole? How did Cooper survive?

Cooper falls into the black hole, and his controls give up on him. He then ejects, and just as he’s heading to his death, he suddenly finds himself safely transported inside a multi-dimensional Tesseract. Here time is non-linear. Cooper understands that gravity transcends space and time.

The Predestination Paradox in Interstellar: Who is Murph’s ghost?

Cooper is Murph’s ghost who uses gravity to communicate with her at various points in time. In time travel, the Predestination Paradox is one where an event is its own cause, meaning the future predestines the past.

Cooper can see a young Murph on the other side. He tries to send a message to Murph by dropping books in Morse Code spelling out STAY. But Cooper sees himself leave and realizes that he was Murph’s ghost all along.

From the Tesseract, Cooper alters the dust in Murph’s room to let it fall in thick and thin lines, which form the binary equivalent of NASA’s coordinates. Another event in the future that causes the event in the past.

Cooper also realizes that Murph is the one to whom the extra-terrestrial beings are trying to reach out, but they don’t know when they need to do it. Cooper realizes love is the key and looks for the time he gave Murph the watch.

The Ghost And The Black Hole Data

TARS resumes communications with Cooper but is unable to transmit the black hole information outside. Cooper realizes his role in all of this. He is the bridge the multi-dimensional humans are trying to use to get the black hole information across to Murph. 

Cooper navigates to the point when he gives Murph the watch. He knows that she would keep it or come back for it because it was his last gift to her. Cooper relays the black hole data into the watch’s second hand in Morse code. He does this by altering the gravitational fields around the watch. 

Grown-up Murph, who has come to her old room because she has a hunch about the ghost and the gravitational anomaly, realizes that her dad is the ghost. She looks at the watch to notice the twitching arm and identifies it as morse code. Murph’s love for her father compels her to look for the answer from her ghost, which a scientist would otherwise consider supernatural and not pursue.

As he expects, Murph puts together that the ghost is, in fact, her father, and he’s trying to communicate from another time via the watch and book stand. She collects the information from the watch, translates it and solves the gravity equation.

Interstellar: How did Murph save the world? What was the equation? Did they save Earth?

Murph’s solution of the gravity equation eventually allows for gigantic space stations to propel outside Earth’s gravitational fields. Earth can’t be saved, but over the years, humans relocate to various stations in space. Murph grows old and has a family knowing that her dad didn’t abandon her but instead went somewhere in time to save her and all the other Earth’s people. Around 80 years go by, and one day Cooper is found.

Did cooper die?

No, the 5-dimensional beings dismantle the Tesseract and place Cooper in the vicinity of Saturn for Cooper Station to find him. On his return trip, he passes the moment when Amelia does her handshake. Amelia was merely witnessing Cooper passing by in a future time. 

Though Cooper has not aged, being near and inside the black hole has caused more dilation and for the people of Earth, 80 years have passed (the scientist mentions Cooper is 124 years old). A significantly aged Murph meets Cooper, and they talk about him being her ghost. She’s happy to see him exactly how she saw him last but says she has her children to take care of her now and that Cooper should go find Amelia. 

Although totally unnecessary because it was Cooper Station, Cooper steals a NASA craft and heads out while Amelia is shown setting up camp on Edmund’s planet. Dr Edmunds seems to have died as she is alone in the base.

Interstellar: What happened to Edmunds? How did Edmunds die?

The movie doesn’t show that Edmunds is dead, but the official novella states clearly that Edmunds dies in his hypersleep because of a landslide that destroys his pod. It’s logical to assume that Edmunds didn’t make it, as we’re shown Amelia to be alone on the planet in the end.

Interstellar: Did Cooper find Brand?

The film leaves this ambiguous, but the real question is how old Amelia would be when Cooper does meet her on Edmunds’ planet, assuming she wasn’t killed like Dr Edmunds. Since they separated, they would have aged at different rates. Amelia and Cooper did a large portion of the slingshot together, so they aged at the same pace till then. After that, Cooper spent some time inside the black hole. 

Assuming Cooper was 44 when he started his journey, 80 years have passed by the time he reaches Cooper Station. Of this, 23 is due to Millers Planet. 51 because of the slingshot and apparently around 7 because of the Tesseract. We don’t know the time dilation on Edmunds’ planet, but it appears that Amelia and Cooper should be around the same age they saw each other last (give or take 5 years).

Other Frequently Asked Questions Answered

Interstellar: Why did they burn crops?

The characters burned crops to combat the global agricultural plague devastating Earth’s food supply. The blight was caused by a fungus rapidly spreading and destroying crops, and the burning of crops was meant to stop that and prevent it from infecting other crops. While the burning of crops was a desperate and extreme measure, it was necessary to preserve what little food was left.

Interstellar: What happened to Jesse? Did Jesse die?

In one of the recordings, Tom mentions that they buried his granddad out in the back forty next to Mom and Jesse. It looks like Tom’s son Jesse died from something unknown, but it’s logical to assume it resulted from what was happening to Earth.

Interstellar: What happened to Tom? Did Tom die?

Sadly the movie doesn’t refer to him after one point; Cooper doesn’t look for him in the Cooper Station, indicating that Tom passed away a while back because of the epidemic resulting in a variety of diseases. In the film, we are told that Tom’s wife and son have developed some kind of respiratory disease because of the dust in the air. It’s likely that they all eventually died of it.

Interstellar: How long was Cooper in space? How many years passed?

For Cooper, it was around 3 years, but for the people of Earth, it was 80 years since Cooper had first left Earth to the time he was found near Saturn by the Cooper Station.

Interstellar: What Happened to Brand? Did Brand die?

Well, Amelia Brand safely makes it to Edmunds’ planet and sets up the first human colony there; poor planet. However, her father, Dr Brand, passes away peacefully because of old age.

Interstellar: Did Cooper go back in time?

No, at no point Cooper physically goes back in time. He only uses gravity to affect objects at moments in the past. We see this as falling books, sand and the ticking of the watch.

Interstellar: Plot Holes And Gaps Explained

This section is up for discussion; there will be some subjectivity.

Tones Of Data Through A Watch

Relaying the information of a black hole through Morse code to a watch’s second hand. This is going to be tonnes of data! For how long would the data need to be relayed? Assuming the data is being looped repeatedly, it would be challenging to understand where it starts and ends. Also, why would the watch continuously tick like that in loops? Cooper relayed the information only time.

Time Dilation Because Of The Black Hole

Considering that merely slingshotting beside the black hole can make them lose 51 years, entering it should have caused Cooper to lose exponentially more years. By the time he exited it, he should have lost another 50 – 70 years and by then. Which means both Murph and Amelia would be dead.

Why not a handful of Plan Bs?

If the idea was to anyway go with Plan B, and the Lazarus astronauts knew of this, they could have each taken fertilized ovaries and started a colony of humans on whichever planet was suitable. Why build a centrifuge ship and send it with a bunch of fertilized eggs as a second step, given the pipeline of astronauts was drying out?

What were your thoughts on the plot and ending of Interstellar? Do you have other details or plot holes to share? Drop a note in the comments section below.