Interstellar and the NASA Myth


When I was 12 I wrote to NASA. This was pre-email and pre-commercial internet. So, when I say wrote, I mean it; paper, stamps, return address. I decided I wanted to learn more about space because, if I didn’t know enough, I might not be able to become an astronaut.

Nothing happened for three months.

Then I got an envelope, thick and waxed and crammed full of leaflets about the Galileo mission, the shuttle, full technical breakdowns and reports of flights, press notes, the whole bit.

I can still remember the way the grin spread across my face. Somewhere I’ve still got the leaflets. The Astronaut Myth settled into my mind that day and never left.

The NASA Myth is that there will always be short-sleeved shirt wearing pocket protector wielders who will save the Earth at the last possible moment using science with a capital S. These men will be sweaty, balding, perpetually worried and will be the second line of attack behind the never ending line of strong jawed test pilot gods and goddesses all perpetually smiling as they head to the Launchpad offworld.

The NASA Myth is immensely comforting and attractive. There are five moments in Interstellar that show just how far past it we are.

The first is where Coop and Murph have been captured, taken to a conference room and Coop, clearly increasingly worried, refuses to cooperate until he’s assured they won’t be killed. The assembled scientists are amused by this and Amelia Brand, for very nearly the only time in the movie, smiles and says; ‘We’re NASA.’

That smile, that sudden sense of reassurance is the first indication of just how bad things have got in Nolan’s soft apocalypse. The message is simple; hope died with NASA, but NASA aren’t dead yet and the NASA Myth is built into the entire scene, right down to the posed shots of the universally doomed Lazarus Flight Astronauts. The Right Stuff is in the Right Place at the Right Time one last time.

The second moment comes not long after. Cooper, an astronaut who never flew, a man chained to the dirt and forced to work it for ever decreasing crops to support his family, signs up to go on the Endurance mission. We don’t see it, we don’t have to. All we see is Murph running into the house ahead of him and barricading her room as only children can; holding reality at bay through sheer force of will.

The relationship between the two is exactly the sort of carefully rounded, well-worn double act many movies simply don’t know how to do; earlier it’s Murph who’s given a chance to control the hijacked drone, Murph who’s a staunch defender of her father’s past career and Murph who carries the light of history into a classroom being told lies about the Apollo program. That Cormac McCarthyian idea of a character as the lightbringer is something the movie wraps around the astronaut myth like a spanner round a recalcitrant nut and just starts turning. Cooper is a hero. Cooper is an astronaut. Cooper is a father and most importantly, Cooper is an absentee father freed by Endurance but trapped forever by the choices he has to make. The shot of him in tears, driving away from his past and his children as Hans Zimmer’s score swells and the ‘ignition sequence start’ voiceover begins is almost unbearable. We feel the weight of the moment, the point where Coop and Murph and poor, forgotten Tom and Donald all break but we can’t stop, can’t look back, just like Coop. There’s the mission. There’s always the mission and for multiple decades the mission has claimed lives, marriages, futures. The road from Coop’s farm to the launch site was cut by the lost Cosmonauts, the Apollo 1 crew, the Challenger crew and the Columbia crew. Coop drives it anyway because that’s all he knows how to do. It’s all he chooses to see. Always the mission. Always forwards. Always up.

The third moment comes after the disastrous trip to Miller’s world. They lose 20 years of Earth time due to unforeseeable error and on their return to the Endurance, the first thing Coop does is sit and watch the accumulated messages they’ve received. In the space of five minutes he sees his son grow into a man, a husband and a father broken by grief. Casey Affleck as the elder Tom has one of the hardest jobs in the movie but he nails it and his delivery on ‘Sorry it’s been a while’ tells you everything you need to know before he says anything else. He’s alone, and broken, on a dead farm on a dying world. He’s inherited his father’s job and the futility and depression that Coop fled the planet to avoid. The image of Coop going from grinning with joy to uncontrollably sobbing isn’t just powerful, it tells us two vital things, one about the mission, one about the man; the mission isn’t working and the man is not the square jawed hero he decided to be.

And that, much like the entire movie, brings us to Murph. The elegant switch from Coop seeing the message to Murph recording it undercuts just how angry she still is. Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain definitely have the toughest job in the movie and both turn in brilliant work. Foy’s young Murph is all hyper-intense focus and emotion whilst Chastain’s adult version simmers with two decades of betrayal and suspended grief. Under all that though, beneath the dust of a life spent doing nothing but waiting to die, is brilliance. Chastain’s Murph is isolated but no longer angry about it, the change in perspective giving her a way of looking at things that exposes the central lie in the movie and the stake it drives through the heart of the NASA myth;

The mission is a sham.

There’s no brilliant, polite British professor with the answer. No last minute gravitational evacuation of the planet. There’s just dust and death and the space where her father should be.

Young Murph would have died angry.

Adult Murph goes to work.

The fourth moment comes as Murph literally and metaphorically returns to the start; the room she never returned to but never really left, kept exactly the same by Tom because that’s all Tom knows how to do; maintain. As, on the other side of her bookcases and a century away, her father works out how to communicate with her Murph does the one thing he never could; gets over the past. She looks at her room, her ghost, the anomalies and she finally sees what it is. Not her father, not her ghost, not the myth of the superhuman astronaut but all three. Remove any of them and the message couldn’t be transmitted. But remove Murph and the message couldn’t be decoded.

Both Brands, Doyle, Romilly, Coop, TARS and CASE are all cogs in a watch, people whose actions, whose failures as well as successes, have to take place in order to move the second hand that Murph sees, and understands. The mission isn’t finding a new home, it never was. The mission was putting a brilliant woman in the right place at the right time. That’s an immensely subversive, surprising and reassuring conclusion from a movie about a profession still viewed as one of the last bastions of Cold War sexism. It also leads to the last, and most subtle, of the five moments. Rescued 120 years into the future, Coop finds himself on Cooper Station, one of humanity’s biggest refuges.

One named for his daughter.

The NASA myth isn’t dead, but it’s no longer a destination. Instead it’s the ascent stages needed to get the movie, and Murph, into place to make a new kind of history. Recognizing that, and stepping aside, is the single most heroic thing Coop does and also the most fascinating beat in one of the oddest and most ambitious, blockbusters so far this century.

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