Gargantua, the Tesseract, and Existential Meanings in Interstellar
Stars, Dirt, and the Cosmic Sublime
In an early scene in Interstellar, Cooper laments:
“We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
This lament follows a long tradition of humans gazing up at the vast universe and feeling awe and wonder, which is countered by feelings of insignificance and terror, causing one to look down to the dirt below, as if to anchor themselves in the cosmos. The simultaneous feelings of awe, wonder, and terror before the majesty of the universe are what I call the cosmic sublime.
Borrowing from Kant, Lyotard, and other thinkers, here is what I mean by the cosmic sublime: We encounter the cosmic sublime when there’s a tension between our perceptions and our reason, when our senses are overwhelmed, yet our minds can still order the percepts into knowable, pleasurable, and terrifying concepts. The features of the vast universe — immense scales of space and time; dynamic systems of stars, galaxies, supernovas, and black holes; limitless arrangements of energy and matter; sprawling voids and seeming emptinesses; immeasurable realms of cosmic destruction and renewal — confront and stimulate our imaginations in awe-inspiring experiences. In such we grasp the affirmation of human rationality and annihilation of our centrality, our exaltation before the cosmos in tandem with the extinction of our species’ dominant narratives, and the sense of human freedom in conjunction with our void in meaning. In our infinitesimalness, we can feel connected to the universe or crushed by its infiniteness.
The sublime moment is poignant with emotional and cognitive overload; we realize we are no physical match for nature and the cosmos, yet we’re confident of our ability to tackle the intellectual challenge of exploring them via science and technology. Because the sublime affirms humanity’s right to exist at the same time that it draws attention to the inevitability of our own extinction, it evokes paradoxical emotions in us that coexist, side by side, such as pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, and power and fear. There is nothing mystical or religious about the sublime. Rather, it is a complex existential and aesthetic experience that at once emphasizes our cosmic significance and connection to the universe while it humbles us, reminding us of our temporal place in the cosmos.
The feelings of the sublime run throughout Interstellar and are best symbolized by Gargantua and the Tesseract. The climax of Interstellar occurs inside Gargantua and the Tesseract, in one of the most spellbinding cosmic scenes ever filmed, rivaling the trippy Star-Gate sequence and hotel suite in 2001. According to Thorne, the rendering of Gargantua is a scientifically valid depiction of a possible black hole, which Thorne spends several chapters explaining in his book. After working with Nolan’s team on the development of Gargantua, Thorne claims the computer models taught him new insights into the behavior of black holes, which physicists will be exploring in future scientific papers. About Interstellar’s representation of Gargantua and its accretion disk, Thorne exclaims:
“What a joy it was when I first saw these images! For the first time ever, in a Hollywood movie, a black hole and its disk depicted as we humans will really see them when we’ve mastered interstellar travel. And for the first time for me as a physicist, a realistic disk, gravitationally lensed, so it wraps over the top and bottom of the hole instead of being hidden behind the hole’s shadow.”
As it passes over it the accretion disk and heads toward the event horizon, the Endurance is a spinning speck against the vastness. Very riveting are the scenes where the Endurance uses the gravity of Gargantua to sling shot Dr. Brand to Edmunds’s planet, while TARS and Cooper detach in the Ranger shuttle to enter Gargantua. By venturing into Gargantua, Cooper is going back in space but not back in time. Inside Gargantua, he will be heading toward the singularity and through the wormhole and gravitational anomaly near Saturn. But first he must pass through the famed Tesseract.
Like Dave after the Star-Gate journey lands him in the strange hotel suite in 2001, Cooper finds himself in the strange Tesseract inside Gargantua. A basic “tesseract” is a cube within a larger cube, but Nolan has created a much more complex tesseract in Interstellar. Ascending from the singularity in Gargantua, the Tesseract is a three-dimensional representation of our four-dimensional reality (three physical dimensions plus time) inside the five-dimensional (four dimensions plus time) hyperspace inhabited by the “bulk beings.” Most likely, the bulk beings are humans from a more advanced civilization in the future, perhaps examples of the Ubermensch theorized by Nietzsche. As Cooper explains to TARS: “Don’t you get it yet, TARS? They’re not beings. They’re us! What I’ve been doing for Murph, I’ve been doing for me. For all of us.”
Not unlike how the extraterrestrials inspired the apes to evolve and become humans in 2001, the advanced humans are helping Cooper, TARS, and Murph “save the world” because it will make possible the existence of human beings in the future. Recall that Murph is Cooper’s science-oriented daughter whom he left behind on Earth, an event that left Murph feeling Cooper may well have abandoned her in the effort to save himself in space. While Cooper is traversing wormholes and black holes, Murph becomes a genius physicist working with Professor Brand to solve the quantum gravity problem.
Functioning like a labyrinth across time, the Tesseract contains a physical representation of all possible times in Murph’s bedroom, from childhood to when she is a physicist. By navigating through the Tesseract, Cooper is able to view Murph as a child and adult. The walls of the Tesseract are like event horizons inside Gargantua. Light can pass from Murph’s room to Cooper, but not from Cooper to Murph’s room, precisely because no light can escape from a black hole. That’s why Cooper can only contact Murph via gravity through space-time. As TARS says: “You’ve seen that time is represented here as a physical dimension. You’ve worked out that you can exert a force across space-time.” Thus, by slamming his fist against the walls of the Tesseract, Cooper sends gravitational waves into Murph’s room and causes the books to fall on the floor (back when she was a child). (…)
Showing how art and science can sometimes be in sync historically, scientists recently discovered the existence of gravitational waves. As explained by Dennis Overbye:
“A team of scientists . . . recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. It completes his vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle. And it is a ringing confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.”
This discovery is a testament to the amazing power of human reason, science, sophisticated technologies, and a century of hard work by physicists. That Nolan and his team can poetically dramatize the gravitational waves shows the power of art in a science-fiction film. Of course, the scientists did not discover evidence of the Tesseract, too. That’s because inside Gargantua is where the science of black holes meets the science fiction of the Tesseract and the singularity that permits to Cooper and TARS to exit the black hole.
Once inside the Tesseract, TARS is able to extract the quantum data from the singularity. In another improbable sci-fi leap, TARS translates the quantum data into Morse code and Cooper sends it to Murph as tiny gravitational waves that alter the movement of the second hand on her Hamilton watch, which Cooper gave to Murph as a child and which is sitting on a dusty bookshelf next to a lunar module from Apollo’s heyday. TARS is skeptical that she will get the data, since Murph is in the process of abandoning the house because of the impending eco-apocalypse. Motivated by Dr. Brand’s belief that love is something perceptible that “transcends dimensions of time and space,” Cooper believes the quantum data will get to Murph via the watch she kept as a symbol of their love.
Just before leaving the house for good, Murph retrieves the watch and notices the second hand moving backward and forward in irregular movements. She soon figures out that Cooper is sending her the quantum data, which she then uses to solve the gravity problem. Murph rushes to NASA to deliver the good news. Soon “interstellar” space travel will happen. With colonies of people set to launch into space, humanity will be saved by science, creativity, and bravado. In a beautiful sequence, the Tesseract quickly closes in a vanishing point near Cooper’s eye, perhaps suggesting the Tesseract is a product or discovery made by humanity’s vision in the future.
After the Tesseract closes, Cooper is floating in space near Saturn, the location of the wormhole and the gravitational anomalies. Cooper then wakes up in a hospital room on a space station and learns that he and TARS — along with Murph, Professor Brand, Dr. Brand, and NASA — succeeded in preventing the extinction of the human species. (…)
Voyage into the Cosmic Sublime
The single most important meaning and hope in Interstellar involves the voyage into the cosmic sublime. In her review of Interstellar, MaryAnn Johanson is moved by the magnificent imagery in the film:
“Nolan takes plenty of time for a deep-space grandeur that was surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. The image of the tiny, tiny ship Coop and his small crew leave Earth in passing in front of the immensity of Saturn brought tears to my eyes with its juxtaposition of the might of nature and audacity of humanity in the face of it.”
In sum, the Endurance and crew must venture through the vastness of the universe, first to Saturn, then through the wormhole to another galaxy, then finally to the water and ice planets orbiting Gargantua. Next, Dr. Brand and Cooper slingshot around Gargantua, with Dr. Brand speeding toward the desert planet while Cooper and TARS hurtle into the black hole and Tesseract and then back to a space station near Saturn. On the voyage, there are numerous scenes that trigger the sublime:
1) Viewing Earth from Space: After blasting off via the Ranger, the astronauts are treated to several stunning views of a blue-and-white Earth from space. These views are met with no comment from the astronauts, who are just happy to make it to the Endurance. Once the astronauts are onboard the Endurance, Earth can be seen through the windows as the Endurance spins on its axis to generate gravity, echoing scenes from 2001.
2) Passing by Saturn: On the journey to the wormhole, the Endurance is shown passing by the massive planet Saturn and its spectacular rings. As Johanson noted, the Endurance is but a speck gliding below the rings of Saturn, spinning in Saturn’s shadow cast upon the planet’s rings. We also see Saturn’s rings and the sun passing by the windows as the Endurance spins.
3) In the Wormhole: Spinning as it enters the wormhole, Endurance is a tiny craft moving into the elegant, spherical wormhole, the inside of which is spinning. While moving through the wormhole, the Endurance passes several galaxies and all kinds of star formations and cosmic phenomena on the surface of the sphere, not unlike the Star-Gate sequence in 2001. After passing through the wormhole, the Endurance is shown spinning as it travels through space amid galaxies and vast voids.
4) Gargantua: What can I say? Gargantua is truly spectacular, with its orange-tinted accretion disk providing a Saturn-like elegance. Every image of Gargantua is spectacular, easily the coolest and most beautiful cosmic phenomena in sci-fi film history. In Disney’s The Black Hole, Dr. Reinhardt journeys into a black hole only to find hell and the biblical endpoint for humanity — the cosmic sublime is presented as apocalyptic and theological. By contrast, Cooper finds the Tesseract, the singularity, and a new starting point for the human species — the cosmic sublime is presented as wondrous yet crucial to human survival, destiny, and meaning in the universe.
The journey into the sublime yields the quantum data, which is necessary for human survival. Further, the ending of Interstellar may imply that Murph’s solution to the quantum gravity problem is the key to unifying relativity (the universe at the intergalactic level) and quantum mechanics (the universe at the subatomic level) into what Stephen Hawking refers to as “the theory of everything.”
Perhaps that unity in physics will lead to confirmation of the existence of hyperspace, which empowered the advanced humans or bulk beings. Perhaps it will ultimately lead to a better species, the Ubermensches who evolve new cosmic narratives and discard the old superstitions. Of course, we’re not there. We’re progressing in some ways, regressing in others. Near the end of their journey in the Tesseract, TARS tells Cooper there is no way humans could build the Tesseract, to which Cooper replies, “No, not yet. But one day. Not you and me. But a people, a civilization that has evolved past the four dimensions we know. What happens now?”
Destiny in the Voids
Like the black monolith in 2001, the black hole in Interstellar symbolizes the philosophical void into which humans must hurl themselves in the quest for cosmic meaning and destiny. Upon entering Gargantua, Cooper exclaims, “Heading toward blackness. It’s all black. It’s all blackness!” Rather than turn away from the void in fear, Cooper hurtles himself into directly into it, not unlike Dave following the monolith toward the Star-Gate. In fact, the final scene of 2001 occurs after we pass through the blackness of the monolith and into our destiny as a space-faring species.
Two of the key existential observations in Interstellar are offered by Romilly and Dr. Brand. Pondering the vastness outside the Endurance, Romilly remarks to Cooper, “This gets to me, Cooper. This [gesturing toward the exterior skin of the Endurance]. Millimeters of aluminum. That’s it. And nothing out there for millions of miles that won’t kill us in seconds.” The cosmic nothingness may “get to” Romilly, but he and the Endurance crew have the courage to venture into the voids. Of course, human survival is at stake, but it still takes massive amounts of courage to hurtle one’s self into the cosmic and existential voids.
The above excerpt is from Barry Vacker’s new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here. You can follow Barry on Facebook and at his new Twitter page.
Note: The endnotes were omitted from this excerpt. The images used here are not in the book.