Whenever a Christopher Nolan sci-fier crash-lands into IMAX cinemas, fans treat the poor bugger (in Michael Caine voice) like a patient plagued with a mysterious illness that only they can cure. “My films are always held to a weirdly high standard,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan told The Daily Beast.
With his space odyssey Interstellar, they’ve gone full-Room 237, griping about everything from the sound mix, forcing an indifferent response from the filmmaker, to the science, with some of the world’s most revered astrophysicists poking holes in its eye-catching carnival of black holes, time dilations, and waves so big they’d make Kelly Slater shit his pants.
But one sequence in particular has divided audiences squarely in half.
[WARNING: If you haven’t seen Interstellar, please stop reading now.]
The film, of course, centers on Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-astronaut-cum-farmer in a future agrarian society ravaged by a blight that’s claimed all the Earth’s crops but corn. With humanity’s days clearly numbered, he’s tasked with leading the spaceship Endurance through a wormhole into another galaxy to find a habitable planet to colonize. Thanks to a trio of prior expeditions, dubbed NASA’s Lazarus missions, three potentially viable planets have been discovered orbiting the black hole Gargantua: Miller, Edmunds, and Mann, named after the astronauts who found them.
Endurance’s first stop doesn’t pass muster, boasting towering waves and no sign of dry land. After some serious drama and with the ship low on fuel, they can only visit one more planet so they opt for Mann, since its probe is still transmitting promising information.
But when the ship arrives at the planet, they discover Dr. Mann—played by none other than Matt Damon. Soon, they realize that Mann was sending out false data so they’d rescue him. Damon’s appearance in the film was kept strictly under wraps, with the actor doing no press for the movie and his name redacted from synopses and cast lists.
“I like the idea that people are surprised by who he is when we get there,” Nolan tells The Daily Beast. “And ‘Mann’ is a weighty name, definitely. But once I christened him that, I felt I had to go for it. I did apologize to Michael Mann, too. I told him, ‘It’s not intended as an affront!’”
As far as Mann’s motivations are concerned, Nolan views it as very cut-and-dry.
“It’s very straightforward: selfishness and cowardice,” he says. “It’s very human, and I love what Matt did with that; he found the reality of it. It’s the kind of sequence where you loathe the guy because he’s doing something that you feel you might wind up doing in a similar situation. It’s very logical, but the rationalization of it is extraordinary—the way he was able to rationalize his own cowardice into a positive thing. Loneliness and desperation will make us do crazy things.”
After they wake Mann from his slumber, he leads Cooper off on a walk around the icy, seemingly uninhabitable planet to prove its viability. Then, he turns on Cooper and attacks him. A space fistfight ensues, and Mann head-butts Cooper’s helmet visor until it cracks, and leaves him to die. According to Nolan, the mutiny sequence was largely inspired by the one in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is consumed by greed over the group’s treasure and loses his mind.
“I watch a lot of old movies with my kids and I become very inspired by them, so the sequence was inspired by two things in particular: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an adventure story that’s taking a group of characters, putting them against the elements, and seeing what they’re made of and where that goes, and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which I think is an extraordinary examination of base human motives and what humans become when you strip everything away.”
After he leaves Cooper to die, he steals Endurance and hopes to initiate “Plan B” (using fertilized embryos to start a human colony) on Edmunds’s planet.“He’s not exactly crazy,” Nolan says of Mann. “It’s weirdly logical, but appallingly selfish. The only outcome to the mission for him was [a colony]. I think, and it’s something we talked a lot about—and it’s something he says in the film—that there was no doubt in his mind that his was going to be the planet, his was going to be the mission. So whatever the risks, he felt very confident. And when he’s confronted by the bleak reality of just dying out there alone, it all starts to unravel.”
When pressed about his explanation on Interstellar’s confounding, highly interpretable ending, Nolan kept mum.
“No way, man!” he says. “You’re just going to have to go back and see it again. It’s there for you to make what you make of it. People do always have radically different interpretations of things I put in there, but I know what I think and I don’t like it to have any more validity than the experience you have watching it.”
Well, there you have it, folks.