Case study (Part 3) Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014)

Contains Spoilers

The flashback concerns a representation of the past that intervenes within the present flow of film narrative. (Turim, 2013)

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar (2014) a film by Christopher Nolan. Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey is coerced into piloting a space mission to save the human race from a dying Earth. Earth is experiencing a blight, its crops are failing, the soil blown across the land in an endless cloud of dust, much like the 1930’s American Dust Bowl. The mission is a lie there is no workable plan to save the Earth, the true mission is to locate a habitable planet and populate it with the human embryos carried aboard the spacecraft, the Earth and its people to be abandoned to their fate.


Interstellar Exploring Mann’s planet of ice

Flashbacks are used to link Cooper back to his past and to his daughter when she was a child on the family farm. On Mann’s ice planet Cooper, his faceplate cracked in the attempt on his life by Dr. Mann, Cooper struggles to breathe on the ice planet, flashback with a jump cut to the scene where Cooper presents his daughter with a watch. The watch a duplicate of his own, his intention that they can compare times when he arrives home from his mission in space. The flashback ends as Murphy flings the watch away from her and we cut back to the scene of Cooper on the planet still struggling to breathe. The reason for the flashback is not clear at this time, but later in the course of the film we will understand the importance of the watch, there’s usually always a reason for introducing something new into a film.

Interstellar Sending Binary code using the second hand of the watch

This watch is how Cooper communicates the essential data back to an older Murphy using binary code through the second hand of this watch. Murphy then uses this data so that she can complete the work on the gravity calculations and save the people of the Earth from the blight. In this case it could be argued to appear to be exactly as Bordwell says “The flashback is not presented as an overt explanation on the narration’s part; the narration simply presents what the character is recalling.” There does not seem to be a reason for Cooper to remember this memory from his past in this the moment of his imminent death from asphyxiation. However the flashback sequence does appear to fill a gap in the narration and presents a reminder to the spectator of the importance of the two watches as the film progresses.

Interstellar Inside the Tesseract BTS

In another flashback near to the end of the film, Cooper enters the Black Holes event horizon. He sees Murph and himself repeated ad infinitum, throughout the three-dimensional space created by the fifth-dimensional beings (we later suspect from Tars to be humans from the future). Each version a flashback in itself, back to memories of Coopers and Murphy’s past, these memories of receiving what we now know are messages that appear within her bedroom. The books fallen from the bookshelves attributed by Murphy’s to the poltergeist, also the altered gravity revealed by the tracks in the dust. The answer to Murphy’s poltergeist and the manipulation of objects and gravity is her own father in a future three-dimensional space where while in the Tesseract he pushes against the books from a relative position in space but seemingly behind the bookcase. Strumming the strings of gravity to create the gravity lines in the dust on Murphy’s bedroom floor.
Jump cut to the memory of Cooper slamming shut Murphy’s bedroom window as the dust storm rages around the house revealing the gravity tracks in the dusty floor, we see Cooper of the future as he sees himself close the window while looking through the back of the bookcase.
In a final flashback after Cooper has delivered his message the data from Tars that is needed to complete the gravity calculations using the second hand of the watch to count out binary data to an older version of Murphy.

Interstellar Cooper reaches out to Brand from within the Tesseract

Cooper reaches out to Brand in the past as the Endurance space-ship travels through the wormhole. It is Cooper hand that reached through the ship to Brand as the Endurance entered the Black Hole the first time.
Interstellar can be a confusing film as it involves time and space, theoretical physics and astronomy. The majority of the flashbacks are centred around Coopers memories of his daughter Murphy and her, as its turned-out well-founded belief that someone was trying to send her a message. But some of the older versions of Murphy that Cooper viewed from within the Tesseract were from a time after Cooper had left the Earth and therefore Cooper could not have been present at these points in time and therefore this flashback could not be derived from his own personal memory, so it could be argued that this is an example of a prosthetic memory. As Landsberg says “ …prosthetic memories are those not strictly de-rived from a person’s lived experience… (Landsberg, 2004) p2. This flashback, takes the spectator back to the moment when in the spaceship Endurance and when Brand is explaining to Cooper that time can only go forward not backward. The only proviso to this statement being that a race, so far in the future, that had found a way to manipulate time itself, which of course they interact with through the time manipulation evident in the Tesseract scenes. The Tesseract created by five-dimensional beings and constructed for them inside the Black Hole presumably so that Cooper could look back in time and communicate with Murphy, a Murphy from his past. Cooper could see into the past but Cooper himself could not return to the past physically and as the Tesseract closes, he is left to drift somewhere in the region of space near Saturn.

Interstellar Cooper walks towards the recreation of his farmhouse on Cooper’s Space station

Cooper wakes in a Hospital bed but not a hospital on Earth revealed by Cooper leaving his hospital bed and seeing a totally enclosed World, a cylinder of a World where gravity has been mastered, where there is no true up or down. Cooper is finally reunited with the centenarian Murphy in the same space station orbiting Saturn, where Murphy encourages Cooper to seek out Brand who intends to colonise Edmunds World and follow plan B.

More case studies of flashbacks


  • Landsberg, A. (2004) Prosthetic Memory : The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. Available at:,shib&user=s1523151.
  • Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.

Technical specs

Runtime 2 hr 49 min (169 min)
Sound Mix Datasat | Dolby Digital | IMAX 6-Track | Dolby Surround 7.1 | Sonics-DDP (IMAX version)
Color Color (FotoKem)
Aspect Ratio 1.43 : 1 (70mm IMAX – some scenes)
1.78 : 1 (IMAX Blu-ray & 4K UHD – some scenes)
1.90 : 1 (Digital IMAX – some scenes)
2.20 : 1 (70mm)
2.39 : 1
2.39 : 1 (35mm & Digital)
Camera Beaumont VistaVision Camera, Leica Lenses
IMAX MSM 9802, Hasselblad and Mamiya Lenses
Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision C-, D-, E-Series and Ultra Speed Golden Lenses
Laboratory FotoKem Laboratory, Burbank (CA), USA (also prints)
Film Length 17,114.9 m (49 reels) (IMAX 70 mm)
4,582 m (Spain)
4,630.65 m (8 reels) (35 mm)
Negative Format 35 mm (also horizontal) (Kodak Vision3 50D 5203, Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
65 mm (horizontal) (Kodak Vision3 50D 5203, Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Cinematographic Process IMAX
Panavision (anamorphic)
VistaVision (some scenes)
Printed Film Format 35 mm (Kodak Vision 2383)
70 mm (also horizontal) (also IMAX DMR blow-up) (Kodak Vision 2383)