“Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future,” Joseph Cooper tells his daughter, Murphy, moments before he leaves for a humanity-saving, decades-long space mission in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Some Saturday afternoon a couple months ago, in front of a museum in downtown Manhattan, I asked my mother and father to introduce themselves to me. To tell me their names and if they’d been here before and where they were coming from today. As a dozen other people looked on, anticipating my guided tour of a historic apartment building, I pretended this man and this woman were strangers.
“New Hampshire?” I feigned ignorance. “Aw. My parents live up there.”
“Huh,” said my mother. “Small world.”
I’d encouraged them to pretend we didn’t know each other in a desperate bid to secure more tips from the remaining tour members. With directions painstaking enough to have me questioning my ethics, I told my parents where, when, and how they should slip me cash money upon the conclusion of my tour. I’d led enough of them to know that peer pressure can be a beautiful tool. An Upper East Sider starts fiddling around in his wallet as I’m sharing our exit route out of the building and suddenly I’m walking back to the break room with my own dowry. But despite never breaking character and my dad slipping me a $20 exactly how I’d instructed, I came up dry. Deservedly, perhaps.
But it wasn’t for nothing. Because even in the midst of the tour—telling the stories of real families who lived these real lives here a hundred-something years ago—I felt the gravity of this little dynamic. That I was giving my parents one of the very few chances they’d ever have to see their son all alone out in the world. Witnessing him navigate it and engage with it and be spoken to by adults who didn’t know his mother and father were in that same room and would feel no need to be gentle because of it. But it was with a twinkle in my eye, a constellation I hoped they could put a name to, that I kept returning my gaze to my parents. And upon finding them there, as removed from each other as we might have been, as fictitiously destroyed as our shared world had become, feeling so immensely like their son.
Even on a production level, Interstellar understands being a child lost out in space. Nearly a decade before the film’s release, Steven Spielberg was attached to the script. It had an altogether similar trajectory to Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, a movie that orbited in pre-production for decades: Stanley Kubrick wrote and rewrote film treatments, agreeing to direct before deciding against it, returning time and again to the idea of passing it along to Spielberg. He eventually would, and Spielberg brought his distinctly saccharine approach to the story of a robotic child installed, perhaps cruelly, with a capacity for love.
And maybe that’s exactly what rendered David, this mechanical boy, a “Mecha,” not only the first of his kind but so very, very close to a child and all the implacable, unutterable loneliness that childhood so often entails. But after an accident that almost kills a “real” boy, David’s adopted father urges his wife, Monica, to return him to his makers and have him destroyed. Monica can’t do that. Despite her prior difficulties loving this manufactured son, she opts instead to abandon him out in the woods. But not before David pleads, “Why do you want to leave me? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you.”
In that pleading, he is real. He becomes just as real as Murphy, made of the flesh and blood and longing we’d expect from a human. David’s bargaining is not far afield from Murphy’s when she begs her father to “stay.” But despite the anguish, Cooper and Monica do leave their children. As biologically disparate as these kids prove, both longed so commensurately for the love of a parent, for the familiarity of home, for an environment that would nourish and nurture in worlds that otherwise have become so inhospitable, so plundered by man.
Earth is doomed in AI and Interstellar. Sea levels rise catastrophically in one, crops dwindle in the other. Cities disappear and corn is the only remaining harvest, strict caps are set on child-bearing and schools teach that the moon landing was fake, but the biological drive to reproduce continues. With the desire to parent comes someone’s need to be parented, which David and Murphy lose at too young an age to comprehend, because when these parents left their children, their best interests were at heart, even at the cost of becoming strangers.
Murphy, without a father, lives on a scorched earth. David, without his mom, exists in a drowned world. Their lots in life, already threatened by the climate crisis, are made all the more perilous by the loss of some guiding presence. They go searching. It takes them lifetimes. 23 years elapse on Earth during Cooper’s failed mission on a time-altered ocean world, and then a slingshot maneuver near the black hole Gargantua means another five decades pass by from there. Murphy becomes an old woman while her father hardly ages a day. David, with the assistance of an omniscient, Oz-like hologram and a submarine, finds himself in the submerged depths of Coney Island, seeking out the Blue Fairy: a mystical fixture of Pinnochio, who David hopes will make him into a real boy and effectively rekindle Monica’s love. Instead, a ferris wheel crashes down on David’s vessel, trapping him under the sea for two thousand years. And until his very source of power depletes, he looks into the dead eyes of that statued Blue Fairy, “she who smiled softly forever, she who welcomed forever... eventually the flood flights dimmed and died but David could still see her, palely, by day. And he still addressed her, in hope.”
In hope. As our characters hurtle through time and space and tesseracts, hope propels them, with the belief that despite the wrecked worlds we’ve inherited, maybe there’s still a chance to offer a world that might go on. By the end of both films, their respective ecological crises have, arguably, been averted. Humanity may be extinct in AI, but global warming has given way to a new Ice Age and a world populated by Mecha who have evolved into these alienoid, seemingly well-intended “Specialists.” Communicating across time periods and dimensions, through bookshelves and Morse Code, Cooper, a ghost of the man he once was, shares with his daughter the data she’d need to solve the equation for the survival of the human race. Yet as David is carved out from glacial ice and Murphy lies white-haired and oxygen-tubed on her deathbed, both of them cling as desperately as ever to the parents they spent all their lives missing. Their world is still in crisis, even when they finally get exactly what they’d always wanted.
Between genetic material and gravitational propulsion theory, parents are reunited with children. Monica has been dead for eons but David’s beloved robotic bear Teddy has kept a lock of her hair on him all that time, offering all that the Specialists would need to biologically recreate her. Ejected from a tesseract, Cooper wakes up on a Saturn-orbiting space habitat in time to kneel beside his now-elderly daughter’s hospital bed, assuring her, “I’m here, Murph.”
But these parents are already ghosts of their children’s future. Monica’s resurrection is an impossible process to repeat and she can only be back on earth for one single day. And Murphy, holding her father’s hand against her wrinkled face, tells him no parent should watch their child die; despite her girlhood pleas to stay, he needs to go. The lost child too often remains lost, haunted all their lives by this specter of a parent looking and sounding and loving precisely the way they had when they’d gone away. It’s too much to ask to get back love everlasting in a world sound enough to foster it, even in fantasy.
Back out on the curb, after leading them through the museum and returning that $20 bill to my father, we broke the spell. My boyfriend, also playing dumb, had joined them on the tour and as the four of us made our way down the block for dinner, these strangers became real to me again. They had the sweetest things to say about how I held myself, how knowledgeable I was, how I made them proud, and yet I hardly registered a word, too swept up in the relief of being back with these people who I knew and who knew me. Later that night, after parting ways with my parents, my boyfriend said to me, “They just adore you.” I can’t remember what I said in response, but I hope I saw them then in my mind, my mother and my father buckled in a car hurtling down highways at speeds humans were never made to know, and felt like their child.