In Interstellar, the theme of sacrifice is layered beautifully into its plot. Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan uses this theme roughly three distinct times at key moments to showcase his thesis point for the film. The first is Joseph Cooper leaving Murph for a chance to save the world. The second is Doctor Mann using Cooper, Amelia Brand and Romilly for his own needs. The third being Cooper heroic sacrifice to save Amelia’s life. Nolan’s Interstellar is a very dense, complex and layered film, yet the simple theme of sacrifice thread many of its elements together.
Cooper making the decision to leave his kids for the opportunity to save humanity was the first true sacrifice made in the film. With the Earth becoming a dying planet with little chance of survival, Cooper was shown an opportunity to save the world at the cost of his own family. Cooper was brought to a Space Station for a reason he, at first, was not aware of. This team of pilots needed to be sent to space in order to save human life on Earth. Their mission is to find a inhabitable planet allowing human life to survive. When Cooper is first told of the idea of going to space, he’s a bit hesitant but later realizes this is what he was put on the earth to do. He finds his life’s purpose but in order to fulfill his purpose, he is put in a situation where he must sacrifice seeing his own kid grow up, graduate school, get married, or even having kids of their own. He leaves all of that on the table to go on a mission that is close to suicidal. To sacrifice all of that just for a slight possibility to save the world gives the film real weight and an emotional pull that carries throughout the rest of the film. Nolan executes this aspect of the film really well and continues to do so as the film evolves.
The Essence of Dr. Mann represents sacrifice in multiple ways. Dr. Mann was said to be dead for many years. In the film, Amelia Brand, Cooper and Romily visit a planet called Mann, named after Dr. Mann himself. They find Dr. Mann, who was thought to be deceased for a long time. Here, the theme of sacrifice is not inward, but outward. Originally thought to believe he wants the greater good for humanity, Mann’s only true goal was to return home. He lies about data that states that the planet he has been stuck on for years is inhabitable, when in reality it wasn’t. Sacrifice leads to selfishness and ultimately leads to death in this case as Mann’s lies and betrayals kill members of the team and ultimately lead to his own death. Sacrifice of others is apparent here and adds to the larger theme in Interstellar. Nolan’s point here is to show the parallels between the two sacrifices in the film so far. Cooper’s own sacrifice to save the world and Mann’s sacrifice to save himself.
The third act of the film provides the final sacrifice to tie the film, its themes, and its plot together. With the final challenge to return home after a failed journey, Cooper discovers there is not enough fuel to send both himself and Brand home. So he decides that Amelia should be the one to make it back instead of himself. Cooper compassion, courage, and leadership are displayed in one take and proves why he was born for this mission. His sacrifice at this point to send Amelia home at the cost of his own life represents atonement for the lost lives in this mission due to Mann, and atonement for his own sacrifice of leaving his children behind for the sake of an ultimately faux mission. In the process of sending Dr. Brand home, Cooper is lucky enough to get back home himself through future technology his daughter Murph discovered. It is here that everything comes together. If Cooper did not sacrifice to leave Murph in the first act of the film, humanity dies. This initial sacrifice led to the chain of events that not only that led to him back home decades later but also fulfilling the promise of coming back to Murph in the first place.
Christopher Nolan embedded the idea of sacrifice through multiple layers of Interstellar. The trio of sacrifices discussed here represent the greatness and flaws of humanity while also showing concepts of destiny, hope, and selfishness. In Cooper’s case, every decision he made had a greater outcome in the end because he did not make those decisions for a selfish reasons. His original sacrifice was for a chance to save the world, and his final sacrifice was a chance to his save one person. Contrasting to this is Doctor Mann, someone who sacrificed humanity for a chance to save himself, ultimately leading to his own destruction. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan brilliantly tied one of the most human characteristics, sacrifice, into one of his most ambitious films.