Rocket ships are giant dicks, ripping their way up into empty expanse of space. Our language for exploration - space and otherwise - is loaded with imagery of sexualized conquest. We penetrate the unknown and land on virgin lands. It is all, as our own Britt Hayes noted, aggressively masculine.
In Interstellar Christopher Nolan examines the aggressively masculine aspects of exploration and space travel, but in doing so sounds the death knell for it. This isn’t a movie celebrating the masculinity and penises of explorers, it’s a movie that is about moving past them.
The film features Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, the iconic spirit of an age of adventure, an age that has passed. He gets his one shot at being the sort of dick-forward explorer he knew he could be as part of the effort to save humanity from a dying Earth; while he thinks that he’s launching into space to bring everyone with him - to be the trailblazer, the pathfinder - he’s actually working as a great big space cock. His true mission is to seed human life on distant worlds, leaving Earth behind forever. He’s moving on from his mother to another woman and basically knocking her up with humanity.
Except that he fails, and he is cockblocked by a character with the stultifyingly on-the-nose name of Dr. Mann. Dr. Mann is supposed to be the best of us, but he’s just as craven and self-serving as all the other ‘great men’ of history, a man who places himself (read: personal glory, riches, sex) ahead of the well-being of others. So Cooper blows it, unable to finish his mission.
But his mission has been bullshit all along. His giant space schlong, tearing asunder the atmosphere as it slides into space, is absolutely outdated by the end of the movie. While all of the main characters are running around trying to figure out how to use their rocket cocks to aggressively conquer other worlds the true mission has been happening on Earth, a mission the film bizarrely downplays.
Back on Earth Murphy, Cooper’s daughter, works on math that will remove rockets from the equation altogether. Scientifically speaking rockets are inefficient - we need to put so much fuel in them to take off that they cannot carry as much as we’d like. The fuel itself makes it heavier, requiring more fuel, and so and so on. The weight of humanity is too much for the rocket. The penis cannot save humans - all it can do is leave them behind.
What Murph is working on is an equation that will counteract gravity, allowing huge amounts of weight to be lifted off the Earth without the need for aerodynamic, phallic rocket ships. All of a sudden space travel isn’t about the violent eruption of a rocket, it’s about the calm negation of gravity. The physics of rocket science are about struggling against gravity, while Murph’s equation is about fully understanding gravity so it can work for you.
More than that, humanity’s future lies within a tube. There’s a reason why the space station in Saturn’s orbit is never truly seen from the exterior in the movie - Nolan is emphasizing the womb-like aspect of the tubular station, which encloses and protects all within. From the outside the tube would look like yet another space dick, but from within we see it as the cradling embrace of a vagina. The future of humanity isn’t about explorers going forward alone, it’s about everybody traveling together as a group, in a cohesive unit. Humanity is saved not by the masculine forward drive but by the feminine group dynamic.
Cooper finds himself a literal relic in this future. He was a man out of time in his own lifetime, but in the future of Cooper Station he’s an actual museum piece. In some ways this shift happens offscreen, but the reality is that it’s all subtlly happening before our eyes. Dr. Mann and the elder Professor Brand are, along with Cooper, avatars of masculinity - selfish, secretive, condescending. They’re individualists first and foremost, making decisions for humanity as opposed to with humanity. And they’re driven by cold, calculating logic, the fallback position of many selfish, evil men. Professor Brand’s decision to sacrifice all life on Earth for the future of humanity is the exact sort of masculine, ‘rational’ thinking that got humanity into such trouble in the first place.
At the beginning it seems as if the film agrees with these men. We even see the biggest threat the explorers face is a very feminine one - the tidal dangers of an alien planet, tying into the tidal cycle of menstruation (the whole fucking planet is PMSing at the explorers). After that there’s an emtire sequence where Cooper basically browbeats Amelia Brand into foregoing emotion for cold, hard logic, leaving behind her lover and instead heading to Dr. Mann’s planet. But we discover that the logic was wrong, the planet is uninhabitable and Dr. Mann is a terrible character written in depressingly broad strokes. Even if the other planet wasn’t habitable, going there would have been a less terrible choice than the logical decision indicated. Amelia was right, even if math couldn’t prove it.
By the end the movie shows that not only is Cooper’s specific brand of masculinity a charmingly antique way of looking at the universe, it shows that humanity will eventually evolve far beyond his type. The humans of the future, the humans who open the wormhole near Saturn*, have evolved to become fifth-dimensional beings, surely leaving our concepts of gender far behind.
Nothing Cooper does means anything until he gets into the fifth-dimensional space of the black hole (yes, most of the film’s running time is a waste and has little meaning), and once he has gone in - one final act of penetration - his mission is no longer to boldly go forward but to learn to communicate. Communication has never been of importance to Cooper - how masculine is it that the Endurance, once it crosses the wormhole, can hear people from Earth but cannot communicate back? - and so this becomes his biggest challenge. To Cooper the future has always been an undiscovered country, but he learns here the future is inextricably tied in to the past, and to the way he feels.
While Interstellar seems to be all about conquering heroes planting flags in virgin soil, the reality is that it’s about humanity’s need to get past this kind of shit, to move forward in harmonious communication. It’s a movie about the death of the dick.
*interesting note about the choice to have Saturn be the destination: besides being an homage to the original novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture - growth and life and fertility, all very feminine things. Humanity’s future lies there.