I was talking to someone about movies recently, and during the course of the conversation I mentioned the name of the song played during Dr. Mann’s betrayal in the movie Interstellar: “Coward”. The person I was talking to didn’t think it was fair; after all, Mann was only trying to complete the mission, right? I thought that maybe she had a good point. But the more I thought about it, the more I disagreed. After wasting a bunch of time that I could have used being productive ruminating about the motivations of a fictional character in a sci-fi movie, I have come to the conclusion that Mann was a coward from the very beginning.
I began to doubt Mann when I recalled his dialog during his attempted murder of Cooper. Specifically the lines “When I left Earth, I thought I was prepared to die. Truth is, I never really considered the possibility that my planet wasn’t the one.” and “You’re feeling it, aren’t you? Your survival instinct. That’s what drove me. It’s what drives all of us. And it’s what’s going to save us.” Either quote by itself is innocent enough, but when paired together they paint a different picture. According to his own words, Mann didn’t truly think he was risking his life in the Lazarus mission. He hadn’t really been prepared to risk crashing onto a desolate rock and dying alone, just to give others a better chance of survival. He was completely confident that his planet would be the lucky winner. And his motivation for doing so? Not for family or loved ones back on Earth (an earlier scene in the movie says he has none), not for a sense of duty, or even a vague, altruistic love of humanity. It was only for an inward facing survival instinct. An instinct that drove him to deceive everyone at NASA, except for his co-conspirator Dr. Brand. Dr. Brand at least was willing to stay behind on the doomed planet, to make sure that the new human colony and his daughter got away to potential safety. Mann just made sure that HE was one of the ones to make it off the planet alive.
The second reason I think Mann wasn’t just innocently trying to complete the mission is his deliberate and deceptive actions prior to attempting to steal the Endurance. It would be one thing if after being thawed out he had said “I’m sorry, I couldn’t handle the loneliness. There’s nothing for us here. Let’s go to the next planet”. Instead, he went as far as to forge ideal fake readings from the non-existent surface of the planet. When the robot that had been sent to assist him wouldn’t lie, he disabled it and rigged it to explode, should any human see the planet’s real readings. This wasn’t just a spur of the moment “steal the ship and complete the mission before they try to go back to Earth” type of plan. This was plotted out well in advance. And why would he do it? If you remember back when the main character and his daughter first get to NASA, Mann is called a hero and “the best of us”. Back on Earth he is revered, and he knows it. I think that he planned to kill whoever came to rescue him, so that he could continue to be a “hero” in the new interplanetary human colony.
In conclusion, I think Mann really was a coward. Earlier in the movie, the main character’s father-in-law says “Never trust the right thing done for the wrong reasons”. Going on the Lazarus mission was the right thing to do, but I think Mann only did it to save his own skin.