NB: This article contains major spoilers for Interstellar.
Whatever your opinion of Interstellar, it’s difficult to fault the scale of Christopher Nolan’s odyssey. Propelled by great blasts from composer Hans Zimmer’s church organs, Interstellar explores both the fragility of human relationships and the enormity of the universe, our need for interconnection and also our desire to strike out and explore the unknown.
From its genesis, Interstellar was a movie with big ideas. Beginning life in 2006 as a project for Steven Spielberg to direct, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) was hired to pen the script, based on an original concept by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Jonathan worked on the project for several years before Spielberg departed, and when Christopher Nolan took on Interstellar in 2012, he began to greatly rework its events to reflect his own ideas and filmmaking style.
This naturally begs an interesting question: what was Interstellar like when it was still a Steven Spielberg project? A draft of Jonathan Nolan’s script written in 2008 has the answer, and we couldn’t resist delving in to find out what secrets it holds…
Humanity on the brink
For the first 50 pages, the 2008 draft of Interstellar is strikingly similar to the version now in theaters. In the near future, a blight has affected the world’s vegetation, leaving our planet teetering on the brink of ecological collapse. Thirty-something engineer and pilot Cooper (played, of course, by Matthew McConaughey in the film) ekes out a living in the dirt, salvaging materials to keep his farm machinery going and looking after his two sons, 15-year-old Tom and 10-year-old Murph.
The chance discovery of a secret space program run by a remnant of NASA gives Cooper the opportunity of a lifetime: to join a last-ditch mission to journey through a wormhole in space, touch down on a planet on the other side of the universe, and see whether it could be used as a new home for Earth’s dwindling population.
In broad terms, this is all familiar stuff. But even in these early pages, things are subtly different. For one thing, the ‘ghosts’ Murph finds loitering in Cooper’s house are conspicously absent. Instead, Murph and Cooper are led to NASA’s secret base by a mysterious American probe which falls from the sky and lands in a Galveston field.
Cooper follows a signal emited by the probe, and finds NASA’s base beneath an overgrown Santa Cruz Island. Here, elderly scientist John Brand and his biologist daughter Amelia explain what they’ve been up to. Fifty years earlier, a wormhole was discovered in our solar system, presumably placed their by an unknown alien intelligence. Brand’s team have spent years sending probes into the wormhole and waiting for them to return with information about what lies on the other side. None returned – until now.
With Cooper’s help, Brand and two other scientists, Doyle and Roth, manage to pull some valuable data from the battered probe: namely, details of an ice planet with oxygen in its atmosphere which could serve as a possible new home. Spurred on by this new discovery, the team organize a mission to the planet with Cooper invited to replace the elderly Brand as one of the four human explorers – the others being Amelia, Doyle, and Roth.
What’s notable about the story up to this point is how fast-moving it is; while the script spends time introducing all the characters, including Cooper’s ornery father-in-law Donald, and establishing the world’s gloomy resignation at its fate, it positively tears from plot point to plot point. The tone is of an unfolding adventure rather than a solemn tiptoe into the unknown.
It could be that this is Spielberg’s popcorn-infused lightness of touch coming through in the screenplay. The robots here aren’t the faintly ominous ambulant slabs from Nolan’s film, but the humanoid, expressive thinking machines of Spielberg’s A.I. The robot TARS is described as wearing a straw hat when we first meet him – an almost Miyazaki-esque idea – and both he and CASE remain a reassuring and sweetly sardonic presence through much of the story.
Even the dusty apocalypse, so chillingly rendered in Nolan’s final film, is dealt with slightly differently in the 2008 script. Some of the descriptions are similarly disturbing – swathes of California are abandoned, and battleships lie at the bottom of the sea – but others are disarmingly light. Shortly before Cooper and Murph find the underground base, they spot some red berries growing on the ground. “Don’t touch them,” Cooper advises, not realising they’re strawberries. It’s a clever, incidental illustration of how long the slow environmental collapse has gone on, and how it’s effected the story’s characters – not unlike Murph’s earlier question at a baseball match: “What’s a hot dog?”
Into the unknown
It’s when Cooper and the rest of the crew aboard the Endurance set off through the wormhole that the 2008 script veers off on a wildly different tangent. First, they encounter some mysterious spherical disturbances as they journey through the portal, which float around before abruptly vanishing. Then, the crew’s plan to catapult around a small black hole to get to the ice planet goes wrong, and TARS sacrifices himself in the process of helping the Endurance on its way.
On the ice planet, the explorers make a surprising discovery: a Chinese base camp, covered in snow and apparently abandoned. It turns out that the Chinese had stumbled on the wormhole at around the same time the Americans did 50 years earlier, and sent off its own manned mission to the planet without Brand’s team realizing it.
The threat of a radiation blast from a nearby neutron star forces Coop and his compatriots to explore the base further. Venturing down a hole drilled into the ice, they find an incredible underground world, vaguely akin to the one described by Jules Verne in his novel Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
There’s an ocean, mountains, and exotic alien organisms: a forest turns out to be what Amelia calls “fractal wildlife” – sentient vegetation that can break apart and reform at will. Further discoveries are made: the Chinese explorers were killed by solar radiation, but their robots had journeyed down here and built a gigantic base, where human survivors could thrive far beneath the ice. But by the time the base was built, the Chinese government had collapsed, and survivors were never sent.
Left to their own devices, the robots then took off in a rocket to explore the rest of the system, and near a black hole called Gargantua, found what a recording describes simply as “treasure.” The robots had also built a device which can manipulate gravity – something Cooper quickly realizes could be used create huge ark-like ships which could save just about everyone back on Earth.
Just as they realize this, things start to go wrong. First, a star map in the Chinese base reveals that the ice planet is far from a useful home; within a decade, it will be torn apart by a black hole. Then Cooper’s team realizes that the Chinese had captured the Americans’ probes to keep them from discovering the planet. Worse still, several Chinese-built robots are still patrolling the forest around the base, and they’re determined to prevent the Americans from leaving with all this new information.
In a great action sequence, Cooper and his compatriots manage to escape the planet; Roth uses the gravity device to help their damaged ship take off, sacrificing himself in the process. Vitally, Cooper managed to bring with him an American space probe he’d found at the Chinese base, and load it with the instructions required to build one of those gravity devices. If they can get these instructions back to Earth, he reasons, then there’ll still be time to save humanity.
Then, Brand makes another disturbing discovery: their earlier brush with the rim of a black hole has distorted time more than they’d expected, and on Earth, 47 years will have already passed. To make matters worse, they have a stowaway on board: one of the Chinese robots. Cooper manages to disable it, but not before the robot has ejected most of the Endurance’s nuclear drives. “I’m sorry,” the robot says, chillingly. “My orders. No one follows.”
All is lost
With the chance of saving Earth now well beyond their grasp, the remaining crew aboard the weakened Endurance decide to knock on one final door: they aim to learn the identity of the ‘treasure’ found by the Chinese robots near the Gargantua black hole.
You’ll probably recall that the cinematic version of Interstellar took a turn for the head-scratchingly abstract in its final third. The 2008 screenplay is, again, strikingly different.
At Gargantua, the crew on the Endurance discovers a second, much larger wormhole. Travelling through it, they again encounter the gravitational disturbances they met before, which they realize are sentient beings, capable of manipulating gravity in much the same way the aliens in James Cameron’s The Abyss manipulated water.
These almost invisible beings guide the Endurance to something entirely unexpected:
A gigantic space station.
Climbing aboard it, they realise that it’s been built by human hands – hands far more advanced than our own. Incredibly, TARS is here – he’d survived his fall into the black hole earlier in the film, and having drifted for decades, found the space station on the other side of the wormhole, as Cooper’s team has.
Thanks to the time dilation, TARS has been here for three centuries, which for Cooper has passed in a matter of hours. TARS delivers a further revelation: the Chinese robots built the space station over the course of four millennia. The ‘treasure’ they’d reported back about was time. “Enough time to let us save ourselves,” Amelia says.
Here, in the bulk outside our universe, time passes more slowly than elsewhere, and the robots used that time to construct the station and invent unimaginably advanced technologies. One of these was the gravity device. Another is the ship’s energy source: it’s powered by a tiny black hole. They’d even figured out how to build wormholes, dozens of them.
The last thing the robots ever did was try to travel through one of the wormholes, hoping that it would lead them back in time to a point where humanity still exists. Brand is certain that the robots’ mission failed, but Doyle, his tempers frayed and desperate to return home, resolves to take a craft from the space station and go through one of the wormholes. Cooper, realizing that the American probe he discovered back on Earth is the same as the one he discovered on the ice planet, tries to dissuade Doyle from going, but Doyle heads off anyway, taking the probe with him.
We see Doyle’s craft disintegrate on its path through the wormhole, but the probe survives, glances off a satellite, and falls to Earth, where Cooper found it back at the start of the film. Over the course of several years, we see Murph tinker with the probe, extracting its data and building a device from it as he grows from teenager to parent. Eventually, it’s his daughter that manages to create an early version of the gravity device which will one day save our species.
The story’s conclusion is more akin to the ending Christopher Nolan brought to us in the big-screen Interstellar. Cooper and Brand have separated, Brand heading off in search of a habitable planet, Cooper back to Earth.
Cooper lands on his home planet in the year 2320, and finds an icy husk: remnants of his old house remain, but all traces of life are long gone. Exhausted, he begins to succumb to the freezing cold. With his last ounce of strength, he discovers a sample of the strange fractal lifeform he’d rescued from the planet on the other side of the universe, before finally blacking out.
Then: rescue. Cooper wakes up aboard another space station, this one cylindrical and teeming with activity. There are cornfields stretching up its curved interior. Cows graze in pasture. Children play baseball. The Earth may be gone, but thanks to the information stored on Cooper’s probe, humanity has survived.
Cooper himself is still a man out of time. Murph, Tom, and everyone he knew are long gone. But he’s given a small consolation. Waiting for him in a hospital bed lies an elderly man called Anthony Cooper Welling: Cooper’s great, great grandson, the final thread connecting him to the past and those he loved.
Interstellar ends with cautious optimism. On Earth, the fractal lifeform’s glowing mass spreads thrives, its glow lighting up the icy wastes and hinting that, one day, the planet may again be habitable. It also suggests that the benevolent aliens that opened the wormholes may have done it for this species’ salvation, and not humanity’s. Then there’s Cooper, whose hunger for exploration remains unsated. Reunited with TARS, he steals a space craft and blasts off into the void in the search for Amelia.
From Spielberg to Nolan
In terms of its tone and its events, the 2008 script reads like a Spielberg film from start to finish, and it’s easy to see why Christopher Nolan would want to turn it to his style of filmmaking. Nolan’s films overwhelmingly rely on in-camera work rather than digital effects, and this incarnation of Interstellar would have required a staggering amount of CG – how else would you create those strange lifeforms Cooper finds beneath the ice planet?
Instead, Nolan has the crew of the Endurance encounter giant waves and a rampaging Matt Damon rather than Chinese military robots or sentient fauna – all things that don’t rely on extensive VFX.
What’s most intriguing about Jonathan Nolan’s early draft is that the grand speeches of the final film are missing. There are no readings from Dylan Thomas. Discussions about the mechanics of wormholes and spacetime are kept to a minimum. Amelia Brand doesn’t get her speech about love being a universal constant. As a result, this version of the story is unabashedly a rip-roaring adventure – albeit one inspired by all sorts of great hard SF novels. Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Greg Bear’s Eon, and Frederik Pohl’s Gateway are but three genre classics that came to mind as we read the script.
It’s clearly the story between Cooper and Murph that most interested Chris Nolan, since the bond between father and daughter was greatly played up in the director’s film. His ending gave Cooper a more direct contact with Murph, as he manages to communicate with her via something called a Tesseract – a device built by future humans which provides a connection between different points in time and space. It’s a more abstract concept for audiences to get their heads around than a space station with wormholes inside it, but there’s no denying that the Tesseract looks like nothing we’ve seen before.
Reading through the 2008 draft, there are all kinds of things we can’t help wishing we could have seen on the silver screen: the sentient trees, the Chinese base deep beneath an ice planet, the 4,000 year-old spaceship on the otherside of the wormhole. But then again, it’s possible that all these things would have been difficult to realize without the budget spiralling out of control, and it’s arguable that Nolan brought his own interesting concepts to Interstellar, too – those unusual robots, with their boxy limbs, the convincing and oddly scary hypersleep tanks.
For the most part, Nolan’s film is more serious in tone than the 2008 script – it lacks, for example, the cute flourishes like the sample of a fractal creature, which Amelia keeps as a kind of pet for a large chunk of the story. But at the same time, Nolan also goes for a more sentimental, saccharine ending than his brother did in 2008. Ultimately, Cooper keeps his promise to Murph, and they meet again – albeit fleetingly – on the cylindrical space station in the film’s dying moments. The earlier screenplay offers less comfort, and Cooper’s meeting with his great, great grandson is less an emotional reunion than a reminder of what Cooper has had to sacrifice in order to save humanity.
Which ending you prefer will depend quite a bit on your personal tastes, and it’s at least true that each version contains a knotty paradox to think about. In both 2008 script and 2014 film, Cooper sends something back in time – a probe in the former, a morse code signal in the latter – to save humanity. Without the probe or the signal, Cooper would never have stumbled on NASA’s secret mission, gone into space, and sent the probe (or signal) back in time. Round and round it goes, the snake choking on its own tail.
Whatever you make of Interstellar, Nolan dared to make the kind of sci-fi movie that is becoming increasingly rare: an epic story in the mould of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. With that 2008 screenplay as his launchpad, Nolan crafted a cinematic experience that is sure to be discussed and rewatched for many years to come.
For one such example check out our related article Interstellar: A Secular End Times Myth, which attempts to explore one of the major changes Nolan made by removing alien life from this story.