In Part 1, I explored the science of the finished INTERSTELLAR movie. In this article I’ll wrap up some loose ends from the first article, go into the nearly decade-long history of INTERSTELLAR, summarize the first draft of the script from when it was a Spielberg project, and explain what I thought about the differences.
Thanks for the great response to the first article. Plenty of people had thoughtful things to say, and there were interesting debates and clever insights in the talkbacks. There were also plenty of people saying, “It is just a movie — turn off your brain and enjoy it.” The implication here is that this is just the nature of movies, and you shouldn’t fight it. I disagree — in every film, millions of deliberate choices are made, and they don’t have to go against what we know about the universe. I think it is fine to bend the rules to tell a better story, but you need to be self-consistent, avoid huge plot holes, and at least think through the consequences of your writing. Just be clever, not dumb.
But as I’ll explain in this article, I hold INTERSTELLAR to an ever higher standard, since it started out as a scientist’s idea of a film that would be fantastic in its scope, but be grounded in our understanding of the universe.
There were also plenty of comments implying that if you got the got the science right, the movie would be boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Say what you want about the dialog, but AVATAR nailed the science, as I wrote when it came out, and took that all the way to a $2.8 billion box office (sorry about the awful formatting on that article, it didn’t survive the site transition well). And I agree with James Cameron, who told me that in science, first you get the science right, then you fill in the story, whereas in science fiction, first you get the story right, then you fill in the science.
Actually, my main problem with INTERSTELLAR was the story. There were just too many things going on. The characters didn’t have time to develop into believable people. We never got to explore a planet. We never got to feel the awe and beauty of these amazing vistas. Humans are visiting another galaxy for the first time, and all they can do is dodge a tidal wave and have a fist fight.
Before I get started in earnest, I want to tie up some loose ends from my previous article. These are things other people brought up that either I should have written about in the first place or I should have explained better.
CRUZIN FOR IDIOCRACY
In my first article I implied that maybe NASA was so stupid in the future was because that’s what happens after years of leadership by people like Ted Cruz. Then I had a link to this article. Many people didn't follow the link and took that as a cheap shot at Republicans, but that wasn’t how I intended it at all.
NASA has done well under both Republicans and Democrats, and I strongly feel that science should be a bipartisan issue. The point made in that link was that Ted Cruz tried to tell the NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, incorrectly, what the core mission of NASA was — that it should focus on space missions and not science. Bolden isn’t just some bureaucrat — he's a former test pilot and astronaut. He knows exactly what he’s talking about, and told Cruz he was flat-out wrong. Cruz also denied the science about global warming and repeated “facts” about the science that are just wrong. And for the head-smacking Orwellian kicker, he said that scientists now call it climate change because there is no global warming, when he knows full well that it was a Republican strategist who introduced that term!
Cruz tries to wrap himself in the glory of space exploration while he himself tried to cut NASA funding. He also single-handedly shut down NASA as a political stunt for his own personal gain, which caused many of my friends serious hardship. Now you may say that Ted Cruz is just a grandstanding clown who has no power. But he does. He’s chair of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, who oversee NASA.
The point I was making was a specific one — when you have an enemy of NASA overseeing it, trying to meddle in it for political advantage, one who lies about the facts and denies science, and who cuts it and shuts it down, that’s exactly how you end up in a future with a bare-bones NASA full of morons in hiding.
In no way does that mean Republicans aren’t good for NASA. They have been some of NASA’s greatest allies over time, and many still are. The broad point is that when science is politicized, or when politicians meddle in science, we all lose. It doesn’t matter if the asshole doing it is a Republican or Democrat.
Ok, enough of that, onto real science!
JUST ONE DOX? NO A PARADOX
Cooper’s young self only knew the NASA coordinates because he got them from his old self. But his old self only got them from his young self. That’s a time paradox. I didn’t write about that because that just goes with the territory in time travel movies. And, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to write about it, since I had already lectured at length on time travel in my talk on the Science of DOCTOR WHO. But on further reflection, there are lots of ways of doing time travel, and the writers made a choice here. To explain them, I love this diagram!
The usual way out of these paradoxes is that the first time through the loop something different happened, but they are showing us some Nth loop. That doesn’t work here, because in the INTERSTELLAR universe there seems to be one timeline, but one that can be accessed out of order by advanced beings. When you travel to the past you are compelled to do the thing that you already experienced. That effectively means there’s no free will, which is at odds with some of the themes of taking charge of your own destiny in this film.
As I rewatched the film, I was struck by the fact that Cooper picked the time when Murph came back to her childhood bedroom to transmit the data via the watch. Ok, he does have this tesseract that can apparently show him any point in time. But if he hasn’t yet transmitted the data, does he see alternate futures? Does he see her picking up the watch and putting it down because he’s not transmitting? And if he hasn’t yet transmitted the data, and the bulk beings are future humans, how do they even exist? They should have all died. Again, the only way out is that in this universe, you are destined to do certain things. But again, that means there is no free will.
Incidentally, they kind of dodge this question by not showing what Cooper sees (which should be the older Murph) as he sends the gravity pulses. Maybe he can only visualize places and times where he was physically at. That lends credence to the theory that this is all in his mind, and he is actually dead in the black hole. However, that interpretation doesn’t hold water either, since it means that the first part of the movie doesn’t make sense — the ghost is something different and unexplained entirely.
COOPER JUST MAKES THINGS UP
At some point Cooper deduces that the bulk beings are future humans. However he has absolutely no evidence for this. And in fact, if he knew that, there is no reason for him to do anything to save the species (aside from get back to his daughter if he could), because it means that humanity survived. And how in the hell can you evolve into a different-dimensional being? So in all odds they are *not* humans. That’s why I insisted on calling them bulk beings in my article.
DANGER WILL ROBINSON
Another hole in the plot is that they didn’t really need to send humans on the survey missions. They have sentient robots! Robotic missions cost orders of magnitude less than manned ones, since you don’t have to take food or oxygen, and you don’t have to make the ship safe for humans. They wouldn’t have needed a giant spinning ship. You don’t need to even send the robot back.
The stated reason that they need to send humans is that they have a survival instinct. But they were sending people on suicide missions. You want the opposite of a survival instinct. In fact, that survival instinct of Dr. Mann’s almost screwed things up for all of humanity.
Now you may say, come on, this is a movie about the human urge to explore. That’s fine, but then just drop the robots from the film. Or make a movie where the humans are going out to check out a planet that the robots have already scouted. In fact that’s what the first draft did.
Ok, now a bit on the background and initial concept for INTERSTELLAR
WHO IS KIP THORNE?
I was wildly excited going in to INTERSTELLAR. First, indulge me in a little history lesson to understand why. The reason we call black holes by that name is because of John Wheeler. He was one of the preeminent experts in the golden age of research into general relativity that led to our modern understanding of black holes. While the name ‘black hole’ had been coined in 1964, it wasn’t in popular use, as you can see by watching early episodes of STAR TREK — in one they call what we now call a black hole a ‘dark star.’ But when John Wheeler started calling them ‘black holes’ in a lecture in 1967, the term stuck. Wheeler then trained his protege, Kip Thorne, who ultimately became a professor at Caltech, and is one of the greatest living authorities on black holes.
When Carl Sagan needed a viable form of interstellar travel for CONTACT, it was his friend Kip Thorne who came to the rescue with the idea of a wormhole (a term also coined by John Wheeler!). It was Kip Thorne and his graduate student Mike Morris who first seriously explored the idea of of traversable wormholes in general relativity (and using them as time machines) in a paper in 1988 (fallout from Carl Sagan calling Thorne in 1985 needing help with CONTACT). Since, it has become a staple of science fiction, due in no small part to his popular book on the subject, Black Holes and Time Warps (I got my hardback version signed by Dr. Thorne as a eager young student). Kip Thorne even cofounded the LIGO project, a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar experiment using lasers shot through kilometer-long evacuated tubes at multiple sites around the world to look for the distortions in spacetime known as gravitational waves. According Einstein’s theory of general relativity, when black holes and/or neutron stars spiral into each other, they cause ripples that stretch and squeeze the fabric of space itself. The LIGO/VIRGO team is on the verge of making the first detection of this, and I and my team are working with them to find any counterpart explosions using our network of visible-light telescopes.
So when the grandfather of wormholes, and one of the most successful directors working decide they want to make a movie about them, that’s about as big a deal I can think of. I live at the intersection of science and film myself, and that’s what this is at the highest levels! It is as if Albert Einstein decided to make a science fiction movie with Alfred Hitchcock in 1950 about some fun ideas he had.
Sadly, though, while beautiful, INTERSTELLAR just didn’t live up to the hype. It seems like a ton of short films all smashed together. And while each one is interesting, the sum is less than the parts. There are just too many things to juggle: blight, a family drama, the search for an equation, a gravitational anomaly, Cooper’s past, a journey through a wormhole to another galaxy, the tidal wave planet, the Matt Damon planet, crazed astronauts sabotaging things, crazed astronauts pining over their soulmates on yet another planet, super-advanced bulk beings, and hyperdimensional communication, to name a few. We never get the chance to soak in the awe and wonder of each new discovery — the characters have to summarize each development in rapid-fire so they can move on to the next shoehorned-in spectacle. Many plot points feel scripted instead of earned.
The disappointment of INTERSTELLAR was made doubly hard by the fact that there was a better version! Several even. For that, we have to get into the history of the project. For most of this section, I am relying on the amazing SCIENCE OF INTERSTELLAR book by Kip Thorne. Again, I can’t recommend it enough.
INTERSTELLAR was originally the brainchild of Kip Thorne, and producer Lynda Obst (who produced CONTACT). They had been set up on a blind date by Carl Sagan in 1980, and had dated for a while, before they eventually settled on being friends. Starting in 2005, the duo had an initial concept for the film involving wormholes and five-dimensional beings. In Kip Thorne’s words, “Most important to me was our vision for a blockbuster movie grounded from the outset in real science… A film that gives the audience a taste of the wondrous things that the laws of physics can and might create in our universe, and the great things humans can achieve by mastering the physical laws.” They set rules that nothing in the film would violate our understanding of the universe. Wild speculation was allowed, but it had to be based on ideas generated (or at least not dismissed) by respectable scientists.
Within a year, Spielberg had come on-board as a director. They even had a conference of more than a dozen top-level scientists across many fields to contribute ideas. They ended up with a 37 page treatment and a 16 page document about the science. Then Jonathan Nolan was brought on board as the screenwriter, though he had only written THE PRESTIGE and THE DARK KNIGHT at that point. Nolan produced several drafts of the script — the one I’m going to talk about below is dated March 12, 2008, which seems to me to be the first draft. Thorne says that between February, 2008, and June, 2009, Nolan produced three drafts. There were then various delays, but in June 2010, Spielberg dropped out. Christopher Nolan came on board soon after, but it was nearly two and a half years before the deal was finalized.
Christopher Nolan changed the project dramatically. Thorne says, “He combined Jonah’s script with the script from another project he’d been working on, and he injected a radically fresh perspective and a set of major new ideas— ideas that would take the movie in unexpected new directions.” He rewrote Johah’s screenplay himself, and threw out the directive that things be scientifically defensible. Thorne says he became friends with Christopher Nolan, and has almost entirely positive things to say about the process and the finished product of INTERSTELLAR. However, it is clear that Kip Thorne and Lynda Obst really lost control of their baby when Christopher Nolan took over.
The fact Christopher Nolan grafted on his own story, and had science take a backseat explains so much. INTERSTELLAR feels like a Frankenstein film. Meticulously worked-out sequences that show a deep reverence for science are jammed right next to segments that throw science out the window. Grand ideas are sometimes overshadowed by worn-out movie tropes.
I’ll summarize the first draft (which almost became a Spielberg film) below. But trust me, it is better to read the script yourself. Or if you can read this Slashfilm article about the differences from the finished film.
THE 2008 FIRST DRAFT OF INTERSTELLAR
It kicks off with a neutron star being ripped apart by a black hole, presumably Gargantua. The gravitational waves propagate outward until they are detected by LIGO [love the nod to Kip Thorne’s legacy]. The waves seem to come from within our own solar system, which is impossible. This is how astronomers know there is a wormhole — it must be happening in another galaxy. However, the NSA shuts them down.
Then we cut to 50 years later. The screenplay then picks up more or less where the film starts. But in this draft Murph is a boy. Blight has destroyed many of the crops on Earth, and reduced the population substantially. Cooper, Murph, and Tom come across the New York Yankees in their broken down tour bus, but otherwise, things are similar to the finished film — they go to the ball game, they find a drone, and Coop has the discussion with the teachers about Murph. The big difference is that a NASA probe crashes into a field, and this (not a gravitational anomaly) is what drives the tractors crazy. Cooper pulls an image of an ice planet off of it, but the rest seems to be noise.
Later, the probe starts to emit an ear-piercing noise unless you take it in the direction it wants to go. Though they start out in Texas, Cooper and Murph put the probe in their plane and take it to Santa Cruz island, an uninhabited island off the coast of Santa Barbara (where I live!). There they find the secret entrance to NASA, guarded by an eight foot tall humanoid robot. This is Tars.
Eventually they are introduced to the professors Brand, the robot Case (also humanoid), and some other NASA engineers. They pull some more details off the probe about the planet. NASA has been sending probes into the wormhole for years, but this is the first one ever to come back. Case is the leader of the mission, and offers Cooper a spot on the team once it realizes Cooper is an electronics genius and world-class improviser. Just as in the film, Roth, Doyle, and Amelia Brand are the other astronauts.
Cooper has to say goodbye to his family, and gives Murph a watch.
Back at NASA, Cooper tells NASA their telemetry boards are faulty, so Cooper and Amelia Brand go diving to pull spare parts out of the US Naval fleet, which is resting on the ocean floor. Then the crew discuss the mission plan, including the fact that they are going to have to slingshot around an intermediate mass black hole, named Pantagruel in orbit around the supermassive black hole, Gargantua. The ice planet actually orbits the smaller black hole. An important point here is that they know this before launch and can plan their trajectory carefully. Even still, they say that if they don’t hit it perfectly, they’ll miss the critical orbit and get eaten by the black hole.
Eventually the crew launches, and changes ships to the Endurance. It is clear that robots built the Endurance, and maintained it for 30 years (from when there was a NASA) because the robot engineers greet the crew. The ship is made of plastic and has nuclear engines. They only take Tars’ memory chip, and put it in a new body when they arrive. The Engineer robots don’t go on the trip.
After launch, Case and Cooper have a conversation about whether humans should even go on the trip. They mention the survival instinct, but other aspects of human “programming.” Still, the robots are pretty smart in this version. And they are arguably funnier and more sarcastic than in the final film.
The wormhole is at a Lagrange point in the solar system, but it seems to be near Jupiter, not Saturn. There is no mention of cryosleep. Before entering the wormhole, they drop a relay beacon. The design of the Endurance is very different, as are the logistics of entering the wormhole. But during the traverse, they encounter anomalies attributed to beings, as in the finished film.
When they arrive, something goes wrong, and they start to get sucked into the black hole. Tars yanks out the cooling circuitry of the ship, allowing them to get more engine power, but this causes an explosion, sending Tars off into space, towards the black hole. The crew is saved though, and is able to enter orbit around the ice planet.
They have lost communications with the Earth relay, but can’t figure out why. Still, they pick up signals from NASA probes on the ice planet. The crew take a lander down to investigate. The planet is surrounded by tons of moons — like Saturn’s rings, only coarser.
They find a door hidden in the ice. It has a Chinese flag. The Chinese have beaten them to the planet! Only… the room they enter is abandoned. They figure out that the mission was supposedly one to Mars 30 years ago — four humans and 15 robots, only it was allegedly lost. They find drilling equipment, and a deep hole. But before long they stumble on the graves of the 4 astronauts.
At the same time, Roth figures out that a neutron star is orbiting the black hole. They had been shielded by the black hole for 20 hours, but it was now swinging around, and the radiation from it was about to fry them all. They only have a few minutes. so they go down the ice hole. They reach a chamber were they encounter black flecks, which it turns out are creatures that absorb x-rays and convert the energy to visible light. It isn’t enough to absorb all the radiation though, so the crew are facing certain death. Just then Case smashes through the floor and they drop hundreds of feet. Beneath the ice there is a mountain range, with something like a jungle and lake, and they are falling towards it.
Parachutes deploy from their suits, but their helmets are smashed and they fall into water. They nearly drown, but eventually rescue each other and doff their suits. It turns out they can breathe the atmosphere.
They start exploring, and figure out that there are some amazing tree-like creatures. Only, instead of having cells, they are fractal. They feed off the visible light emitted by the x-ray absorbers above in the ice. Then they generate oxygen, which is in turn used by the x-ray-o-philes
As the neutron star passes, the visible light generated by the creatures fades, and it becomes dark. Then the “trees” start to break apart into smaller creatures, who have something like eyes and can move around. They join together in different forms — they are colony creatures — and start threatening the crew. The whole jungle breaks apart like this and starts chasing them.
Brand and Cooper get separated from the rest of the crew (who have apparently made it to a shelter they had earlier constructed), and take shelter in a cave. They notice that as the creatures take on different forms they seem to be experimenting with different behaviors. Ultimately the astronauts start a fire and talk about the implications of this new life form, and some about their past — the early days of the famine. When it is morning they notice that some of the creatures are now 50 feet tall. The act of assembling into bigger structures is about trying to get closer to the light. After it is daytime they act like plants again.
Cooper and Brand head back through the jungle, but then they come across… a giant Chinese base! Soon the rest of the crew meet them at the base. They explore it, and find it to be overrun with the fractal planimals (my word), and seems abandoned. It has hundreds of beds and science laboratories. Eventually they come across a giant black sphere with what looks like a chair flattened against it, in a room that is all distorted, but has a control panel. Sensibly, they go downstairs looking for an explanation.
They find the logs and figure out that the Chinese crew were killed the first day by the neutron star. The robots built the base. They tried to contact home, but got no response. After years, they discovered a problem that led them to keep exploring the system, and discovered something they called a “treasure.” A few years after that, they came back back.
It turns out the problem is that a previously unknown, small black hole is headed their way and will deflect the orbit of the planet, ultimately destroying it. The planet only has a few years left. The crew is devastated — everything they had been working for their whole life is meaningless and humanity is doomed.
But then they hear a rumbling and start floating upward. They, and debris, are flying all over the place, being drawn to the room with the sphere, which one of them has activated. Before anyone is hurt, they deactivate it — it turns out it can manipulate gravity. This is the technology used by the beings who could create wormholes, somehow discovered by the Chinese robots. They were experimenting with it, but it wasn’t enough to save the planet.
Roth deduces that the Chinese robots were singularly focused on their mission, due to their programming, and didn’t figure out that with this technology, they can save the humans on Earth. But he figures they could launch everyone off of Earth and go anywhere. So the crew decide to head back to Earth. Brand takes one of the fractal planimals and puts it in a container.
Only as they exit the base, they come across… a Chinese robot! It has its gun drawn, is camouflaged with the local vegetation, but is otherwise the same model as Case. The robot’s name is Liu.
Like the Japanese soldier that kept trying to fight WWII for 30 years after it was over, the robot refuses to believe that its government is gone. It insists that they all must stay on the planet, and await orders, and cannot remove any of the technology or “follow the others,” though it won’t explain what that means. After some arguing, Case tackles Liu over a ravine so that the others can run back to the ship.
When they reach the ship, the crew find another Chinese robot. They shoot it with Case’s gun, but find that it has ripped out one of the fuel tanks. They can’t use the main thrusters now, and the auxiliary ones don’t have enough power. Then they remember an escape rocket at the Chinese base, though it only seats one. Roth volunteers to sacrifice himself, head to one of the small moons with the gravity device, and use it to help lift the lander off the surface. They head back to the base. Since they won’t be able to retrieve the device from Roth, they need to get the data on how to build it back to Earth. Cooper downloads all information about the gravity device from one of the Chinese computers into one of the NASA probes.
After some tearful goodbyes, Roth launches in the escape rocket. As the rest of the crew make their way back to the lander, they see a robot coming out of a snowstorm. It is Case, but he’s badly damaged. They get him aboard. Brand is off looking for the alien in the container, so Cooper goes to get her.
Meanwhile, Roth finds a moon and activates the device. He is crushed and the gravity of the moon is amplified a hundred million times (they explain the it gets energy from another dimension or wormhole). Back on the surface, stuff starts flying upwards. Brand and Cooper get start hurtling toward space. Ultimately they are rescued by the lander — the aux thrusters can now get it off the planet. They head into out of the atmosphere, setting a course for the wormhole.
The crew figures out why the comms relay stopped working. There was a gravitational blueshift from the black hole, and it was larger than they anticipated. Once they account for that, they get 47 years of messages! And they may have been gone longer, but the relay might have just died. Cooper is devastated. He is furious at Brand, because she had calculated that the time dilation might be stronger than they had initially thought, and had not told him.
Case takes control of the ship and detaches the engine. It turns out, it was just Liu, who had taken over control of Case’s body by swapping in a different control module. They deactivate Liu, but it is too late —they are falling toward Gargantua. They get so close that the time dilation is extreme. Hours for them are decades for what they see above. They watch as the ice planet is destroyed. The fractal life sample they have is the sole survivor of its planet. The wormhole, which was mirroring the orbit of the ice planet [which makes sense because bulk beings set this all up], also falls into Gargantua, and is destroyed. They have no way home. Enough time goes by that even centuries play out above them.
Then they remember that the Chinese were hiding another secret (the “treasure”), but one that had been erased from the records. They pull Liu’s chip and search it. It is the location of another wormhole in the system. Ultimately, they realize that they can slingshot around the black hole and use the remaining thrusters to enter the second wormhole. They go in it. It is larger, and once they are in, everything turns black. It seems that they are just drifting, outside of our known dimensions.
Days pass. Cooper watches nearly 50 years of videos of his family growing old. The crew considers committing suicide. They may be the last of their species too. Instead, Brand and Cooper decide to bang in zero-g.
As Brand and Cooper are joining the megaparsec-high club, Doyle notices a sphere of distortion appear, as in the other wormhole. He summons Brand and Cooper and they play with it. They figure out a way to communicate with the bulk beings using ball bearings to assemble pictures. They figure out that the distortions are caused by bulk beings, and they are in the space between universes.
Then they come out of the wormhole, and our entire universe is below them, flattened into a disk. They are orbiting a massive sphere. Built into the surface is a space station! They dock and go into the station. They are greeted by…. Tars! He orbited the black hole seven times before hitting the second wormhole. But he also reveals that time moves slowly there. The Chinese robots built it over 4000 years! Tars has been waiting for the crew for 300 years.
The facility is massive, full of wonders, and built for humans. Tars has cataloged the whole place. There is a mini-black hole powering the station. Tars shows them a simulation of Earth. The Chinese figured out that the best solution would be to set off gravity devices all over the Earth and lift the entire population off into space. He also shows them a network of wormholes in the space above them. They connect almost every known planet, even across galaxies, and the taikobots mapped some of them.
Tars shows the crew a massive gravity device. That’s what they needed the black hole power for. It is some kind of time machine connected to one of the wormholes. They figure it heads back to Earth. It doesn’t say it in the script, but these are the things theorized by Kip Thorne and coauthors back in 1988. You move one end of a wormhole at near the speed of light and move it back, and you can travel back in time when you traverse the wormhole. Tars says the Chinese robots tried to use it soon after getting there, but he doesn’t know if they succeeded.
The crew debates trying to use it. Brand thinks that if they were successful, they’d know it because there would have been evidence in the past (it isn’t actually clear that Brand knows this is a time machine or if they figured that out after she left). She thinks trying to use the wormhole will just kill you. But Cooper made a promise to his kids, so he feels like he must do it.
Brand and Tars decide to go off exploring the universe through the network of wormholes using the Endurance. They say their goodbyes and leave. Cooper promises to come find her if he lives. She gives him the alien species in case he makes it back to Earth. Doyle and Cooper load up one of the spaceships left at the base, and prepare to head in the wormhole, which is bright with radiation.
But then, Cooper sees one of the NASA probes, and realizes that this is the very probe he found in Texas. There is evidence that the trip worked — but only for the probe. They won’t make it. So he decides not to go, and begs Doyle not to. Doyle won’t listen and goes anyway, with the probe. But his ship is annihilated by the wormhole. Doyle is killed, and only the probe makes it through.
Cut to a montage of Cooper finding the probe at the beginning of the movie, and then what happened to it subsequently. In his 30s, Murph figures out how to decode the data on the probe. In his 40s he builds a prototype gravitational device, but can’t get it to work. In his 50s, his daughter, Emily is tinkering with it, and manages to get it to work.
Cut to: Earth, 2320
The Earth is mostly dust and ice — almost no vegetation. Cooper lands in a Chinese spaceship. It is his old house, only part of it still standing, in ruins. He goes out to explore it, but is despondent. An ice storm hits, and he can’t find his way back to the ship. He drops the container with the alien life form, and it burrows into the snow and starts glowing. Maybe that was the reason the advanced beings built the wormhole, he thinks. He sits down to die from the cold.
He wakes up in a hospital room. They are on the space station we see in the film, only it is named the Joseph A. Cooper. The rangers (Earth patrol) found him and brought him to the station. A dying relative has transferred there to meet him, only it is Cooper’s great great grandson. He gives Cooper back the wristwatch Cooper had given to Murph centuries earlier.
Cut to Cooper meeting with an administrator. He keeps referring to Cooper as a hero, but also reveals that he’s in trouble for releasing the life form on Earth. It has now spread all over the planet. Cooper asks for a ship to go find Brand. He’s denied, and they take him to his replica house instead. He finds a broken robot there and rebuilds it. Just as in the finished film, they then go find a spaceship and head off looking for Brand.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE FIRST DRAFT
Can you imagine the above, I’m going to call it “hard fantasy,” having been directed by Steven Spielberg? It kills me that we’ll never get to see that!
Let’s review what I didn’t like about the finished film: tidal waves, replacing a star with an accretion disk, everyone having to be a farmer, dumbass NASA, the unexplained lack of probes or ability to communicate with Earth, hopping around planets without regard for fuel, the self-sacrifice jettison for no reason, the deus ex machina, the tesseract watch trick, solving an equation to defeat gravity, the space station solution, time paradoxes, and the necessity of sending humans.
Of those, the things almost identical to the first draft are the blight and mandated farming. I can live with that. That’s part of the setup for the film — that’s the suspension of disbelief you ask to establish the universe. The question is, from that starting point, are things self-consistent? NASA in this draft still has problems (nepotism, taking Cooper off the street), but their situation is much more tractable — they didn’t send 10 human missions and no probes — they did the sensible thing and sent probes first, and their manned ship was built back when they had money. Robots clearly play a huge role in space exploration, and humans are almost secondary. The robots also have some real limitations in their programming, so in this draft it makes sense that you want to send humans for the final check (compared to the finished film, where it is the humans who are much more flawed). The solution is still space stations at the end *but* it is hundreds of years later, humans now have alien tech making launching almost trivial, *and* there is a network of alien wormholes. Under those conditions who wouldn’t want to explore space?
In the first draft, finding alien technology or ideas makes so much more sense than the tired and unrealistic trope of a scientist solving an equation (knowing how gravity works doesn’t give you the extra energy to overcome it). There are no unmotivated tidal waves, or fist-fighting crazed astronauts, only robots from a different culture who can’t understand you, which is cooler. Getting reprocessed x-rays from aliens as your daylight is so much more creative than getting it from an accretion disk. The fact that fuel considerations and slingshots are well thought out introduces real dramatic obstacles for our crew in the first draft, and again, the alien tech fits right in here. The self-sacrifices (of Tars, Case, and Roth) here make actual sense, compared to Doyle, Cooper and Tars doing something dumb in the film. Aliens don’t magically save the day — humans figure out how to save themselves. Sure they had help from advanced beings (who are not humans), but that’s ok, the bulk beings don’t actively step in — they just set up a network of wormholes, probably millions of years ago, which is a cool concept by itself. The bulk beings communicating while in the wormhole do it so much more creatively than in the film, which just turns out to be a paradox of self-communication. There are no dumb “gravitational anomalies” or watch ticks. And the time paradox is much more reasonable — Cooper isn’t observing and affecting his own life in the past in real time, he’s just doing a one-time information dump.
So for me, the first draft of INTERSTELLAR is much more scientifically rigorous, and has far fewer plot holes. And at the same time, it has a *much* greater sense of the wonder of discovery, and of the mind-blowing diversity of the universe. We discover truly alien entities, battle badass robots, and we get to explore a diverse and wondrous planet. We get to see the far future, and uncover the fruits of a massively advanced civilization. The crew gets down time, and gets to connect and talk about their dilemma. It feels whole, cohesive, and intellectually sound.
The Christopher Nolan version, on the other hand, strips out some of the coolest scifi concepts, and replaces them with fist fights, family angst, and implausibility. Thought-provoking, progressive science fiction from one of the greatest geniuses of our time is watered down in places to pedestrian Hollywood fare.
To be fair, I don’t know exactly which parts Christopher Nolan brought, and which parts just evolved in Jonathan Nolan’s drafts, though I have some clues from Thorne’s book. It seems to me that most of the stuff I didn’t like was brought in by Christopher Nolan. It is a shame, because I respect him as a director, and of course THE DARK KNIGHT will go down as one of the all-time greatest superhero films. At any rate, it is clear that Christopher Nolan brought in a very different sensibility, forced his own frankly less interesting ideas into something they didn’t organically grow out of.
Not all of the ideas are bad though — the idea of turning Murph into a girl is a great one. Building the Murph-Cooper relationship was also a good idea. The idea of a more concentrated “ticking clock,” in visiting Miller’s planet, also has merit in building drama. The tesseract is a cool concept. And the first draft ending may have been too cerebral for mass audiences.
Let’s also remember that if Christopher Nolan hadn’t come in when Spielberg left, there might have been no INTERSTELLAR at all. Not many directors have the kind of pull that it takes to get a big-budget top-cast original science fiction property on the screen. So I do thank him for that.
Still, I can’t help but be sad that we never got to see the genius behind much of our understanding of black holes, behind our science fiction conception of wormholes, and behind the Earth’s most cutting-edge new kind of observatory, make his truest vision of a blockbuster hard-science film based on his own life’s work.