If you’ve read anything about Nolan’s space epic in the last few weeks, you’ll know that it was once a project intended for a certain jobbing director by the name of Steven Spielberg. Back in 2006, producer Lynda Obst and astrophysicist Kip Thorne came up with the initial concept: a thrilling, big-budget sci-fi powered by a heartbreaking father-son relationship. In other words, the most perfect description for a Spielberg film you could hope for. And the feeling was mutual, with Spielberg announcing that “the wormhole was a concept that blew my mind.” So how did this match made in heaven fall apart, and what wonders would a Spielberg version have held?
A small clue is the kind of questions Spielberg was asking during a brainstorm with scientific experts. His first question? “Who believes that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe?” Everyone raised their hands…
A lot of this early draft, written by Jonathan Nolan, is the same as the theatrical version in cinemas now, and that’s very much a good thing. The earthbound beginning is the same almost word-for-word, and both versions tackle similar themes: sacrificing personal happiness for the collective good and the time-warping effects of relativity. It’s when Endurance and its crew make it through the wormhole that the Spielberg version really takes off and launches the plot in a dazzling new direction.
They land on a precarious ice planet, orbiting between two huge black holes, Pantagruel and Galatea, and what they find chills the blood far more than any sub-zero icy wasteland. The remnants of a Chinese space colony litter the surface: crudely marked graves and deserted shelters. A neutron star is orbiting the nearby black hole and when it passes the ice planet every 20 hours it floods it with lethal radiation. With no time to fly away, the crew desperately dig into the ice, trying to find a route to safety underground.
Time is running out. The crew grow tired. And only the inexhaustible robot Case continues to hack away at the ice. Brand notices tiny black flecks embedded in the ice and as the radiation grows stronger, they begin to absorb it. The microbes glow with an ethereal light and the crew watch mesmerised. All except Case, who finally smashes through the ice and sends them plummeting, not to their deaths, but towards an underground sea, surrounded by a forest and mountainous peaks of rock.
It’s a beautiful sequence, great in script form and unimaginably transcendent if it were ever to make it onscreen. Jonathan Nolan has a real eye for visual storytelling and while this plot takes things in a more alien-oriented direction than his brother’s version, it somehow feels more plausible than what Cooper finds within the black hole in the theatrical release. What’s next, though, pushes things even further into the realms of sci-fi fantasy.
The crew begin to explore their new surroundings and as darkness falls the tree-like organisms that make up the forest reveal their true nature. They collapse and dissolve into smaller pieces, which scuttle around and join together, forming a crude head with 30 blinking eyes. It shuffles forward and looks at them. It bellows. Your blood freezes and Cooper and Brand run.
The organisms tussle and assimilate each other, like a Lego set capable of independent thought, and soon they are 40 or 50 feet tall, battling to try and escape their subterranean prison. It’s an incredible image, but one you’d never expect from Christopher Nolan. The man who dragged Batman’s psychotic and psychedelic villains into the real world isn’t about to do something as conventional as put aliens in a sci-fi film, so it’s no surprise this element was axed when he joined the project.
What feels far more Nolanesque is the discovery of a black sphere which is capable of manipulating gravity. In a sequence reminiscent of Inception’s famous corridor fight, the crew tumble around an abandoned Chinese lab, trapped in the machine’s spell, before realising that “Earth’s gravity is like a prison and this is the master key” with which they can save millions of humans rather than a mere handful.
Back on board Endurance the team are full of renewed hope, until a sudden realisation delivers a wrenching blow to the gut. They quickly realise that relativity has affected them far more than they expected. They haven’t missed decades, they’ve missed centuries. As the iconic scene of Cooper crying to his children’s messages plays out, the impact is heartbreaking. A message not from the past but from beyond the grave. If you shed a tear during Nolan’s version prepare to sob your eyes out at this.
At this lowest of moments there is another significant change, this time in the characterisation of Brand and Cooper. The pair are much more antagonistic from the word go, in a way that occasionally feels like a clichéd love/hate relationship, but soon develops a real complexity. After realising the human race is gone, they make love in the spaceship, a sentence that feels horribly cringeworthy to write here, but is authentic and powerful in the script.
Just like Nolan’s version, the Spielberg draft reaches its conclusion with a journey into the black hole and into the unknown. With their final throw of the dice, the crew fly into Pantagruel and in its desolate vacuum they find something astonishing: an entire space station. Built by the Chinese, it is surrounded by countless wormholes, one of which emerges near Earth close to their original departure date.
Cooper wants to try and return, to save the human race they knew. To reach his family. Brand is certain it won’t work and wants to head into space. Continue exploring. They go their separate ways, but just before entering the wormhole Cooper realises that the probe he’s holding, the one containing the instructions on how to build the gravity machine, is the same one he found on Earth at the start. They do succeed in returning home, but only the probe makes it – they won’t. Cooper tries to persuade Doyle to stop, but he locks Cooper out and leaves. His ship is destroyed, but the probe survives.
This probe, not morse code in an abandoned watch, is what provides Murphy with the information to save the human race. Cooper again regains consciousness in a future human space colony and meets his great-great-grandson rather than an old Murphy. With the human race saved, he once again decides to head off and find Brand.
You can see the fingerprints of this original all over the Nolan version, and to be honest, at many moments it feels like the strong story logic of the original has been sacrificed to shoehorn in some of the ideas that Nolan wanted to explore. The Spielberg and Nolan versions each have their own explanations for time travel, gravity control and wormholes, but Spielberg’s offers a lot more hard evidence for how each phenomenon works. Both choices are compelling, and which you prefer will depend entirely on your fondness for clear facts or mystique in storytelling.
As Spielberg quipped during an early brainstorm, “aliens have been very good to me” – so why did he abandon such a promising project? Perhaps he didn’t want to revisit the sci-fi genre he’d left since 2005’s War of the Worlds, or perhaps the film’s budget made financing difficult. His version would have certainly demanded more visual effects and therefore a bigger budget than the $165 million Nolan spent. Some sources suggest scheduling conflicts with the rest of Spielberg’s busy slate like Tintin and War Horse, but the real answer is even more disappointing. When DreamWorks, Spielberg’s production company, parted ways with Paramount, Interstellar simply got left behind. Paramount owned the story and there was nothing Spielberg could do about it, even if he wanted to.
As a result we’ve missed out on one of the most exciting combinations of script and director for a long time. The only small consolation is that we still get to see a version of the film, put through Christopher Nolan’s unique mind. He takes us to the furthest reaches of the universe and the loneliest corners of the human heart, bending time and space to his will. It is, quite simply, his masterpiece – and it could have been Spielberg’s too.
Are you gutted the world missed out on Spielberg’s Interstellar? Do you think it would have topped Nolan’s version? And when is Jonathan Nolan going to get the credit he deserves for his stunning writing? Tell us your thoughts! Don’t forget to share this if you enjoyed it.
You can find the ‘Spielberg version’ of Interstellar’s script here: http://leonardlangfordlexicon.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/INTERSTELLAR-Jonathan-Nolan.pdf