July 21 will see the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We continue today with Nolan's 2014 space opus, Interstellar.
Interstellar is ambitious, beautiful, exciting, and frequently quite moving, and its portrayal of a near-future where Earth is on the cusp of being uninhabitable becomes more relevant by the second. But it may also be Christopher Nolan's weirdest movie. I don't mean so much in terms of its plot - aliens that perceive time as a physical dimension isn't that much more bizarre than dream thieves or temporal spies. But the meaning of the story is, um... odd.
And although it's not entirely fair to consider behind-the-scenes details when judging a final piece of work, in this case, I think knowing about Interstellar's long journey to the screen makes the whole thing that much weirder.
The film is based off of concepts detailed in the physicist Kip Thorne's non-fiction book, Black Holes and Worm Holes, and it was originally set to be directed by a young whippersnapper named Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg hired Jonathan Nolan to write the screenplay. Jonathan Nolan, is, of course, the younger brother and frequent collaborator of Christopher Nolan - he wrote the short story on which Memento is based, is a credited co-writer of the screenplays for The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, and likely did some uncredited work on a couple of his brother's other films as well (he also went on to co-create HBO's Westworld with his wife, Lisa Joy).
Jonathan Nolan's version of the script was, in some ways, very similar to the movie his brother ultimately made. As in the finished film, the story is set in the near future, and follows Cooper, or 'Coop,' a widower raising two kids with the help of his father-in-law, Donald. He was trained to be an engineer, but it's a mostly useless skill now. The reason? The planet is going to shit as a result of climate change: An unspecified "blight" has been gradually rendering different crops extinct, and the air is becoming increasingly unbreathable. Consequently, all of the world's resources have been diverted to the task of trying to save humanity, and is not in need of engineers.
One day, Cooper and his sons, Tom and Murph, chase down and capture an old Chinese military drone. Cooper disassembles the drone and figures out it was trying to find its way back to a specific location - which turns out to be a top-secret NASA base. The drone, Coop learns, was one of many sent through a wormhole in space in search of a habitable planet to which the Earth's population can relocate. The fact that it has returned means that it found just such a planet. A scientist, Amelia Brand, will now lead an expedition to that planet to make sure everything is hunky-dory. Not-incidentally, Cooper notices a design flaw in the mission's equipment; as a result, he gets asked to join the operation, because in the years it's taken for the drone to return, several would-be crew members have gotten quite old.
Naturally, this puts Cooper in somewhat of a pickle. Joining Amelia's mission will fulfill a lifelong dream and contribute to saving our species. It will also mean leaving his already-motherless children, likely for years. But if he doesn't go, and the operation isn't successful, then his kids are doomed regardless.
Cooper initially turns down the offer, deciding he can't leave his kids. Donald, ultimately, convinces him to do otherwise:
So Cooper agrees to go into space. Murph wants to go with him but, of course, is not allowed. Cooper gifts Murph his watch, promising to come back some day. Murph is sad, but the two ultimately part on good terms.
The next chunk of the script is pretty different from the final product, but not in ways particularly pertinent to this discussion. What is important is that, as in the released movie, time dilation plays a factor. Cooper loses 47 years as a result. In the last video he receives from Murph before losing all communication with Earth, he finds his son is now a grown man:
There's another problem back on Earth, meanwhile, which is that they can't figure out how the hell they're gonna get everyone off this planet and onto the new one. Using parts from the old Chinese drone, Murph makes a crude gravitational device to solve this issue - but he can't quite get it to work. Ultimately, it's his daughter - Coop's grand-daughter - Emily, who figures it out, thereby saving everyone.
Near the end of the story, Cooper is drifting out in space, on the cusp of death, when he's discovered and rescued. He wakes up on a space station which, he is shocked to find, is named in his honor. He's then told that there's "someone who wants to meet you," and this happens:
As in the produced iteration, Cooper and Amelia part ways because Coop decides he has to get back to his kids. And, as in the finished film, the narrative concludes with Coop stealing a spaceship and going off to find Amelia.
I don't know why Spielberg's version of the movie never achieved liftoff (beg your pardon), but I have to imagine it has something to do with the fact that Cooper is never reunited with his family. Spielberg, after all, had already made a movie about a father choosing to abandon his wife and kids to go to space: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And Spielberg has been very vocal about feeling like the conclusion of that film is a mistake. From a 2005 interview:
"I know that 'Close Encounters,' because I wrote the script, it was about a man whose insatiable curiosity and a developing obsession and a kind of psychic implantation drew him away from his family and with only looking back once, walked onto the mother ship. Now, that was before I had kids. That was 1977. So I wrote that blithely. Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mother ship. I would have the guy doing everything he could to protect his children."
It is, frankly, odd that Cooper is so cavalier about never seeing his kids again - but then, Murph is very forgiving of his father's absence (that may also explain why he seemingly has no interest in getting to know his great-great-grandson, or any offspring that great-great-grandson may have sired).
Which brings us to Christopher Nolan's version of the story - an iteration that is simultaneously more satisfying and more bizarre than the one his brother wrote.
In Christopher Nolan's version, Coop (Matthew McConaughey) isn't just an engineer - he's a former NASA pilot who never got to go into space because, again, the world is falling apart. He's still a widower, and he's still raising his kids with Donald, but in this version, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is a girl, and Coop owns a farm where he grows the planet's last viable crop: Corn. And in addition to the blight, there's the constant threat of vicious dust storms - an idea inspired by Ken Burns' documentary The Dust Bowl, interview footage from which is actually used for "documentary" interviews in Interstellar.
(Quick aside: Nolan cast a then-unknown Timothée Chalamet to play Tom. Chalamet has since become a regular in Greta Gerwig films.)
The bit with the drone still happens - it's one of the movie's best scenes - but it's not what leads Coop to NASA.
No, Coop finds NASA because Murph has a "ghost" - some unseen force that uses gravity to communicates in Morse Code. It's that Morse Code which gives the coordinates to NASA. When he gets there, he finds his old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), working on the mission with his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway)... and that mission just so happens to need a pilot.
Now, here's where things start to get really interesting. In Christopher Nolan's version of the screenplay, is it not Donald (John Lithgow) who convinces Coop he has to go on the mission for the sake of saving his kids - it's the other way around:
Furthermore, Coop's farewell with Murph doesn't go so smoothly as it does in Jonathan Nolan's version:
These might seem like small changes, but they completely alter the meaning of the story. Ift his is where Cooper begins his journey, then one would assume that Interstellar will either be a) a tragedy in which he realizes too late the error of his ways, b) a redemption story in which he is eventually reunited with Murphy, or c) a story that really struggles with the moral complexity of the position in which Coop found himself and the way he handled things.
But none of those things really happen.
Cooper and Amelia lose less time in the finished film - 27 years instead of 47 years - but the scene with the video communications from Coop's now-adult children (Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain) is, like, a thousand times more emotional... largely because Murph is still upset with Coop for leaving:
After this scene, we understand that Coop regrets his decision to leave his kids. There are two potential planets remaining - but Coop, Amelia, and their associate, Romilly (David Gyasi), don't have enough fuel to visit both. Amelia asserts that one planet has a better chance of being able to sustain life - but Coop shoots down that argument based on the fact that Amelia is in love with Wolf Edmunds, the scientist initially sent to that planet.
"Cooper, yes - the tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me," Amelia admits. "But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong."
To which Coop responds: "Honestly, Amelia... it might." His echoing of Donald's words earlier make Coop's feelings about the mission clear. He followed his passion and look what it's cost him!
So blah blah blah, a bunch of other stuff happens. Amelia and Cooper are still separated, and Cooper, we come to learn, was Murph's "ghost" all along - the aliens gave him the ability to send messages back through time via gravity. Murph still hasn't figured out how to make the centrifuges work, but by this point in the story, Cooper has collected some relevant data which will help her solve the problem. And as a "ghost," he was sharing this information with Murph.
Once again, Coop is found drifting out in space and wakes up in a space station... only in this version, the station is named after Murph, who is still alive - although she's now forty-something years older than Cooper (she's played here by Ellen Burstyn). And when father and daughter are finally reunited, this is how it plays out:
Christopher Nolan's version of Cooper not only still doesn't really care about meeting his new family members - Murph also totally lets him off the hook with regards to their conflict. And yeah, I understand that Cooper saved humanity. But STILL. She doesn't wanna talk to him for more than a few seconds? He doesn't wanna talk to her? It feels like the movie is trying to suggest that sometimes you have to say, "Fuck the kids, I've got more important things to do." It's just so, so very odd.
And I tell ya what: I think it's even odder when you consider that in Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred (Michael Caine) has a fantasy that his surrogate son, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), leaving Gotham and finding happiness... and then never speaking to Alfred again. Which is exactly what happens at the end of the movie:
Why does Nolan repeatedly present these moments in which people who love one another dearly decide they don't actually need to spend more time together? I don't have a good answer. All I know is, Nolan is a fantastic filmmaker, and I'm very glad he's not my father.