The big picture

  • The original ending of Interstellar was darker and would have drastically changed the film’s message, removing key sequences and altering the characters’ fates.
  • The film initially contained science-based concepts, such as gravitational anomalies caused by the destruction of a neutron star. However, these have been simplified to make the story more accessible to a wider audience.
  • The Nolan brothers ultimately settled on an optimistic ending that emphasized the power of love and human resilience, even as it deviated from scientific accuracy.

Interstellar is one of the most influential films of the last few decades, masterfully balancing unflattering pessimism about the future of the Earth with inspiring optimism about the power of human ingenuity. The film was a visual marvel that gave viewers a glimpse into some of the most mysterious and otherworldly aspects of our physical universe. Although the film took humanity to the farthest corners of the galaxy, its greatest strength lay in its emotional and family-oriented narrative. Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolanwas co-author of the script, which is based on the theoretical physicist’s work and ideas Kip Thorneresulting in a product that incorporated scientifically accurate depictions of space travel alongside the limitless possibilities of artistic imagination.

Interstellar is a film that audiences can leave with feelings of inspiration and hope – however, that wasn’t always the case. The film’s original ending was significantly darker and would have infused the narrative with more pessimistic undertones. This conceit came up in the early stages of production, before Nolan was even associated with the project, which would have led to a conclusion that would have elicited a completely different reaction from audiences.

What happens in “Interstellar”?

Interstellar takes place in a future in which human life on Earth is on the verge of complete extinction. Environmental degradation had led to global famine and forced humanity to devote the vast majority of its resources to agriculture in an almost futile attempt to prevent extinction. Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA astronaut, is one of many forced to work as a corn farmer. His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) notices a strange phenomenon in her room: a gravitational anomaly, which Cooper is able to identify as Morse code. While deciphering the message, he discovers a secret NASA facility led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and is recruited for a last desperate mission to save humanity.

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Cooper pilots a mission alongside other astronauts, including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), through a wormhole in search of a planet capable of supporting human life. They venture into another galaxy, where three planets surround a supermassive black hole, Gargantua, that could potentially harbor life. However, due to time dilation caused by the black hole’s gravity, time passes much faster on Earth than on the mission. An adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) discovers that Brand never intended to find a way to remove humanity from the planet and that Cooper’s mission had always resorted to Plan B, which involved the delivery of human embryos to establish a new human colony on one of the planets to found planets. However, the first two planets explored by Amelia and Cooper are deemed inhospitable to humanity, forcing them to make a final attempt to find one last possible planet. With a slingshot maneuver, Cooper throws Amelia to the last planet and sacrifices himself to give her the momentum she needs.

Falling into the black hole, Cooper finds himself in a five-dimensional space, a tesseract, where time is a tangible construct with which he can interact. He suspects that the Tesseract and the wormhole that allowed them to travel to this galaxy were sent by people from a distant future to help humanity save itself. Cooper uses Morse code to send a message to his past self in Murph’s bedroom, leading him to join the mission in the first place. He then uses a broken clock to relay information to Murph that allows her to crack a previously unsolvable gravity equation.

Cooper survives his journey through the black hole and is rescued outside the wormhole. He awakens to find that Murph was able to use the information he sent to initiate humanity’s exodus from Earth and save humanity from their doomed planet. Amelia’s last mission was also a success, as humanity sets off to her planet to start anew in a new home.

Jonathan Nolan initially had a different ending

Image via Paramount Pictures

However, the optimistic ending of Interstellar was actually not included in the original plans. During a media event for the film’s Blu-ray release, Nerdist reported on Jonathan Nolan’s initial idea for the film’s ending. It revealed an ending that was darker, if more straightforward, than the one they had decided on. Jonathan Nolan originally had “the Einstien-Rosen Bridge [colloquially, a wormhole] Collapse as Cooper tries to send the data back.” Nolan didn’t elaborate on the significance, but the conclusions drawn from it are all relatively pessimistic. This ending would have removed a significant portion of the film’s ending sequences. There would be no glimpse of Cooper entering the black hole, no Tesseract and fifth-dimensional beings, no time manipulation in Murph’s bedroom, and no triumphant return for Cooper. The film already contained elements of darkness and themes similar to a horror film, but this ending would have been a tonal shift that would have drastically changed the entire message of the film.

In addition to Jonathan Nolan’s original ending, other interesting information about the film’s production was shared at the media event. The gravitational anomalies in Murph’s bedroom were initially thought to be due to the destruction of a neutron star by a black hole. Kip Thorne explained that such gravity waves could only be generated by such a catastrophic event and should be detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave-Observatory (LIGO). In fact, Thorne was instrumental in the construction of the LIGO laboratory. However, Christopher Nolan felt that these scientific concepts would be too complicated for general audiences, leading to compromises on the science in order to make the film easier to digest.

Did Cooper implement the original idea?

Image via Paramount Pictures

Since Jonathan Nolan did not elaborate on the details of this planned conclusion, only confirming that the wormhole would have collapsed after Cooper sent the data through, the success of his mission is left entirely to speculation. One possibility is that the data was not sent back to Murph at all, which would have resulted in complete failure of the mission. Without this information, humanity would never be able to leave Earth, dooming Murph and the rest of the population to extinction.

But this ending seems so dark and at odds with the message of the story that it seems unlikely that it is the vision. Another possibility is that the wormhole collapse only doomed one key victim: Cooper. It is likely that Jonathan Nolan intended Cooper’s data to travel back to Murph through the wormhole, although he himself would not have been able to follow suit. Cooper would die a hero, sacrificing his life to complete the mission. Humanity and, most importantly to him, his daughter would be saved. This ending is a satisfying conclusion to the themes and motivations of familial love that define the film, but the fact that Cooper never reunites with Murph would be a tragic outcome that weighs heavily.

Both endings would have limited the physical distortions made in the final film and grounded things in the laws of science rather than theorized in the fifth dimension. Ultimately, however, the Nolan brothers rightly chose a triumphant and optimistic ending that allowed their artistic expression to fully develop. The idea that love is able to transcend time, space, and even physical reality is a heartwarming idea that, while not scientifically accurate, creates a much more powerful and impactful idea human Story.

Interstellar is available to stream online on Prime Video and Paramount+, as well as in Blu-ray and DVD formats with hours of bonus content.

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