Whatever happened to Christopher Nolan?

 Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)

After a year of meticulously planned marketing and promotion, the new Christopher Nolan blockbuster, Interstellar, has finally been unleashed. This is nothing new; in fact it’s standard practice for the Hollywood machine. What’s interesting, and alarming for the serious film fan, is that Nolan’s particular brand of blockbuster doesn’t just rake in loads of money; it generally receives overwhelmingly positive, sometimes even rapturous reviews.

Christopher Nolan is a brilliant filmmaker, one of the best currently working in Hollywood. But are special effects-heavy behemoths like The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010) really the “masterpieces” some critics would have us believe? Or should a man with Nolan’s talent and intelligence be doing better? Compared with the work of many contemporary US and international directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, Takeshi Kitano and Michael Haneke, his films are found wanting. He could be doing so much more.

When Memento opened in 1998, it was thrilling to see the arrival of a British director who seemed to have so many ideas, so much visual flair, such disregard for sentimentality. Nolan’s control over both his camera style and his narrative was so complete it was dazzling. Unfortunately, much like Bryan Singer’s oeuvre post The Usual Suspects, Nolan’s subsequent career has not fulfilled the promise of a brilliant second feature.

Does Interstellar buck the trend? Judging by the early trailers, Nolan had apparently moved on from the Michael Mann homage of The Dark Knight to aping Terrence Malick – dreamy hand-held shots of fields, characters gazing into the middle-distance and pretentious utterances about “life”. And all this on top of a plot that appeared to be a variation on Armageddon.

On full viewing it becomes clear that with Interstellar, Nolan – whose films have often been labelled “cold” – means to show the world that he has a “heart” after all. Yes, it’s an enormous space adventure about exploring other planets in a far off galaxy, but, underneath it all, this is a film about the love between a father and daughter. Beautiful. Unfortunately, in the process Nolan and his brother Jonathan, with whom he wrote the screenplay, have forgotten to provide a story which actually makes sense. A film such as The Prestige (2006) may have had a preposterous plot but at least it had an internal logic. Interstellar doesn’t even begin to hang together, and this is before you get to the issue of wormholes. It’s impossible to watch the film without incredulity creeping in with increasing regularity: Why does the end of crop farming automatically mean the end of all civilization on earth? Why does Michael Caine appear to be acting completely autonomously when the fate of humankind rests entirely on his whims and decisions? Why do no other nations outside the good ol’ US of A have any interest in solving the problem? And are we really expected to suspend disbelief when Matthew McConaughey says he’ll just go a different way around a black hole, like he’s avoiding traffic on the M25?

There are also psychological issues when it comes to the Nolans’ handling of character. After McConaughey decides to go on the journey which it’s highly likely he’ll never return from, it’s naturally assumed that this will be incredibly difficult for his young daughter to deal with. However, the emotional impact it will have on his slightly older son is barely considered. “He’ll be alright” seems to be the attitude. This movie is set in the future but has a view of the two genders that could have come from the 1950s: boys can take this stuff on the chin, but girls always start crying. These two children are already supposed to have lost their mother. Are the Nolan brothers actually human beings? There’s more complex understanding of human behaviour and interaction in the average episode of Neighbours.

The film does look spectacular and has an extraordinary shot of the spaceship passing Saturn, but as the relationships and story make no sense, all that’s left for the viewer is to “Ooooo” at the special effects as one would at a fireworks display. No doubt many will point out that Interstellar is vastly superior to the standard mega-budget blockbuster. And so it is. But, when the competition is the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, is this really such an impressive feat?

I long for the day when Christopher Nolan returns to the real world and lets go of superheroes and space adventures. Seeing the work of another contemporary auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, must give him pause. Anderson’s last film, the masterpiece The Master, was an expensive Hollywood production that managed to be personal, bold, challenging, and immensely entertaining. And not a wormhole in sight.

 

Sam Bowles

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