Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The man who does too much”

Posted on November 7, 2014


Thoughts on a filmmaker who wants to be considered so deep, it must hurt to be him.

Has there been another director who has laboured as much as Christopher Nolan to make simple, generic stories look impressively complex? In Memento (Nolan’s first biggish movie; it still holds up very well), a routine revenge saga was tricked up with non-linear narration. The Batman movies attempted to transform your garden-variety superhero-saves-the-day stories into existential and political thesis papers. In Inception, a heist flick became a video game with multiple levels. And now we have Interstellar, which is, at heart, just an Armageddon-ish outer-space thriller about saving mankind, but how Nolan strives to make us think it’s so much more.

He throws science at us (gravitational anomalies! particle physics! quantum mechanics!). He throws Dylan Thomas at us. (“Do not go gentle into that good night” is recited about 4000 times.) And – in a touch that is sure to please the Nolan-is-God cult on the internet – he throws the Bible at us. The film is set in a future plagued by dust storms. (“The Lord will send dust storms and sandstorms on you from the sky until you’re destroyed…”) The space mission is named after Lazarus. In a key scene, the protagonists are threatened by waves as big as mountains. (Where’s Russell Crowe when you need an ark?) A long-suffering, Job-like character, who thought he had lost everything, says, “You were never tested like I was.” One man, a senior scientist, essentially plays God, while another (younger) man appears to be sacrificing himself to save mankind. And what do we hear on the soundtrack when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) falls through a wormhole? Organ music, of course. Nothing else would signify the momentousness of it all.

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Nothing in the Nolan universe is offhand – everything is invested with meaning (sorry, fans: Meaning), even the names. One character is named Murph (after Murphy’s Law). Another character, a space traveller, is called Amelia (after Earhart?). And the surprise guest star who drones on about mankind is literally named… Mann. Perhaps the name of the space station – Endurance – is a dry joke, a nod to the quality the audience needs most to withstand these three hours? But no, despite the occasional one-liners in his films, Nolan doesn’t do dry jokes. His speciality is transcending his material, the genre-based material, which, in other hands, might have resulted in a lot of fun. If he remade Jaws, there’d surely be a scene where Michael Caine, clutching a copy of Moby Dick, shows up in a subplot that references The Old Man and the Sea.

How else does Nolan try to convince us that he makes more than just popcorn movies? He gives us documentary-like talking heads, the way Warren Beatty did in the Oscar-baiting Reds. He gives us auteur-like casting, with actors appearing in multiple films. He gives us auteur-like tropes – for starters, the leading man with a dead wife. Then there’s all the Important Things he touches on, and all the time he devotes to explaining them. Then there’s the way he overstuffs (or needlessly complicates) the narrative so that we feel breathless trying to catch it all, when all we are, really, is restless, from being jostled from one unfinished scenario to another. People say you have to catch Nolan movies more than once to get it all. Of course you have to. His films are made that way – but is that a function of depth or half-baked writing? (Imagine the beginning of Inception had it not plunged us directly into a set of nested dreams, and had taken a bit of time to ease us into the conceit first – how much more thrilling this stretch would have been.) What I felt about Nolan’s filmmaking while watching The Dark Knight is what I felt about it while watching Interstellar : “[The film is] never content with doing one thing fully right when it can aim to dazzle you by attempting ten things with varying degrees of success.” Father-daughter bonding, meditations on Big Themes (love, aging, survival instincts), special-effects set pieces, disaster-movie drama, art-house aspirations… Interstellar has it all, the movie equivalent of a multi-cuisine restaurant that serves everything, but nothing really signature-special.

Inflating genre material, at least the way Nolan does it, is like building cathedrals in Disneyland. The films end up neither as entertaining as the plots suggest nor as profound as he wants. So much has been written about how accurate the science in Interstellar is – but does the average audience member really care? What we want is to be taken on a never-before ride, even if the equations on the board don’t really balance out. And that happens only fitfully. Save for a scene where Cooper receives some two decades’ worth of messages from his now-adult children (they’re aging faster than he is), the emotional moments don’t quite land – and even this scene feels rushed. Why not make us experience the passage of time that Cooper is experiencing? Even the big emotional scene towards the end feels rushed. The film has been working towards it for two hours and forty-five minutes, and we get a payoff that’s shockingly perfunctory.

There’s nothing special about the big action set pieces either (on water, ice, under a space station spinning out of control) – they have a been-there-done-that quality, which extends to parts of the script too. I was surprised to be reminded of Star Wars, from which we have the premise of a farmer who dreams of being a space cowboy. (Cooper sulks just like Luke Skywalker: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”) A scene where Cooper is rescued on an icy planet is a direct homage to Skywalker’s rescue on the ice world of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. And the production design takes a cue from George Lucas’s vision of space. Everything looks worn out, used. The superbly designed robot-helper looks like a chrome-plated Kit Kat bar, and it speaks like a normal human (i.e. not in a monotone like HAL). Even the wormhole isn’t the dazzling light show from 2001 but something that resembles a river of oil slicking through a city street at night. Kubrick’s saga, meanwhile, is referenced in a WTF-y scene towards the end, where Cooper glimpses the past and plans the future. Even Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is visible, in the premise of father and daughter separated by time and space.

All of which leads people to think I hate Nolan’s films. But that’s not what this is about. The man’s no hack – it would so much easier to dismiss him completely if he were one. He’s the directing world’s answer to Leonardo DiCaprio, who, for the magnitude of his stardom, consistently challenges himself by seeking out risky mainstream movies. It would be easy for Nolan to cash in on his name and keep making sure-fire blockbusters. Instead, he’s made a three-hour film that looks like the love child of Michael Bay and Carl Sagan. And when he wants, he can be an amazing filmmaker. The most stunning stretch of Interstellar, for me, was when Cooper, having decided to go to space, drives away from his home and, as he is driving away, we hear the T-minus countdown, and we cut directly to the space shuttle blasting off. We’ve already spent a good amount of time knowing this man and his love for space travel, and we don’t need any more scenes in between. This is dramatic, economical storytelling.

But why is it absent elsewhere? Why is there so much flab? Why – when compared to, say, Gravity – are there so few visuals that are truly mind-bending, like the shot of a corpse floating in the sea, or the grave sight of the burnt-out parts of a space station? Looking at the zero-gravity sequences here, I was reminded of Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars – not a great movie, but it certainly had a great stretch where a character cut himself and the blood streaming out formed wondrous patterns, and later, the leads performed a playful waltz in these conditions. Maybe it’s time Nolan rediscovered some of the breathless playfulness he so wickedly unleashed in The Prestige. I don’t know if he’s reading all that’s being said about him on the internet bulletin boards (that is, when they’re not poring over the significance of the titles in Cooper’s bookshelf, which houses Stephen King as well as Arthur Conan Doyle) – but if he is, I hope he’s not taking it too seriously. I read a recent profile in The Guardian which opens with an anecdote about how Nolan, while location scouting for Interstellar, walked barefoot towards a glacier. This sort of thing smells suspiciously like mythmaking. We shouldn’t be making a god out of him… yet.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.