I have to feel sorry for Christopher Nolan. The man has a reputation to uphold as the premier filmmaker people namedrop these days when they want to make that old argument about how mass-market appeal movies don’t have to be as dumb as rocks in order to see multi-million dollar success. I would have thought that opinion was self-evident, but clearly people are insecure enough to spout Nolan’s praises at the drop of a hat and claim that no, The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t bad, you just didn’t understand it.
Nolan’s legacy has therefore become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy; people expect a certain level of intelligence and precision in his filmmaking, and so he is forced to provide ammunition for the individuals who refuse to appreciate the work of Bruckheimer and Bay. If Nolan makes an arthouse flick with nary a gunshot or explosion in sight, his viewership plummets; if Nolan makes a nonsensical action film masquerading as social commentary, his critics are left in the uncomfortable situation of having to defend something they know is dumb as rocks. Vive la DKR.
That having been said, a website existed to explain the ending of Inception for those of us who didn’t get it. Clearly my faith in humanity’s intelligence can be seen as overly optimistic.
There’s something wonderfully honest about Interstellar. I think I can put my beef with Nolan away after the travesty that was The Dark Knight Rises. It’s well-salted and great on rye with a touch of mustard, and it’s about time I swallowed the sandwich.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a work of filmography that is so close to complete perfection so as to make any quibbling about its perfection meaningless platitude. It does what it does, and it does it better than anyone else. Whether you like the subject material or not, whether you like the scale of the story, or the formulaic plot and rote characters involved – it is precisely executed, tightly focused, and put together with laser precision, like a stunning ice sculpture that exists only for 91 minutes before melting into nothing and leaving the viewer’s mind fingerprinted with its loss.
Interstellar is a Christopher Nolan film. So any chance of it being the same precisely-executed, tightly-focused, and laser-precise work of Gravity’s ilk is nil. Nolan has a reputation as someone who builds work of that sort, but I’ve always found Nolan’s films, especially his later work, to be as unfortunately constrained by that reputation as Nolan must be aware he is becoming. Memento is a music box. The Dark Knight is a loose, if well-drawn near-circle with the bits that’d make it a circle missing. Inception is a series of mazes within mazes, each appearing different but still exactly the same. The Dark Knight Rises is a hot mess, a guilty (if still palatable) garbage plate, being passed off as haute cuisine.
Gravity is the way it is because the ambitions of the filmmakers ended at just making the best damn space movie they believed they could make. That it ended up being the most perfect film of 2011 happened almost by accident. You never feel that Gravity chafes at its tight constraints, or that it’s actively fighting against its runtime, stringing together a threadbare plot slowly, ponderously, as if afraid the threads will give way entirely.
Interstellar is the way it is because Nolan took something nebulous and fantastic and awe-inspiring, made a jumping grab at something impossible to define, and tried to hammer it down into a linear shape set to Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming musical assaults. He calls this the Christopher Nolan Blockbuster. He has a formula for this, tried and tested throughout his career. The same could be said of Inception, to be honest, but the idea that our dreams are just as plain and gray as everyday life is, I believe, easier for a mass audience to swallow than space-time singularities and interstellar travel through a wormhole being as reliable as the plot requires them to be. What this suggests about the depth of human imagination depresses me.
The twists – of course there are twists – are predictable to the point of absurdity, and this is Nolan’s own fault. The audience has seen the Christopher Nolan Blockbuster before, and knows what to look for. Of course the plot loops back on itself. Of course the protagonist is responsible for setting himself on the path that he set himself on at the beginning of the movie. Of course everything that happens in the movie we didn’t know how to make sense of earlier is a consequence of something that happens later. Well, duh. What year do you think this is, 2001?
All that having been said, I really enjoyed Interstellar. Like that other maligned, overbudgeted, overhyped failure of logic and common sense (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus), it is an absolute triumph of atmosphere, mood, and dramatic tension. For all its Nolan Blockbuster trappings, Nolan is desperately in love with his subject material (space travel, beat-down family men, existential crises) and the themes he presents (human discovery, old age and the eternal curse of linear time), and it shines through in every frame of largely-static camerawork. Instead of the swooping, speeding camera movement we’ve come to expect from blockbuster flicks with this kind of budget, Nolan decides to use negative space to draw our attention (in one glorious moment, the camera has nothing to focus on but the clock-faced spaceship Endurance occupying a tiny piece of the screen, slamming home the sentiment that we are pitifully alone in this vast emptiness). Little thematic touches, both visual and musical, are liberally scattered throughout the work in callbacks, done so consistently that you can just about buy what it’s selling – just about.
It’s almost enough to make you forget the colossal leaps of logic the movie asks of the viewer. Love is a tangible quantum force not bound by the laws of conventional physics. Pilots who have done nothing but dust farm for years can handle spacecraft as if they hadn’t spent a day out of the cockpit – and continue to do so with no trouble a hundred years into the future. A trained astronaut and scientist, outright stated as one of the best humanity can send, attempts an imperfect docking maneuver, something so incredibly stupid and dangerous that even first-year undergraduates in astrophysics – or even anyone with any knowledge of explosive decompression – would balk at. People can not only survive being fired through a singularity event horizon, but record data from said singularity, transcribe it into an elegantly simple equation and transmit it via Morse code. Transcendent fifth-dimensional beings who no longer view time as a linear construct, with the freedom to send someone anywhere in space and time, decide to trap an astronaut behind a bookshelf. Gravity is known to warp space and time – except when it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, Nolan’s grasp of the themes he’s wrestling with sadly exceeds his reach. But hey, at least he tried.