Ever since he made the leap from indie-breakout-hit Memento to helmsmen of The Dark Knight trilogy (we can skip over the forgettable Insomnia), I’ve been fascinated and excited by the work of director Christopher Nolan. The kind of movies he makes feels like a lost art: true summer blockbusters that are filled with ideas, with special effects that actually look grounded and real, with plots so layered and complex (and yes, convoluted), that they require multiple viewings to take it all in.
In many ways, it seems like he’s manipulated the increasingly conservative, super-hero-obsessed Hollywood machine into letting him make the movies he actually wants to make, with the kind of budget generally reserved for yet another Disney-Marvel flick or Transformers monstrosity (I really, really dislike Michael Bay and everything he stands for).
With the success of the Dark Knight movies, Nolan seemed to have gained the trust of the studios as a filmmaker who can consistently deliver, both critically and financially. Since Batman Begins, he’s released a movie at least every two years—including The Prestige and Inception. Both were non-franchise, totally original works of cinema that were also profitable at the box office. Inception, in particular, proved that a complex and mind-bending plot in a blockbuster was in no way antithetical to massive success with a broad audience.
The New York Times had a great piece recently on Christopher Nolan, and the return of the “middle-brow” movie. In a time where cinema seems more divided than ever between broad, “low-brow” entertainment and niche, “high-brow” Oscar contenders, Christopher Nolan is one of the only directors making movies that attempt to take the best from both sides of the spectrum. In this way, he’s the presumed successor to Steven Spielberg, once the master of films that were simultaneously smart, original, wildly entertaining, and full of heart.
Another part of the Nolan brand is his pushback against trends in the industry towards all-digital, all-CG, all-3D cinema. He avoids the use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) whenever possible in his films, opting instead for practical effects (e.g. building a full-scale batmobile or actually creating a massive spinning hallway for Inception). He’s spoken extensively about the way he believes 3D actually takes you out of the shared theater experience by narrowing your view of the screen through cumbersome glasses, and instead has become a crusader for the use of traditional film stock—particularly 70mm IMAX film—as a way get audiences into a theater in lieu of 3D. And in many cases, he’s right: his use of the IMAX format in The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar is truly stunning in a way your average 3D movie just isn’t.
All that said, Nolan’s movies do have consistent, irritating pitfalls, which often prevent them from becoming truly classic masterpieces. The dialogue is packed with exposition; people are always explaining everything. Rarely are we shown what’s happening, instead we are told. In great detail. For long stretches of time, and through lots of montages.
Even in his best films like The Dark Knight and Inception, where his over-reliance on exposition can be forgiven once the film takes off, Nolan’s stories consistently tend to become convoluted and just plain fatiguing by the third act.
Near the end of The Dark Knight, it becomes hard to understand (or care about) what’s happening when Batman starts using his disorienting “sonar-vision” in a building full of thugs who have taken hospital doctors hostage…but the thugs have apparently donned the doctors’ outfits and put clown masks on the doctors…so the SWAT team raiding the place is going to shoot the wrong people…so Batman has to fight both the SWAT team and the actual bad guys…all while Morgan Freeman watches a bunch of crowd-sourced, cell-phone-generated sonar images on a bunch of tiny screens at Wayne Enterprises so he can tell Batman what to do over the radio…
I honestly had no idea what was going on in this sequence when seeing the film the first couple times. At this point in the story, I’d much rather watch a great showdown between Batman and the Joker, and ditch the rest of this convoluted sequence. It just doesn’t need to be there.
In Inception, Nolan fills a good deal of the last third of the film with forgettable, uninspired, James Bond-style “skiing-with-guns-in-the-snow” action scenes, which really just end up distracting from the core story and far more compelling, intercut cinematic sequences (like Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s awesome zero-gravity scenes).
In all of Nolan’s films, the overall cinematography is definitely better-than-average (especially the stunning IMAX imagery), but his vision often lacks any special attention to detail or composition shot-to-shot. It’s more in the relentless pacing and editing of these films that the “WOW” factor is achieved, rather than lingering on any truly beautiful images. (Inception is an exception, which contains some standout, unforgettable visual moments). Hans Zimmer’s epic, driving scores definitely help smooth this all over, sweeping you along for the ride, even if the ride is fairly bumpy.
Now, you could argue that all of this is pretty nit-picky stuff, given how grandly entertaining and successful Nolan’s movies can be. He himself has even complained that his films seem to be held to a higher standard than other blockbusters. That may be true—but if it is, it’s almost certainly a compliment. It means that he’s doing something right—that he’s creating near-perfect blockbusters—and those of us who are critiquing are only doing so because we want his next one to be even better.
This—all of this—is what has been swirling through my head in the years and months leading up to the recent release of Interstellar. Despite my qualms and nitpicks, I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan, and have held his films up as an example of what big Hollywood movies can still be: smart AND entertaining. It seemed to me that Interstellar was a chance for Christopher Nolan to make his best film yet: finally free of any attachment to a franchise (The Dark Knight Rises being his last Batman film), with more power than almost any director working in the studio system today, he was finally going to make the epic, sprawling, mind-bending, awe-inspiring sci-fi film I had been waiting for.
High expectations, yes. But when a director like Nolan gets the opportunity to make a sci-fi film about the future of humanity and wormholes and our place in the universe, he better not waste that opportunity.
As you may have guessed, I have a lot of thoughts on Interstellar. If you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s definitely worth checking out, ideally in a full-size IMAX theater (the Interstellar website even has a handy list of which theaters are playing the film in 70mm IMAX). If you have seen Interstellar, come back Thursday for my spoiler-filled thoughts on the film and where I think Nolan should go from here.