by Christopher Nolan
On general release from 7th November 2014
Christopher Nolan has a tendency for big. His Batman franchise developed
from an acute character study to a sprawling crime saga to its eventual
A Tale of Two Cities-inspired conclusion.
It’s representative of his whole filmography in the sense that they’ve
grown in scope with each subsequent film. His second film, Memento,
grappled matters of the mind with a mere indie budget before, a decade
later, Inception would delve deeper into the
premise equipped with $160 million and the biggest film star of this era.
Now, four years later, Christopher Nolan has reached for the stars.
It’s clear from the first moments of Interstellar
that we’re witnessing a very different kind of Christopher Nolan
film. There’s no bold, commanding opening of a stranger awakening
ominously on the shore of a beach (Inception),
or a narrator stating the fundamentals of a magicians act (The
Prestige) to suggest you’re in the assured, disciplined hands
of a director who knows exactly where this is going. Instead it begins
modestly, its sedated, almost low-budget approach, thanks in part to the
director’s firm abhorrence to digital film, seemingly oblivious
to the colossal science fiction epic it will eventually evolve into. Its
relaxed, rustic nature sitting well with Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper,
his Southern drawl and farm ranch backdrop, as he rides haphazardly along
dirt roads with his giggling young children in tow.
It’s strangely intimate for a director notorious for his coldness,
a director whose first acts are assembled purely to establish its intricate
and sophisticated narrative, with any glimpse of character development
managed in a clinical and detached manner like components of a machine.
Even when Interstellar’s catalyst inevitably does arrive, its introduction
is unusually brief, flitting through Cooper’s discovery of a secret
NASA installation to invest more time in an intense goodbye between Cooper
and his daughter, Murph, as he’s ultimately chosen to search the
universe of habitable planets for humanity and it’s failing Earth.
It’s a welcome deviation from Inception,
a film that seemed to dedicate half its running time to explaining its
own plot, and a departure from Bruce Wayne’s simple armchair brooding
in The Dark Knight; a hasty scene intended
as a response to the distressing death of his apparent loved one, and
the manner in which Nolan had previously handled emotion.
This sudden shift in method might not just be a director, now sixteen
years into his career, simply yearning to explore new ventures. Interstellar
was originally intended for Steven Spielberg in 2006 before it fell into
the assured, disciplined hands (although slightly more shaky after The
Dark Knight Rises) of Christopher Nolan in 2012. Combining his
own ideas with that of the script, and with a self-imposed task to recreate
“the golden age of the blockbuster”, Nolan’s tendencies
clunk awkwardly with Spielberg’s own infamously sentimental approach.
Nolan is the latest director to attempt an emulation of this nostalgic
sector of cinema’s past, which has seen the likes of J.J. Abrams’
misstep Super 8, and it’s a somewhat
discouraging move for a director who recently reinvented the summer blockbuster
himself with The Dark Knight.
A director notorious for grounding a comic book in stark realism, who
formerly shunned the remotest otherworldly aspects of its characters in
support of sheer authenticity, is now grappling the notion of apparent
‘ghosts’ and mysterious signs from ‘them’; a component
of the plot that brings Cooper to the NASA installation, and an angle
that’s unsettlingly reminiscent of another recent space opera, Ridley
Scott’s ill-fated Prometheus.
of Cooper is another typical Spielberg creation, an ordinary man in an
extraordinary situation; all-American hero with no traces of an underlying
darkness that commonly inhabit Nolan’s central leads. It’s
a familiar archetype that, coupled with his mission to quite literally
save the world, demands a particularly theatrical direction for it to
thrive. Under Nolan’s stern, somewhat self-important supervision,
however, there’s a clear disjointed quality that casts a shadow
of falsehood over the proceedings that not even the charisma of McConaughey
or promising talent of Mackenzie Foy can fully salvage.
Yet, aboard the spacecraft, as though its launch is representative of
Nolan’s liberation from Spielberg himself, the Nolanisms are fully
unleashed. Complex expositional dialogue is mumbled in such rapid motion
that makes repeated viewings (with subtitles, if possible) almost mandatory,
and the accompanying robot, a rather inspired and memorable creation,
is somehow written to be more emotive and substantial than the human beings
The redeeming feature of this point in the narrative, however, that seems
to demonstrate Nolan to his fullest extent, is that it coincidentally
parades one of his strongest attributes: his ability of pure spectacle.
Since the Dark Knight flipped an entire truck on its head in the middle
of a city, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt swung through hotel corridors in the
midst of zero gravity, Nolan has proved to excel in the modern blockbuster
set piece. And Interstellar’s space
sequences are something to truly marvel, offering some particularly elegant,
artful scenes involving a Dylan Thomas poem recital that have a somewhat
iconic quality. Nolan’s value of realism is also finally advantageous
when creating a perfectly silent, eerie atmosphere onboard the ship, with
its subsequent foray into a wormhole proving to be an intensely thrilling,
immersive trip that competes with Alfonso Cuaron’s lauded space
adventure, Gravity. The crew’s subsequent
expeditions into alien planets are not particularly imaginative, but nonetheless
expected of a director fiercely keen on real set locations, and whose
representation of ‘limbo’ (a dream space as seen in Inception
where literally anything is possible) is the rather dull concept of a
crumbling muted city.
As it progresses, however, the grand scope and apparent awesomeness of
this space exploration experience, upon discovering that the plot simply
isn’t substantial enough to support it, regrettably prove to be
an illusion. The supposed crisis on earth involving dust storms and scarce
resources is limited to few scenes and even fewer characters, all of which
are exclusively confined to the only two established settings, Cooper’s
ranch and the NASA installation. As a result, the effect of a true global
disaster that could justify this sensational intergalactic mission is
not successfully achieved, and as sentimentality creeps back into the
narrative with a stronger force, as if locating this particular high point
in the film in the far reaches of the galaxy, it causes many of the emotional
moments that the film so heavily hinges on to fall flat.
Christopher Nolan has a tendency for big, and Interstellar
is such a monstrous creation both visually and thematically that it’s
a relief to think he can only possibly get smaller. His Batman franchise,
as mentioned earlier, is representative of his whole filmography in the
sense that they’ve grown in scope with each subsequent film. Batman
Begins symbolizes Nolan’s contemplative mind thriving in
the restrictive environment of his early work, while The
Dark Knight struck a fine balance between its increased scope and
his introspective way of storytelling. The Dark Knight
Rises, however, exemplifies Nolan’s recent tendency to construct
confused, unfocused work lost in its ambitiousness and bombastic nature.
There’s a moment in Interstellar where,
in the midst of a crisis aboard the spacecraft, a distressed Anne Hathaway
declares “Well, we got this far, farther than any human in history”,
to which Cooper responds firmly, “Well, not far enough!” and
it’s a sincere hope that it isn’t emblematic of Nolan himself.