I was having a conversation with some movie friends of mine last week when I opined that I don't think Christopher Nolan knows what a movie director actually does. That's a pretty provocative statement about a filmmaker who is arguably the most commercially successful director of the last decade and one who has a considerable and fanatically devoted cult from whom I am sure to catch some grief. But hear me out.
The things that Nolan does well are things that producers have traditionally done well: wrangling talent, managing technical departments, casting, overseeing editors and composers, and so on. But when it comes to actually blocking actors and sets and camera movements in the film frame and telling them where to move and how to deliver their lines? When it comes to the basic act of directing a film in front of rolling cameras? Man, that cat is barely functional. He's fortunate that his metier is in big action spectaculars where a lot of these deficiencies can be papered over by the need to construct storyboards and animatics for the action sequences and special effects. Left to his own devices, his idea of drama is placing an actor in a medium two-shot without a companion and dumping exposition as a fucking soliloquy. When left to construct action sequences, his default is the run and gun style that doesn't require a sense of filmic space. He's not good at this stuff.
More, Nolan views films as puzzles. This goes all the way back to Memento, but it reached its zenith with The Prestige, which is a puzzle that cheats, and with Inception. These are puzzles to be solved for their own sakes, and, y'know, that's fair. It's a defensible aesthetic. I like puzzles. It's perhaps inevitable that Nolan would make ambitious hard sci fi, because that stuff is all about puzzles. Science is the pursuit of puzzles and their solutions. There's an atavistic pleasure that all humans feel when they figure something out. The harder the problem, the sweeter its solution feels. Providing that thrill is an experience that movies rarely provide, except in tricky mystery thrillers.
When I say that Nolan is a better producer than director, that's a challenge to the prevailing notion that directors are the authors of films. It's true that film is a director's medium, but that doesn't mean directors are always auteurs. David O. Selznick comes to mind. So does Val Lewton. So this shouldn't be taken as a slight, necessarily. But his neglect of the art of directing for the other crafts of filmmaking does make for deeply flawed films.
I'm not entirely sure what to do with Nolan's newest film, Interstellar (2014). It showcases all of Nolan's failings as a filmmaker while emphasizing all of his strengths. It's ambitious, I'll give it that much. There's a lot to like, actually. It has good actors and phenomenal production design and more rigor when it comes to actual science than is usual for science fiction movies (faint praise, given the magical nature of movie physics). When it wants to make grand statements, though? That's when it tumbles down into that black hole at the center of the narrative. Its metaphysics often struck me as silly.
The human race is in dire straits as the film opens. A blight is systematically destroying human agriculture. Society has collapsed and the government is barely a rumor, felt only when the tax bill is due. Intellectual achievement is a luxury next to farming, which chafes at Cooper, the film's hero. Cooper is an engineer and a pilot. Once upon a time, he was training as an astronaut, but gave that up after a disastrous test flight. His engineering know-how comes in handy when it comes to keeping his farm functioning. Cooper has two children: Tom and Murph. Tom is struggling at school and his grades mark him as a farmer of the future, much to his chagrin. Murph, on the other hand, is brighter than her teachers and runs up against their institutional ignorance (incarnated in the notion that the moon landings were faked). Murph is investigating the ghost in their farmhouse. Per her father's instructions, she's formulating hypotheses and testing them rather than accepting the notion of the supernatural at face value. The "ghost," it seems, is sending her messages. One such, in binary, directs her to a map coordinate and when her father heads out to investigate, she tags along. What they find is the last vestiges of NASA, who are engineering mankind's last bid for survival. Cooper, a trained pilot, is a godsend to them and he's recruited to fly through a wormhole near Saturn, a trip that will take years and years, depending on relativity. Murph doesn't want him to go, and Cooper is deeply conflicted, weighing the survival of the species versus the prospect of never seeing his family again. The chooses to go. There are three planets on the other side of the wormhole, and the Endurance is tasked with visiting all three of them to determine if any of them could serve as a new home for humanity. Also on the other side of the wormhole is a black hole called "Gargantua," and navigating the first planet on their itinerary involves plunging into distorted space-time, where one hour on the planet equates to seven years on Earth. That mission ends in disaster, as the planet's watery surface suffers tidal waves as tall as mountains. Only Cooper and Dr. Brand survive the experience. The mission costs them 23 years. Time, the realize, is a resource, not to be squandered. The time spent there leaves them only enough fuel to investigate one more planet while keeping enough fuel remaining for a return trip to Earth. Brand argues for the planet occupied by a scientist with whom she has a relationship. Cooper chooses the other for pragmatic reasons. It's outside the influence of Gargantua. That planet turns out to be icebound. Even its clouds are frozen. The find its explorer, Dr. Mann, still alive in hibernation, but when they revive him, they discover that he's been driven mad by the isolation. He contrives to maroon Cooper and his mission companions as he makes a bid to return home. Cooper survives an attempt to kill him, and the race is on to thwart Mann before he leaves the system...
There's more than this, of course. Lot's more. But, as you may surmise from how I recount Nolan's cinematic tendencies, this is a film that twists and turns at the end. This is ultimately a puzzle movie, and a time travel film in disguise. It almost can't help that, given that its adherence to relativity as a guiding principle of its plot demands that time be elastic. The film doesn't exactly cheat when it turns back on its own timeline, like a Möbius strip, but it veers a bit into metaphysics when it does. This is a film that is not content with the boundaries of the physical universe in which it resolves to play. Instead, it stretches things with notions that "love" is a force that transcends time, and that the interior of a black hole, rather than destroying someone by spaghettification (which would happen in our non-cinematic universe) instead offers a gateway into another reality. (Mind you, I'm aware of the fact that there are physicists who believe exactly that, so it's not wholly without justification). For all that, this film's best moments come from the limits placed on it by science.
There's a political wariness in this film. It would be easy--maybe too easy--to frame the impending extinction of life on Earth as the result of climate change. This would have the virtue of being increasingly likely. Instead, Interstellar invents an apocalypse in the form of a blight that's wiping out the food supply. I mean, I get it. This is a megabudget production that can't afford to limit its audience by telling them truths many of them deny. There's an upside to this, insofar as it lets the film indulge in a kind of folksy Americana, one that directly references The Dust Bowl and some of the stories of Robert Heinlein (many of which begin with young heroes from the sticks who fly across the universe). Casting Matthew McConaughey as Cooper serves this idea well. McConaughey is good at the aw-shucks persona, but is capable when asked to dump complex ideas on the audience.
Even so, the film isn't completely above taking pot shots given how it sticks its fingers in the eye of moon landing conspiracy theorists (which, in turn, acts as a literary allusion, given that the most prominent of such theories holds that the moon landing was faked on the sets of 2001 by Stanley Kubrick himself). There's a more subtle political message found in the structure of its representations, though. This is a movie where half of the protagonists are women: Brand is an astronaut and scientist, Murph as an adult is a theoretical physicist and engineer. The film doesn't find this remarkable. It doesn't comment on it. Let me tell you, though, this is a huge statement, and it makes me inclined to walk back from the film's flaws and embrace its virtues.
One of its virtues is that it knows how to get the most out of its set-pieces. It knows the value of imminent disaster. The sequence on Miller's planet, with is mile-high tidal waves is tense, but the psychodrama on Mann's planet is even better because it has its roots in human frailty. There's a reason that, say, The Poseidon Adventure is a minor classic, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a major one. The best stories, as the rubric sometimes goes, are about the human heart in conflict with itself. Watching Mann desperately trying to reconnect with humanity after lying about his findings to draw in the rescuers is thrilling. The fall-out--particularly the sequence where Cooper and Brand must dock with the Endurance as it spins out of control--is even better. Hans Zimmer's score and the film's famously eccentric sound mix works well here, though during other passages it tends to overwhelm things.
The film's best effect, though, comes from relativity itself. The different rates of time makes for unexpectedly moving drama, as Murph ages while Cooper remains young. Murph is played by three different actresses in the film and she's fortunate in her interpreters. Mackenzie Foy is terrific playing Murph as a child, and Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn turn her into a luminous and brilliant adult, though Chastain gets the additional thread of resentment against both her own father, Cooper, and her surrogate father in the elder Professor Brand. The motif of time littering the film is almost overplayed, but maybe I'm giving audiences too much credit. I seem to recall that when Einstein formulated his great equation, he opined that maybe six people in the world would understand it.
I should own up to some of my own prejudices here. I'm a space and sci fi nut from way back. I read all those novels by Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke when I was a teenager. As an adult, I'm not entirely dissuaded from the notion that a lot of the problems that plague this green Earth can be solved by going to space. In a lot of ways, this is a film that preaches to the converted, and I'm a member of that choir. I wish Interstellar didn't amplify so many of Nolan's bad habits; this film is fucking rife with soliloquies loaded with science jargon. Could they have picked a more obvious poetic mantra than Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight?" I suppose they had to pick something that people might have actually read. The parts of the film that require the direction of actors are functional enough. Nolan is a canny filmmaker when it comes to casting his films and his habit of working with actors repeatedly pays dividends. Nolan has made the best use of Michael Caine (playing the elder Professor Brand) as anyone has, and Anne Hathaway (as the younger Dr. Brand) gives one of her best performances, but Nolan is over-reliant on them to carry the scenes he's sometimes over-written for them. Nolan squanders other actors: Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Ellen Burstyn, and John Lithgow comprise a heavyweight ensemble in support of the leads, but the film has no idea of what to do with them. All of this mars the experience of watching the film. In spite of all that, I liked the film more than I expected I would. There's something really satisfying about a film that meets science fiction on its own terms and embraces its virtues. The virtues of science fiction--the extrapolation of ideas, an embrace of sublimity and wonderment, an inherent optimism that regardless of how bad it will be, tomorrow will eventually come--these have a latent power that the cinema, for all its flirtation with the genre, has rarely employed. The films that actually manage this? Most of them have warts, too, but that hasn't stopped them from defining the genre. I don't know that Interstellar is a defining film. It's too ungainly for me to make that kind of judgement about it. That's really for time and tide to decide. The experience of watching it is often more frustrating than thrilling. But when it is thrilling? Yeah, it's the good stuff.
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