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.