Nolan’s Interstellar a perfect illustration of director’s strengths, weaknesses

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By Phil Brown, Contributor

There’s probably no filmmaker out there whose filmography has more consistently appealed to my tastes as a teenager, and now twentysomething, than the British-American director Christopher Nolan. Nolan, of course, you have heard of, unless you have somehow managed to avoid his block-busting action movies in the Batman trilogy and Inception, that were massively successful in all of box-office figures, critical review and pop-culture influence.
The Prestige was my favorite film of all time at the time I watched it, his Dark Knight films blew away my expectations of a comic book movie and I found Inception to be a delicious heist film that was enhanced by its sci-fi trappings.
Memento was also great, and Insomnia, a barely-mentioned film that starred Al Pacino as a world-weary cop opposite Robin Williams as a slightly sinister author, was another unique, exciting film experience.
It was with extremely high anticipation then that I walked into Aksarben Cinema Tuesday evening to see Nolan’s latest blockbuster-to-be: Interstellar, following a hype train that had reached terminal velocity before the film was in the can.
I can remember violently hashing out the nuances of poster typography with strangers on the internet, excitedly relating to uncaring family members the different vehicles Nolan had reportedly attached IMAX cameras to and piloted about, and using the term “McConaissance” at every conceivable venture.
But when all was said and done, I walked out of the theatre with mixed, dampened feelings. What went wrong? Nothing too earth-shattering, it’s just that Interstellar is a particularly lucid reminder of the most brilliant, and most disappointing, aspects of Nolan’s craft.
The brilliance is found mainly in the technical work. The production design is reminiscent of Sunshine, a similar film I discussed in an earlier column that immediately springs to mind, in that it feels so very complete and consistent.
The set pieces are wholly believable in the context of the film, and Nolan’s meticulous attention to detail pays off very satisfyingly in the sci-fi genre. Everything- from the ships, to the robots, the space suits, the scientific paraphernalia of all sorts, as well as the dusty, worn-out relics on earth- is effective at bringing a sense of authenticity that is crucial not just to film in general, but in setting the stage of a sci-fi epic.
And it’s the visuals in general that are Interstellar’s greatest strength. Nolan’s vision of a wormhole is worth the price of admission alone, not to mention the frankly breathtaking planets his astronauts visit, and the wormhole that is their ultimate enemy and savior. They make Kubrick’s Jupiter scenes look positively kitschy by comparison.
But while Nolan’s strengths are perfectly suited for big, ambitious sci-fi, his weaknesses have the opposite relationship. Kubrick in 2001, and Boyle in Sunshine, succeed in their sci-fi by telling stories subtly, leaving ambiguity, and drawing raw terror from their actors.
In stories set in unpredictable space, Kubrick and Boyle tell stories that are open to interpretation and aren’t limited to expressly communicated statements by characters. Nolan, on the other hand, has always had a problem with subtlety. It’s hard to notice in a film like The Dark Knight, Inception or any of Nolan’s other action films.
Because they are action films, the action is the focus, and the story serves the action. Inception is a heist film, and while the sci-fi setting makes it a unique and interesting heist film, it remains a heist film to the end. But Nolan’s dialogue is ponderous, and has always been so. His themes are explicitly stated and are painted with a massive brush. And in Interstellar, these tendencies undermine much of the good work he puts in with the visuals and technical aspects of the film.
Every metaphor must be explained and expanded upon, literally, by the characters. Nolan isn’t content to call a mission Lazarus, not content even then to have a character say “you raised me from the dead!” No, another character must explicitly draw the parallel, wryly observing what the viewer should have been trusted to catch: an already heavy-handed metaphor.
In a genre that thrives on a certain amount of ambiguity, Interstellar is about as ambiguous as Sarah Palin. It violently stuffs its happy ending down the throat, eyes and ears of the viewer, dragging out the third act into interminable sequences of dubiously positive outcomes, unwilling to let any possible alternative, and therefore, any sense of danger or impact be felt.
The sense of wonder and awe Nolan accomplishes with his peerless visual and technical prowess is drained from the viewer in a third act filled with weirdly aggressive platitudes.
Ultimately then, Interstellar is not a bad or good film. Nolan’s Interstellar as a film is something he couldn’t make it as a story: ambiguous, neither good or bad, black or white. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece in some regards, a disappointing bore in others.
Your opinion of the film’s merit, is, of course, a matter of your own interpretation, something he wouldn’t allow you to reach about the story itself.

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