Disclaimer: I will only be discussing Nolan films I’ve seen personally, so that leaves out his debut film (Following). *SPOILER ALERT*
As Interstellar sweeps the box-office in its first week, polarizing sci-fi fans and critics alike, I can’t help but look back on the career of one of the most innovative directors of the past fifty years. While admittedly many Nolan fans found themselves a little late to the party with the release of the Dark Knight Trilogy garnering much attention and catapulting Nolan into mainstream notoriety, his earlier films are easily his best.
Why do I say that? I guess a lot of it comes from the fact that his earlier films are extremely low on visual effects and thus reliant purely on performance and script writing. Looking at films like Memento and Insomnia which showcased the acting chops of both Guy Pearce and Robin Williams respectively; the latter in one of his best dramatic roles since Good Will Hunting, it’s hard not to admire the talent of the writers. Unfortunately this period was so short lived with Batman Begins released only 3 years after Insomnia thus beginning the era of the Christopher Nolan that the world has embraced so enthusiastically. Am I saying that everything after 2002 is shit? No. But what I am saying is that there is a clear evolution of the type of films that Nolan sought to make. ‘Mainstream’ is a word that comes to mind but I don’t want to seem to hipster in the presentation of my thesis, however it’s obvious that Nolan became very enamored with special effects and cinematography as of 2005. The Prestige was a fine film for sure, being released between the Dark Knight and Batman Begins to mostly positive reviews. What I liked about it was that it had a great onscreen rivalry that is rarely seen in such a convincing way, not to mention the turn by David Bowie as the inventor Nikola Tesla. Jonathan Nolan weaves a very intriguing tale of passion, obsession and the extent that some are willing to go to fulfill those obsessions. And while the ending might’ve split audiences I think it was less twisty per say, than what you get in films like Inception and Interstellar and seemed to fit with the tone of the film rather than tacked on.
Now onto The Dark Knight Trilogy which is easily the most lucrative and well received trilogies, comic book or otherwise and engrained the name Nolan into modern nomenclature. Personally I think the movies are shit, but that’s an article for another day. Essentially my argument for this standpoint goes as follows, between the massive plot holes, complete miscasting of Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman; the latter seeming to pop up in every movie under the sun since the late nineties, and the irritating fact that Nolan seems to think that Gotham should be a combination of every metropolitan city in the US instead of exactly what it is: a fantasy location. Look, I can agree with two things A. The Dark Knight is the best of the three and B. Ledger gives a very good modern take on the Joker, aside from that I cannot hang any more laurels upon its already weighed down shoulders via critics universally. Nolan really sold out with the Dark Knight Trilogy he stopped caring about his characters and focused more the visual spectacle and contribution he could make to his trophy case. It became less about decent script writing and more about set pieces, and for comic book fans who swear by the ‘realistic’ Frank Miller Batman, the films just don’t measure up and don’t even come close to animated series greatness which is saying something.
When it comes to Inception I think Nolan was getting a little back to his routes in terms of innovative screenwriting while also owing a lot of success to the power of modern film making technology and practical effects. I thought the casting was great and it was nice to see a story daring to try something that many might’ve thought to be un-filmable. My only issue was the ending which for those handful of you that haven’t seen the film *SPOILER ALERT*: It just seemed like Nolan wanted us to be so sucked into the universe he created for his characters that he thought a little added twist at the end was the only thing separating it from greatness. It doesn’t make sense in retrospect and seems to only seek to confuse its audience and sell DVD’s, it’s as if Nolan felt that the film couldn’t be carried alone on it’s previous 2 and a half hours and needed that extra kick to leave a lasting impression, which is the same trap he falls into with Interstellar. It’d be like JK Rowling making the entire seven book Harry Potter experience be the result of a massive dream sequence and call it quits; it just felt contrived when all was said and done.
Again, as previously stated Interstellar chooses to go with the same sort of evolution of its plot and while not nearly as narratively strong as his previous sci-fi effort it teeters on some good ideas but falls short of greatness. The plot goes as follows: In the somewhere near future the earth is ravaged by issues, alluded to be the result of climate change and follows a family in the midwest lead by former test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who is tasked by now underground NASA to travel into outer space with a makeshift crew to seek out two pairs of expeditions who were searching for habitable planets via a wormhole. What follows is a nearly 3-hour hamfest that brings to mind McConaughey’s shit performance in Contact and seeks to hit its audience over the head with the ‘love transcends time and space’ message. In the end it just felt like the Nolan was desperately trying to force this over-arching theme upon its audience rather than provide a coherent story. Admittedly, much like Gravity, the visuals are spectacular and best seen in IMAX or in the theater as it is more about the experience than the actual journey that takes place on screen. The chemistry between Anne Hathaway (who is devilishly miscast) and our hero is very forced and felt very unnatural, and while I’m no fan of Miss Hathaway I felt her presence was especially irritating. Again, like Inception Nolan places his audience on a roller coaster of an amazing visual feast of technical feats and set pieces but ultimately exploits its universe to circumvent its shortcomings. Nolan ends up focusing too much on visuals and a rather odd cameo but Matt Damon and sells his work short with these contrivances. Such works pale in comparison to the mystery and brooding melancholy we see in Memento and to a lesser extent Insomnia which focus on the fragility of the mind of its leads rather than what sets they live and interact with.
There’s no denying that Christopher Nolan is an amazing director and he has easily crafted some of the most visually awe-inspiring set pieces in film history. However, his true legacy lies in his ability on rare occasion to present his audience with an unorthodox look at the human mind and the tragedy of that fragility. His talent to bring out the best in his lead actors and present their struggles in an uncomfortable yet nuanced manner is unparalleled and brings to mind some of the works of Philip K Dick and Poe. I only hope that he is able to trade in some of the fanfare he is so good at creating for deeper stories that ask more of his audience, rather than pulling a Shymalan-esque rabbit out of his hat to wow those moviegoers who go for the ‘wtf moment’, which isn’t nearly as powerful.