Tune in for the very first A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast as Mege and Matt discuss Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, as well as a bit of chat about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes. Expect mild spoilers, references to Wonder Woman and a bit of Michael Bay mockery – everything that’s needed for a hot, steaming, tasty cup of culture! Continue reading
Interstellar pushed many of the right buttons for me, primarily the big one labelled “Sense of cosmic wonder”. I was the kid who had a poster of the solar system on his bedroom wall for an embarrassingly long time; I loved anything to do with space, but I reserved a special love for space exploration, especially of the supposedly authentic kind. Sure, I wanted to fly an X-Wing, but that thought never felt as wondrous as that of NASA journeys, of the Apollo missions or the Space Shuttle. Wormholes and black holes? Accretion disks? Count me in.
That sense of wonder was definitely there when I watched Interstellar, and the film captures it well. What it captures less well, though, is human emotion – which is a problem, since for all its space age imagery the film is essentially about sentiment much more than it is about physics. It’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem; thematically, Interstellar uses its premise and setting to tell a very human story. The problem is that the Nolans are much better at telling a different kind of story – one that is conceptual, that tends to be about puzzles. At their best, the Nolan-directed and -penned films are interested in the feelings of their characters, but they don’t focus on them head on. Their protagonists are often emotionally repressed, in denial or simply unable to access or express their feelings, and the stories tend to derive poignancy from this inability. Interstellar, though, wears its heart on its sleeve. Its characters talk about their emotions, they cry quickly and freely – and while the actors are more than capable, they can’t overcome that the words they’ve been given are often clumsy, overly explicit, explaining things too much. The worst scene in this respect has a teary-eyed Anne Hathaway trying to impress on her fellow astronauts that love is a force transcending space and time. Done differently, written better and allowing for some ambiguity, this could work, but in the film it feels like a NASA-themed Hallmark card. Those moments very much suggest that when it comes to the Nolans’ dialogue, quite literally, the less said, the better.
It is this tendency to overexplain, to make things too literal, that hobbles some of Interstellar‘s central scenes as much as its clumsy handling of emotion. Late in the film, the story bends causality back on itself in a classically sci-fi way, but where Christopher Nolan often finds striking images for settings and situations, here they turn faintly ludicrous, and they fire rockets full throttle into silliness the more the protagonists explain what is happening. All fiction, including speculative fiction, engages in some narrative handwaving, leaving gaps with respect to what is happening or how precisely it is happening, because the exact mechanics are irrelevant to what the story is about. Interstellar, however, tangles itself up in knots by trying to fill in the blanks, when it should well have left alone. Trying to elaborate on what is happening, the expository dialogue is hamfistedly literal, drawing attention to what is arguably least important, and raising questions about its feasibility that shouldn’t come up in the first place. (One can only imagine a Nolan-penned 2001: A Space Odyssey, giving the Monolith a -logue to explain to Dave Bowman what the last 20 minutes meant.)
When I first saw the Interstellar trailer, I was intrigued, but I was equally worried that this would be Nolan’s Contact, an intriguing sci-fi tale that takes a turn for the sentimental: daddy issues in space. It isn’t quite that bad, and there’s a lot to like about the film. It is ambitious, it is often beautiful, and Matthew McConaughey has vastly improved as an actor since the giddy days of 1997. Interstellar is a compelling illustration of both the strengths and the limitations of Nolan’s filmmaking, though, and it is frustrating in how it could have been a better, more subtle and more convincing film. This isn’t a complaint along the lines of “Waiter, there’s some sentiment in my sci-fi soup!” I don’t think that hard sci-fi, or any sci-fi, needs to lose the human element. What it does need, though, is a human element that’s done with the same skill as the visual effects. Interstellar excels at showing us the surfaces of alien worlds, but its telescope is flawed when pointed at the human heart.
I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.
I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.
There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.
At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.
As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.
P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.
To once again prove that I’m pathetically behind on what’s going on in the world of pop culture: I’ve only now got around to seeing The Dark Knight. At this point, is anyone interested in yet one more glowing yet sad praise of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Yes, Ledger’s performance was hypnotic and is one of the main reasons why this film is rightly hailed as more than your run-of-the-mill comic book adaptation. But that’s all I’ll say on the issue, because you don’t come here to read an elaborate “Me too” blog entry.
The Dark Knight is a good film and better than Batman Begins – the latter was clearly an origins story and therefore somewhat stuck in its template (although doing very well in this respect), but its sequel definitely does much better in terms of providing an interesting, worthwhile antagonist. It does so well, in fact, that Batman/Bruce Wayne suffers by comparison: the film is just so much more interesting when the Joker is on screen. Still, you couldn’t have the one without the other, and the moral dilemmas that Gotham’s favourite anarcho-terrorist poses the Dark Flabberghast are fascinating to watch. The ferries scene, even though it resolves itself without Batman’s input is a vast improvement on the simplistic scenes in the Spiderman films where the general populace pulls together and proves to be heroic in their own right.
It’s not a perfect film, though, not even in it’s genre. There are some mistakes it should have avoided quite easily. For one thing, some of the editing is seriously disorienting and not in a good way – there are scenes that feel like a bad TV edit to get rid of scenes that are too violent, and as a result continuity suffers. Were they trying to keep the film in PG-13 country? (If so, the studio is eminently silly – even without explicit violence this is not a film that you should let your 13-year olds watch.) I don’t mind the disorienting editing of the fight scenes, but there the lack of clarity has a purpose. The continuity wobbles get especially bad in the batpod scene where I felt that they’d buggered up the sequence of scenes.
The film also tries to cram too much into its running time, and where it tries too hard to make us believe something. I’m not complaining about the two villains, because Harvey Dent’s fall from grace follows smoothly from the Joker plot. However, the scene where Bruce Wayne and Alfred get the fingerprint from the bullet? Overly complicated, to a point where it barely makes sense. Same goes for the bat sonar and the ethical quandary that comes with it: not only does it feel overly gimmicky in the film, it’s also much less interesting and complex than the Joker-induced “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. It feels like a top-heavy retro-active explanation for how Batman manages to find the Joker later in the film, and surely it could have been done in a more elegant way.
These quibbles aside, though, the film is definitely worth watching. It’s worth it for the visuals, it’s worth it for the acting, and it’s worth it to see to which dark corners Nolan will take its hero. If there’s a third film, I’ll be happy to follow him there.
This’ll be a short one – it’s for the film buffs reading this who don’t frequent Ain’t It Cool News. I think it’s one of the coolest teaser posters in a long, long time.
There’s also a description of the first five minutes of the movie online, available here. I can admit that the Chris Nolan geek in me gets all excited at this.
Last evening’s session on film analysis went well, and the students enjoyed it too. It made me want to do an entire course on the subject. It also made me want to watch all three movies again.
Of the three, Memento is the one that startled me most when I first saw it. It’s intricately structured and plotted, but beyond this it’s beautifully presented, with a sparse melancholy and occasional absurd humour that strengthen it into something more than a well made puzzle.
It’s also got a fantastic, disorienting first scene that acted as the perfect hook for me. I got the impression that it also did so for the students yesterday; they seemed quite frustrated at me stopping the film after roughly seven and a half minutes. Well, guys, it’s in the department DVD library, I think – and if it isn’t, just pester one of the staff members ’till they get it. After all, someone also got the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the department, which justifies many an additional purchase, I think (Perhaps they could get Crossroads, that Britney Spears movie, scripted by Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy fame.)
I liked the effects of reverse chronology in storytelling, if done well. Memento definitely makes good use of having two narrative strands, one in normal chronological sequence, the other one reversed, putting us in Leonard’s shoes: we never know what went before, just like he can’t remember. It’s a structural strategy that’s also highly effective, and moving, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. (I’ve just read that there’s a Seinfeld episode, “The Betrayal”, that has the same structure and makes multiple references to Pinter – gotta see that one!) The focus is shifted from “What happens next?” to “Why did this happen?” I wouldn’t necessarily want my Die Hard or Aliens told in reverse chronology, of course, but every so often I get tired of “What happens next?” – mainly because what happens next isn’t all that exciting.
P.S.: It’ll be interesting to see what sort of visitors the tag list will bring in. Welcome, one and all! Even Britney Spears fans! And aliens, I guess.
(… although technically that should be (4), since my entry on The Departed was also part of this tightly plotted, carefully laid out series. Ah well.)
Christopher Nolan made an impression on me with his second film, Memento, which I thought clever, affecting and fascinating. Insomnia, his follow-up, didn’t do much for me, well crafted and acted tough as it was. It didn’t have the conviction of the Norwegian original, sitting uncomfortably between Hollywood thriller and harsh morality play.
The Prestige is probably Nolan’s best film since Memento. His reboot of the Batman franchise was good and intelligent, but its plot was predictable. The Prestige, a film about 2+ rival magicians at the turn of the century is at least as cleverly conceived and told as his amnesia thriller. Judging from the plot of the original novel (as given on Wikipedia), the film adaptation has been changed quite a bit, so it’s all the more surprising and impressive to find such an intricately structured, yet elegantly executed plot in the movie.
What struck me most was Nolan’s witty use of repeated motifs that, in a second viewing, might look like obvious hints at the twists in the movie. Every element is carefully laid out, and the film plays fair, yet when the viewer thinks he’s figured it out and smugly leans back, chances are he’ll realise half an hour later that he’s underestimated Nolan’s Chinese box.
And apart from The Prestige‘s cleverness (which has a slightly arch quality to it, just as some of the voiceovers), there’s something admirably goofy about casting David Bowie as an aging Nicholas Tesla, perhaps the truest magician of the piece yet the least mysterious, least self-dramatising character in the film.