Christopher Nolan used to make movies about people. The director, along with his script-writing brother Jonathan Nolan, have made some of the best genre films of the past decade, including Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), The Prestige (2006), and two-thirds of the Dark Knight trilogy. His recent movies—particularly his latest film, Interstellar—have confirmed a shift away from this trend. They have become increasingly lifted from their rooting in character and human motivation and more about vague concepts. In the past, he never backed away from touching on weighty ideas—magic, self-delusion, nihilism, rivalry, and scientific discovery—but those ideas used to come from how people related to them. Now, they’re mostly just afterthoughts, jumping-off points for ideas and mouthpieces for expository dialogue as he moves further into abstraction.
The backlash from some of his early fans started popping up around the time of Inception (2010)—the movie that has been the Rosetta Stone for all of his flaws as a writer and a director. You can see him struggle through the first hour of the film, as he has to create dozens of definitions and answers so the audience can get to a point where it’s not completely confused by the plot. The same thing happens in Interstellar, where the plot doesn’t really get going until a third of the way through the nearly three-hour movie. Since you have nothing real to hold onto character-wise except for some clunky and generic backstory, the eventual tearful goodbyes before launching Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway into space doesn’t feel as propulsive and final as it should. If this sort of thing were to happen in one of his films, it would be an outlier, but the reality is that it’s becoming a pattern.
Compare his films from Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to any of his others. Before, he was able to blend concept and character in a way that made sense. He was able to find a path between his dogma and the characters in a way that seemed honest on a level both inside and outside of the world of his films. Memento communicated the dangers of misplaced anger and delusion not by being especially brilliant or groundbreaking on a philosophical level, but by making the main character a vehicle for these ideals while simultaneously keeping motivations and emotions in the foreground. The Prestige did the same thing with rivalry and Pyrrhic victory.
The turning point was The Dark Knight. It’s like he saw the positive reaction to the film and came to the conclusion that what people liked about it was its nihilistic ideology, psychological thought experiments, and everything about ‘living long enough to see yourself become a villain’—but this is only part of the truth. Those parts worked because they were tied to something real—all of the ideological conflict in the film came from the real-life conflict between Batman and the Joker. I don’t inherently care about nihilism, honour, or vigilantism just because they’ve been tacked onto celluloid—I care about them because the characters do, too.
After The Dark Knight, you can see his camera move further and further from the characters themselves as his lenses get wider, his shots encompassing more physical space but losing their grounding in the here and now. They’ve become increasingly maudlin and calculated, where the most lively character in Interstellar is an actual robot. As running times have ballooned from film to film, he paradoxically seems to put less content into each one, his creative talents seemingly more consumed with creating a world of physical spectacle than a world of personal effect. The results are films with all the energy of watching somebody puzzle through a Rubix Cube in real time.
Thus, nearly every character is treated as a silhouette – instead of taking the time to shade in character detail, he shades in plot points, which makes the impact of the movie suffer. An intelligent character, for instance, in his earlier work would have had the time to flesh out just what makes him so brilliant in the first place (see Nikola Tesla in The Prestige). In his recent movies, he’s relied on big-name actors to do the emotional heavy-lifting. The shading is gone and what we get instead is Michael Caine in Interstellar wearing a tweed jacket under a blackboard with a bunch of equations on it. “Take my word for it, he’s smart,” Nolan implies with these shots. “You don’t need to know how or why, or even what makes him interesting, but trust me on this, okay?”
A lot of this comes from what seems to be his desire to be the next Steven Spielberg, but he just doesn’t have the emotional touch necessary to make big-budget genre films work in the way that Spielberg does. Interstellar would have worked so much better if Nolan had cribbed some effect from Spielberg and let the characters take a moment to marvel at the wonders of science, or at least quietly contemplate their place in the universe. Instead, they go into space with gritty resolve, work through their mission out of a sense of obligation rather than passion, all while kowtowing to sci-fi tropes that ran out of cultural currency decades ago.
We see these massive wide angle shots revealing solar systems and black holes, and it’s clear that the audience is supposed to be experiencing the emotional wonder and exhilaration instead of the characters. But the truth is that the magic of the CGI’d cosmos is nothing when compared to the beauty of Tesla in The Prestige illuminating an entire field with light bulbs planted in the ground. The cruelty of a silent and airless universe cannot hold a candle to Carrie-Anne Moss’ malice in Memento when she berates and demoralizes an amnesiac just because she knows he’ll forget about it in a couple of minutes. The difference is that the latter examples are real – we can feel them because we’ve all been there in one form or another. The alternative is just computer imaging; it’s meticulous and pretty and well-composed, but ultimately as wide as an ocean and deep as a puddle. It would benefit Nolan to get back to the emotional core that made his earlier films so great, before he wobbles off into infinity.