WARNING – SPOILERS for All Christopher Nolan Movies!
It’s fair to say that Christopher Nolan has been one of the most influential directors of the new millennium. From his indie cult-hit Memento in 2000, to his mid-2000s re-imagining of Batman with the Dark Knight trilogy, to original sci-fi works like Inception and his latest release, Interstellar, Nolan’s films have been almost as much of a cultural talking point as the enigmatic director himself.
That prominence in the zeitgeist – combined with the mystery surrounding the man and his method – has ballooned Nolan to almost mythic status amongst film fans. Curiosity and excitement for any project bearing his name are automatic guarantees, to the point that criticism of his work (or technique) can be met with almost irrational levels of contention.
However, no filmmaker is above criticism, just as no filmmaker is beneath some kind of praise (for completing a film, if nothing else). With more and more divisive reactions to Interstellar coming in by the day, it’s time to have a real conversation about the ways in which Chris Nolan is (just perhaps) flawed in his filmmaking approach, and where this highly capable and intelligent filmmaking auteur can stand to do better going forward.
These are 5 Christopher Nolan Movie Criticisms that are totally Valid – and it should be NOTED that these aren’t just our criticisms of the filmmaker. They are critiques we’ve heard repeated over the course of his filmmaking career, from critics and casual viewers alike. And since all five points seem to be echoed in the critical reactions to Interstellar, this was the appropriate time to pull them all together .
5. His Endings Inspire More Theories Than Meaning
Look, movies (and stories in general) are meant to be (somewhat) open to interpretation. There is never any one way to view a story, and the best stories tend to be ones that teach us a bit of something, while also inspiring us to new thoughts. Unfortunately, Chris Nolan’s films don’t always do both.
It was fun to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake rise to the Batman altar at the of Dark Knight Rises; or to stare, unblinking, at that spinning top during the end of Inception; and I have personally taught a college class lesson on Memento’s brain-twisting finale (as an example of non-linear narrative). To say that Chris Nolan films leave people pondering deep (or at least confusing) ideas would be an understatement. However, somewhere in all that deep pondering, it’s become a noticeable pattern that the actual main narrative or thematic thrusts of Nolan films don’t quite resonate in the same way as the heady concepts and theories.
People were writing wild theories about how Inception was all a dream, but few understood that Cobb’s (Leo DiCaprio) spinning totem didn’t matter in that moment: he was happy to see his kids again, and no longer cared about his totem – i.e., he no longer cared what “reality” was. The character found his place of meaning and that was the reality he was ready to accept – an accurate interpretation that was eventually endorsed by Nolan himself.
With our Interstellar Ending Explained article, we’re already seeing fans make another Inception-style descent into metaphysical theory, while the actual story about love and human curiosity is again a distant afterthought. Even The Dark Knight, Nolan’s most celebrated film, had a final section that didn’t hit home with a lot of viewers; to this day, a considerable percentage of fans insist that the Harvey Dent/Two-Face finale should’ve been cut, despite the fact that, on paper, that section of the film ties together the thematic lines about thin barrier between heroism and villainy.
You could dissect each Nolan film and find this to be relatively true in all cases: the actual personal, human story is lost somewhere underneath big mystery reveals or heady philosophical pontificating. And the reasons why may have to do with points #4 and #3.
4. He Uses Mystery as a Gimmick
Twist endings are nothing new in storytelling (I even use the term as a catchphrase – #twistending), but it is true that somewhere around 1999, when films like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club came in rapid succession, moviegoers got comfortable with the idea of movies almost being obligated to offer some kind of surprise or mystery.
Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who has certainly benefited from the idea of “the big reveal,” whether in traditional twist ending form, or in the almost black-ops level of secrecy around each one of his film productions. However, at this point in his career, it’s become fair for critics of Nolan to point out how these the fogs of mystery are more of a gimmick than anything.
It’s like one of those old-school haunted houses or freak show tours at a carnival: the mystery of what’s in the tent helps to lure in the customers, who only discover how shabby the actual show is after they’ve already paid the entry fee. That’s a definite downplay on the quality of Nolan movies (the journey is almost always worth embarking on), but with his last few films, it’s begun to feel like 3rd act reveals are extraneous limbs hanging off the narrative.
Dark Knight Rises had the worst kept secret in the world (who didn’t see Talia al Ghul coming?), and even if you didn’t know about it beforehand, in the body of the actual film, the reveal has very little time or impact on the story, since we barely get to know the dark side of Miranda Tate before she dies. In Interstellar – which has been veiled in more secrecy than probably any other Nolan film – the mysteries and reveals hardly matter in face of the actual story, and many of them you can arguably see coming. (Be honest – how many of you were really *that* shocked when it turned out that Cooper from the future was his daughter’s “ghost” in the past?)
So much secrecy, and more than a few people disappointed with the end result.
It’s fair to argue that a movie should be a mystery to viewers – in the sense that they should be allowed to come to it fresh and unSPOILED about what the journey is going to be. In Nolan’s case, however, it seems as though mystery and reveals are becoming gimmicky crutches in much the same way they did with M. Night Shyamalan. We all know the state of that guy’s career right now, so maybe, going forward, Nolan should invest more emphasis on story and characters, and less on secrets which may/may not delight us.