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.
3. He’s All Brain, No Heart
Interstellar makes me feel as though Chris Nolan reads Kip Thorne Physics Theory to his kids as a bedtime story – but then, his cold, cerebral filmmaking approach is something that has long been called out by his critics. The issue with a director who places so many cerebral concerns over emotional beats is that it tends to result in movies that never breach our emotional walls, or are so concerned with telling information that they become heavy with exposition dumps.
To be fair, in movies like Memento, Dark Knight or Inception, it made sense to have a cold, calculating, brainy cinematic style that went hand in hand with protagonists who were themselves cold, calculating, analytically intelligent or emotionally stunted as a matter of policy (being investigators and/or strategists). In Interstellar, that cold clinical style is wholly at odds with a story about the powerful emotional connections of love and parentage.
Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) monologue in Interstellar about the power and pull of love is probably one of the least arousing speeches on the subject I’ve personally ever heard, and is a perfect example of Nolan’s emotional disconnect. Even attempts to actually show emotional resonance in his films – instead of telling us to feel it (such as Coop meeting an elderly Murph, Cobb reuniting with his kids, or Alfred and Bruce’s silent farewell) – don’t feel as powerful as they should.
Once you peel back the layers of Nolan-brand theorizing and impeccably technical visual spectacle, you’ll also find major supporting characters entirely missing from the story’s emotional blueprint.
(Does anybody really feel for Marion Cotillard’s Mal in Inception? How about Coop’s son Tom (Casey Affleck) in Interstellar? Or Boden’s wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall) in The Prestige? Leonard Shelby’s wife (Jorja Fox) in Memento? Step back an ask yourself, were these fully-formed characters, or just plot devices purposed to create contrived emotional impact? Then step back further and ask that same question about similar examples you will find in every Nolan film…)
Brains are a great thing to have when offering audiences the grand wonder of cinema and spectacle, but what truly makes a story last is how it connects to our hearts. Four levels of dreaming and all the big-budget financing in the world can’t affect a viewer even half as much as your average animated short film – and there’s a lesson to be learned in that, Mr. Nolan.
In fact, for his next film, it would be interesting to see if Nolan can convey even the opening act of a story in silent film style, with as little dialogue as possible. Can he do it? We have faith that he can.
2. He’s More of a Clever Editor Than A Top-Notch Director
This is one that usually sparks all kinds of flames with die-hard Nolan fans, but like all items in our list, it’s been pointed out by more than a few observers.
Famous “contrarian” critic Armond White took a verbal beating for going on an Inception review podcast and insisting that – when it comes to styles of filming motion and action – Michael Bay is a better director than Chris Nolan. White’s theory (of how Nolan misuses editing and framing to cover his inability to capture action and motion) seemed impossible to absorb at the time of Inception‘s unstoppable hype, but in the years since, other voices have joined that same chorus – including THIS famous analysis of The Dark Knight’s now-iconic truck chase sequence:
That video above by critic Jim Emerson almost perfectly dovetails what White was saying nearly a year before him. They both seem to point out that Nolan’s penchant for sophisticated and sharp editing often covers his shortcomings as a director.
By the time Interstellar is jumping between Matt Damon space madness and Casey Affleck farmer rage (with a booming soundtrack that makes it impossible to hear much talking), it’s clear that we’re a long, long way from the days when Memento was spinning a narrative so smartly cut together we didn’t even notice the plot holes (and didn’t even want to).
The Nolan Batman movies are also not without consistent criticism of their visual style, particularly where action choreography and filming were concerned. By the release of Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s technique of using editing as a shortcut around actual action and movement was gaining increasing criticism for breaking with traditional film logic. (A perfect example is the off-screen death of Matthew Modine’s character in TDKR – or Bruce Wayne’s super-fast journey back to Gotham).
Those criticisms even carried over to Man of Steel, whose script had Nolan’s fingerprints all over it, with no better evidence than the quick-edit, time-jumping structure of the first act; many fans were quite vocal in their opinion that a “Nolanized” structure of the storytelling was not a welcome match for a Superman origin story.
With the novelty of his non-linear editing style steadily wearing down, it’s becoming more noticeable that static imagery and cold pontification are what’s left under the hood of a Nolan film.
The director’s next work doesn’t need to be any grand $100 million spectacle, or some big return to superhero lore; he needs a film that can demonstrate he has Ang Lee versatility and not just M. Night parlor tricks up the sleeve. Nobody wants to be next in line to inherent that mantle – and truthfully, Nolan can do fresher, and better.
1. He’s A Cinematic Snob
By now the Christopher Nolan laws of filmmaking have become a mantra with their own cult following:
- Practical effects and sets as much as possible.
- IMAX HD scope over 3D gimmickry.
- Movies start and end in their runtime (No button scenes!).
- Grounded and real is always better.
- Big movies should have big ideas.
- A bunch of technical preferences non-cinephiles wouldn’t understand…
With Interstellar, Nolan (and the actors promoting his film) have been almost hypnotic in their repeated mention of how they filmed without green screen backgrounds, and built the sets, vehicles and space backdrops, etc., etc., etc… The dogma is clear and precise and has been drilled home like a political slogan: ‘This is the way that Mr. Nolan makes a movie.’
However, when you hear tell of Nolan shooting down button scenes, or 3D, or certain other styles of filmmaking, it can sound slightly pretentious. It’s fine to be cocky when your movie is killing it (Dark Knight, Inception), but as of writing this, an inflatable robot movie based on a comic book property that few ever heard has opened bigger than a Nolan movie with an Oscar-winning leading man, Oscar-winning (or nominated) co-stars surrounding him, and huge hype as one of THE big blockbuster films of fall 2014. Clearly these are no longer the Batman years.
…But far be it for me to tell a director whose films have earned over a billion at the box office how to make future movies.
As a fan and a viewer, I can express a desire to see Christopher Nolan offer us something a bit different both technically (Nolan 3D?) and stylistically (comedy?). Maybe another Prestige adaption of some one else’s writing? Or another Insomnia-style remake of an older film? Heck, maybe even that James Bond flick he’s wanted make and we’ve wanted to see. There is room for expansion in Nolan’s career future; hopefully he explores it.
Despite all these criticisms, Christopher Nolan remains one of the most critically and commercially successful directors of our time. While there is room for him to improve and expand into a new phase of his career (and perhaps some new cinematic experiments), he’s still taking in strong box office earnings with (mostly) positive critical reviews to back it up.
…And as always, Nolan’s reputation will remain teflon-impenetrable amongst his die-hard fans, who can see no wrong with the filmmaker’s work, and have plenty an angry opinion to share in our comments section.
Interstellar is now playing in theaters. Who knows what Christopher Nolan will do next.
Header Image Source: ESOLuna @DeviantART