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