I owe Christopher Nolan a lot. When I was sixteen, a movie about a caped vigilante and a larger-than-life villain rocked my amateurish expectations when it came to superhero films, and seemed to whisper things about the human condition that wouldn't have entered my mind at that age, much less while watching a Batman movie. Then, when I was seventeen, a movie featuring elaborate dreamscapes and philosophical (albeit pop) ponderings seemed to open my star-struck eyes and singlehandedly immerse me into the world of cinephilia. A "Christopher Nolan Film" became a stamp of guaranteed quality, and I earnestly traced his artistic steps back through The Prestige, Memento and Following (which, for what it's worth, I believe today to be one of Nolan's strongest efforts).
I'm sure I was far from being alone on this particular journey!
Inception seemed almost to bridge the gap between the Blockbuster crowd and the pretentious arthouse types; people who take movies super seriously. Meanwhile, his Dark Knight trilogy seemed to be doing something similar, packaging mature themes and intelligent storytelling into an impossibly crowd-pleasing package. As artists, filmmakers, or even just the average Joe, we all seem to learn somewhere along the way that "you can't please everybody." Was Nolan challenging this assumption?
As I've gotten older (read: obsessively watched hundreds of films), my appreciation of Nolan has sadly but surely depreciated. Much of the so-called mystique in films like The Prestige and Inception began to feel a lot more like smoke and mirrors. The Dark Knight remains a strong contribution to the crime/noir genre, while The Dark Knight Rises was disappointingly shallow. Nolan's apparent need for blatant exposition and on-the-nose dialogue does few, if any favors for the cinematic worlds he boldly crafts. Indeed, his films have begun to seem like fan-service Kubrick knock-offs, with just enough original ambition to keep him on the radars of even the most hardened film critics.
As I watched Interstellar, becoming simultaneously dizzy from scope and fatigued from sub-plots and exposition, one thematic tagline seemed to keep jumping out at me. In Nolan's morally ambiguous exploration of DC superhero property, the hero (anti-hero?) is faced with one underlying question: Is Gotham worth saving? The Dark Knight poses this question with reverent fervor. Amidst political intrigue and exploding hospital buildings, Gotham's inhabitants are treated with incredible dignity and worth. The Joker's facade was only ever as threatening as we, the people enabled it to be. The self-proclaimed "agent of chaos" preyed on our very moral identities, and juggled ethics with typical villainy-type destruction to disturbing effect. The Joker is scary because he speaks to the state of the human condition. The climactic boat sequence is the film's most memorable (and important!) because it delivers what it promises: the moral dignity of the people supposedly worth saving.
There's much more to be said about the Batman character in relation to Harvey Dent and "what the city deserves," but my reason for not delving any deeper is not only because it's basically all been said already. It's also because the inevitable sequel effectively squashed any concern I had for Gotham. The Dark Knight Rises made its priorities apparent when it favored generic plot exposition over the very moral dilemma it set out to solve. The payoff was anti-climactic to say the least. Not only do I think it was a poor film, I think it stumbled short of solving (or at least proving) Batman's obligation to the human condition.
And then, there it is. Gotham blown up to the scale of the earth itself: a dust-ridden, dystopian society where we, the humans have oriented our priorities around our inherent instinct for survival. Interstellar practically sets out to solve the human condition in relation to the cosmos, on the scale of Kubrick's Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky's Solaris. The difference between Nolan and those legendary auteurs, however, is that Nolan doesn't seem to be content with merely posing questions. He needs to send Batman out over the bay with a bomb strapped to his ship. If this isn't inherently a bad thing, it's unsatisfactory because Nolan can't seem to prove that Gotham is worth saving. Or at least, he's not incredibly good at it. The best we get in Interstellar is Anne Hathaway's underdeveloped character deliver some exposition about being guided by "love," which would have probably been pathetic had it been delivered by less of an actress. Kudos, Anne Hathaway! You have taken little and done much.
I hope I'm not coming across as too cynical when I critique Nolan in this regard: my issue has less to do with the message and more with the delivery of it. But on the subject of the message, the third act of the film hammers the nail so deeply into the wood that I'm afraid it loses much of its importance. Is the resolution meant to make us feel proud of ourselves? To cheer the human condition on for being at least capable enough enough to save itself from extinction? Maybe it's my strictly Protestant upbringing talking, but I have trouble buying so easily into a worldview that half-heartedly mixes super-awesome-pseudo-science with vague ideas of love and spiritual importance (a.k.a., more super-awesome-pseudo-science). Again, it's probably more to do with the delivery. Nolan undermines his beautiful imagery and ginormous ideas with character dialogue that basically just explains why he thinks his ideas are ginormous and beautiful. I would pay good money to see an alternate cut of this film that had less Michael Cain and more breathtaking shots of space ships flying past Saturn's rings. It's a small blessing that Morgan Freeman didn't suddenly show up, although a different surprise A-lister cameo was almost just as laughable. (But hey, small gripes.)
It's been over a week since I saw the film, and the dust has mostly settled. What's left is the disappointing notion that, by trying to say too much, Nolan didn't end up saying that much at all. His penchant for smoke and mirrors is at a fevered pitch here, which is not to say there isn't still plenty to appreciate and reflect on. I still admire Nolan for his vision, however I believe it is better served on a smaller, more manageable scale. I owe Christopher Nolan a lot. And though it sounds as pretentious as all hell to admit that I think I've "outgrown" him, I say it also with a sense of gratitude. Nolan hints at greater things, and he asks big questions. He does so with incredible cinematic flair. If his films lead others on a journey deeper into the world of film and critical thought as they did for me, then I'd say he's done his part. I probably won't be rewatching Interstellar, but I will certainly be encouraging others to do so.