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With Interstellar, Nolan Challenges Audiences But Not Himself

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interstellar

Christopher Nolan is part of that rare breed in Hollywood: a director whose name trumps any other intellectual property as the biggest box office driver. People watch his movies not because they particularly want to see the nth Batman reboot, a story about rival magicians (I mean, who does that?) or a dream-stealing-thingy with a cryptic trailer that doesn’t quite explain what it is. They watch his movies because they are Christopher Nolan’s movies. As noted by Tom Shone, the man has become his own franchise.

This affords him a huge amount of artistic freedom, which Nolan has been exploiting to the full: he constantly opts for mind-bending scripts, stubbornly insists on physical sets and casually dismisses the financial lure of 3D as a distraction from the narrative. I can only imagine the pitch meeting for Interstellar. Christopher, darling, you want to shoot the movie on a glacier in Iceland? How about a nice green screen down at the studio? Cameron liked it. No? Okay, Iceland it is.

But since no-one challenges a boy genius, he has to challenge himself. And though Interstellar represents a new high in terms of artistic ambitions, in the end Nolan delivers more of his trademark visually stunning but exposition-heavy moviemaking. For anyone else, producing a flawed masterpiece would be a huge accomplishment. But from Nolan, we want more.

The main issue is that Nolan doesn’t push his inner editor enough. When he was an unproven newcomer and had to keep his running time in check, he gave us 116 minutes of immaculate storytelling in Memento. So he can be a ruthlessly efficient editor. It’s just that he’d rather not. The Dark Knight is a perfect two hour movie with a 30-minute-Two-Face-bunion at the end. And Inception has an outstanding premise stretched to near breaking point around four layers of meta-dreams. Four. That’s a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. The layering is not a problem per se, but it leaves no time for anything else: every line of dialogue is used to explain how this intricate architecture works and the story can’t breathe.

Interstellar takes Nolan’s penchant for meandering scripts and blows it to astronomical proportions. Excuse the pun. When a project’s premise is so daring it takes half of the running time to explain it to the audience, you ain’t got time to waste chasing a drone through a corn field. Or introducing clever references to historical revisionism, which are intriguing enough, but ultimately left unexplored.

And you must pick your exposition battles. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ in this movie, and not all of it is needed. Nolan shows us a world covered in dirt and battered by sandstorms. But just to make sure we get the message, he interlaces documentary footage of survivors of the 1930s dustbowl. So we’re left watching old folks recalling how they had to put their crockery upside down to protect it from the dust, while simultaneously watching young folks actually putting their crockery upside down to protect it from the dust. Clever, but redundant. And redundant is not what you want in a 3 hour movie.

And this is before we’ve even begun to explain plan A, plan B, and all the scientific ins and outs of the mission ahead. This left me frustrated, because I had been promised a story and was watching an art-house TED talk instead. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is credited as a consultant, and though grounding the story in science gives the movie its sense of realism, the level of technical explanation is excessive. Ultimately we’re not following, so we take it all in good faith anyway. And again, due to spiralling running time, something’s got to give, so realism in the premise comes at the expenses of realism in the story. I’m glad all the scientific facts add up, but how is it possible that Cooper would be recruited to captain the mission on the spot and sent to space without even a quick trip to the training simulator first? At this point though I didn’t care, because I was aching for the story to take off. Literally.

When we finally reach space, the movie comes into its own. By the time we reached the first set piece – a thrilling scene on an ocean planet – I was completely engrossed. The cinematography is magnificent and Nolan’s universe is breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Such visual mastery perfectly underscores the musing about human nature, small yet bold in its yearning to push further into the unknown.

Running through the narrative is the concept of gravity, a motif so strong I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out the intended movie title, except Cuarón got to it first. Gravity governs the universe, gravity stretches time into relative speeds, gravity is the problem that dooms humanity and the solution that saves it. But stronger still is the gravity between people, the love that pulls the characters together through time and space. The central message of Nolan’s film is the strength of love as a tangible force shaping the universe, binding life in ways we might never understand. This message sometimes dips into the melodramatic and might polarise audiences, but it resonated with me, thanks in no small part to the strong performances of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.

So a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. And one you shouldn’t miss.

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