Look, I’m no fancy doctor with a degree in the medicines. That’s not *my thing*. But I don’t need no book-reckons or a fancy piece of paper to know Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have caught something. A disease.
It took me a little while to notice, but it’s really obvious now and, guys? Guys, I’m kinda concerned no one’s talked to them. Taken them to health professionals. They have friends, right? They seem like people who have friends. Or maybe their friends have said something, and the Nolans just don’t care. Either way, we need quarantine rules for this shit, guys. This is, like, cinebola. We need to control it.
The Nolans have a pathological need to explain everything in their movies. It’s horrible, it’s probably contagious, and it’s neither cool nor good.
The Nolan brothers have been showing symptoms since they started out, but they hid them pretty well. Their earlier films, particularly Memento and The Prestige, are mysteries, deriving their power from explanation, the when and how of it. But as they’ve pushed away from building puzzles to be solved, their compulsive need to explain everything has become more visible. The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises weren’t puzzle boxes, not really, and they floundered in narrative and thematic exposition. I mean, Inception had an entire character dedicated to explaining its main character’s emotional state – Christopher Nolan cast Ellen Page as an exposition depository, and she’s never been more wasted in a film.
Matthew McConaughey plays Nasa pilot-turned-corn farmer Cooper with a wonderful internal intelligence: he acts like he’s surprised anyone wants to hear from him and disappointed because they don’t share his knowledge.
Interstellar might be the worst case yet. Matthew McConaughey plays Nasa pilot-turned-corn farmer Cooper with a wonderful internal intelligence: he acts like he’s surprised anyone wants to hear from him and disappointed because they don’t share his knowledge. But it’s only two scenes in before he’s drawling his way through a barely-subtextual explanation for why he downed a drone. And it’s only three scenes before Cooper sits down with his kids’ principal and teacher for a big ol’ exposition dump about Coop (“Mr Cooper, you’re a brilliant pilot” blah blah blah) and the state of the world (“What about my taxes? They don’t pay for armies any more, we don’t have them”). Unable to diegetically explain literally everything about their world-building, the Nolans even have the audacity to bring in talking heads – old people who stare down the barrel of the camera like it’s a high school documentary about a global dustbowl apocalypse.
This keeps happening.There are blessed moments where things aren’t fully explained. Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain work on a gravity equation that’s vague by design, its possibilities only suggested in a neat epilogue reveal. Then there’s the scene in which Coop returns from the water planet and the Nolans feed us updates from life on Earth in such a smooth way – that subtext running underneath “I miss you, it’s strange that you’re not here”.
And there are other moments where the explanation works. Anne Hathaway’s speech about love as a dimension unto itself is hokey as hell and a disappointingly direct communication of the film’s central theme, but she sells the hell out of it so damn I believe it anyway.
But for every one of these scenes, there’s two more like the school, or the baseball game, or the showdown with Dr Mann, or the emotional climax of the whole damn thing.
That emotional climax is really the embodiment of Interstellar’s problems and assets both. It’s visually enormous and constantly moving, like much of Nolan’s imagery. His vision of space is a kinetic, vaguely threatening counterpoint to Terence Malick’s serene Tree of Life visualisations – compare Malick’s constellations to the fiery celestial streams of Gargantua, pouring into each other like an oozing series of waterfalls. Against these ginormous, Escher-esque astronomical bodies, Nolan makes humanity small, scrabbling against forces beyond our control. Our space station interiors are lined with grimy off-white tiles and our robots are built with dull sheet metal. Even our collective death belongs to clouds of dust. We’re blips against the enormity of the universe.
That scene’s also incredibly earnest (I count this as an asset). Nolan balances our insignificance and lack of grandeur as a species with the grandeur of our own emotions, particularly our ability to feel love. Go back to Anne Hathaway’s hokey love speech: the Nolans are so resolute about their thesis – that love is so big and brilliant and beautiful and unknowable that it makes humanity worth saving – that it’s hard to be a grouch about it.
The scene falls apart, though, because it’s constantly narrated. McConaughey and his goddamn robot buddy hold our hand through a condescending explanation of what’s on screen, and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, perpetual score picks up their slack when they stop. The Nolans don’t seem to trust silence. Every minute of it, to them, is a minute we might not understand. So Interstellar begins and ends like Matt Damon’s cowardly Dr Mann: talking, talking, talking, struggling to convince everyone else that it’s worth listening to, that it’s worth taking seriously, that it’s confident in what it says. Struggling to convince itself in the process.
Cover image from Facebook.
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