Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, whose title alone in reference to the director’s name equals cinematic moxie, has the makings of a filmmaker putting his direction, vision and ideas to the test, where a running time of 169 minutes set in milieus that rocket from one plane of existence to the titular other — the interstellar, infinite void — becomes a creative challenge, which every director, who thinks as big as Nolan does, at some point in their careers confront.
Blockbuster directors, all of whom auteurs in one way or another, like the late great pioneer Georges Méliès, the aquatically keen James Cameron, the master of lens flares Michael Bay, the attentively adjusted Riddley Scott, the perfectionist Stanley Kubrick, or the wondrously curious Steven Spielberg have all communed with — or taken the trip to — the cosmological land, all with different results.
Most certainly, it is a place not only of sublimity, but, more importantly, also reflection, whose humanistic understanding only stems from the impulses of what human exploration gives — all in narrative, creative and artistically cinematic terms.
In the 16 years he has been involved in filmmaking, Nolan has built up a library of movies to which there are tonal similarities.
A filmography largely consisting of a set of films that tackles aspects of perception that come from the singularity of subjectivity, Nolan’s worlds – a wellspring from which his characters’ motives are born – always tend toward a single ideation. Those in turn, from that particular character’s means of reasoning, complement, or more specifically, ideate his backdrops in which everything takes place.
These guys play on both sides of the moral spectrum, too.
They are often avengers, crime fighters or engineers with a solution — vigilantes, investigators, or (now) space faring astronauts — fighting for a personal cause.
In inverse proportion, they also come in the form of thieves or showmen (hackers, magicians), using artifice to their advantage, disrupting the stage on which they play —geniuses and products of their own making to which there is no reference point, except for their own justifications.
They are people with personally individual experiences, enhancing those experiences by means of illusion and subterfuge.
In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) defies his odds through navigating his situation with the use of signifiers, in which he literally covers himself. The aftermath of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) witnessing the death of his parents turns him into one such recurring signifier, an emblem of justice. The rivalry between Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) in The Prestige is the clashing of two erupting dichotomies between two artists, who use magic to construct a reality (or signifiers) through which the other cannot see. In Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), first an acquirer of ideas as a source of inspiration, starts orchestrating scenarios into the minds of others for his own benefit and psychic fulfillment.
Mostly visualized in grand detail, his camera in active and moving motion, his movies sometimes feel like triptychs, with each panel a constituent part that forms the entire emotionality of the piece – visual design, score, and sense of place based on a specific concept. All three, when taken in at the same time, lead to a synergistic response that overwhelms the cognitive senses, with music a central component to his movies.
Very often, the movies of Nolan, during their marketing campaigns, advertise the place in which they take place, rather that the stories they tell – the rest falls on the anticipating viewer.
His shifting worlds mostly influence the moves of his chess pieces, each with their own skill sets.
Even though his use of composer Hans Zimmer’s music might as well be contractually obligated, sometimes overused to the point of ear-splittingly indulging, there is the sense that it most likely will not generate the same amount of emotions without it.
As it happens, as exemplified at the end of Inception, he cranks up the music — even in scenes where there is nothing but talking — making use of the many planes of action Inception alternates between. It is as if he does not want you to listen what his characters are saying, and instead admire the setting, the music, and – again – the spatiality of where everything takes place in.
Whereas Spielberg likes to observe the awe-struck faces of his characters, with those signature stares marveling at the enveloping sense of wonder (aliens, dinosaurs, emergence), Nolan very much likes his audience to wear such a face upon watching his set pieces (a city folding in on itself, an aerial hijacking, the flipping of an 18-wheeler) with a camera that floats and rotates, somehow transforming the impossible into something possible, pseudo-scientifically or not.
Cross-cutting with such simultaneity as to cause distress and exhilaration, he hopscotches from one set piece to the other, amplifying tension, stimulating more emotions, all racing towards an endpoint that finalizes in ways that are, by turns, informative of the experience as a whole and that add speculation once it has ended.
Beyond the symphony and visual spectacle, though, he also extracts sociopolitical issues from the contemporaneousness of the times as through-lines of admission of the “real” he so much tries to emulate, fused with cinematic verisimilitude.
The Dark Knight trilogy is ultimately a treatise on the abundant hostility seen in society, which is more obvious in visual terms than necessarily writerly ones, even though The Joker talks a lot. Barely any words are spoken in the opening scene of The Dark Knight (2008), yet what it is that is taking place speaks volumes about a crime-riddled Gotham partly set in Chicago.
A sense of peace only comes at the genuflecting hands of submission in Nolan’s Gotham, a city whose two ideologies, mostly taking form from the sequel onward, are two wings of the same afflicted vulture.
Nihilism, dreamed up through scenes of a dystopian Gotham not unlike one housed in the confines of Thomas Hobbes’ theories of social control and authorial control, is an evil that, to Batman, is a game of Whac-A-Mole.
Nolan’s Batman, a superhero by all accounts, is devoid of anything resembling “powerful.” He is only powerful in the sense of being the owner of Wayne Enterprises.
In the form of Batman, he is nothing but a sign of hope and damaged logic, when he isn’t in trouble, which is where he, by extension, unknowingly adds to the chaos – a push-and-pull ripped apart at the center of order.
For this reason, his mission is an exercise in conviction.
A man conflicted about his own self-worth, rather than embracing himself, he insinuates himself into that which he isn’t — perfection, tainted by fallibility and guilt, in the guise of a bat, no less, to which there is an acknowledgement of something way darker than mere altruism — all for the sake of justice, born from a singular bias he harbors against his own circumstances.
Some of these parallels could, in some form or another, be applied to the fantasies of Cobb, Al Pacino’s detective, Will Dormer, in Insomnia or Memento’s Leonard, characters who are increasingly distending balls of despair waiting to implode from inside.
But, more generally though, they are also reflective of how Nolan handles realism seen in the worlds of his movies, namely matter-of-factly, which is one of the reasons why his Batman is as earthbound as he is, limited to the Newtonian laws of gravity, which he only violates with his, sometimes plausible, gadgets.
In Inception, the many compositions are effectuated from the innards of the mind, set up, and externalized, against the rules by which their characters play, growing, or declining, in the direction of their characters.
Nolan treats ideas as seminal pieces of information crucial in the endeavor to a self-proclaimed success, however, the seeking of data Cobb is on a quest to acquire is also his very undoing.
His discovery of planting ideas into the minds of others just to pave his own way — and his tragic wife’s death that he cannot get over — has made him a man whose egocentricities stand in the way of anything close to modesty. He is, and remains, a flawed man, involved in an inner struggle, which he brings into the minds of others.
Though Inception takes inspiration from the trappings of the heist genre, Cobb’s thievery is deft and stealthily sly – he is equally as much fugitive in his cribbing as he is a fugitive incarnate, one who has perfected the art of intruding into the privacy of others.
Partly because Nolan is not one to use images of surrealism, much like a David Lynch, a Luis Buñuel or a Terry Gilliam would, the thematic projections of the subconscious are less openly revelatory than ordinary.
In the moment, they work are often as they don’t. Where they do work is mostly on a technical level.
They are dreams, lacking anything in the way of phantasmic identification that merits Freudian attempts at analysis.
In this way — an aesthetic choice unto itself, relative to Nolan — he comes up with illogical creations, in which the real becomes authenticated, rather than truly inverted, like the explosion scene in Paris where everything moves in slow motion, particle effects spread out like confetti – a scene that at first sight does not feel implausible per se, partially because of how naturalistically it is set up.
In Inception’s dreams, seen through Nolan’s lens, two polar opposites — the supposed real and the unreal — become one, with the results looking more like the former.
Among a few other dreams, from a fight taking place inside the hallways of a gleaming hotel, to a car chase speeding and winding through the congested rainy streets of Los Angeles, all leading to a combat sequence against the backdrop of snowy mountains, these are more plain, albeit imaginative, events central to Nolan’s directorial imprints than necessarily dizzyingly dreamlike.
Taken by its own, dreams, for as inherently fantastical as they are to us, somehow miss the transcendence of the mundane in Inception, a film based on dreams that the master of the real, Nolan, tries to, well, Nolanize by plucking the kaleidoscopic hypnotism out from the center of dreams. These qualities say more about Nolan’s style than necessarily about Inception, which has its pleasures.
He is a realist, indeed, who somehow wants to transport his audience into the unimaginable where there is recognition to be found.