Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Movie Musing: An Auteur in Blockbusters

It is the man, the myth, the legend. 
Each time a film by Christopher Nolan is released there is tremendous buzz among the internet's film fan community. There are some serious(ly) (rabid) fan(boy)s out there. They proclaim that everything Mr. Nolan does is a gift from the cinema gods to all us little folk. If you say that you think Nolan's latest film is only OK, or god forbid you don't like it - the reaction is explosive and visceral. Such is the state of fandom.

I haven't written much about Nolan's films, and I figured that since he is such a major part of the film making world I really should throw in my two cents. Nolan fanboys, you can go somewhere else, unless you really want to get angry at me for my opinion.

Anyone left? Ok.

Space according to Nolan.
Nolan is one of those directors that I admire, but I don't love. All of his films fall into the same category for me (as of this writing I haven't seen Dunkirk yet). He has a great eye for presenting his films visually. His scripts are well thought out and usually work very well. His casting choices and directing of their acting is usually spot on. Even if you pull yourself away from the hype-train that cruises into town whenever composer Hans Zimmer and Nolan combine forces, you'll find the composer's scores to work very well within the film. All the pieces are in place to make excellent films.

And there lies my main problem with Nolan's films. They feel very much like finely crafted, ice sculptures. They are beautiful to look at and impressive in execution. But they are so very very cold.

Cat Woman: Nolan style.
I'm sure it is a conscious choice by Nolan to go in this direction, but his movies are very dower for the most part. Tonally, they have a grim muted feel to them. It is part of Nolan's visual style and for many of his films it works well. It is hard to imagine The Dark Knight in any other visual style except for the grim muted one Nolan developed over the three films. I can even see it working in something like Dunkirk where he is going for an ultra realistic feel. But I think this style hurt Interstellar and especially Inception.

But this approach goes beyond the visuals and actually moves into the characters. As they are written, most of Nolan's scripts feel very mechanical, each piece moving perfectly to achieve its overall effect. But this creates characters that also feel very distant to me. Interstellar is the only film of his where I was actually feeling for some of the characters, and even that wasn't nearly as involving as something like Apollo 13 or even Gravity which pulled me into the films to a great degree. I hate to be "that guy" but I wonder how much of Interstellar's character work came from the script when Spielberg was still attached to the project.

Dreams as presented by Nolan.
The thing is, I watch Nolan's films. I admire them, maybe even enjoy them on some level, but I find it really difficult to get into the mood to watch any of them again. I've had Interstellar sitting on my shelf for a couple years now, and haven't broken the plastic on it.

I think part of this has to do with a personal bit of rebellion too. You see after Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight were mega hits, every Hollywood studio decided that everyone wanted to see grim, gritty cheerless blockbusters. We had a whole rash of them, and with each one I was less and less interested in revisiting Nolan's work. Granted, his films are better made than a great many of the films that tried to ape his style (Clash of the Titans remake is a great example of taking a fun concept and turning it joyless).

"You want to name an automobile after me?"
These days things are turning around thanks to Marvel and Star Wars showing that people want to have fun in the theater. Nolan's dower films are now one of many flavors you can enjoy, and that is the way it should be. Give me another year or two and I might rematch one of his Batman films again.

In any case, I don't think Nolan is a film making god, or a genius of cinema. I think he is a director who has a very distinct style and way to telling a story. It works for a lot of people, but I don't find the majority of his films delivering the impact they try to. I like his films. I don't love them.


  1. My reaction, too. I understand his fans, but I'm a lukewarm one. Just as a band can have a polished technique but not really connect with you emotionally (rock in particular is supposed to be somewhat ragged – if it can’t be played in a biker bar it’s missing the point), a movie can be well made and a snoozer. The Batman trilogy aside (The Dark Knight furthest aside), Nolan’s films have me looking at my watch. I’ve never failed to see one through to the end – they are, once again, well made – but I’m likely to be looking forward to the end.

    1. Yeah his pacing can be deliberate, but I'm a David Lynch fan so that never bothers me. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way about him. I was finding in some of the other internet circles I'm a part of that Nolan worship was mandatory. No one told me, and wow did I get some flames in my direction. Fan boys can be so angry!

  2. I enjoyed your honest take on Nolan. The director often leave some cool and detached. I've yet to see Insomnia or Dunkirk. Unlike our friend Richard above, for me, the only film that I have ever loved by Nolan would be Batman Begins. I've always enjoyed that film to be among my favorite superhero films alongside perhaps any of the Jackman Wolverine pictures.

    The Prestige I also find interesting thanks to the actors involved.

    But The Dark Knight headed into bloat ware territory and The Dark Knight Rises she there in my opinion. I just didn't care much for it. Inception a bore. Interstellar a yawn. He is an odd director that personally I'm not sure I could ever love.

    Once upon a time I was quite excited by the thought of a Nolan film, but not as much today and that's not to say he's not a fine director, but for me, as you articulated in your own thoughtful way, he simply does not make an emotional connection to this viewer.

    1. Great to hear from you again! I see you've been writing a lot lately. I need to catch up on your blog. Ever since they shifted the reading page in Blogspot, I find myself focusing more on my writing and less on other folks. I'm missing out on so much good stuff.

      Anyway, I think I'm in the same boat with you. Of the three Nolan Batman films, I think I enjoy "Begins" the most. I think "Dark Knight" has a really great impact, but it does feel so dower that I have to be in just right mood. And it isn't an "enjoyable" experience. "Rises" I've only seen once, and I really didn't care for it much. I think it may be Nolan's weakest film, to tell you the truth.

      "Inception" is Ok. It feels like Nolan having some fun with the concept. But then I saw "Paprika" and realized how much fun he could have had with the concept.

      "Intersteller" was good, but was also on the oppressive side of the style spectrum. I want to give it another viewing and maybe dive into why I think it works and what doesn't work. But obviously I haven't been in too much of a hurry to do so.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It was great to hear from you again.

  3. I've liked Nolan. Like any other fan of film, I've liked some better than others. I do like The Dark Knight although it gets a bit long, however, when I'm in the mood it makes a good popcorn, rainy day type movie. The other two Batman movies are crafted well, but I think my interesting in superhero stuff along with zombie stuff is starting to wane.

    I felt the same way about action flicks back in the 80s where you'd have the machine gun scenes and car chase scenes and the hero would pull through without a scratch, with the exception of Diehard--and even then McClain comes off pretty superhero-y with all the abuse he takes.

    Really I think superheroes have just replaced the action heroes and perhaps might make more sense to their resistance to all the brutality and pain, however, it still starts to get fairly formula.

    Anyway, I enjoyed Nolan's Memento and Interstellar. I don't think Interstellar will hold with me like 2001 did, but it held my interest while watching it. Inception I just didn't care for for a number of reason. The ending was pretty good though. Part of that though might have been because I was just glad it was over. I didn't mind Man of Steel, it appealed to my inner comic book kid. Yeah, some of the action and destruction was over the top, but it gets that way in comics too. Overall, though I think Nolan is pretty good--there are far worst, cough cough Michael Bay or Uwe Boll just to name a few.

    1. Yeah I agree with you on the zombie stuff or sure. There is a video game with excellent reviews and considered a modern classic called "The Last of Us". I haven't played it yet, even though it sounds like it has great characters, an intense story and is truly an amazing experience... but it takes place during the zombie apocalypse. And yeah I'm really sick of that setting.

      Oh yeah, I admire Nolan's skills, and even enjoy his movies at a certain level. But I really never feel the need to revisit them. Honestly I think I've seen Michael Bay's first "Transformers" film more times than I've seen "The Dark Knight". "Transformers" is big and dumb, but it knows it. And that first one is entertaining in a pure popcorn way. But "The Dark Knight", I just can't throw that one on. I have to be in the right mood... same thing with the new "Planet of the Apes" films, but those engage me at a deeper level then most of Nolan's films.