My Hollywood Heroes No. 3: Christopher Nolan


It is set in space.
It stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.
Michael Caine is in it somewhere too.
I think it has something to do with the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources.
It comes out on Friday.
It is directed by Christopher Nolan.

Having avoided the trailers and reviews, that is pretty much everything I know about Interstellar. Still I’ve not been this excited about seeing a film since Joss Whedon got the gig on Avengers, or possibly even since George Lucas decided he had a little bit more to tell of that saga of his.

The thing is, that of those six facts the only one that really matters is the last. Forty four year old Londoner Christoper Jonathan James Nolan is, in my opinion, the best director working in Hollywood today. He has ambition to equal Francis Ford Coppola, imagination the match of Kubrick, artistry like that of David Lean and filmic sensibilities comparable to Scorsese. He can choreograph action like Michael Mann, puts people in extraordinary situations typical of Spielberg and can intrigue audiences in a manner reminiscent of Hitchcock. I know this sounds like hyperbole but let me explain.

Let’s tackle that last claim first as it may be the boldest. Sure, Nolan makes smart blockbusters but does he really compare to the master of suspense? There are actually three films from his eight film back catalogue that lend themselves to this argument.

The first of these is Memento, the crime thriller told in reverse, with its increasingly unhinged protagonist and the big reveal at the end/beginning. Hitchcock liked to play with his audiences’ expectations (see Psycho and Marnie for starters) but he also employed a cyclical narrative in Vertigo and toyed with filmic conventions in things like Rope. Nolan’s work with the backward and fractured story telling picks up on all of this cinematic experimentation and builds on it, all the while weaving toward his whodunit ending in way that Hitch would have approved of.

In terms of straight suspense we also have the film that followed Memento, the Al Pacino and Robin Williams starrer Insomnia. There’s a killing at the start, we know who did it and are gripped by how everything pans out from this point. It is atmospheric and gives us a seemingly normal but remorseless and amoral murderer not unlike those in Psycho, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train. The greatest of Nolan’s thrillers though has to be The Prestige.

A howdunit rather than a whodunit, this film, about two Victorian magicians going to increasingly extreme measures to out do one another, is arguably more audacious but as gripping as anything made by Hitchcock. There are two plot twists, one for each protagonist, with one of them as bold as the other is clever. In fact, an appreciation of this movie depends on your ability to swallow what happens, and I can see that for many it may jump the shark, but personally I thought it was brilliant. Either way, what we have here is the work of a master film maker more interested in telling curious stories than playing it safe.

Of course Nolan is best known for his Batman Trilogy and it is here that he shows his ambition. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises takes a familiar crime genre and rejuvenates it with great character performances, shock moments, heart in mouth tension, triumphs, tragedy and excitement. This is Nolan’s Godfather, only this time after a great first instalment and superior sequel it doesn’t take a quality dive in part three.

Of course there is also the great action. Michael Mann is known for crafting chases and shoot outs within the parameters of realism but Nolan manages to achieve the same effect even with masked comic book characters. Seriously, the hero is dressed as a bat and the main bad guy is a clown but we still take it all seriously.

These three films are undoubtedly the greatest superhero films of all time and among the best action adventures. They are involving, awe inspiring and moving without being po-faced and overly solemn. There is spectacle but it is balanced against, and always in service of, the story. Frankly, I don’t know how Michael Bay has the gall to keep churning out Transformers movies after this. He must be really embarrassed.

The place where it all comes together best though is Inception. So many blockbusters these days are based on comic books or old movies and require you to switch your brain off and enjoy the pretty pictures. How refreshing then to get one that is totally original and demands you concentrate and pay close attention. This movie is not too complicated, as it’s reputation suggests, it is smart and tightly plotted. It is epic, it is imaginative and it is layered. It centres around technology. It deals with human desire, frailty, redemption and potential. It examines notions of perception and reality and the design and cinematography are breathtaking. Kubrick was a master of this kind of cinema but do you know what? It’s hard to still get excited by the swirly light show in 2001 once you’ve seen that city fold in half.

Of course Spielberg, Coppola, Kubrick and the others have all made mistakes. They all have movies on their CVs that are not of the quality we have come to expect of them. Even Hitchcock made some duds. Maybe Interstellar is where Christopher Nolan will drop the ball, maybe this will be less Avengers and more Episode 1.

On the other hand, it could be his masterpiece. I for one am keen to find out.


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