Things I Learned From… Interstellar

In many ways, Interstellar is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film – a visually impressive panorama of space and time through which mere humans must fight their way back to what matters to them. Unfortunately, it also seems to have distilled his primary flaw as a writer – a lack of capacity to handle real human emotions.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work. The Prestige might just be my favourite film of all time, and Inception always features pretty high in my ever-changing Top 10. And the space-faring epic has always been a place where logic, brains, and scientific experience is valued above human relationships.

But Interstellar is, ostensibly, a movie about how human emotions transcend space and time. Which forces us to ask the question – why are most human emotions in the movie belittled or ignored?

Some spoilers follow. Obviously.

The driving relationship in the movie is between former engineer/shuttle pilot Cooper and his young daughter Murphy, whom he leaves behind when he’s selected for a deep-space mission that might just save mankind. And this relationship works just fine. He’s consumed by guilt and the desire to keep his promise and return, despite the time distortions that push them further and further apart.

Meanwhile, Murphy grows up under the tutelage of a family friend, pursuing science that might save more of mankind, both hating her father and following in his footsteps – entirely plausible for a conflicted child abandoned by a father she still idolises.

But Murphy isn’t Cooper’s only child. He has a son, Tom: whom he never mentions again after leaving Earth, and who exists in the Earth-bound storyline simply to be an obstacle to Murphy in act three. We’re led to believe Cooper’s relationship with Tom relationship is pretty good – and yet Cooper never expresses any desire to get back to his son, only his daughter? What’s that about?

And Cooper’s not the only one trying to get back to someone. Fellow astronaut Brand is in love with one of the pioneers on the target planets, and wants them to divert course to his planet to see if he’s alive. Cooper has already been blatantly making decisions based on what will get him home to his daughter more quickly, so you might expect the film – a film about love and family – to support that urge.

Nope. Brand is given a borderline hysterical speech about love reaching across space and time, and her argument is roundly rejected by Cooper. They go where he wants – a choice that exposes them to a psychopath on an uninhabitable world and kills a crew member. So it’s okay for Cooper to make mission-critical choices based on his emotions, but not for Brand? Why? Because she’s an emotional female?

By the end of the movie, Nolan has dug himself into a hole. Cooper’s supreme desire is to get back to his daughter, and the lesson he’s learned is (apparently) that he should never have left her – but if he hadn’t, the human race would never have survived. Plot and emotional through-line are directly opposed to one another.

So the final scenes are an ugly head-on collision of conflicting plot beats and emotions. Matthew McConaughey performs acting gymnastics, trying to plausibly send his past self information that will trigger the mission in one scene, and telling him not to go in the next. When Cooper’s finally reunited with an aged Murphy, she immediately tells him to get in a spaceship and go join Brand – a woman with whom he has no emotional connection beyond being workmates – on a barely habitable planet, because… well, who knows? It makes no damn sense at all.

So what’s the moral here? Make sure your plot and your emotional through-line are compatible. If your hero says family is the most important thing, make sure he acts like he means it – caring about his whole family, supporting others when they make similar choices, and ending the movie surrounded by what matters to him.

Things I Learned From… The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan deeply distrusts the traditional heroic narrative. His first two features, Following and Memento, both sent protagonists on journeys that turned out to lead only to uncertainty, manipulation and possible madness. His next film, Insomnia, which I believe is the only feature he’s directed but hasn’t been involved in the writing/ early development of, touches on those familiar ideas in the context of a detective story.

The Prestige consciously plays with the hero’s journey to a degree rarely seen in film: we dart about in time, following two characters’ stories through diaries, personal testimony at a trial, memory and real life. Angier appears to be the protagonist, because he appears to be the most active character – he goes on an elaborate physical and scientific journey to gain hidden knowledge, and pays a terrible price – but by the end of the film, a shift in perspective leaves us wondering if Borden was actually the protagonist all alone.

Inception has a single identifiable protagonist, but the journey Cobb goes on is non-linear, perhaps even backwards – into his own inner self and back to face the greatest fear of his life. As Ariadne warns him, “… as we go deeper into Fischer, we’re also going deeper into you. And I’m not sure we’re going to like what we find.”

So how does this play out in Nolan’s Batman trilogy? Batman Begins plays with time and space, but no more so than many similar epic narratives, and it does have a single identifiable protagonist: Bruce Wayne. He undergoes a physical journey that becomes a quest for an identity he can live with: neither the rich asshole nor the wounded orphan, but someone who has something to offer to the world. (Even if that’s extra-judicial violence. Well, no one ever said the guy was sane.)

The Dark Knight takes a bold narrative step away from the usual superhero conventions. If a first superhero film is usually about becoming the hero, the second is usually about being the hero – the tension between the two identities, the demands of real life, the physical toll of a double life. If the first movie is about Bruce Wayne, the second should be fully “about” Batman.

But that’s not Nolan’s approach at all. The Dark Knight is a movie not about Batman, but about the idea of Batman. The ripple effect that the presence of a superhero has on the entire society he operates in; the impact on the police, the judiciary, the mayor, the rich and the poor. And, of course, the “escalation” effect on crime and the rise of supervillains.

It’s a remarkable way to tell a movie, and Nolan uses the technique incredibly effectively. Perhaps because, at the centre of the story, he retains a lightly sketched but emotionally powerful “being the hero” story. Bruce Wayne wants to hang up his cape and cowl and be with the woman he loves, but the criminal world that he’s unwittingly empowered (by forcing them to turn to the Joker) leads to her death. So far, so traditional – though it’s given tremendous irony by our knowledge that she’d already decided to marry someone else, a fact he won’t know until it’s too late and will never fully accept.

So, arriving at the final part of his trilogy, how will Nolan handle his problems with protagonists?

I’d venture that the protagonist of The Dark Knight Rises  is neither Bruce Wayne or Batman. It’s young cop John Blake. He’s the one who’s growing, learning, changing. Learning that Commissioner Gordon kept Harvey Dent’s crimes from the public and let Batman take the rap. Seeing fellow cops prepared to fire on kids rather than accept his word and let this cross the bridge to safety. Seeing the man who works outside the ‘structures’ that keep coming up in dialogue save the city, when the authorities were paralysed by red tape and fear of responsibility.

Surprisingly, given how hard he works to return to the fray and defeat Bane, Bruce Wayne’s journey is not towards Batman, but away from him. He’s already ceased to be Batman, in any real sense, but as Alfred says  “You hung up your cape and your cowl, but you never moved on. You never found a life.”  He has to go back through the identity he’s shed, take up the burden he’s put aside, in order to get free of it – and pass it on someone who may be better placed to bear it.

As Cobb says in Inception, “Downwards is the only way forwards”, which could be a tagline for pretty much any movie Nolan’s ever directed…

The question is, does it work? I’m not sure. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie with a broad social, political and philosophical canvas, stuffed with characters old and new, riddled with deception, convoluted plans and false identities. What it needs most of all is a centre – a still point around which all of this can revolve, a character with the complexity and moral authority to hold this extraordinary universe together. And it feels to me that what Nolan has chosen to do with Wayne and Blake doesn’t – can’t – deliver that. It’s a personal journey fractionally out of step with the world it’s embedded in, and we can feel the join.

So there’s our lesson. The protagonist and his journey have to be equal to the weight of the universe you place around them.

I think Nolan’s achievements in this trilogy are extraordinary (and I’m a very fussy Batman fan…) It’s just a pity than his desire to deconstruct the hero’s journey left The Dark Knight Rises a notch or two short of perfection.