on what Christopher Nolen didn't learn from Stanley Kubrik

By Javier Perez Diaz

Nolen goes Kubrik, kind of

Christopher Nolen is the master of the typical Hollywood blockbuster, but with Interstellar he is moving into radically different territory, both in his aesthetics and how Nolen approaches human nature and consciousness. This is a marked departure for Nolen and for that we can thank Stanley Kubrik, and especially the Kubrik of 2001. Unfortunately, we can’t thank him enough, because despite Nolen’s clear debt to Kubrik, he remains a creature of the Hollywood machine. What’s fascinating about Intersteller is that despite Nolen’s obvious understanding of 2001, he somehow still misses the point. For all his new aesthetic and intellectual pretensions, not to mention insights into the human soul, Nolen regurgitates the same tired formulas that has made him one of the most successful money and hype machines in Hollywood. He might admire 2001 and steal from it with reckless glee, but he seems to have missed its most important lessons.

The plot of 2001 is both simple and complex. In the second and third parts of the movie, Drs. David Bowman and Frank Poole go to Jupiter to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life with the help of a robot named, Hal 900—an investigation that will result in the transformation of Dr. Bowman. In many ways Kubrick’s film is about trying to save humanity. Similarly, Interstellar is about an astronaut, Copper, that with the help of TARS (a robot) and three other scientist is also trying to save humanity, although here the psychology of the characters veers more towards the melodramatic than the metaphysical. Of course, you know this just by the casting. Kubrick casts relative unknowns, while Nolen employs Matthew McConaughey and a host of A and B list notables to make sure that you both feel and identify with what happens. Kubrick not only doesn’t need that, but he also doesn’t want it.

Influence or Stealing?
Still, Kubrick’s influence creates subtle changes in Nolen´s approach and aesthetic. As Nolen stated to the press, “I think anytime you look at science fiction in movies, there are key touchstones… 2001. Whenever you’re talking about getting off the planet, 2001 is somewhat unavoidable.” One of the obvious changes is Nolen’s approach to character. Whereas up to this point most of Nolen’s characters are one-dimensional comic book archetypes, here Nolen tries to deal with real characters in extraordinary circumstances. If 2001 is about the nature of consciousness itself and a way of thinking about artificial intelligence, then Interstellar is Nolen´s attempt to capture some of Kubrick’s vision and take a more compelling, subtle and complex approach to character.

The Batman of Nolen’s Dark Knight trilogy, now considered iconic, is, despite all the back story histrionics, a typical comic book character: a little tortured, clumsily motivated and more symbol than person. To say that Nolen’s Batman is an advance on other Batmen is like noticing that the ant scurrying across your breakfast table is a millimeter bigger than the ant that had done so previously—difference like these are akin to fifty shades of grey—in the end, it’s still grey.

Not much of a character
In Inception, he tries to create a more complex and real character in Leonardo Decaprio’s Dom Cobb, but he doesn’t really advance from the Batman model. Like Batman, Cobb has a tormented past and a kind of rudimentary motivation for what he does. Still, he’s more symbol than character. Ironically, some of the minor characters have more life, played by a Hollywood B-list of charismatic up and comers such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe and Tom Hardy. Nolen does provide Decaprio/Cobb a concrete purpose: he wants to reunite with his kids no matter what the consequences.

Interestingly, Interstellar’s Copper is a combination of Cobb and Batman. Like Batman, he wants to save the day, and, like Cobb, he also wants to reunite with his kids. Nolen, taking a page, or should we say cell, from Kubrick, tries to transcend these urgent but pedestrian concerns. He jerry rigs the narrative so that Copper has to look beyond himself and his personal concerns and contemplate the meaning of life and our place in the universe. So, both movies are quite similar in their surface concerns. Yet, Kubrick’s film is a philosophical rumination about what it means to be alive and to be conscious (perfectly realized in how alone and estranged these astronauts are in space), while Nolen tries some of the same and ends up creating a low gravity soap opera: even though he has to think cosmically, Copper wants to get back to his kids.

Cosmic melodrama is still melodrama
What, given Nolan´s obvious debt to 2001 is he missing? How could he have made Interstellar when what he wanted to make is a new or improved 2001? Kubrick completely rewrites what a science fiction film is, where Nolen tries to retain the form of the Hollywood blockbuster at the same time as he shoehorns in some of Kubrik’s vision and poetry. Nolen intends to portray the greatness and mystery of space, but he narrows Kubrick’s vision through visual and technical wizardry. In 2001, space is almost a character that wears down and radically transforms the astronauts; in Interstellar, space is an I-Max overload and does almost nothing to change the character of the astronauts. When you think about that, it’s almost impossible to imagine. In fact, if Nolen believes in anything beside his talent for spectacle, it’s that no matter what happens people remain the same. Of course, this is not Kubrick’s view, but the standard formula for melodrama.

2001 bends time, whereas Interstellar is fast-paced, frenetically edited and full of shots designed to wow the audience rather than make them think. You can get lost in 2001, as the astronauts do. With pre-determined emotional arcs and fast food emotions, you’ll never lose your way in Interstellar or any Nolen film for that matter. After Kubrik, Nolan understands that any story about space is going to need to convey a sense of duration. The viewer needs to feel overtaken by the voyage. Nolen tries to accomplish this by time (the movie is long) and spectacle (the movie is a technical marvel), but Nolen has a problem letting images and moments sit. He has to comment, to make us notice what a wizard he is, while the artist Kubrik has the patience to disappear.

He's going
For instance, Nolen tries to use sound and music in a similar way to 2001. Kubrik’s use of background sound is uncanny and unnerving, but when Nolen copies his method he can’t help but loop back to Hans Zimmer and let the melodrama rip. Nolen is an addict you will never quit and it doesn’t matter how much high-minded cinema he studies. Kubrik treats his audience with respect, as a smart individual that can participate and figure out the full complexity of our world and beyond, where Nolan’s constantly whispering in the audience’s ear, “Do you get it? Do you get it? I’m amazing, right?”

What is happening to me?

©Javier Perez Diaz and the CCA Arts Review

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