My relationship with Christopher Nolan has been a bumpy ride. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years – it’s not like there haven’t been good times – but the uninterrupted downward slide which really began with 2006’s The Prestige, and has only gotten steeper with each successive film, doesn’t show any signs of stopping. After a fair bit of soul-searching, I’m sorry to say that this is where I get off.
I don’t care how cool those three or four tent-pole shots look in Imax. I don’t care how many sophomoric philosophical notions are summarised explicitly in the dialogue, by two characters who may as well be named “Thesis” and “Antithesis”. I don’t care how many booms of synthesised bass Hans Zimmer has copy-and-pasted onto the soundtrack. It’s over. I’m done. And, I have to say, the feeling of relief is overwhelming.
It sounds like a backhanded compliment after all that, but it cannot be said often enough – Memento (2000) was a damn fine piece of filmmaking. A clever idea which was executed as well as it could have been. A skilful piece of meta-fiction, which toyed with our preconceptions about the damaged but noble male hero, by turning him into a profoundly unreliable narrator. A film which had a genuinely literary narrative, open to various readings which can coexist side-by-side within the text. And, on top of that, an old-fashioned murder-mystery, which somehow provided a satisfying bang for your buck, in spite of all the intellectual weirdness going on under the surface. It wasn’t just a promising debut, but stands on its own as a truly masterful piece of work, deserving of high praise and an enduring reputation.Insomnia was fine for a stop-gap, proving that Nolan had the chops to handle a more traditional working environment within the studio system, as well as big-name stars. Batman Begins did everything a modern take on the character needed to, and cemented Nolan’s position as a going concern in Hollywood. It was an exciting moment, as we waited to see what kind of ambitious work the fully-matured filmmaker would produce, with the resources of an established big-name director at his disposal.
The Prestige wasn’t a terrible film, but it set in place the fatal flaws which have marred every successive Nolan offering since. The script, which marked the first time he co-wrote a film with his brother Jonathan, was a tangle of half-baked highfalutin ideas about human nature and the nature of fantasy, none of which were rooted in action or character development. They were revealed through lumpen chunks of awkward dialogue, and the occasional portentous voice-over from Michael Caine, when no character was available to act as thematic exposition.
At the centre of the film stood a relationship between two men; supposedly an epic personal rivalry, sustained over decades. On-screen, this amounted to Christian Bale being a bit gruff and squinty, while Hugh Jackman shouted gruffly and goggled his eyes a bit. They came across more like vaguely agitated co-workers than titans locked in eternal combat. Both men had beloved wives whose tragic deaths, resulting from the conflict, are presented as cornerstones of the narrative – but true to Nolan’s disturbingly consistent form with female roles, both characters were paper-thin. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of them didn’t actually get any lines before being consigned to the role of “Vengeance Motivating Corpse”. Admittedly she was stuffed into a water tank rather than a fridge, but still…
Next up was the real turning point – 2008’s The Dark Knight. At the time, my disappointment with this film was limited to how inferior it was to Batman Begins. A sequel which was longer, louder, and more open about its intellectual ambitions, it seemed to contain only a small fraction of the substance and resonance of its predecessor. The plot is a strangling tangle of conflicting set-pieces, most of which needed to be culled but all of which were vainly preserved – as if the finished film were a museum dedicated to its own convoluted scriptwriting process. Every character is a stark embodiment of one of the five classical positions from Ethical Philosophy for Dummies (Oxford University Press, 2005), which they bluntly state and restate over and over again in dialogue which no living, breathing human being would ever conceivably utter. As in The Prestige, what was on paper supposed to be an all-consuming rivalry between bitter enemies becomes a muted and hollow exchange of clichés between characters who barely seem to know each other, played by two actors who gave 110% to a runt of a script which struggles to fight its way out of the low 30’s.
Looking back now, The Dark Knight takes on a far greater and more terrible significance. The main thing it lacks when compared to Batman Begins is a sense of urgency – the feeling that somebody behind the film really wanted to make it. It feels like a movie which was made with the same sense of grim obligation with which viewers are invited to watch – a film which Nolan didn’t particularly want to make, but which nevertheless demanded to be made due to the overwhelming professional and financial rewards on offer to all parties involved. A business transaction, which produced a film only as a necessary side-effect.
It was, at the risk of sounding like a snob, the moment that Christopher Nolan “sold out”.
Rather than taking the money from his first franchise entry, and going off to do something more interesting, he returned to the well to properly capitalise on his investment. His next non-franchise film proved that the decision did not represent an anomaly. Despite the fact that Nolan wrote the screenplay alone, and that it stemmed from his own original idea free of any overt studio involvement, Inception couldn’t have been more perfectly judged as an inoffensive, braindead, crowd-pleasing money-maker if it had been made to order by Michael Bay. Rather than a true departure from that sort of commercialised, ‘McDonalds’-style filmmaking, Inception merely represented a more well-heeled, upmarket ‘Pret a Manger’ alternative. Not the promised revolution – just a rebrand.
The difficulty of watching Nolan’s movies over the past 8 years has consisted in knowing two things – firstly, that he is a skilled filmmaker capable of real intelligence and cinematic articulacy; and secondly, that the films he makes have grown increasingly dumb and inarticulate. After sitting through The Dark Knight Rises – which not only amplified all the sins of its predecessor, but compounded them with a fatuous air of self-congratulation – I find I have simply reached my breaking point. I’m not sure what would convince me to pay good money to sit through Interstellar – especially while Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner is still playing in theatres – but it’s going to take a Hell of a lot more than the obligatory five-stars from Empire.