Apparently, Christopher Nolan has grown up. The maker of acclaimed thrillers and blockbusters, the perfect director for the Hollywood machine, the procurer of rather traditional mass entertainment with explosions and schematic characters galore, has made a film in which the characters spend a lot of time musing about the human condition, debating the nature of loneliness, and engaging in lengthy discussions about ‘love is all we need’.
In fact, Nolan is a sort of cinematic magpie. He does not just reference other films stylistically or narratively – he copies whole mis-en-scenes and sequences; he borrows key ideas from other directors. And he joins them together in a sort-of imperfect mash-up which resembles the way in which children treat narratives: imagine Winnie the Pooh having a conversation with Cruella De Vil (in fact, a similar postmodern effect has been achieved in Toy Story and The Avengers).
Let’s have a look at Nolan’s influences, for instance. The film starts as a remake of Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams (1989), complete with windswept, eerie cornfields in the middle of American nowhere, a resident poltergeist and a former action man turned a tanned thirty-plus farmer with two kids. Interstellar’s protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is a former spaceship pilot, and Ray Kinsella from Field of Dreams (Kevin Costner) is a former baseball player. The voices beckon Cooper to go somewhere, and the same thing happens to Ray. Even a baseball game features in Interstellar, albeit briefly. Both the protagonists become possessed, and go on futile missions in which they have endless faith, and which supposedly define them as men and as human beings. Even though their missions are slightly different, it can be safely said that Ray Kinsella, with all these corn voices, is not exactly right in his head, which means that he is as far from planet Earth as his Interstellar colleague.
This is where Interstellar’s similarities with Field of Dreams end, and Robinson gives way to Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Spaceships start floating gracefully across the starry sky to calming classical music in the style of 2001: a Space Odyssey. This ‘Kubrick trick’ is repeated by Nolan quite a few times in the film; as if copying an acclaimed colleague would make one look more complex or intellectual. Scott comes into play during the ‘inside the ship’ scenes which are unbearably lengthy and lethargic. Everything happens slowly in space, Scott implies by his choice of film pace and rhythm. Scott tends to use action sparingly, as a comment on the human condition, and not as an end in itself.
By contrast, in Interstellar, in the absence of good quality dialogue, with the characters speaking a particularly inept mix of fiction and astrophysics featuring black holes and time travel, the spaceship scenes inevitably sag – so much so that one wants to fast forward to action. Cooper might have as well discovered that the answer to his strenuous searches is ‘forty two’.
Unlike his philosophical discussions, Nolan’s action sequences do not disappoint – they are magnificent; as is the mis-en-scene in the ‘watery’ and ‘icy’ planets scenes (shot in Iceland, predictably). Nolan’s attempts to imitate Scott’s moments of ‘meditative existence in vacuum’ fail simply because he is not good at expressing profound yet subtle ideas, and is more at ease staging dust tornados and cosmic explosions. This does not mean, however, that he has nothing to say. The message (which crops up across all of his cinematic works) is: ‘humanity is doomed, we are all awful animals, all we know is how to survive’. Fine – this is a valid message. It’s just that Nolan does not know how to express it in subtle ways involving dialogue and detail, and stretching beyond crash, boom and bang.
Is referencing other filmmakers a definitely bad idea? No – if you transform your colleagues’ findings instead of merely copying them. Take, for example, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. Both are avid cinephiles, and both tend to re-imagine the works of their childhood heroes. Note – re-imagine, not copy. These are two distinct processes. Tarantino does not hide his influences, including John Woo and the French New Wave. Similarly, in his films Burton repeatedly pays homage, both narratively and stylistically, to James Whale (Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)) and numerous nineteen-fifties B-movies. Yet, neither of them constructs a patchwork of copied, almost unrelated sequences out of other people’s ideas. Instead, they transform the pre-existent material. They know what effect they want to achieve, and what they are trying to express. They also have original means of expressing this message. Old school directors are magic ingredients in their melting pot, and old material is well-integrated into the narrative. This is the integrative, playful magic of postmodern irony rather than the blandness of the ‘copy and paste’ approach which Nolan repeatedly demonstrates. Burton and Tarantino are auteurs. Nolan is an imitator, albeit a good one.
Interstellar lacks stylistic and narrative originality, and its seams are too visible to take its philosophy seriously. Its best aspects are not the ridiculous dialogues about ‘life, the universe and everything’, and not the attempts to be profound and original, but the colourful cinematography and good action sequences. This probably means that Nolan should stick to what he does best instead of trying to be someone else or imitating the ‘old masters’. There is always a place for a good blockbuster director in Hollywood. Not everyone has to be a genius or a groundbreaking innovator. It is OK to produce mass entertainment. It is not OK, however, to mislabel the product, and to present it as a rich combination of science and philosophy instead of calling a spade a spade.