With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan Gives Up on Mystery

Photo: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is an established master of cinematic mystery, both onscreen and off-, and true to form, Interstellar arrives this week shrouded in promotional obfuscation. (Don’t reveal the basic plot! Don’t reveal the reveals! Don’t reveal the things we’ve asked you not to reveal!) I will wholeheartedly admit (as a publicly confessed spoilerphile) it’s one of the few recent films I’ve seen where I was glad I knew very little about the film’s third act (and fourth, and fifth, and coda) going in. (To that end, there will be no significant spoilers forthcoming, though I’ll admit my spoiler antennae aren’t as sensitive as some. For example, if you consider “Something happened that was maybe disappointing” to be a spoiler, you’ve been forewarned.)

Nolan, of course, is enamored with onscreen mystery as well. From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, he’s constructed some of mainstream cinema’s most ingenious puzzle boxes, their gears gleaming and their curtains grandly parting to reveal — more gleaming gears and more grand curtains. He’s never content with one narrative complication when three will do; a movie like Memento, told in reverse and chronicling a man with short-term memory loss, seems ingenious enough even without the third-act WTF high jinks about who is or isn’t Sammy Jankis. More recently, Inception is not just a heist movie that takes place inside your dreams (which: cool!) but a movie about nesting realities, and oh, by the way, also limbo. I greatly enjoyed Inception yet also sympathize with this hilarious video about the movie’s questionable internal logic. Contrast that with Prometheus, which frustratingly falls apart in front of your very eyes, the details of which are chronicled in this hilarious video about Prometheus’s questionable internal logic. Nolan at his best is just better at this than anyone else. He’s preternaturally adroit at spinning a yarn that’s just convincing enough while you’re watching it to keep up the breakneck narrative momentum. Ultimately, he seems less concerned with keeping you interested than he is with keeping himself interested, and hoping you can keep up.

Nolan’s previous films have been successful, and occasionally transcendent, on these terms — even as they routinely defy attempts to quantify what exactly they’re “about.” It’s sometimes tempting to read them as political allegories; for example, the halfhearted feint toward Occupy Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, or the more effective nod to “watch the world burn” anarcho-terrorism in The Dark Knight. (The Joker’s line — “Do I look like a guy with a plan?” — is especially delicious in the midst of a movie directed by someone so associated with meticulous narrative planning.) Perhaps his most personal, and thus instructive, film is The Prestige, about dueling Victorian-era prestidigitators, which exists both as a love letter to obsessive showmanship and a film-length paean to cinematic sleight of hand. His films, if they’re about anything, are not about politics but about an unquenchable urge to entertain. They aim to amaze, not persuade.

Interstellar is intermittently amazing — and, in the end, the extent to which you find it persuasive depends not on the presence of Nolan-esque mystery but, surprisingly, on it’s near-complete absence. Which is a weird thing to say about a movie that is so self-consciously about awe and wonder, but all those black holes have sucked all the mystery out of Nolan’s world. The film’s biggest surprise — beyond the closely guarded plot twists and one and a half very ill-considered celebrity cameos — is the extent to which Nolan willfully puts aside his established genius for cinematic trickery and instead relies on, and seems to actively argue for, the virtues of actual magic. In this case, the magic is disguised as science, or, perhaps more accurately, “science.” We learn less about wormholes as gravitational anomalies than we do about wormholes as magical plot-resolution devices. All of which is fine, maybe: You may find the movie’s reliance on deus ex physics to be either inspiring or exasperating, or a bit of both. But what it doesn’t feel is very Christopher Nolan–esque.

All of Nolan’s films are obsessively complex — not emotionally complex, necessarily, but narratively complex. “If he believes in anything, it is ambition,” writes the Times critic A.O. Scott in an eloquent and overall positive review of Interstellar, and he notes that the film itself becomes “an allegory of its own aspirations.” Nolan’s trademark is this swashbuckling brand of ambitious complexity required to pull of a really, really satisfying magic trick — or a really, really satisfying blockbuster. He’s also been content, like a good magician, to mischievously send you out into the night wandering what exactly just happened — witness the three conflicting commentary explanations served up at random over the final scenes on the DVD of Memento, or the top at the end of Inception, the one that supposed to tell you if it was all a dream, which famously never topples before the movie cuts to black.

With Interstellar, the top topples. In fact, Nolan reaches down like God and tips it over. (I will admit I secretly hoped the final shot of Interstellar would be a white-bearded God, watching a spinning top.) The film’s climactic setpiece, so visually inventive, serves not to complicate the preceding events in familiar Nolan-esque fashion but to tie them all together with a near-stupefying neatness. Interstellar, with its long monologues on love and its disarmingly Michael Bay–esque visuals (you can’t tell me that the baseball game interrupted by a dust-storm moment in this trailer doesn’t call to mind the baseball-game-interrupted-by-fighter-planes moment in this one), seems intent on banishing all mystery. There are several moments — even single shots — near the end of Interstellar where Nolan could have chosen to sound a note of elegiac ambiguity. But this time around, Nolan will not send you into the night wondering if the top is still spinning. Perhaps he decided that the emotional heft of a “serious” film and the ambiguity he’s employed so skillfully in the past can’t ultimately coexist in one movie — that you can either have mystery or emotional impact, but not both. The trouble is, if you abandon one, you run the risk that you’ll end up with a film that has neither.

How Christopher Nolan Gave Up on Mystery