Interstellar is going somewhere Christopher Nolan has never gone before: Into the final frontier of character development. The online marketing for the marquee director’s newest movie, recently near the top of Fandango’s most anticipated poll, feels awfully Spielbergian—emphasizing one man’s journey to save his family from the end of the world. Whereas Nolan’s previous original properties emphasized the trappings of the director’s seemingly limitless imagination for plot devices, the image of Matthew McConaughey in an astronaut suit speaks for itself.
For Nolan, this shift in tone is expected to pay high dividends at the box office; the November release is expected to bank over $300 million, making it the biggest movie so far of a slow year in Hollywood (although it’s likely to come in second behind Mockingjay, released later the same month). After the blockbuster success of Inception ($292 million domestic), this makes Nolan one of the few directors working today able to market a movie and generate deafening Internet buzz based on auteur brand recognition alone. Although David Fincher and Martin Scorsese enjoy both wide critical acclaim and mainstream success, neither has proved to be the hit factory Nolan has. Nolan’s last five features have grossed $1.53 billion, more than three times that of Scorsese or Fincher.
In that respect, Christopher Nolan shares much in common with another plot-driven director who became a financial phenomenon based on his mind-bending narratives: M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan’s 1-2-3 punch of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs earned him nearly a billion dollars in ticket sales, when adjusted for inflation; although the latter two films’ reputations have fallen today along with the fortunes of its director, they both earned fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, marking their director as one of the few auteurs in Hollywood who could make movies that both reviewers and the public liked. In 2007, The Sixth Sense was even named to AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American films.
But Signs represented something of a breaking point for Shyamalan, an ideal talking point for everything he does right in his films and everything he does wrong. Shyamalan is nothing if not a skilled Spielberg clone, and his movies succeed when they focus on complex family dynamics and the relationship of man to the unexplainable phenomena of the universe. Signs externalizes that as a search for God in a cosmos where we are reminded we are not alone; the looking in Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense are internal, as Bruce Willis (the protagonist in both films) finds that the answers he has been searching for are inside him all along.
Despite Shyamalan’s existential longings, his films became notable (and wildly popular) not for the questions he was asking about humanity but for the well-publicized twists that kept audiences coming back. Shyamalan became known as a magician, not a storyteller, and his writing suffered for it, increasingly relying on belabored and contrived twists to give the audience the prerequisite rug pull they were expecting. Whereas The Sixth Sense (lots of really old spoiler alerts ahead) plays like a great film even if Bruce Willis is alive the whole time, the worst parts of Unbreakable and Signs are their twists. Why would aliens inhabit a planet whose surface is 71 percent of the very thing they’re allergic to?
What makes Signs’ totally ludicrous finale forgivable is what a minute part of the film it is. Like the ending of How I Met Your Mother, it’s best if you just forget that it ever happened and don’t let it ruin the fine craftsmanship that came before it.
But by Shyamalan’s next film, The Village, the twist had become the whole movie. If the movie were actually set in the past, a Hawthornesque society determined to separate itself from the outside world at all costs, it would have been a better movie, but it would have had no plot—and no reason to exist. And anyone a) familiar with Shyamalan’s work and b) possessing half a brain could easily surmise that if he’s making a period piece, the period must actually be today; the presence of The Village’s anachronistic greenhouses all but shout the twist to the audience, as if Shyamalan were just a crap Gollum, playing a game of riddles no one else wants to.
The biggest issue that’s marred Shyamalan’s work (aside from everything that happens in The Last Airbender) is that he mistakes his films for being plot-driven narratives, when they’re actually character driven. What that leads to is a sense of deus ex machina, where the eventuality of Shyamalan’s high-concept conceits seemingly comes into resolve the plot, while actually derailing it. The Happening starts off with a haunting sequence of people committing suicide for seemingly no reason, until you find out that they’re doing it because the plants are out to get us.
Although Nolan has never done anything as shockingly bad as The Happening, in which Zooey Deschanel appears to be acting while in a Benadryl coma and Mark Wahlberg delivers all of his lines as if he’s speaking to a three-year-old, he’s not immune to the perils of plot device. The worst part (by far) of The Dark Knight Rises was its insistence that there had to be a surprise villain waiting in the wings, one that anyone with a even cursory knowledge of the source material could figure out. Let’s see, woman arrives whose character doesn’t show up in a single one of the original comics. I wonder if she must be Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul’s long-lost daughter? Whoda thunk?
The Dark Knight Rises emphasizes a problem that has long plagued even the best of Christopher Nolan films: The characters exist for the sake of plot machinations, rather than vice versa. In fact, Inception even invents a character (Ariadne, played by Ellen Page) whose entire job is to explain the movie to you, in case you get lost in the film’s labyrinthine narrative. As Page’s narrative architect illustrates, Nolan doesn’t quite write characters; he writes archetypes. Adriadne shares a name with the daughter of Minos in Greek mythology, whose father-king put her in charge of, you guessed it, a Labyrinth. If this is too on the nose for you, remember that the villain in Inception is actually named “bad” (except in Spanish).
This sounds nit-picky, but it gets to a central issue with Nolan’s screenwriting: His characters are too often just chess pieces in a game, instead of people with actual motivations, thoughts, and aspirations, which is why—for a movie about dreaming—Inception often feels so cold and programmatic. Aside from creating a puzzle to be solved, what is the film even about? It’s a well-designed Rube Goldberg in search of a thesis, a problem shared with Nolan’s The Prestige, a movie about magicians that exists only for the act of illusion. A cinematic rabbit-pull can make for great single-serving viewing but fails to create a movie that lingers in the mind—or the imagination.
Although my opinion of the film is considerably higher, Roger Ebert pointed this out as a flaw in Memento, a movie whose story is famously told in reverse. “Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that: a device,” Ebert wrote in his original review. “It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.” But Ebert’s bigger criticism was that the movie only works if you don’t know the trick, and if you do, it doesn’t enhance the enjoyment: “I’ve seen it twice. The first time, I thought I’d need a second viewing to understand everything. The second time, I found that greater understanding helped on the plot level, but didn’t enrich the viewing experience.”
For me, what works about Memento (Nolan’s second, and still his best, film) is how grounded it is in the experience of being Leonard. I think Ebert’s critique applies to other Nolan movies, but here, the backward narrative adeptly puts the viewer in his shoes. Leonard might not experience time in reverse, the ways the viewer does, but we find ourselves as routinely disoriented and confused as he does. And unlike Inception or The Prestige, the film isn’t so busy with smoke and mirrors that it forgets to be about something: how humans create their own search for meaning. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, the answer was right in front of Leonard the whole time, but he needed a better story to believe in, one that gave him purpose.
Like Batman Begins before it, The Dark Knight, Nolan’s other masterpiece, never forgets who its characters are or what the story is supposed to be about: the psychology of being a hero, even when your moral quest for justice is at odds with the society around you. The helpful part of telling Bruce Wayne’s story, however, is that the work of creating him has been done for Nolan. He’s telling a tale that’s been told and retold countless times over the character’s nearly 80-year history, and it’s telling the stories of his own characters with which Nolan struggles. Each Batman film probes further into the central question of who Bruce Wayne is, but aside from a dead wife trope, the enigma of Dom Cobb is a question that Inception barely gets around to asking.
In terms of plot architecture alone, Inception marked a step forward for one of the key filmmakers of our era, one whose contribution to mainstream cinema is inarguable. Nolan’s films excite audiences because of his determination to challenge audiences, but as the slow decline of M. Night Shyamalan’s career shows, viewers need more than game design, even at its most clever. It’s not enough to be fooled. You go to theatre to be wowed or see things you didn’t dream possible.
Like Shyamalan in his heyday, Christopher Nolan often gets the “modern Spielberg” marker, not because their work has a ton in common but simply because they are two male directors who make popular movies everyone seems to like. But what’s made Spielberg’s work stand the test of time is that Jaws isn’t just about the shark, just like Jurassic Park isn’t about the dinosaurs. What makes his films feel so universal 39 years after Jaws debuted is that beneath the special effects and animatronic magic are themes that are deeply resonant, stories not just of survival but confronting your own place in the ecosphere. E.T. is about an alien that rides a bicycle, sure, but more than anything, it’s about us.
In journeying the galaxy, Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey might not uncover our collective future, another home for us in the black peril of the great beyond. However, Nolan’s quest for humanity proves he’s finally asking the right questions.