The Big Picture

  • Christopher Nolan is known for his distinct filmmaking style, but Interstellar stands out as the least “Nolanesque” of his movies, focusing on emotional character drama and familial love.
  • Nolan’s weaknesses as a filmmaker include his poor portrayal of female characters and his lack of emotional depth and sentimentality in his movies.
  • Interstellar breaks the mold of Nolan’s previous works, delivering an emotional and sentimental story about love and human connection, while still incorporating awe-inspiring setpieces and a sci-fi backdrop.

Of our modern era’s blockbuster directors, it’s hard to think of one who is both as successful and at times divisive as Christopher Nolan; love him or hate him, it’s always a big deal when a new Nolan film hits our screens. Few filmmakers can claim to be so famous and well-known that they have a whole special word to describe films that resemble theirs, with the descriptor ‘Nolanesque’ becoming the terminology for his style. Elaborate, mind-bending plot lines, meticulous visuals, and an overall cold character style are the qualities that have made Nolan’s films famous and recognizable as his. However, there’s one movie in the director’s stable that seems to stand entirely on its own, still unmistakably a Christopher Nolan movie but one that feels the least ‘Nolanesque’ of them all. This movie is 2014’s Interstellar, a sci-fi epic that is engrossing both due to its awe-inspiring setpieces and its emotional character drama.

Unlike the majority of Christopher Nolan’s earlier films, such as Inception or The Dark Knight, Interstellar has an impressive scope and scale all stemming from a simple story about familial love and human connection. The fact that it is so different from his other films does not detract from the movie’s quality; in fact, it’s this distinction that makes it so great.

What Are Christopher Nolan’s Weaknesses as a Filmmaker?

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

Every director has their weaknesses – blind spots that in the best of times make their movies stand out and give them extra style, and in the worst cases are just glaring problems that all their films are held down by. Christopher Nolan’s problems, unfortunately, fall quite heavily in the latter camp. Two, in particular, stand out from film to film. The first and far less defendable of the two is the fact that Christopher Nolan is pretty bad at writing female characters. In a Nolan movie, you can almost always count on a dead “perfect” wife for the male main character to stew over (Interstellar is still guilty of this, unfortunately) and most other female characters tend to feel entirely perfunctory.

This problem leads directly into his second; by being so uninterested in the perspective of female characters, Christopher Nolan is bad at writing romance – and often sentimentality in general. Nolan’s movies are often cold, dry, and serious, with the emotions of the main characters largely being relegated to brooding by the strong male heroes. In Inception, Cobb’s (Leonardo Dicaprio) separation from his children is shown as a tragedy but rarely do we see their absence affecting him; he’s allegedly participating in the entire story for the chance to see them again. As an audience, though, we get very little sense that he cares much about them at all. He’s also completely expressionless when he tells Ariadne (Elliot Page) how his wife killed himself in front of him. This lack of emotional openness from the characters isn’t inherently a problem; it’s not always bad to avoid focusing on emotion and sentimentality when you’re making a serious thriller but play that too often and things can feel a bit too self-serious.

What Sets ‘Interstellar’ Apart From Christopher Nolan’s Other Films?

Jessica Chastain as Murph in Interstellar stands in corn field.
Image via Paramount Pictures

Interstellar bucks this trend quite dramatically; not only does it tell a very sentimental and clearly vulnerable story about the connections made between people through love. Like Inception, the lead character Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is a widower that’s separated from his children. However, rather than framing all the emotion around his relationship with his deceased spouse, it instead digs into his relationship with his children, especially with his daughter Murphy. It’s not a sci-fi movie about space travel that happens to include a subplot about a man being separated from his children, but instead an emotional movie about a man being separated from his children that uses space travel to emphasize the pain of that separation.

In one of the most impactful scenes in the movie, it’s revealed that due to time passing in deep space, twenty-three years have passed for all the other characters while Coop and Brand (Anne Hathaway) have only experienced an hour. Coop wordlessly walks over to the communicator and sits down to watch twenty-three years’ worth of messages sent by his family. Watching his son grow up without him, hearing secondhand about his father’s passing, seeing his grandson brought up to the screen, and then later hearing about his early death. It’s the most tragic scene Nolan has probably ever filmed, and the movie lingers on this emotion. Coop doesn’t brood and stoically watch the screen, he weeps, messily and uncomfortably, snot running down his face. It’s not pretty, but it feels much more real for it. As the screen turns off, he reaches forward to grab onto it, desperate for some kind of contact with the ones he loves.

Interstellar could’ve easily fallen into the trap of losing the forest for the trees. When the stakes are as high as “the fate of the human race” audiences lose sight of anything tangible. It’s a movie that involves malfunctioning rocketships and mysterious wormholes, yes, but that’s not what the story is. The idea of “saving humanity” might be the plot’s driving force, but this real emotion and connection between people is this movie’s real heart and soul.

RELATED: How ‘Following’ Laid the Foundation of Christopher Nolan’s Filmography

Why Does ‘Interstellar Work?

Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

In cinema, high stakes and intense action setpieces work best when they’re paired with a character we care about; without a person or people to connect to, the action can feel purposeless and the stakes may not feel as high as they should. Christopher Nolan’s movies tend to have pretty high stakes, but he often struggles to make them compelling to audiences. Tenet is probably the worst example of this (as well as one of the director’s weakest films in general). Neil (Robert Pattinson) implies that everyone in the world will be instantly destroyed and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) adds the line “including my son”. If you want the audience to appreciate the big things you first need to get them to appreciate the little things. Interstellar understands this. The focus on the family doesn’t just improve the emotional “quiet” scenes, it fundamentally improves the bombastic “loud” scenes as well.

Murphy’s relationship with her father is one of the most convincing interpersonal relationships Nolan has managed onscreen, and when you care about those characters, it’s far easier to feel invested in the action setpieces — many of which are some of Nolan’s best. Nolan has always been great at delivering excellent setpieces, but they’re often devoid of a very important aspect, compelling tension. By first making you care about the characters, the audience feels invested when things go wrong. When Mann (Matt Damon) attempts to dock with the spacecraft and is unaware that the docking will depressurize you feel trapped in the ship with Coop, immersed in the scene itself. When the ship explodes and begins spinning off in the distance, you feel again immersed as Coop pushes his body to the limit to connect to the station again. Both scenes brilliantly paired with Hans Zimmer’s now iconic score. Tenet is visually impressive but since the characters and dialogue fall flat (if you can even hear it) there’s no tension since you don’t care about what’s going on.

When making a tense movie, a director needs to achieve the nigh-impossible task of tricking the audience (even for just a few seconds) into thinking everything can completely fall apart. We know deep down that Coop can’t just die from a crack in his helmet on some frozen rock because that would be a completely anticlimactic ending to his arc, but as he gasps and struggles, the audience might be fooled for a second that he really could die. This technique makes some movies’ action scenes feel cold and others tense. To get the audience invested, you first have to get them to believe in the characters.

‘Interstellar’ Feels Confident In Its Heart

Matthew McConaughey in 'Interstellar'
Image via Paramount Pictures

Usually, when a modern movie (especially a blockbuster) introduces a plot point centered on sentimentality, it is immediately followed up by insecurity – a joke at the story’s expense, a fourth-wall-breaking glance, something to reassure the audience that “Hey, it’s just a movie, don’t get too invested.” Romance, friendship, affection, these emotions are always fizzled out by another element, afraid that the audience will mock or lose interest in the movie if it focuses too heavily on these things. Interstellar has no such insecurity – in fact, it almost seems to balk at it.

In one scene on the ship, Brand explains to Coop that love is a feeling that goes beyond normal definitions of science and nature, that it is an emotion that is so important that it is transcendent beyond humanity. Coop tries to dismiss her by saying that love is just a basic human instinct that has “social utility”, just an animalistic drive to stay together to keep the species going, yet by the climax, it’s not Coop that’s proven correct but Brand. Humanity is not saved by some piece of technology or some science trick, but by Coop’s love for his family, and by the connection that he shares with them that transcends time and space. In case the audience might dismiss it, Nolan doubles down and has Coop say out loud that Brand was correct. It’s bold and feels almost brazen in our modern irony-dominated landscape. The idea that a modern blockbuster could have the main concluding plot point of the movie be ‘love saves the day’ is not just unusual for Nolan. It’s unusual for movies in general.

Interstellar is at its core, an experiment. While the Dark Knight trilogy felt like a major departure from Christopher Nolan’s previous works (one he won’t be returning to), Interstellar breaks the mold entirely. A story about hope, love, and human connection from a director whose greatest weakness is his inability to write and direct convincing relationships, and somehow it all works. It doesn’t work because it follows what Nolan has made before, it works because it boldly deviates, changing and fixing aspects that have dragged his other movie’s down, unashamed in its sentimental plot and main message. The characters of Interstellar are not cold, they are not brooding, and they are not detached from the world around them. The movie’s plot might seem confusing to start, engaging with high-concept interpretations of deep space travel and the minutia of space equipment, but ultimately these elements serve the simplicity of the movie’s overall theme. Interstellar is the most un-“Nolanesque” movie the director has ever made, and that’s exactly why it’s so great.

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