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Entries in Christopher Nolan (2)



Stars: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy and Harry Styles.
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan.

Rating: 2.5/5

State-of-the-art filmmaking and showy narrative technique meld uncomfortably with some hoary old war movie clichés in Dunkirk, the latest exercise in borderline bombast from Christopher Nolan. Despite being more aesthetically pleasing than Michael Bay’s garishly executed Pearl Harbour, Nolan’s big film in service of a small story has more in common with that much-maligned war pic than more serious minded award season contenders of past years like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli or Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The enormous undertaking of evacuating 400,000 allied troops from the French port city as Axis forces encircled them is one of the defining moments of World War II. Nolan sets up the immensity of the event with steely grey vistas encompassing the troops as they wait for their rescuers, their despair growing with each wave of terrifying Stuka dive-bombing assault. These establishing shots offer the kind of scale and artistry that have emerged as Nolan’s stock-in-trade but as his narrative unfolds, it becomes clear the director is not particularly interested in the practicalities of troop withdrawal.

We are led through the shivering battalions by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who has survived a tragic opening sequence by outrunning his doomed squad before queue-jumping his fellow soldiers by pretending to be a medic then hiding amongst the wooden structure of the evacuation point to ensure his spot when the boats arrive. These hardly seem the actions of a leading man in a tale of heroism, his thin characterisation further hampered by the scale of the production mounted around him. Tommy is joined by a silent French infantryman (Damien Bonnard) and a brash Brit named Alex (Harry Styles, ok in a role that doesn’t ask much of his developing acting chops), bonded by their survival at any cost instincts.

Tommy’s story is folded into three other sub-narratives that intercut in that non-linear manner by now very familiar to Nolan’s fervent fan base. Mark Rylance is Dawson, a patriotic Brit who, with his sons (Barry Keoghan; Tom Glynn-Carney) is amongst the many brave homelanders that set sail for Dunkirk to help recover his fighting countrymen; Tom Hardy is Spitfire pilot Farrier, who darts back and forth across the skies over the beach with his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden), dispersing ME-109’s and Heinkel bombers with ruthless efficiency; and, Kenneth Branagh who, as the evacuation’s senior office-on-point Commander Bolton, is responsible for much of Nolan’s occasionally clunky expository dialogue.

Nolan’s obsession with his fractured narrative structure perfectly suited his past works Memento and Inception (his best film, by some measure). The mechanism muddled the ambitious but fatally flawed Interstellar and is entirely unnecessary, even flagrantly indulgent, in Dunkirk. The showy, jigsaw-puzzle challenge the storytelling poses undermines involvement, only serving to draw attention away from the plight of his protagonists and onto the storyteller himself; one can picture Nolan in front of a chalkboard strategically plotting his structure with cool academic efficiency. Surely the filmmaker’s insistence upon imposing his favourite device upon all his narratives is edging towards Shyamalan-like overkill (and the inevitable marketplace backlash).

As in past efforts, the director relies upon a dense soundscape to throw a blanket over his plotting, leading to the now familiar “I can’t understand what they’re saying!” comments often associated with his work. Muddying up the mix is an overblown score by Hans Zimmer, which determines every scene, however intimate, must build to a crescendo, leading to series of ‘big moments’ that the narrative does not earn. By the time the director reacquaints himself and his audience with the benefits of a more conventional denouement, any investment in the character’s journey has long since dissipated; scenes of ‘big emotion’ in the third act feel capital-C ‘contrived’.

Where the film soars is as an aerial spectacle. Recalling the thrilling dogfight sequences of Guy Hamilton’s 1969 wartime classic Battle of Britain, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith capture the nerve-shredding experience of life as a Spitfire pilot, the planes and the airmen afforded the kind of exhilarating hero-worship that is sorely missing from the rest of Nolan’s chilly, unaffecting opus.



Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn and David Gyasi.
Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan.
Director: Christopher Nolan.

(PLEASE NOTE: Some MINOR SPOILERS re scene detail and broad plot)

Rating: 2/5

Deep into Christopher Nolan’s vast, verbose space opera Interstellar, crewmember Romilly (David Gyasi) sits with his ship captain, the experienced space jockey Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey). The conversation turns to the science of wormholes, those time-and-space defying pathways that are spoken of as fact by scientists in movies. Romilly takes a pencil and a small piece of paper, draws two ‘x’s on either end of the paper and folds the crosses together. He punches the pencil through the point where the ‘x’s meet, and says to Cooper something like, “And that’s how wormholes work.”

It seems a pointless scene that set your critic pondering as to its purpose. Cooper, a seasoned spaceman, would know what a wormhole is, so Romilly need not do this for his benefit or the mission’s. Instead, Romilly could only be speaking to McConaughey in his other key role in the film, that of audience conduit.

At some point in the narrative’s development, someone with clout (besides Nolan, clearly) felt that this B-movie hokum, inflated to a ridiculous degree by chalkboard’s full of formula and endless blatherings about mathematical astrophysics and gravitational singularities, needed to be more clearly explained to us Earth-bound ‘audience’ types. So Romilly’s Space Science 101 scene is inserted, essentially providing Nolin a voice to whisper, “Here’s what I’m talking about, paying public, plain and simple.”

What this minor, throwaway scene achieves, however, is to force the director to break free momentarily from his immense self-indulgence. Interstellar is Nolan pontificating on theories associated with space travel, wrapped in a flimsy story about family values and human one-ness that never really cares whether its audience is emotionally engaged or not. The ‘pencil-and-paper’ scene suggests he would just as soon not have to deal with lesser intellects at all.

The British director has been given free rein after banking billions of dollars with the Dark Knight trilogy and proving an acute storyteller with Inception, The Prestige, Memento and Insomnia. Most young, successful directors channel career momentum into personal, grand-scale projects and, like Nolan, usually reveal themselves to be not quite ready for it and too powerful to be told so. This fall from grace has impacted Coppola with One From The Heart; Spielberg with 1941 (then again, with Empire of The Sun); Cameron with The Abyss. Most recently, Wes Anderson (with The Darjeeling Limited), George Clooney (on Monuments Men) and Jason Reitman (with Labor Day) have had those moments.

The first sign that Nolan may have peaked previously is in his use of such an immense canvas to merely rehash overly familiar motifs. We get more vast landscapes (including, yes, an icy one); the ‘tubular world’ effect that inspired awe in Inception; clunky, black, angular machines designed to reflect real-world tech. And he revisits an increasingly disengaging intellectual preoccupation with the abstract nature of time and physics, used so captivatingly to explore ‘dream time’ in Inception and ‘memory’ in Memento yet ploddingly dull and confusing here. Nolan has more to prove before he can start self-referencing.

In the early passages of the story (scripted by Nolan with regular collaborator, brother Jonathon), references arise that suggest the fun stuff is always just around the corner. Teasing references to poltergeists and aliens; an underground government secret lab, conveniently located only a couple of hours from Coop’s home; giant dust storms that are symptomatic of the collapsing world ecosystem. But once Cooper and his team of astronauts are on mission, the pacing grinds, Nolan settling into 90-odd minutes of mission parameter status updates. Occasional personal interactions in the form of video messages from loved ones back home re-energise both the crew and the audience. (His role as Executive Producer on the Johnny Depp dud, Transcendence, was perhaps an early-warning sign that Nolan was becoming too enamoured with techno babble as reason enough for a film’s existence).

The actors strive to be as big as the director’s vision, each afforded their own quivery lipped, welled-up burst of grand histrionics. McConaughey’s ‘everyman genius’ Cooper is basically the same character played by Mark Wahlberg in Transformers: Age of Extinction, a Red State, good-guy mechanics whiz who has settled into life as a stay-at-home single dad. In an opening scene that hints at the full-blown overstatedness to follow, ‘Coop’ has the smarts to electronically hijack one of those pesky drone thingys and rewire its fancy innards to work his harvesters (machines that, in one inexplicable scene, gather themselves around his home like dogs at dinner time).

Co-star Jessica Chastain delivers her version of a paycheque performance, which is still fine; Hathaway overcomes a sense of miscasting to have some good moments; Wes Bentley and Casey Affleck are underused; a warbling Michael Caine, indecipherable. When an uncredited A-lister turns up to kickstart the third act, Interstellar begins to feel more like those disaster movies that Irwin Allen used to make, bulging with enough star wattage to keep our eyes on the screen and not rolling to the back of our heads.

And then there is that big, beautiful, blank void called ‘Outer Space’ and the challenge to fill it with all the awe and wonder Nolan and his visual effects team can muster. It is what every one will be talking about when the film hits theatres, as it should be; the scenes that look like 2001 A Space Odyssey are as good as anything since 2001 A Space Odyssey. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema integrates his images seamlessly with that of the FX crew, achieving that grainy, wideshot, ultra-realism reminiscent of IMAX documentaries. The images are, as Dave Bowman would say, wonderful, but do not integrate as effectively with the character’s plight as the space-scapes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity or Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

After 170 minutes and a final act twist that proves more late-career Shyamalan than peak-form Nolan, one is left wondering whether the experience was worth the commitment. In striving to outdo himself, Nolan has only highlighted his limitations, providing his primed fan base with an empty space vessel that makes a lot of noise.