Christopher Nolan is the main reason that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded its Best Picture Oscar slots, which can now range from from five to ten. Back in 2009, "The Dark Knight" was nominated for eight Oscars and won two, for the late Heath Ledger and Sound Editing. The hugely popular blockbuster ($1 billion worldwide) narrowly missed landing a Best Picture nod, it was widely believed.
And if it had been in the running? More people would certainly have watched the show. The ratings for the Academy Awards go up and down depending on whether movies like "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings" are up for Best Picture. And so new rules opening up the Best Picture field went into motion. Since they went into effect in 2009, however, although "The Blind Side" and Nolan’s own "Inception" arguably squeaked into Best Picture contention, the more open field has largely benefited indies such as the Coen brothers’ "A Serious Man" and Benh Zeitlin’s "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Nolan’s been nominated for writing ("Memento," "Inception") and producing ("Inception"), never directing. And so with his "Batman" directing days behind him, Nolan has delivered his most ambitious movie to date, "Interstellar," which his brother Jonathan Nolan originally developed at Paramount with producer Lynda Obst and director Steven Spielberg; when he bailed, Nolan took over the helm. Will Nolan get into Best Picture and Director contention, or rack up technical nominations without scoring the big prize?
Here are six factors that will determine the film’s chances in this year’s Oscar race. (Minor, not major plot SPOILERS below.)
1. It’s a global blockbuster.
Blockbusters don’t always score with Oscar voters. On the one hand, this space travel drama is classic Nolan–truly personal, reflecting his strongly held views on how humankind should continue to be pioneers, scientists and explorers. On the other, unlike many of Nolan’s brainy but chilly flicks, this one is a heart-tugger. Many moviegoers will cry their eyes out over the film’s strongest through-line: the father-daughter drama between farmer-turned-back-to-astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his beloved daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain). He leaves her behind to save the planet, and every precious minute he is away, he is trying to get back.
The movie also has deliciously mind-bending space-time-travel aspects to rival "Inception." Film geeks will be debating its Moebius Strip elements for years.
Nolan is reaching for the level of a James Cameron, trying to lure audiences all over the world with glorious space spectacle and gasket-blowing visual effects–he supplies amazing scientifically accurate depictions of a worm hole and a black hole, among other things–as well as intimate emotional drama. The Nolans have fashioned a universal story that offers something for everyone, for all sexes and ages. We’re all worried about the fate of the Earth, which is rife with people of faith who do not believe that science will save us. Science is the gospel that Nolan is preaching.
While Nolan tips his hat several times to Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: Space Odyssey" (this movie’s sentient computer is named "Tars"), "Interstellar" is a movie that no one has seen before, and folks will also shell out the big bucks for IMAX 70mm and 70 mm–even if that’s only available on eleven screens. (For the record, I saw it in 35mm.)
2. It’s not a critics’ picture.
Blockbusters are not necessarily critic-friendly, and reactions to "Interstellar" run the gamut from negative to tepid to rapturous. (Indiewire gives it a B+ here, Scott Foundas raves here.) While early reaction is upbeat, we still haven’t heard from the top print critics, who could do some damage. And it’s hard to imagine the LA or NY critics’ groups going with "Interstellar." It doesn’t need their help.
While McConaughey and Chastain deserve credit for carrying the movie, NASA staffers Michael Caine (playing a version of the film’s astrophysicist science expert Kip Thorne), Wes Bentley, Anne Hathaway and Matt Damon (whose presence in the ensemble Nolan remarkably kept a secret) may sustain more damage. They are stuck with clunky expositional material that would be tough for anyone to deliver– talking inside the NASA bunker, talking inside the spaceship.
The beginning and the end of this almost three-hour movie work better than the middle. Nolan struggles through the second third. He’s trying to sell the science and gravitational anomalies and time shifting and how Cooper hopes to get home–traveling through the space/time continuum– but the movie could have used more script work as well as some judicious pruning.
Finally, "Interstellar" is a Hollywood studio picture, not an art film. The audience will forgive Nolan his trespasses, as they do with Cameron flicks like "Titanic" and "Avatar," because he gives them so much to look at and chew on. The wow factor is there.
But lines like Michael Caine’s "you’re the best pilot we ever had, now get out there and save the world," are just not going to cut it with some film critics.
3. Actors will love McConaughey and Chastain.
These two stars will likely be rewarded with nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes and the Academy, too. They’re both in the golden fluke zone working at the height of their powers. And they deserve it. (Chastain may have two supporting actress performances this year if "A Most Violent Year" delivers.) If McConaughey hadn’t already won an Oscar for "Dallas Buyers Club" and been hailed for "True Detective" he would win for "Interstellar," he’s that good. "He’s the conduit for the audience," Nolan said at the American Cinematheque Ball. He’s right.
4. "Interstellar" will score many technical nominations.
Oscar voters will reward it in the technical categories. Nominations –and possible wins (see Gold Derby’s experts here)–for visual effects, cinematography, production design, sound editing and mixing and Hans Zimmer’s rousing score should be in the bag.
But Nolan may wind up in the same place he’s been before. Which is why the movie may not go all the way to Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
5. "Interstellar" may not score editing, directing or writing nods.
While the Academy opened up the Best Picture race to more than five, the remaining categories including director remain five or under. The test of the movie’s Best Picture strength on Oscar nominations morning January 16 is whether it lands directing, editing and writing nods. I will argue that it may not land all three. There are too many issues with the film’s script, length and structure. And that’s a sign it may not make it all the way.
Also, the directing race is competitive: Richard Linklater ("Boyhood"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Birdman"), and Morten Tyldum ("Imitation Game") are locks, while Bennett Miller ("Foxcatcher"), Mike Leigh ("Mr. Turner"), David Fincher ("Gone Girl"), Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and James Marsh ("The Theory of Everything") are less guaranteed. And we haven’t yet seen Angelina Jolie’s "Unbroken," Ava DuVernay’s "Selma," Clint Eastwood’s "American Sniper," Tim Burton’s "Big Eyes" and Ridley Scott’s "Exodus: Gods and Kings."
Is this the Nolan film that finally earns the Academy directors’ respect? They’ve withheld it many times, from Ben Affleck to Kathryn Bigelow. They sometimes seem more willing to go indie than mainstream. Will "Interstellar"’s splendid accomplishments override its weaknesses?
6. "Interstellar" follows Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning ‘Gravity."
Not in Nolan’s favor is the timing of the last big-scale Hollywood space epic. This is just the luck of the draw. "Gravity" is a hard act to follow. It was deceptively simple. That was its genius. And it was stunning and unexpected. It delivered that impossible sleight-of-hand–an accessible, universal story that was simultaneously an art film, an E-ride and an emotionally moving global entertainment. Everyone understood it. And it was gorgeous. Nolan has tried to do just that. The question is whether audiences, critics and Academy voters all agree that he succeeded.