Note: The following contains major spoilers for “Interstellar,” and other Christopher Nolan films.
What sets Christopher Nolan apart from most filmmakers? Any number of things. A dedication to old-school techniques, from shooting on film to utilizing practical effects. An ability to get pretty much anything greenlit. A serious approach to fantastical subject matter, coupled with a desire to explain rather than obfuscate, and a sense of giant scope to his storytelling. But perhaps more than anything, it’s that he’s a director playing in the blockbuster world who has remained, whether he’s making superhero movies or sci-fi mindbenders, resolutely an auteur.
There are several themes that unite Nolan’s work: questions of time, morality, memory, justice. But the director’s detractors (and even some of his defenders) have sometimes argued that these are principally intellectual pursuits, and that his films can come across as cold exercises, thought experiments, as a result. But this weekend’s “Interstellar” makes clear, by closing off what we believe to be a sort of unofficial thematic trilogy, that Nolan’s recent work can also be united by a very emotional, and very personal theme.
Though very different on the surface, “The Prestige,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” are threaded by one particular theme: that of work/life balance (in fact, the Batman films, particularly the last one, has a degree of that too). Nolan and his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas have four children together, Flora, Rory, Oliver and Magnus. Quite rightly, the director avoids talking about his private life, but fatherhood has been at the emotional heart of almost everything he’s made, at least from “Batman Begins” onwards (previous films, it should be said, pre-dated the birth of his kids).
Obviously, the first Batman film deals with a boy separated from his parents by violent death, though admittedly that’s something that’s at the core of an 80-year-old character. But it’s interesting that when Nolan first approached Michael Caine about playing Alfred in the movies, he described the character not just as a butler, but as a surrogate father. Things really got interesting with his next film, “The Prestige,” however.
Released in 2006, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, the film sees Christian Bale as magician Alfred Borden, who falls in love with Rebecca Hall‘s Sarah, with whom he has a daughter, Jess. Borden is a devoted father and husband half of the time, but the other half is seemingly more interested in his magic, and in an affair with assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), eventually leading to the suicide of Sarah (the film’s screenplay, co-written with brother Jonathan, is substantially different from Priest’s source material, it should be noted). Jess then becomes a pawn in Borden’s feud with rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), threatened to become a ward of the latter when he fakes his death and pins the murder on Borden.
As it turns out, Borden is actually two people, a pair of identical twins, one of whom loved Sarah (and fathered Jess), the other of whom loved Olivia, and who spent their life alternating days, swapping places in order to pull off their trademark trick. Here, there’s a happy ending of sorts: one Borden hangs for the murder, but the other returns to wreak revenge on Angier and reclaim Jess, his obsessive rivalry and lifelong self-sacrifice now at an end. But it’s a close call: Borden has come close to losing the thing most precious to him because of his perfectionism in his art, and indeed, has literally had to give up another life in order to return to her.
Children are mostly absent from “The Dark Knight,” but return in a big way in “Inception.” Here, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, bearing a striking resemblance to his director), has been separated from his children for years after his wife (Marion Cotillard), convinced she was still in a dream, killed herself and framed him for her murder, forcing him into exile. His only driving force through the film is to pull off the proverbial one-last-job in exchange for a clean slate, and a chance to return home to his children, who are glimpsed throughout the film, but always with their faces hidden away.
One of the most interesting elements of “Inception” is found in the meta-quality way that Cobb’s dream-intrusion draws parallels with filmmaking. The architect (Ellen Page), a sort of production designer, creates puzzle-like mazes — something that Nolan’s tricksy films are often compared to. The forger (Tom Hardy) is the actor, taking on the personas of others. The backer (Ken Watanabe) is the studio boss, who has the power to let them return to his children, but only when the job is completed to his satisfaction. And Cobb himself is the director, the man in charge of the whole operation, and whose personal hang-ups (his dead wife, the train) keep interrupting the narrative to a dangerous degree.
Essentially, filmmaking is the tool to return home, but it’s also the obsession that saw him separated from them in the first place: he and Mal spent the dream-equivalent of fifty years building a world together, and she couldn’t shake it when they seemingly returned home. It all works out eventually, Cobb and co. creating a story that causes emotional catharsis for their audience (Cillian Murphy). But has it really? We see Cobb’s kids’ faces when he returns, but that not-quite-toppling spinning top seems to suggest that he might yet be trapped in the midst of another narrative layer.
“The Dark Knight Rises,” too, is about a man who can’t quite retire. Nolan’s take on Batman was essentially a version of Bruce Wayne who longed to hang up his cowl and let others take over (“As long as it takes,” he tells Alfred in “Batman Begins” when asked how long he’ll be back in Gotham for. “As a symbol, I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting”). He was robbed of a potential life with his love Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal), and retreats into solitude, only to return and seemingly sacrifice himself, attaining that kind of symbolhood/martyrdom that he talked about so long ago, and getting to retire to Europe with Selina Kyle, the cowl and cave safe in the hands of Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s similarly orphaned figure.
And then we come to “Interstellar,” in which the theme isn’t so much subtext as text. Jonathan Nolan‘s early draft of the script, written for Steven Spielberg, is much more of a space adventure, with minimal scenes of Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) back on earth, and with the theme much more about the fight for survival and resources. When Spielberg dropped out, and Nolan looked at his brother’s script, “The story spoke to me as a father, more than anything,” he told the New York Times. “Having children absolutely fine-tunes your sense of time and time passing. There’s a desperate desire to hang on to moments as your kids grow up.”
The early script spends relatively little time on the relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph before he blasts into space. Over three-hundred years pass while Cooper is in space, and his kids die long before he can make it back to Earth, where he’s eventually reunited with a distant descendant, briefly. It’s a script that suggests that, while Cooper had to make a painful sacrifice by leaving his kids alone, he did so in order to ensure that the human race in general survived, and it was ultimately the right thing to do: the greatest good for the greatest number.
Things are more complex in the finished film. The relationship, at least with Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child) is more central to the film’s opening act, and Cooper is in agony over the decision to leave her, but believes that it’ll only be for a few years to begin with. Mistakes and gravitational anomalies mean that the absence turns out to be far longer, and the scene (which was in the early draft of the script, in near identical-form, it should be said) where he watches video messages from Tom, catching up on the major life events he missed, before eventually seeing Murph, a grown woman, at the age at which he left, is the film’s most devastating.
Parental absence seems to have been a fact of life for the Nolans in their childhood. Jonathan told The Guardian that their father, an advertising man, traveled a lot for work. “There was always the fun question of: where is he now?” the writer said. “I would remember, as a kid, wondering when Dad was coming back, and he’d always come back with gift or souvenirs and with great stories. I just imagined that’s how it was with everyone with their parents. I remember the excitement of him, that sense of homecoming.”
And it seems to have informed Christopher as an adult in a major way. The director told the same paper, “There is a lot of guilt for [being away on shoots],” he said. “A lot of guilt. The very sadness of saying goodbye to people is a massive expression of the love you feel for them. For me, the film is really about being a father. The sense of your life passing you by and your kids growing up before your eyes. Very much what I felt watching Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood,’ an extraordinary film, which is weirdly doing the same thing in a completely different way. We are all engaged in the biggest mystery of all, which is just living through time.”
The finished “Interstellar” has a happier conclusion that Jonathan Nolan’s original draft, in which Cooper never sees his children again. Here, he’s able to communicate with Murph through the fifth-dimension after entering the black hole, helping her to save humanity, and earning her forgiveness, as she realizes that he was the ‘ghost’ watching over her all that time (this is tangential, but that device, seemingly a C. Nolan addition as it’s nowhere to be found in the early draft, feels very indebted to Steven Moffat-era “Doctor Who,” which uses this kind of love-transcends-space-and-time conceit often — we’d wager that Nolan is a fan, or at least sits through it with his kids). He even gets to reunite with the elderly Murph (Ellen Burstyn), though he doesn’t stay: with her permission, Cooper heads off again to explore space even further. It’s in his nature.
Even with filmmaking as something of a family occupation (Nolan’s wife Emma is his producer), the idea of providing continuity for children, and spending months shooting on a glacier in Iceland, are not necessarily compatible ones, and that inevitably means periods of separation, which is clearly a heartache for the director. He pays tributes to his children in the making of his movies: “The Dark Knight” was codenamed “Rory’s First Kiss,” “Inception” was “Oliver’s Arrow,” “The Dark Knight Rises” was “Magnus Rex,” and “Interstellar” coded “Flora’s Letter.” And the kids have had cameos: Oliver played Bale and Hall’s infant daughter in “The Prestige,” Magnus is Cobb’s son in “Inception” and Flora plays ‘Girl On Truck’ in “Interstellar” (a film that seems very much informed by her: Nolan told Dazed & Confused, “In the original draft of the script, Murph was originally a boy. Maybe because my eldest child is a girl, I decided to change Murph into a girl”).
But the director’s also aware of his duality, of his other great love. Like David Fincher, obsession and perfectionism is another dominant theme, and no matter how much, like Cobb, he might want to do one last job, there’s always something calling him away. Another city to save, another world to explore, another dream to weave, another trick to pull. And so much of Nolan’s work seems to be an attempt at reconciling these two sides of himself. The obsessive artist and the family man, happily united.