Monday, 21 April 2014

Is Christopher Nolan overrated? ***SPOILERS***

I have just read an article on Ain't It Cool News about Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige. While the article itself is the usual fluff piece to introduce a behind-the-scenes photograph, it offers the readership a chance to start waxing about their love for this film and Nolan.

This annoyed me, because it seems to me that the online fan community are oblivious to Nolan's principal failing. Every film Nolan has made since Insomnia (which, crucially, was not his script) has hinged on some Unique Selling Point (USP). This USP exists at the expense of some fundamental imperative of storytelling meaning that for me, Nolan's films fall frustratingly short of their promise.

To wit, The Prestige is 95% of a brilliant film, but the final 5% completely undermines all the good work up to that point. The Nolans (being Christopher and his brother Jonathan) wrote a carefully structured and delicate script, setting up a very clear USP, which was exploited to the fullest in the marketing campaign for the film. The film sets itself up as a magic trick (The Pledge, if you will), and leads the audience to expect the rug to be pulled from under them with some fantastic sleight-of-hand in the third act.

However, the film also goes to great pains to illustrate that the very best magic tricks require a level of commitment to deceit which would overwhelm ordinary people. Perhaps unfortunately, I have worked with Christian Bale and recognised him under the top hat and false beard within the first half hour of the film, so The Turn was rather ruined for me.

So I thought the real Turn, the moment that made me scratch my head, was Jackman apparently coming back from the dead. I was expecting the silk handkerchief to be pulled off the deceit and something devastatingly simple, but perfectly formed to explain what we as audience members had not spotted, something which, on second viewing, we could spot each hint of in the first two acts.

However, that is not what we were given. As my wonderful scientist girlfriend pointed out, the reason why she hated Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but loved John Carter, is that while ROTPOTA sets itself up in the real world, and then mucks about with science and how scientific research is conducted, John Carter sets out an entirely fabricated story universe, but gives it concrete boundaries, and always works within these.

In the case of The Prestige, the rug of realism, of deceit by commitment and hard work was pulled from underneath us, when Nolan introduced fantasy into what he had set up as real world in the final act. Like some of the feedback posters on the Ain't It Cool News article, I had assumed that the "top hats in the forest" scene would prove to be a red herring smelly enough to throw us off the real scent. But no, as it turned out, that was the real scent, and it was fishy indeed.

So, example one is Nolan shooting himself in the storytelling foot by allowing the hook ("It's a clever illusion!") to be more important than the prime storytelling directive (set up a defined environment and work within it).

Example two would be the Batman films. I group these together because I think they both suffer from the same problem, and although it is a different problem to The Prestige's, it again arises from Nolan's commitment to the real world.

I find the dialogue in the Batman films to be unutterably bad. The climax of the film, the moment at which  Batman ideologically defeats the Joker, is when the occupants of the two ferries opt not to destroy each other. And what is the first thing Batman says after this crucial moment?

"What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone's as ugly as you?"

Jesus wept. It reads like a line from a bad high school movie. It is certainly not what I would expect to hear from a darkly camouflaged, masked anti-hero who relies as much on his intelligence as his brawn and gadgets. In fact, it's hard to find a key scene in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight which doesn't suffer from horrible dialogue.

Take, for example, the coda to The Dark Knight, in which Harvey "Two Face" Dent means to wreak revenge on Commissioner Gordon by killing one of his family in front of him:

Gordon: "I was trying to fight the mob!"

Dent: "You wouldn't dare try to justify yourself if you knew what I'd lost!"

I cringe, I really do.

Consider also the climactic scene of Batman Begins, aboard the monorail, when Ra's al Ghul taunts Batman as they fight:
Ra's al Ghul: "Familiar, don't you have anything new?"

Batman: "How about this?" (snaps Ra's al Ghul's sword at the hilt)

Ra's al Ghul overpowers Batman and pins him to the floor.

Ra's al Ghul: "Don't be afraid, Bruce. You are just an ordinary man in a cape.
That's why you couldn't fight injustice and that's why you can't stop this train."

Believe it or not, this sounds even worse when coming from the mouth of a strokey-moustached bad guy sporting a suit and a samurai sword.

However, these are just illustrations of a broader issue I have with Nolan's Batman films. He is so committed to the "real-world" set-up of Gotham City and her inhabitants, that he feels the need to justify every beat of the extraordinary characters with some pitiful verbalisation of their motivation or thought processes. He couldn't leave their behaviour well alone, and ultimately gives the impression that he doesn't believe in his characters enough to let their actions do the talking.

So, Nolan's second unforgivable miscalculation is unnecessarily setting his USP ("Real world superheroes and supervillains!") in conflict with his characterisation.

And then there is Inception.

Ah, Inception. The film that everyone's favourite ranty Trotskyite, Mark Kermode, holds up as a beacon for intelligent blockbusters. Except, it's not.

For one, the complex plot isn't that complex. The fact that Nolan had to draw a diagram to explain it to thickos doesn't alter the fact that basically we are witnessing dreams within dreams, which is not that innovative. John Landis brilliantly employed a dream within a dream thirty years previously in An American Werewolf In London, and that was just for a scare and a throwaway joke. Individually, each of these dreams are pretty simple:

  • In the real world, there's a bit of preamble with a few training dreams (introducing the audience as much as Ellen Page to the rules of this world, some backstory and a couple of subplots), in preparation for a plane trip on which DiCaprio drugs Cillian Murphy's character, and they have the duration of the flight to perform the titular inception and implant the seed of an idea in his head.
  • There is a dream in which our protagonists kidnap Murphy and escape through a city in a white van, during which they jack in again, into:
  • A hotel, where they convince Murphy that his father's right hand man is plotting against him. From here they jack into:
  • A snowscape fortress, representing Murphy's own mind, in which they hope to force Murphy to encounter and accept a father's love and dying wish for his son. A dying wish which they have made up for Ken Watanabe's gain. They then are forced to go into:
  • A crumbling cityscape in which DiCaprio finally addresses the dead wife subplot and recovers Watanabe from apparently fatal wounds.
Despite the pseudo-metaplot aspirations of Nolan's script, everything moves forward in parallel, linear fashion as the diagram describes. Essentially, Nolan is using layers of dreams to the same effect as other sprawling action films might use different locations, with different battles happening simultaneously at the climax (see Return of the Jedi, for example).

So, the unique selling point, that the film is really brainy, just isn't so. Feel free to debate the final shot all you like, but ultimately it doesn't matter - have you been able to follow the principal dramatic conflicts? Yes. Have these conflicts reached a satisfactory resolution? Yes. Is this clever? No. Whether Leonardo is back in the real world or not is a disposable coda, redundant against whether or not he cares. It's pretty clear he decides not to care, so why should we?

If Inception's plotting isn't that intelligent, then I should consider the themes, which are where I believe an action film really shows its mental muscle. The nature of dreams and reality? Well, okay, but not a particularly insightful or clear exploration, if you ask me. If anyone can tell me what Inception is trying to say beyond "dreams can be better than reality, but they're not real", then drop me a postcard, as I would love to know.

Inception is a great action film, no doubt, and perhaps a notch or two more intelligent than most contemporary actioners. But it is nowhere near the heights of Collateral, or The Matrix, or District 9, or The Bourne Identity, or Heat... the list goes on. These films make us ask questions about ourselves, about what it means to be human, the limits of morality, how we form identities, what it means to commit to an idea or a person, etc. Inception asks none of these things.

It does have an immense score though. So thanks for that, I suppose.