Filmism.net Dispatch July 4, 2021

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Here's a slight apologist defence of Chris Nolan, whose films are frequently described as being cold and a bit inhuman. Personally I think he's one of if not the best director working in the industry today, and because his movies since The Dark Knight have frequently bothered or crossed the billion dollar mark, I'm not the only one. I still contend that Inception is the best movie of the 2010s.

But I'm trying to be objective here, and here's what I've noticed about his movies. Because of the subject matter he frequently writes about and directs (lucid dreaming, space travel, inverted time), it's fair enough to think of him as a science fiction director. Even the essential mythology behind Batman has strong ties to the genre in both motifs and themes.

And because of that, you might consider him a technologist, a bit like James Cameron (whose movies are far enough to the political left that you wouldn't really confuse him with Michael Bay, but they both have machinery, metal, vehicles and weapons fetishes).

Nolan's plots have likewise depended on the existence of futuristic machinery and technology. In Interstellar it's overt. We can't travel into space, through wormholes or into black holes without considerable technological prowess.

In Inception we can't enter dreams without that suitcase device that connects the dreamers and lets them interact consciously in the same mental landscape. In Tenet we can only reverse the flow of time upon objects or people by reversing their entropy through the stiles, the darkened chambers shrouded in red light and with huge, intimidating revolving hatches.

But I'd submit Nolan isn't as interested in machinery and technology as you think. His films are full of it, but they're only plot devices. The Endurance was only a way of getting the heroes of Interstellar to their various dates with destiny, but what Nolan was mostly interested in was how gravity affects the passage of time, an idea from the highest enquiry of physics.

In the marketing leadup to Inception, a website appeared which detailed the workings and components of the shared lucid dream device (I didn't even remember but it's called PASIV, and snippets of that marketing material can be found here). It was exciting and intriguing and it made you think the movie was going to be about the machine itself.

But Nolan was apparently so disinterested in depicting how it works on screen (he undoubtedly did a lot of background about it to inform the script) it's barely talked about by any of the characters. They don't even mention it by name. It's just a given that it works.

In Tenet, which I just rewatched (with the benefit of subtitles and yes, it's just as hard to follow) it's the same. The technology to invert objects or people has been given to the antagonist by people from the future, who likewise invert messages to send through to us. But while once again Nolan probably got Warner Brothers to schmooze some bewildered, star struck scientist to help him figure out how it might be done, the physical process that inverts an object isn't mentioned in the story.

The film (and us) just takes it as a given that you put a thing or person and oxygen for them to breathe into this big scary metal chamber with the revolving door and they come out the other side with their little pocket of time flowing in the opposite direction. He's not a technology geek at all like many other directors are. He's just a plot geek, with everything from people to machinery acting as foil to drive his plots.

On screens now; as I mentioned I just rewatched Tenet the closest thing we'll probably ever get to a Chris Nolan James Bond movie. All jokes aside I really had been looking forward to it arriving on a subscription streaming service so I could turn the subtitles on.

Nolan's always been slightly in love with ambient sound drowning out dialogue. Back when the world was introduced to his opening sequence from The Dark Knight Rises (the Bane hijack) Tom Hardy's speech behind the villain's iconic mask was borderline indecipherable. Six months later when the movie came out it had been fixed, and the studio went into damage control about how the sound mix hadn't been fixed or some such crap.

I think Nolan just convinced some Warner Bros executive the aesthetic was more important than the script and either wasn't as powerful as he thought or listened to reason. Fast forward a decade and his Batman conclusion, Interstellar and Dunkirk had made him a regular in the billion dollar club along with Cameron, Spielberg and the Russos and when the studio saw a rough cut and said 'you know you can't hear a word of the dialogue in that sailing scene' he just shrugged and said 'Sony offered me 10 percent on top of my usual budget to go with them, so take it or leave it.'

The good news is Tenet is still a great film, and like all his movies, it rewards subsequent viewings. The bad news is that it's much further over the line into 'too fast to keep up' territory and the bare bones of the aesthetic (the forward/backwards fight, the plane crash, the freeway chase and the ship surging backwards through the sea) aren't enough alone to make it a compelling watch.

You need to understand what's going on and in order to understand it fully you'd have to pause it every minute or so and refer back to a whiteboard. And as well designed or scripted a film is, films have a delicate dance to perform between making you work a bit but making sense. And Tenet just makes you work too much. I got more detail out of it this time around than I gleaned from my original theatrical viewing, but you'd have to watch it about ten times to get it fully. Maybe Nolan and Warner bros know exactly what they're doing.

Plus, and there's no easy way to say this. John David Washington stands funny.

Another surprisingly pleasurable good time was Superman: Red Son (hello to Jason Isaacs), which takes all the topline characters from the DC comic book universe and recasts them in an alternate universe where Kal-El, fired from the dying Krypton, actually landed in the postwar Soviet Union and went on to fight for socialism, his Premier and the Russian way instead of truth, justice, etc.

I also can't recommend survival thriller Underwater enough. Lost at the box office amid the turmoil of the handover of Fox projects to Disney and inspired by a lot of films you like more (the reason most critics hated it), it’s actually an expertly paced and balanced monster mash.

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