Director Christopher Nolan has a knack for drawing people into the theater in an age when many can’t be bothered. His latest film Interstellar, promises big-screen spectacle: As the Earth is dying, Matthew McConaughey leaves his family behind to seek out a new home for humankind. The film aims at something we don’t often see at this budget level: Rather than a romping space opera, it sells itself as a dramatic confrontation of humanity with its own extinction, and with the vast and overwhelming non-humanness of outer space.
That Nolan’s latest film has these heady ambitions is no surprise, as he has carefully established himself as the thinking person’s action director. During the push for his last film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), he emphasized in interviews that his major influences in conceiving the film were actually silent film directors, particularly Fritz Lang. The cynically disposed may have taken his name-dropping Lang as merely an appeal to see Nolan’s Batman films as legitimate, intellectual works of art. But this professed connection to Lang’s silent films has legitimacy, and it can tell us something about Nolan’s work and what we might expect from Interstellar.
The natural assumption is that Nolan was primarily referring to Metropolis, the Austrian director’s most famous film, produced in Germany in 1927. But Lang’s early crime films The Spiders (1919) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and his later The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), as narratives and as puzzle-like films about master criminals, have much more in common with the Batman films, and with Nolan’s cinema as a whole. And just as Lang’s Mabuse films use popular crime fiction to allegorize the tumult of post-WWI mass society, Dark Knight uses the superhero film to grapple with questions of executive powers and surveillance in post-9/11 society.
By coincidence or design, Nolan’s move to space exploration after his superhero/crime films mirrors that of Lang, who directed Woman in the Moon in 1929. But, more in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), images from the Interstellar trailer of a lonely spaceship among empty space and nebulous space phenomena, of astronauts beset by hostile alien environments and of Earth on the brink of ecological collapse, evoke as much dread as they do wonder.
The confrontation suggested here between humanity and the prospect of its absence from the cosmos is ripe terrain for social allegory. The allegory of Interstellar might ask important questions: How do we confront the possibility of our own disappearance, the vastness of a human-less universe and what can we do in the face of it? Such intellectual questions are for Nolan, as they were for Lang, the most compelling thing about his films; emotion often takes a backseat in both directors’ works.
As Lang’s films have been, Nolan can be accused of a certain, rational coldness. In his Batman films, he’s clearly more interested in the events, in their puzzle-like coordination, and in the politics than in Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) personal drama. His Inception (2010) also runs more on sleight of hand and the complexities of nestled worlds than it does on its thinly developed melodramatic plot. It seems there’s one more lesson, then, that Nolan can learn from Fritz Lang. Particularly in his German films, Lang largely abandoned defining his heroes psychologically, or giving them compelling personal dramas. The director was interested in technological systems of surveillance and control, not individuals and their problems, and by M (1931) he had long since figured out how to make a thrilling film that needn’t rely on romantic tropes of love and redemption.
But the push for Interstellar has included co-star Jessica Chastain and Nolan’s co-producer (and wife) Emma Thomas emphasizing that this film has true emotional depth. The trailers promise us teary-eyed McConaughey grappling with his decision to leave his family behind. Besides the techno-pessimist Lang and the misanthrope Kubrick, a third influence on the film is clearly Steven Spielberg, whose films gracefully combine small-scale crises of the nuclear family with massive, mesmerizing spectacle. These seem to me like almost irreconcilable influences. (For evidence, I direct you to the tepid 2001 Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.)
It’s possible that Interstellar will include a compelling take on drama at the human level with its sublime non-human spectacle, but this is really Spielberg’s trademark and great talent. It’s more likely that the strongest parts of Nolan’s film will be those that are interested in less emotional matters, and those of a larger scale. Like Lang’s German films, Interstellar will probably be best if it tackles its broader concerns head-on and leaves the family melodrama for the Spielbergs. Regardless, Nolan’s turn to ambitious, contemplative sci-fi is sure to get me into a theater seat on opening weekend.