THE SEXLESSNESS OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

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No sex please, we’re astronauts. Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

Interstellar has many things. It has impending doom, and poltergeist activity, and space travel, and robots, and a wormhole, and a black hole, and a whole bunch of other beezer ingredients. One thing it doesn’t have, though, is sex.

When I say “sex”, I don’t mean Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway should take off their spacesuits and start bonking. But think about it – here are two good-looking people cloistered in a spaceship, light years away from Earth, risking their lives yet with plenty of time on their hands, and you mean to tell me there is not one single flirty moment, or exchange of frisky banter, or indeed the slightest acknowledgement that they’re of different genders, or, barring that, that they’re gay? Not even a teeny-tiny hint of any sort of sexual chemistry?

But no, because this is a film by Christopher Nolan, whose entire oeuvre after Following (in which, yes, there was a bit of a smooch) could almost be summed up as The Dead Wives Club. Wives are already dead before Memento, Inception and Interstellar have even got started. Wives (or significant others) die in the course of The Prestige (two of them!) and The Dark Knight. As Auric Goldfinger once said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Yep. It’s almost as though Nolan doesn’t want to have to deal with this stuff.

Rebecca Hall in The Prestige. Sorry, she's doomed!

Rebecca Hall in The Prestige. Alas, she’s doomed – not a spoiler, because this is a Christopher Nolan film.

My point here is not the disposable nature of female characters in action films (though there is that) but what seems like a pathological avoidance of any sort of relationship that might be seen to clutter up the awesome genre trappings. Perhaps Nolan used to be the sort of adolescent who used to say “Ugh! Let’s stop this silly kissing scene and get back to the HARDWARE!”

But there doesn’t need to be actual kissing for a story to at least acknowledge the biological imperative. As Exhibit Number One, I give you the films of Howard Hawks, made at a time when explicit sex would have been censored out of existence anyway. But films like His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings and The Big Sleep simply ooze eroticism – it’s there in the glances between the actors, in the exchanges of dialogue, in the complicity between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Jean Arthur, or between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or Dorothy Malone.

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Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.

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Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.

But, I can hear you saying, these are old thrillers and comedies, made in the 1940s. There’s no place for sex in modern science fiction! I beg to differ, and I’m not just talking about Jane Fonda’s weightless striptease in Barbarella, or Julie Christie impregnated by Artificial Intelligence in Demon Seed. The Terminator, like Interstellar, is all about the future of the human race, and the relationship between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn is, quite literally, vital to its survival as well as to the story. The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Empire Strikes Back, Serenity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, even Avatar and the Star Trek movies have more “adult” content than Interstellar.

But perhaps I’m being unfair to Nolan. Stanley Kubrick, to whom he is sometimes compared, wasn’t exactly fond of flirtatious banter either; in film after film, his female characters are abused, rather than interacted with. Indeed, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he does away with them altogether (give or take a space-hostess or two) yet still manages to spawn a space baby without any of the messy relationship stuff which is normally a prerequisite of reproduction. Maybe it’s simply that film-makers like Nolan don’t think there’s a place for women in modern science fiction.

Nor are movies by blockbuster directors like Peter Jackson or Michael Bay best known for their sexy repartee. There was admittedly no shortage of it in Steven Spielberg’s early films, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark (I suspect thanks more to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan than to its director or producer George Lucas, who gets a story credit), and I don’t remember anyone complaining about the kissing scenes in that, but the undercurrent of sexual spice gets progressively drained out of the sequels, one of the reasons they’re less satisfying than the original. And Jurassic Park and Minority Report, to name just two later titles, seem to be going out of their way to avoid it.

Karen Allen and Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Karen Allen and Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

To judge by box-office figures, today’s audiences don’t mind. They prefer their blockbusters asexual, stripped of any hint of physical interaction that isn’t aggressive. It’s a symptom, perhaps, of the increasing infantilism of popular culture, and these films being aimed precisely at the sort of adolescents who say, “Ugh! Let’s stop this silly kissing scene and get back to the HARDWARE!” For them, it’s the hardware and the explosions and the special effects that is the sex.

And maybe it’s for the best. I certainly don’t want to see the action grinding to a halt just so the male and female leads can feel each other up. But surely a world-class film-maker should be able to incorporate at least some sort of implicit sexual complicity or a smidgeon of PG-rated eroticism or a hint of an adult relationship without sending us all to sleep, particularly when it’s humanity itself which is at stake and babies are not just desirable but urgently required. Because for a film in which the future of the human race is at stake, Interstellar is remarkably sterile.

Who needs women anyway? The "Star Child" in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Who needs women anyway? The “Star Child” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This piece was originally posted on the Telegraph website in November, 2014. It has since been edited and added to.

The headline (not chosen by me) was “Why Is There No Sex in Christopher Nolan’s Films?” and most of the readers posting the Below The Line comments showed no indication they’d read anything more than the title or, if they had read the piece, of having comprehended it. Either that, or they’d simply skipped the line, ‘When I say “sex”, I don’t mean Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway should take off their spacesuits and start bonking.’

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19 thoughts on “THE SEXLESSNESS OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

    • They seem a bit dry and academic to me. I like The Prestige a lot, but a Hawksian female presence would go a long way towards making them more fun. Maybe they just lack any sort of recognisable human relationships other than theoretical ones?

  1. I initially misread ‘wormhole’ as ‘Womble’ and thought you had taken us to a very starnge place for a brief moment.*

    I’m not sure if the entire blame for the ‘defects’ you point out can be laid solely on the head of any Director. They are in essence slaves to the script/plot. If we take Nolan as an example and look at the films in iwhat appears to be called ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy’ (bit pretentious, but what can you do!)

    In TDK the ‘hero’ is both ‘mooning about’ his ex-lover and knocking about with ballet dancer, (possibly a bad choice words!) The words ‘cake’ and ‘eating’, leap to mind.

    In TDKR there a considerable ‘frisson’ between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. And the character of Miranda Tate seems awfully keen to explore the contents of his pants.

    But “One Swallow, (possibly another word ill-advised in this context0, doesn’t make a Summer”, if we broaden this out to another Director you mentioned, James Cameron.

    In Terminator there are (if I remember correctly) two ‘love scenes’: the first is between Ginger and her boyfriend. But this is not really a ‘love scene’, it’s the old Horror trope of ‘Death striking when a character is in their most vulnerable state”, it is even highlight by the act of donning headphones. The second between Sarah Conner and Kyle Reece is narrative necessity to set-up the plot’s paradox.

    Aliens, briefly, there is a nod at some sort of relationship between Vasquez and Drake but this is never explored. Ripley and Hicks do seem to have a ‘moment’ later but this remains an un-fanned flame because !THERE ARE £$^&ING MONSTERS COMING THROUGH THE £$^&ING CEILING! at that point.

    That brings us round to: Titanic, described as a ‘three tissue movie’ (but not always for the most salubrious reasons) This is a film of a story that the writer has chosed to view ‘through the lens’ of a relationship between two people. (Rather than some plots that crowbar in a relationship just to hit the right demographic points at test screenings.)


    Imagine a cake, Directors just apply the icing, if the Screenwriter didn’t bake-in enough ‘fruit’ it’s not their fault. {If only I’d thought of this at the start, it would have saved me a lot of typing!}


    Just my own view, takes nothing away from what you have said. And I may have got quite the wrong end of the stick and run madly away in entirely the wrong direction. (So please don’t go rummaging for the long gloves and the ice pick.)


    * (I really should get the Mr. Muscle out and clean this screen.)

    • I do quite like Anne Hathaway, but I find her amazingly asexual, in everything, and I can’t remember ever having seen her strike sparks off anyone – as I wrote in the piece, doesn’t necessarily have to be a sexual relationship, it’s more a complicity thing, which is sexy in itself.

      But just compare her to Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. (Mind you, she’s better than poor old Halle Berry.)

      • I was going to suggest Rachel Getting Married as Hathaway’s character gets some mere minutes after her arrival. But yeah, it’s done more to alleviate boredom, just because she can. No spark-striking required.

    • Interesting thoughts on James Cameron. I think he tries hard to incorporate human relationships (I liked the one in The Abyss, in particular), but is ultimately not nearly as good at human interaction than with all the other stuff – the “vision” and the technical means to achieve it. But at least he makes an effort.

  2. I never really thought about this before in Nolan’s films, but in light of your article it’s telling that he cast a “sexless” (rather than androgynous) actress as his Catwoman, because no matter how hard she tries, Anne Hathaway will never be a minx. That said, TDKR is my favourite of his films, and maybe one reason is because Hathaway was obviously having a lot of fun in the role, which I think is her best performance (from what I’ve seen), she steals the acting honours from her male co-stars and seems to “get” what was asked of her in the role. Plus Batman would totally have had his ass handed to him by Bane if it wasn’t for Catwoman. She’s no Julie Newmar, but she considerably brightened up a film rich with other elements that wouldn’t be half as evocative without her contrasting presence.

      • What I really admired about TDKR was its ridiculous over-ambition, I’d rather see a blockbuster that tries to do too much than one that settles for a shrug and a “will this do?”.

        • I did mostly like TDKR; it sags horribly in the middle, (much like TDK.

          (Why on earth are we suddenly on a boat?)

          (Oh! it’s two boats.)

          (Who are these people?)

          (Do we care?)

          (One lot are all cut throats, murderers, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers, and Methodists! And the ones on the other boat are just really, really smug.)

          (So…. No.)

          (Is Batman going to save them?…………)

          (How?…………)

          (When?……….)

          (Oh! It’s all suddenly over, without the intervention of any of the characters we have become invested in.)

          (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz)

          (Meanwhile Back at the Batcave………..)


          But in TDKR it is even sillier:

          Brucey is in a hole, (What a shame, cuddly toy, cuddly toy). Escape from which is so difficult there is no need to post a guard.

          (What the inmates eat and drink is never explained, perhaps somebody pops round once a month and tips a bucket of soup down the hole. Perhaps there is a really good pizza delivery place nearby?)

          Anyway there is much exposition “There was a thing”, “And another thing”, “And then this” etc. etc.

          Time passes, Brucey recovers from his injuries and now has to escape. By climbing the vertical shaft, from which if he should fall, will mean he is going to be a puddle of ‘raspberry jam’. Not to worry, there is a rope to protect him.

          He ties the rope around his waist, another prisoner will take in the slack as he climbs, ensuring he won’t fall too far.

          STOP! THE! BUS!

          PULL BACK!

          The rope goes from the bottom, up to the top and back down again. I’ll repeat that just so we are all on the same page. The rope starts at the bottom goes all the way to the top and back down again.

          So here is an idea, I’m just putting it out there, we’ll see if it flies.

          Why don’t you just climb up THE SODDING ROPE YOU USELESS THUNDERING PILLOCK! Matey-boy can hold the other end while you climb. Just think if there were another dozen or so people down there, you know with nothing to do, milling around, time on their hands, you could get them to PULL YOU UP to the surface.

          You will obviously have to explain this to them very s-l-o-w-l-y and possibly with pictures. Because they really can’t be very bright. They have been stuck down this hole for years and years and none of them has ever thought, “There’s a rope over there. And it goes to the top, I could climb up that!”

          Have they never seen a rope before?

          Were they permanently excused from PE by their Mums?


          [The rope must be magic, powered by narrative. It only drops down for that one scene and then recoils to the surface, so Bruce can throw it down the pit when he finally gets to the top.

          And if anybody thinks it’s too high, you can get around that using a pair of pants. (If you happen to be wearing a bra as well so much the better.)]

          • The Magic Rope post! I remember having a lot of doubts about the whole oubliette experience, though can’t remember the details. Maybe it was a genuine Rope Trick, in which case they ought to have foreshadowed it, at least, maybe by having Bruce Wayne idly playing with some lengths of string.

            • The climbing out of the pit sequence was like one of those dubbed East European fables they used to show on TV, it had that impenetrable mystery about it. Though it wasn’t dubbed from the original Czech or whatever.

            • Now you’ve made me want to watch it again! I sometimes wonder if today’s audiences (me included, of course) don’t get too hung up over logistics and “plot holes”. They’re just stories! Stories don’t always need to make sense. Ah, maybe there’s a piece to write about this…

            • It is not a ‘bad’ film, my impression is that it has too much story to fit into it’s 2-ish hours. And so parts of it feel rushed and certain character aspects seem to be under developed. Perhaps that is while the relationships seem so ‘sterile’.

              I was left wondering what it would have been like if it had been allowed the space to develop over an 8 hour mini-series?

              The normal trick to cover plotholes is to rush the audience into something new and exciting before they have a chance to reflect on what they have just seen. It’s the old magicians trick.

            • I think it’s more than the story that had me enjoying TDKR so much, there’s a big theme which makes a five course meal of the old saying “For evil to prosper, good men need do nothing” (or something like that), which may be paid lip service to in most action movie sequels, but they really went to town on it here. It struck me Nolan and company were truly committing to their project, for a third entry in a franchise that showed admirable dedication. Compare it to the empty camp of Batman Forever, for example.

  3. I’d never really cottoned onto this before. It may be the reason why despite admiring his ability, I’m not very enthusiastic about Mr N.

  4. At the risk of being a stuck record (as I know I’ve responded to a tweet of yours about this before) I actually like the direction he goes in here. But then I guess I should say that I’m a massive Nolan fan so biased I certainly am.

    I’m kinda glad that a romance isn’t shoe horned into it all (and not because “eww girls” thinking), it just makes it a bit different from a standard big budget film that feels the need to throw in a romance to any life or death situation. There’s plenty of room in cinema for that, and plenty of films being made doing such a thing so I consider this approach a nice change of pace.

    Taking Interstellar for example, Anne Hathaway’s character is actively looking for her husband (is this a spoiler? I hope not!) so it would be really weird to have some flirtatious chat with the Connaughey, it’s clearly her drive for succeeding on the mission. And then at the end once we realise what’s happened we do get the hint that Matty could be convinced to go in that direction. Of course you could write the film so she’s not looking for her husband and is free as a bird, but does that make it more interesting?

    Inception, again a romance would be a weird distraction from what is supposed to be an impossible task that has to be done within a certain time limit. And I understand the criticism of him using the dead partners as a repeated device, but it does mean that love/romance/desire is still part of the film world he creates. But it is linked to the plot with Leo’s character and the issues that brings.

    Also, Batman totally sleeps with Miranda Tate in TDKR, in front of a fire! On a rug! So that can’t be ignored. I don’t want to be too fanboyish here, but surely as a character it makes much more sense Bruce is rarely attached to people seeing how emotionally scarred he is? It’s not like he doesn’t try to get with someone, just you know, that doesn’t go well. It’s better than him sleeping about left right and centre flippantly.

    I think it is fair to say Nolan doesn’t care for it immensely though, preferring to explore other reasoning’s as character’s motivations ie loss, revenge, jealousy.

    • Thanks Paul. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. And yet I’m still not convinced… I probably worded it badly, but I wasn’t really talking about the lack of sex scenes or romantic relationships so much as the sort of complicity between two individuals one might describe as “sexy” in the broadest sense of the word. Doesn’t necessarily have to be man/woman – could be man/man or woman/woman. I think maybe it’s “banter” I’m missing (and that word seems to have accrued a lot of negative connotations of late – I’m using it in its traditional, benign sense).

  5. Never really thought about the exclusion of sex in Nolan’s films. Maybe he’s more focused on plot and sees its getting in the way of the films progression.

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