Christopher Nolan is perhaps the quintessential director of the twenty-first century. Nolan’s first film, Following, came out in 1998 but his name was really made with 2000’s Memento. Since then he has made everything from reality-bending thrillers to intense and epic war films where the enemy aren’t even seen.
Warning – spoilers ahead for Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk
I don’t mean this as a theme in the storytelling or characters, it’s part of Nolan’s work. Few directors have the scope and vision that he has. Even with Memento, one of his earliest films, he was pushing the boundaries of storytelling with a disjointed non-linear masterpiece that demands to be watched more than once. He took the burgeoning superhero blockbuster genre and not only made the films that in my opinion are the high watermark of the genre in terms of action but also storytelling – and breaking open the elusive worlds of the Oscars. When we come to something like Inception it’s hard to even begin describing it and it’s hard to imagine another director who could pull it off. The resources poured into making a film that could accurately portray the landscape of dreams – the whole world exploding or streets bending back on themselves.
What is the beginning? What is the end? Many of Nolan’s films play with time. The narrative of Memento is confused from the start of the film, in Inception dream time moves so much faster than real life offering the wonderful/terrifying prospect of spending a lifetime in a dream and Interstellar dealt with the mind-blowing ramifications of time with space travel. Dunkirk has a brilliant structure – three stories set around the Dunkirk evacuation. One from the perspective of soldiers on a beach, one from a RAF pilot providing cover and one from someone sailing their little ship to help. The soldiers are on the beach are there for a week yet the pilot’s story is over in one hour and all the stories mix together.
Nolan’s first big success came with Memento, a film about a character suffering from anterograde amnesia – a condition that means you can access old memories but you can’t make new ones. Leonard is obsessed with his final memory – the murder of his wife. This obsession leads Leonard to take huge risks with his safety – and that of others – in that he is someone who really needs round the clock care but instead embarks on a mission of revenge. The Dark Knight trilogy has a number of characters driven by obsession, most notably Wayne with the murder of his parents, but often the villains as well – none of whom are driven simply by desire for money or power. The Prestige features two characters obsessed with each other, obsessed with defeating their opponent and quite simply obsessed with being better. Both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale’s characters go to extreme – even insane – lengths to simply be the better stage magician.
Lying And The Truth
A lot of lying goes on in Christopher Nolan’s films. The plot of Memento hinges on several big lies and how in Leonard’s condition he is very vulnerable to dishonesty. Indeed Leonard lies to himself. At the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy, there are several important lies, the first being the obvious deception that Bruce Wayne is Batman but more importantly the lie told by Batman and Gordon regarding the truth about Harvey Dent, with both believing it was better for society to be lied to. Likewise, The Prestige is a film about magicians who “trick” their audiences but just about every relationship and important event in the film is a lie upon lie upon lie, you are never sure of a person’s loyalty, the accuracy of memory, about exactly who is who and how far do you let a lie dominate your life. The Prestige even lies to the audience. Interstellar shows a society that lies to itself in the hope of moving forward as it is judged necessary to rewrite history so the Apollo moon landings were faked by the American government. Cobb’s life in Inception is destroyed by a lie he tells his wife. You could say that Nolan has been telling us for a long time – don’t trust anyone, not even yourself.
Christopher Nolan has a new film coming out for 2020 – Tenet. A trailer was just recently released but it’s still hard to say exactly what the film is about; spying and time travel seem to be the big plot points. The film stars John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington and star of BlackKKlansman), Robert Pattinson (of Twilight fame) and Elizabeth Debicki (probably best known for Widows). The trailer is typical for a Nolan film, with it not giving much away, looking very impressive and having tense and booming music. But does the trailer really matter? For me, Nolan is a director who I would see without a trailer or any prior knowledge of a film – not all of his films have been classics but they’re always worth watching.