What Makes Christopher Nolan So Good

In the summer of 2017, I went out with my family to watch a movie. With nothing in mind, we resorted to watching the movie with the highest Rotten Tomatoes score, Dunkirk. Excited, I was ready to watch a violent and over-produced action movie, the kind I had come to know from flicks such as The Avengers and Mission Impossible. Instead, I found myself confused at the lack of dialogue and no clear main character. This movie had completely taken what I knew about film and threw it out the window. The film I came out of the theater having watched puzzled me, but it had done so in a truly beautiful manner. I had gone into the theater with expectations of an over-produced war drama, but I instead had the pleasure of watching an intricately-crafted piece of art. What it lacked in dialogue and convention, it made up for with stunning cinematography and a brilliant score. From the way it was shot to the suspenseful music, Dunkirk really made me feel as though I was alongside fellow soldiers struggling to survive on the shores of France. Dunkirk definitely was not the first movie I had ever seen, but it was the first movie I had experienced. And more importantly, it was the film that introduced me to Christopher Nolan.

Few directors have achieved the status that Christopher Nolan has. Highly regarded by critics and Hollywood alike, Nolan’s continued prominence as an auteur of cinema in Hollywood is no surprise as every one of his films seems to tell another brilliant story while moving atop the box office. Most will agree that Nolan is in the same realm as legendary directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. His highly insightful films range from a story of a World War II battle to magicians exploiting the uses of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, every one of his movies provides a new and exciting story which is consistently woven together with brilliant characters, cinematography, and storytelling techniques.

The Techniques He Uses

Aside from revealing the plot in an unorthodox manner, Nolan has strayed from the typical Hollywood manner of using special effects in every way possible. Prime examples of this are Inception and Interstellar. While much of what happens in the dream world of Inception is computer generated, one specific scene stands out when viewing the film. A scene in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is fighting against a goon in a dream world sees the two characters go at each other in a rotating hallway. While most directors would not even attempt such a scene, let alone use CGI, Nolan did the unthinkable and filmed the entire shot using practical effects. Using a massive centrifuge, he shot the scene with the actors performing inside a literal rotating hallway. Filming in such a manner added an extra level of realism to the scene, with Gordon-Levitt himself stating that he loved it and that there is “no replacement for real, human energy and performance.” Similarly, in Interstellar, in a truly breathtaking scene where the protagonists explore a vast ice planet, Nolan opted to film without the use of a green screen and no CGI for the background. Instead, he filmed on site at glaciers in Iceland, providing a beautiful backdrop for a crucial scene where the protagonists arrive on a new planet. Something that picturesque is very hard to fake, so Nolan’s decision to film the scene in such a manner adds a unique sense of authenticity, one that the actors fed off. Likewise, in Dunkirk, Nolan uses cinematography and practical effects to his advantage in an attempt to convey a compelling experience of war. Nolan’s use of practical effects contributes to the subtle nuances of the film which are impossible to fabricate. Specifically, a scene which sees bombs drop in an approaching line towards a huddled protagonist was filmed almost entirely using practical effects. From sand falling in between the fingers of the character in the foreground to the shaking of the camera as it is hit by falling uplifted ground, these details add to a sense of realism which is lacking in many action films. Additionally, the wide-angle shots of the peaceful blue oceans and the pristine French beaches exude a sense of false placidity, one which is ultimately wrecked by the terrifying sights and sounds of machine guns and bombs. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s almost blood-curdling score, the practical effects and cinematography present an extremely tense and suspenseful film, one that immerses its viewers in a world at war.

Ice Planet from Interstellar

His Ideas

While all of Nolan’s films have a coherent plot, he tends to leave his films with ambiguous endings. In doing so, he allows for a vast amount of room for interpretation by the viewer. By far his most famous ambiguous ending, Inception gives its viewers a bittersweet taste in their mouth at the end of it all. With the viewer not sure whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is truly back in his home with his children, the film ends an already complex plot with an even more baffling ending. Nolan deliberately left out a conclusive ending, stating that “I’ve been asked the question more times than I’ve ever been asked any other question about any other film I’ve made… What’s funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer it.” Some of his other films that use this technique to a lesser degree are The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. While not providing the same level of suspense that Inception’s ending has, the two films give the viewer a feeling of hopefulness as at the end of it all, the main characters have embarked on a new life, one that is fairly disconnected from the plot beforehand. By allowing his films to not be truly finished, Nolan allows his films to transcend the realm of cinema by giving his viewers a chance to interpret his movies in their own personal way.

Despite Nolan’s clear ability to present strong ideas with his films, a few of Nolan’s films have been marred by shortcomings with respect to the plot. Specifically, Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises have been accused of taking short cuts in an attempt to round out a seemingly irresolvable story. With Interstellar, in a kind of deus ex machina, all hope seems lost as Matthew McConaughey’s character is sucked into the black hole. However, he is somehow given the chance to rectify his mistakes and communicate with his daughter who is light years away by sending a message to her in the past. In doing so, he is able to save himself and all of humanity. The problem is somewhat fixed, however, with it being explained that humans from the future were behind Matthew McConaughey being able to communicate with his daughter. Despite this, it begs the question: how could humans from the future provide an opportunity for salvation if they first needed to be saved? In The Dark Knight Rises, after Batman is beaten and battered after an encounter with Bane, he is imprisoned at the bottom of a very deep pit. Somehow, Bruce is able to fully recover from a broken back in weeks and climb up the pit, a feat which had only ever been accomplished once before. In addition, problems as to how John Blake came to know Batman’s true identity or how Bruce even got back home after escaping the pit arise. Despite problems in the plots of both Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan is able to tell an extremely fascinating story, one that is watchable even with these problems. However, once you overlook these plot holes, I would argue that Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises become two of Nolan’s greatest films. Even when he falters, Nolan is still able to deliver phenomenal stories.

His Themes

Christopher Nolan has given us films which make us think on a very deep level. His films such as Inception, Interstellar, and all of the Dark Knight trilogy, will all undoubtedly become classics one day. Through his very insightful and entertaining filmography, it is no surprise that Nolan continues to experience success within the world of cinema. With the impending release of Tenet in July 2020, we should all be very excited to see the film he has in store.

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Nitin Bharadwaj

18 year old Film and Music (and sports I guess) writer from the Bay Area.