What Makes Christopher Nolan So Good

The Techniques He Uses

Primarily, Nolan is known for using his trademark non-linear storytelling, where he presents the plot of a movie out of order. This is apparent in his films Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Rises. By telling a narrative in this way, Nolan is able to create intrigue in his story, presenting certain portions of the story which at first do not make sense if watched on their own. However, this creates suspense as Nolan makes the viewer want to know what has led up to such a monumental moment. In Memento, Nolan opens the film with a scene of the main character, Leonard Shelby, looking at a picture of a dead man. The scene proceeds to rewind itself as the viewer becomes aware that Leonard in fact shot this man and has taken a picture of his dead body. Then, the film cuts to the first scene in the chronological order of the story. Throughout the film, Nolan switches between shooting in black and white and in color, showing the scenes unfolding in chronological order in black and white, and those that are counting backwards in the story in color. The film finally ends with the chronological middle of the story as both the colored and black and white scenes come to a point of equilibrium. This technique is used to a lesser degree in films such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises where crucial scenes in earlier portions of the story are shown later in the movie and vice versa. Bruce Wayne’s actions begin to carry more weight and meaning with respect to his childhood as his troubled past is slowly revealed alongside the main plot line. Nolan’s expert use of non-linear storytelling helps the plot of his films pack more of a punch.

Ice Planet from Interstellar

His Ideas

It seems that every film that Christopher Nolan comes out with is a new and never before seen story. Films such as Memento, The Prestige, and Interstellar are fresh new ideas, ones that Hollywood typically does not see break records. Primarily, Nolan explores the realm of science fiction. Every one of his films takes place in a unique setting and provides a host of interesting, complex characters. He takes real and possible stories and puts cerebral twists on them, whether it be in how the film is told or the plot itself. Films such as Memento and Insomnia give the viewer a unique sense of immersion as the audience learns all the twists and turns in the film at the same time as the characters in the film. On the other hand, some of his other films take real and possible concepts and put a spin on them. In The Prestige, the film starts out with two magicians competing to produce the best magic trick, but quickly takes a turn as the domain of quantum mechanics is explored when Hugh Jackman’s character goes to Nikola Tesla to create a machine which can replicate physical matter. With Interstellar, the idea of an Earth devastated by blight is presented, with the characters going to another galaxy in an attempt to find salvation for humanity. In doing so, ideas about the fabric of spacetime are presented, as Matthew McConaughey’s character falls into a black hole and is met with a multidimensional interface, one that allows him to communicate with his daughter from years ago. Additionally, Nolan’s film Inception takes an entirely new idea and builds an extremely compelling plot. Nolan explores the world of consciousness and dreaming with a rather perplexing story that sees its characters infiltrate the dreams of others. On the flip side, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy goes in the opposite direction, presenting a realistic take on Batman and Gotham. In the comics, Batman’s story is told with the influence of science fantasy, as notions of resurrection and other supernatural processes. With his Batman films, Nolan tells a story of a Bruce Wayne confined by the laws of physics and convention of modern life. Instead of using fantastical elements, Nolan tells a story rich with themes and motifs, one that informs the viewer on the personality of a man who is burdened with keeping his city safe. While there are undoubtedly elements of science fiction, Nolan strayed away from telling a narrative which in this case would have been spoiled by the influence of mythical aspects.

His Themes

In my opinion, the themes that Nolan delivers are by far the most overlooked and important portions of his works. With each and every one of his films, there is an emotional takeaway to be had. Even in Dunkirk, a film constrained by history, Nolan is still able to present themes of hope and salvation with its ending. With The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan bookends his films as he begins and ends the trilogy with Bruce leaving his home. When Bruce leaves the first time, it is in an attempt to discover his purpose. However, the second time around, he leaves because he has accomplished his purpose. Throughout the trilogy, themes about truth and hope are displayed. With The Dark Knight in particular, Nolan delivers the theme that “sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough.” In a world where many of us are disappointed by the often harsh truths of life, this theme is especially impactful. We are led to believe that we should always be in pursuit of the truth, no matter the consequences. Nolan plays devil’s advocate and tells us that sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded. Nolan also heavily explores themes of love and family in his films. In Inception, Cobb spends the movie trying to come home to his children after years of being away from them. At the end of the film, when he finally arrives home, he is unsure as to whether or not he is still stuck in a dream world or if he is truly with his children. However, he runs to his kids anyway. Nolan points out that “The real point of the scene — and this is what I tell people — is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.” Cobb’s love for his children is strong enough that he is able to reject any metaphysical uncertainties. Similarly, in Interstellar, Nolan’s most emotional film, Coop spends most of the film away from his daughter, trying to save humanity. With the only way of connecting with his children being video messages, he is almost entirely disconnected from his family. His daughter spends most of her life hating her father for abandoning her. However, in the end, he sees his daughter for one last time, with her being decades older than him, a result of time dilation. As she is on her death bed, she tells Coop that no father “should ever have to see their child die.” She tells him to go and continue exploring space, and he tearfully leaves her with her children and grandchildren. Similar to how Nolan bookended the Dark Knight trilogy, he bookends Interstellar, having Coop leave his daughter. The first time Coop leaves his daughter, she is angry with him. However, the second time he leaves her, he does so with her encouragement. In a fitting turn of events, Nolan satisfies his viewers with reassurance that Coop and his daughter have finally seen each other after years, and that their reunion was one that ended the pain the two had being apart. Even though they are physically meeting after so long, there is an unexplainable feeling that the two have been with each other for all those years, casting forth the theme that “love transcends all boundaries.” Surprisingly, The Prestige contains themes which relate to family. In the story, Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, is presumed to be dead after he is believed to land in jail. Meanwhile, Michael Caine’s character explains to Borden’s daughter about the parts of a magic trick. When he begins to explain the final portion of a magic trick, the prestige, the part when the original object in the magic trick comes back, Borden walks into the room and reunites with his daughter. The juxtaposition of the explanation of what a prestige is and Borden’s return exemplifies the attention to detail which Nolan has. In the film, the prestige that is being talked about was never a literal magic trick, it was always the return Borden made to his daughter. Throughout the entire film, the story seems to be focused on the details of magic, but the plot carries a much deeper meaning, one that is about the importance of family. Within the bounds of his various filmmaking techniques and ideas, Nolan provides very deep and emotional themes that resonate with his viewers on a personal level.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nitin Bharadwaj

Nitin Bharadwaj

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