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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.