Most of you know him as the man who reimagined Batman, took you 4 levels deep into the world of shared dreams, and the one who took you on an adventure to a black hole in some distant galaxy to save mankind. Let’s dig deep into the mind that brought us mind-blowing movies with carefully constructed non-linear story-telling, in-camera technical wizardry, plot twists that made the audience yell and intense percussive musical scores that made you scream.
In an industry full of remakes, reboots, franchises and cinematic universes, Christopher Nolan is one of the very few modern filmmakers who is given the freedom to make films with full creative control while still managing to dominate the box office.
His original films are notorious for being meticulously detailed, in many cases, viewers are found confused by the end of the movie because there are so many vital events that unfold that are easily forgotten or seem unclear at the time. Because of this, most of us have to watch his movies multiple times to catch every bit of information, then when its finally fully understood it makes for a genius piece of art and often a new revelatory moment which wasn’t recognised in the first viewing.
While his 20-year career has covered a wide range of themes and genres there’s only one thing which manages to be more consistent in his filmography than his casting choice, *ahem* Michael Caine, and that is his fascination/obsession with the concept of time.
Across all of his films Nolan has proven time and again he’s capable of slowing time down and speeding it up (Inception), racing against it (Dark Knight Trilogy), transcending it (Interstellar), and now reversing it (Tenet) .
A recurring pattern through Nolan’s filmography is that he structures his films through a particular perspective which often leads to his films being presented in a non-linear structure.
Nolan’s second feature film, Memento, is essentially a story of a man with memory loss, seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. The plot seems fairly familiar, right? A murder revenge story is something we’ve all seen over a hundred times. While Bollywood and Tollywood can blatantly plagiarise the plot of the movie (Ghajini), what they couldn’t even attempt to copy was Nolan’s cinematic style, telling the story backwards and out of order which is what makes Memento so innovative and unique.
Leonard, Memento’s protagonist suffers from anterograde amnesia, therefore his perception of time is out of order. So, Nolan takes the chronological structure of the film and re-arranges it so the story is told out of order the same way Leonard is experiencing it. And it’s this type of originality and innovation that firmly put Nolan’s name on the map very early on in his career.
Creating Films with an unconventional perception of time is something that Nolan would continue to revisit throughout his filmography.
Even in his 10th feature, Dunkirk, about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk, Nolan innovates with a nonlinear structure told from 3 perspectives. Air, land and sea. He uses a type of multi-layered nonlinear narrative to create tension within the structure of the narrative itself and while all this may sound complex and overwhelming but it’s quite simple and brilliant.
The layout of the individual plot threads which are all taken place over different periods of lengths and time are structured so that they build tension. Due to this, many moments that did not happen simultaneously or in direct succession are written and edited so that they appear to have done so. This clever structure allows what could have been a rather meandering story to build its tension much more cooperatively between plot threads. This multi-layered narrative draws parallels to one of his most definite films, Inception.
The majority of Inception takes place across 5 different levels of the dream world.
1)Reality, 2) Van chase, 3) Hotel, 4) Fortress and 5) Limbo.
With each level substantially affecting the next, always complicating, buildering and hiding. In the same fashion as Dunkirk, the interaction of each level is what creates tension within narratives. When we see something happen on one level, we as an audience are anticipating how it will impact the next level of the dream. It also strengthens the overall conflict and stakes for the characters in the story. This film truly manipulates time through its incredible use of slow motion.
“It’s a week the first level down, 6 months the second level down and 3rd level is 10 years” – Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception.
And so, we get incredible distortions of time that come to indicate what’s here and now, what’s happening one layer above or below and most importantly, what is real.
Christopher Nolan’s 9th feature film, Interstellar is a movie about a planet which is out of time and then quickly pivots into the exploration of how vast the universe is and time, no matter how distorted it is, is a finite resource. In Interstellar, time is not used as a spectacle or a way to play with the story structure, but how the power of time impacts us, humans.
“I’m not afraid of death, I’m an old physicist. I’m afraid of time” – Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine in Interstellar.
Nolan’s distortion of reality, unreliable memory shifts, nonlinear storytelling and his unique approach to the concept of time has largely led him to create mind-bending and boundary-pushing films in recent memory. At the centre though are always the characters. Victims of time, manipulators of time, the actual nature of the story can only be told through their relationship with time.
Tenet, his latest, again deals with, yes you guessed it correctly, time. And this time it has something to do with ‘inverting’ time. But I can guess it’s more than just rewinding and or fast-forwarding. Perhaps it has more to do with the choices you make and your responsibilities towards them, if you can reverse them to make better choices would you, or, rather should you?
Christopher Nolan’s movies are a reminder that while time is fleeting, we shouldn’t want it to last forever. We’re rifling for more time because it’s meaningful and for him, it all boils down to whether we’re willing to accept that life is fleeting or whether we’ll go to great lengths to deny the inevitability of time itself.
So, if you love cinema and enjoy being struck with awe by a true genius, cheer for a man who’s rightfully considered one of the greatest modern directors whose sharp cinematic eye and an obsessive dedication to the craft of film making has given birth to a massive cult-like following.
His best movies in order (Not including Tenet)
3. Dark Knight
4. Dark Knight rises
5. The Prestige
9. Batman begins
10. The Following