Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

Christopher Nolan

By Orla Smith.

Christopher Nolan doesn’t deserve his fan base.

That’s not because he isn’t great – it’s because there isn’t a film director in the world that deserves a fan base as intensely rabid as his. His supporters have been known to visit IMDB and spam his movies with ten star ratings – before they’re even released (seven of his ten features are in the site’s top 250, and Dunkirk will be quick to follow).

This cultish behaviour strays beyond the limits of what is healthy, and such fervent support can encourage some whose enthusiasm is a little more tempered to write Nolan off completely. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. He is, however, a filmmaker who is undeniably in full control of his artform. He has shaped a generation of filmmakers and film watchers. His films have even shaped the way that studios construct their trailers.

Ranking all of Christopher Nolan’s ten features is a difficult task, and one that’ll likely put a target on my back. I don’t believe that he has ever made a bad film, but I also think he has only ever made a handful of truly great films. Luckily for Nolan, those great few are brilliant enough on their own to solidify him as some kind of borderline genius. Whether his films are masterful, or mediocre, they are always daring. I’d never fault him for trying.

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

I won’t lie: Nolan’s Batman films are all smudged into one indistinct mess in my mind. In light of the fact that I find them almost impossible to differentiate, at two hours and forty-five minutes The Dark Knight Rises is the longest -and therefore the worst.

To elaborate: this third instalment also saw the lustre wearing off. There was no more amazement at the legitimacy that Nolan had managed to bring to the superhero genre. By 2012, we’d seen it all before, elaborated and expanded upon countless times. The Dark Knight Rises is slickly pulled off and not without merit, but it’s feels so much like a repetition of past motifs. Anne Hathaway adds bouncy to the film with her charismatic turn as Catwoman, but the thinness with which the character is written is almost insulting – particularly in a film that’s so desperate to be taken seriously.


9. Insomnia (2002)

The idea at the core of Insomnia is a brilliant one: your typical crime thriller is coloured by the hazily subjective perspective of a cop suffering from insomnia. Unfortunately, it’s not one we can credit either of the Nolan brothers with; Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name.

His previous feature, Memento, dazzled audiences with its narrative audacity, but this was an opportunity to show us how far he could go on filmmaking smarts alone. Nolan mines some cinematic value from his reheated premise, but not enough to stop you from feeling sleepy.


8. Following (1998)

Nolan has since become known for his mammoth runtimes, so it’s interesting to return to his first feature – the micro-budget, black and white Following – which comes in at a swift 70 minutes. Its intricate narrative jumps are a pre-requisite to Memento, and while they’re not pulled off nearly as well, Following is a nice little taster of what’s to come.


7. Batman Begins (2005)

For better or worse, we can thank Christopher Nolan for helping the superhero genre to the place that it is now. Batman Begins is the start of his infamous trilogy, which features Christian Bale in the title role.

Of the three, Batman Begins certainly comes last in the villain department. Cillian Murphy is a great actor, but there’s a reason that so few people realise that – it wasn’t until I saw the excellent BBC series Peaky Blinders that he graduated up in my mind from the status of ‘that dude who’s in all the Nolan movies’. His Scarecrow isn’t at all memorable, and he suffers even more in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and even the amusing exuberance of Tom Hardy’s Bane. Luckily, the movie is focused on introducing its new Batman. At the time, the serious presentation was novel. Now, it’s just another origin story in a sea of many, crafted with a better eye than most.


6. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight is considered Nolan’s crowning jewel by many of his supporters. At the very least, it’s seen as the crowning jewel of his Batman trilogy. At the risk of crucifixion, I have to admit that I don’t consider the film anything special, with the exception of one key ingredient: Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The role that won the actor a posthumous Academy Award has been immortalised in film history, and for good reason. If this film was just a supercut of all the Joker bits… the plot might not make a whole lot of sense, but I hardly think I’d care. He gives the film fun and definition. Most importantly, he makes it memorable.


5. Inception (2010)

Nolan is often criticised for being ‘cold’, and it’s easiest to see why here. Inception is his slickest, glossiest film. Every edge feels like it’s been meticulously sanded down, every surface shiny and polished. It’s a puzzle box, commendable for the way it works its plot mechanics. There’s no doubt that Inception is an ingenious work of imagination, but even the drama at its centre between a dream extractor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife (Marion Cotillard) feels too rehearsed to be emotional.

Emotion isn’t what you go to Inception for though. Its intricate dream logic is a delight to watch unfold, even if it’s not all possible to comprehend. With a director as assured as Nolan, there’s a trust that gets built up – we might not understand everything he’s doing, but we feel comfortable in the knowledge that it all makes sense in his head.


4. Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is Nolan’s most soulful film. It feels significant that it’s also the point at which he stopped working with long time DP Wally Pfister and switched to Hoyte van Hoytema. That marked a subtle aesthetic shift: Pfister’s lighting is slick and bold and dark. It’s impressive, but Hoytema added a more graceful beauty to Nolan’s compositions, bringing out the rugged texture of the film grain that Nolan swears by.

Interstellar is a shaggy mess of a film, and it’s also a sweeping experience. This time, the emotions are tangible. It’s the story of a father and a daughter, that gets lost in a wormhole, but never forgets where its heart is for too long. Sometimes, Nolan goes for it too much, but this – his most ambitious film – is a beast to behold. Despite its many flaws, it has stayed with me.


3. Dunkirk (2017)

It feels unfair to rank such a new movie amongst films that I’ve sat with for years. Like Interstellar, Dunkirk might work best as a one-time experience. After all, watching it at home will never recapture the way the seats shook with every gunshot in an IMAX theatre, or the way that Hans Zimmer’s score rattled through my bones.

Dunkirk is probably Nolan’s most well-directed film. He expertly integrates his penchant for non-linear storytelling into a visceral tale that captures the mad horror of war. It cannot surpass his two best films, because it is not a treasure whose magic can be recaptured in any viewing situation. But, it is an epic that will likely be remembered for decades to come, and it is one of the best films of the year.


2. Memento (2000)

When you watch Memento for the first time, it’s like cinema is revealing itself to you all over again. In 1896, a train arrived on screen and the audience ducked in fright. In 1927, The Jazz Singer was the first film with sound. In 2000, Christopher Nolan said, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’.

Following was Nolan’s first feature, but Memento was when he truly arrived. Just like Insomnia, it’s a simple murder mystery – if it weren’t for the fact that the film is told backwards (and forwards, and every other direction imaginable). Oh, and also, the protagonist can’t remember anything that happened more than a few minutes ago. Yeah, and somehow, it works.

Put in chronological order, Memento is just business as usual – with a touch of clunky exposition thrown in for good measure. As it is, it’s a testament to the fact that it’s not the story you tell that matters, but how you tell it. Christopher Nolan has spent his whole career arguing that shuffled timeframes will always spice things up. Memento feels like his thesis statement.


1. The Prestige (2006)

Non-chronological storytelling. Dramatic lighting. Great men, with more motivational dead wives than you can shake a stick at. The Prestige is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film, articulating everything that makes him great, with all the dull parts cut out. It may be just as self serious as everything else he’s done, but this time the melodrama is all part of the fun.

It’s a film about magic tricks, and it also is one itself. Because, like every single Nolan film to date, The Prestige isn’t really about anything. There are no grand themes. It’s not particularly thought provoking, outside of the confines of its own narrative. It won’t change your life. What it is, is pure, undistilled cinema. It delights in revealing itself to you, teasing you and pulling away. Just as your eyes begin to widen, it presents its final flourish – and cuts to black.


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