Christopher Nolan’s Consistent and Endless Fascinations

Christopher Nolan created films after films that are not only memorable but thought-provoking. It is apparent from his filmography that he has a fascination with time and space, memory, and film - the last one which he also has great respect for. This paper will mainly analyze his most prominent films: Memento, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk, while occasionally bringing in some of his other films.


Two Nolan films that mainly dealt with memory were Memento and Inception. Although each film was made in different decades, Nolan manages to challenge the idea of memory - how it works, how it gets corrupted, how it shapes and forms our reality. In Memento, it follows Leonard who has anterograde amnesia, which is the inability to form new memories, and suffers from short term memory loss, thereby establishing a unreliable narrator. Nolan also uses nonlinear storytelling a lot. In almost all his films, there are flashbacks or flash-forwards. He likes to distort traditional linear storytelling just like how he is fascinated with distorting time, space, and memory. In Memento, there are two different sequences interlaced in the film: one in black-and-white that is shown chronologically, and another in color that is shown in reverse order. This type of storytelling allows Nolan to emphasize the manipulative and deceptive nature of memory.


    In Inception, the whole film is about implanting and stealing information and memories in someone’s subconscious. This incredibly complex film and concept explores how dreams interfere with our memories and they are even, somehow, a direct parallel with cinema. A lot of times we try to remember something in our past, but sometimes, we don’t even know if that was something that really happened or dreamed. This leads into a huge philosophical debate and exploration of existence and dreams. While Nolan dives into that idea, he also compares dreams to films. Like dreams, scenes in films start at a random point, not from the beginning of the incident exactly, but from the middle of a conversation or an event. This also shows why Nolan loves to tell stories in a nonlinear narrative. The main difference between Memento and Inception, a decade apart, is how technology has transformed and elevated Nolan’s storytelling. Since Memento is one of his very first films, he did not have a lot of budget to work with and technology was not as advanced then. With the success of his Batman trilogy, Inception had a lot of backing and financial support. Due to that, Inception has some of the most visually exhilarating and technically challenging scenes. For instance, the scene where he intercuts the van rolling down the side of the road and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character’s fight scene in the hotel hallway required a lot of choreography and perfect timing. That scene also dealt with one of Nolan’s favorite themes: time and space. Even though both scenes are contrasting - two different locations - the audience still knows that they are somehow happening at the same time in two different dimensions. The confined space in the van and in the hallway, which both have rectangular structures, emphasizes the fact that these two scenes are happening concurrently.


    Both Interstellar and Dunkirk heavily deal with the theme time and space. Interstellar is about traveling in space, through a wormhole and different dimensions, while Dunkirk has three different, concurrent storylines - land, air, sea. Nolan’s choice to explore this very theme does not exactly evolve over time; instead, he explores the theme with very different techniques. Inception is about layers of time and space. Interstellar is more scientific and deals with wormholes that mess with our conception of time and space. Dunkirk is about three perspectives in the same time spam. So, in a way, Inception is told vertically through time and space and Dunkirk is told horizontally through time and space.


    Nolan’s respect for film in general is not only shown in his comparison between dreams and cinema in Inception but also shown through his use of film stock and the lack of CGI used in any of his films. In Dunkirk, Nolan shot the film on IMAX 65mm and 65 mm large-format film stock, which is extremely expensive, but the end result is vastly different than if it were shot on digital. His insistence to shoot in a traditional fashion is also one of his many famous trademarks.


Nolan’s most famous and celebrated work is still The Dark Knight trilogy. He transformed the way people saw superheroes. Superheroes were no longer one-dimensional characters that have very simple goals such as saving the world. They were viewed as complicated human beings that are faced with a lot of guilt and darkness saving other people, in Batman’s world, as a vigilante. Because of Nolan’s obsession with big philosophical themes, he brought a lot of depth to Batman’s character and characters around him. Time, space, memory, and nonlinear narrative all played huge roles in the trilogy. Nolan used flashbacks to emphasize Batman’s traumatic childhood but also how his past shapes the person and hero he is today, and flashback is the combination of all the themes I mentioned above. Another major directorial choice in the Batman trilogy that Nolan used, which is true for all his other films, is how there are no real villains in Nolan’s films. The most famous “villain” in The Dark Knight trilogy is the Joker, played perfectly by Heath Ledger. The Joker is obviously destructive and dangerous, but Nolan establishes very well that Batman is Batman because of Joker and vice versa. The combination of these two characters is why the story of The Dark Knight is so compelling. Similarly in Nolan’s other films, there are no real villains. In Inception, the villain is not Don’s wife but Don’s inability to get over his wife’s death. In Interstellar, the villain is not Matt Damon’s character but rather the dystopian land that does not allow people to survive anymore. In Dunkirk, the villain is not the Germans but the tragedy of war. Nolan complicates the idea of antagonist or “villain” because in the real world, there is no such thing. Nolan’s choice of shaping his villains is consistent through his body of work, making his films entertaining but also incredibly thought-provoking.


Christopher Nolan’s directorial choices include his frequent use of nonlinear storytelling, his fascination with the themes of time, space, and memory, his respect for cinema, and last but not least, his reshaping of the idea of “villain.”