Christopher Nolan Retrospective

Christopher Nolan burst into my consciousness in October 2000 when I saw Memento at the cinema. I had made a thirty mile trip to the nearest cinema showing this film that I had read such amazing things about and was suitably impressed. Since then I have seen all of his films on cinema release and in most cases on an IMAX screen. But it took the act of writing this article for me to see his debut feature Following for the first time.

The fact that Nolan is able to make such technically proficient crowd pleasing blockbusters whilst injecting them with much deeper meanings and endless talking points places him in a unique position in the world of cinema. He is a director who can command large budgets, eclectic casts, maintain complete secrecy on the plots of his films and still gross $500 million or more box office on his films.

He appears to be most famous for technical aspects and “old fashioned” film making in most critical discussions of his work. There is numerous information around his use of IMAX cameras, film stock and belief in cinema as a shared experience. I have to profess that I am a fan of these aspects of his film making but it does seem that his recurring investigation into human nature seems to be overlooked some what and I hope I discuss these to good effect in my reviews.

As with most successful directors Nolan has a group of collaborators that he continually turns to when fulfilling his vision. His key resources are as follows…

Cinematographer – Aside from himself on his debut film he has only used two cinematographers. Wally Pfister was in charge between Memento and The Dark Knight Rises before exiting to make his directorial debut and Hoyte Van Hoytema has taken over since then. Both have been able to provide a grand scope to Nolan’s films.

Composer – Hans Zimmer has provided the score for eight of his films.

Producer – His wife Emma Thomas has collaborated on all of his films.

Co-Writer – His brother Jonathan has had a hand in the story or script for five of his films.

Actors – Michael Caine has appeared in every film since Batman for a total of eight, Cillian Murphy has made five appearances, Christian Bale has four and Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman all have three. There are many others who have appeared in two of his films.

At the time of writing Nolan has made eleven films, but his latest is still awaiting theatrical release as the Coronavirus pandemic means that we will all need to be patient to watch Tenet. The ten that are currently available feature no less than nine must watch movies.

One word of warning before I dive in, whilst I have done my best to avoid spoilers in some cases it is impossible to discuss the merits of the film without revealing some plot points. If you want to appreciate Nolan’s films as he intended you may want to tread carefully.

Following (1998)

Bill (Jeremy Theobald) is a struggling writer and unemployed loner when he decides to shadow people around the streets of London. When he is spotted by one of these targets he is invited into the world of petty burglary by Cobb (Alex Haw) who teaches him some of the tips of the trade.

Using Nolan’s now typical non-linear story telling conceit Bill’s story is told with flash backs and forwards easily signposted by his appearance. It allows for Nolan to create a noir story where he can well and truly pull the rug out from under you.

There are some major drawbacks however and the majority of those relate to the production of the film. Nolan’s debut feature film was made on a shoestring budget of $6,000 over the course of a year. Using 16mm black and white film stock it was filmed at the weekends using friends and family’s homes. The lack of budget is also clear in the fact that it is shot with natural light, has a very sparse score and runs at only 69 minutes in length. It was also both of the lead actors’ debut performances and in the case of Haw his only ever film performance. As a result it can feel like a drama school project at times especially when there is no score and two characters in a room reading lines to each other.

The sort of film that clearly marks out the makings of a talent but not necessarily the finished article.

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Memento (2000)

Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffered a brain injury during a break in to his home where his wife was raped and murdered that results in him not being able to form new memories. Using a system of notes, Polaroid pictures and tattoos on his body he aims to seek vengeance on his wife’s attacker.

Memento is a neo-noir detective story that uses the protagonist’s illness to deliver the story in an intriguing manner. We are given the story in two halves. A black and white series of scenes that start at the beginning and move toward the middle of the plot and a colour series of scenes that start at the end and move back to the middle. As mind bending as this sounds it allows us to experience the story with the same level of confusion and knowledge as Leonard.

Arriving only two years after Nolan’s debut film Memento is an astounding achievement.  Based on the short story by Nolan’s brother Jonathan (TV’s Westworld) the film was shot in 25 days on a budget of $9 million. The original short story is called “Memento Mori”, a Latin phrase meaning “remember that you will die”. The film focuses on a number of intriguing ideas around memory such as; can you trust your own memory? Can you heal if you can not feel the movement of time? Is it better to remember something differently to ease your own guilt?

All of these questions are framed around the real life form of amnesia called Anterograde Amnesia which results in people being unable to form new memories after the event that caused the injury, but still able to learn some tasks via repetition. It is a very intriguing ailment because as with a lot of brain injuries the knowledge around it is not fully complete giving film makers license to use it creatively without fear of having reality and facts thrown at them to create plot holes.

The film features what is arguably Guy Pearce’s greatest performance (L.A. Confidential the other contender). Pearce is physically striking in the role with a shock of bleach blonde hair and a muscular body to display Leonard’s body tattoos. Interestingly Pearce is unable to give the character an arc across the film, he can only give him arcs of emotion and learning per scene as Leonard’s memory resets every few minutes. Within those scenes and with his voiceover he creates a compelling character. A hero that may actually be a villain. Elsewhere there are excellent supporting performances from Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, both fresh from The Matrix. Their characters Teddy and Natalie both have mysterious motives that we learn more about as Leonard interacts with them.

Another aspect of the film that is worth calling out as being rather special is the cinematography. Wally Pfister joined Nolan for the first of seven films as cinematographer here and the results are fantastic. From the opening scene in reverse where we see a Polaroid picture fading (a perfect representation of Leonard’s memory) to the stylish transition from black and white to colour as our two storylines connect the film is striking and bold.

I also feel that it is worth saying that back when DVD cases and presentation seemed to be an art this film was released with a truly brilliant special edition that was designed to appear to be Leonard’s case notes for admission to a mental hospital. The menu screens were even designed to appear like psychological evaluations.

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Insomnia (2002)

Los Angeles homicide detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) have been sent to the town of Nightmute, Alaska to help solve the brutal murder of a seventeen year old girl. Whilst there to help the local police it also makes them harder to reach in relation to an Internal Affairs investigation back home over their handling of a child murder.

When an initial trap set for the killer does not go to plan Dormer forms an uneasy relationship with prime suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams) and begins to struggle with a debilitating case of insomnia caused by the midnight sun and his own guilt. Meanwhile, eager young detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) looks to Dormer for mentorship as she investigates the case.

Nolan’s third film is so far his only directorial effort that does not have him acting as screenwriter. Based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, Insomnia is perhaps his most linear in terms of presentation. There are no time jumps in the narrative aside from one brief flashback, otherwise the story is told in chronological order. There are however some similarities in the way that Dormer’s sleep deprivation and guilt plays tricks with his memory and perception of events with the way in which Memento’s Leonard Shelby creates memories that assuage his guilt.

Whilst the town of Nightmute is a real location the film was shot elsewhere in British Colombia, Alaska and Vancouver on a budget of $46 million. The locations look fantastic and the washed out presence of constant sunlight gives the film a unique look.

The film features no less than five performances that are worth praise. Al Pacino does a wonderful job as the troubled lead detective giving a far more muted and low key performance than some of his latter career roles. His whole appearance and manner in which he carries himself gives the impression of someone who is a shell of his former self and toward the end of the film someone who is in a state of complete exhaustion. Look for the scene where he needs to make a difficult phone call for a master class in being able to convey the character’s complex state of mind. Robin Williams released three films in 2002 that showed his ability to convey a darker side and this is unquestionably the best of them. He is cold, clinical and disturbing. Hilary Swank who at this point in her career had just won a best actress Oscar and was only a couple years from winning another gives a perfect display of the aspirational rookie who has not yet been jaded by experience. The way she looks to Dormer whilst at the same time unsure if it is correct to do so is subtle stuff. And, whilst in much smaller roles, Martin Donovan and Maura Tierney give no less important performances as foils for Dormer’s conscience.

Insomnia is a hugely engrossing crime thriller that focuses on guilt and memory. So successful is its depiction of sleep deprivation that it always makes me feel like I need to get better sleep after I have viewed it.

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Batman Begins (2005)

As a young boy Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) falls into a well and is terrorised by bats, a fear that later scares him into asking his father to leave the opera early when the costumes and shadows remind him of his ordeal. Exiting via a side door the Wayne family are mugged by Joe Chill (Richard Brake) and Bruce witnesses the murder of his parents. As an adult Bruce (Christian Bale) is lost, searching for a means to find justice he is approached by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who offers to teach him how to be more than a man under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). When Bruce returns to his home of Gotham City the Batman is born.

Nolan’s now famous Batman trilogy starts with an absolutely perfect superhero origin story. Working with a budget of $150 million, more than triple he had ever worked with, on only his fourth film Nolan created a screenplay with David S. Goyer that redefined superhero films. The governing principles behind this revelation were that Batman should be placed in as realistic a world as possible and that the protagonist and antagonist have a symbiotic relationship.

In this retelling of the famous story it is imperative that we see young Bruce’s fall into the cave and the murder of his parents through his eyes. Because it is his fear of bats that leads to his guilt over his parents death and the crushing anger of feeling helpless in the world. It is the mastering of this anger and guilt that allows Bruce Wayne to become Batman so that he can instil this fear into the criminal element that have a hold on Gotham. Bale’s now famous gruff intonation of “I’m Batman” fits entirely with the idea of creating a legend that sets fear in the heart of criminals. But it is also important to see that the villains of the film intend to use fear to destroy Gotham and that whilst crime led to the creation of Batman, Batman leads to the escalation of crime.

In order to ground the film in reality as much as possible we are given both the psychological reasons for a man dressed as a bat and the practical realities. We see Bruce plundering Wayne Enterprises science division for tools to aid him with “spelunking” and “BASE jumping” and reappropriating kit with military applications to suit his needs. We even see that the ears on his suit are required to allow him to fit radio technology into them.

Nolan manages to corral a vast pool of exceptional actors into his 140 minute running time and it is quite exceptional that they all have an impact on the film as a whole. Before we get to the leading man it is worth mentioning just some of them. Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Rutger Hauer represent to varying extent the evil in this world at varying shades of grey with Murphy giving a glorious performance as both straight laced doctor and unhinged Scarecrow. Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are the flip side of that coin representing those who battle against evil in one form or another. Caine’s father figure of Alfred is perhaps one of the defining roles in his illustrious career. But this is Christian Bale’s film and not just because of his now legendary weight and muscle gain of just over 7 stone to be in physical shape for the film. He shows that Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears and not the other way round, turning into a teenager around his childhood love Rachel and acting like a spoiled drunk billionaire around society. His Batman is physically and verbally imposing uttering lines that are now ingrained in the mythology of the character.

For a large scale superhero action movie Nolan also delivers on the action with plenty of action sequences involving fighting, explosives, grappling hooks and swooping bats. The stand out probably being the chase sequence featuring new Batmobile, The Tumbler. A vehicle designed by Wayne Industries to jump chasms in the aid of building bridges.

Nolan’s use of flashback and jumbling of time is restricted to the opening half of the film where he uses it to show us the birth of Batman and once he appears for the first time on the hour mark it moves to a more straightforward chronological approach.

The score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is stirring, bombastic and suitably grand whilst the cinematography from Wally Pfister is dark and brooding without being unclear.

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The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige is a tale of a bitter rivalry between two magicians filled with obsession and sacrifice that spans across years and the creation of the greatest illusion known to man.

Opening mysteriously with an image of multiple top hats in a woodland space, Michael Caine’s engineer Cutter explains to us the three key stages to an illusion. The Pledge where the magician shows you something ordinary, The Turn where the magician takes this ordinary thing and makes it do something extraordinary like disappear and The Prestige where he brings it back again. This opening sets up a murder mystery which will frame the film and be one of the many mysteries the audience will be puzzling over throughout. Of course the film is then presented in the same three parts as the illusion and it is done so with aplomb.

Starting as assistants to a magician played by the real life late great illusionist Ricky Jay, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) have a friendly rivalry. But when an accident results in the death of Angier’s fiancée it sparks a bitter feud that consumes them both.

Based on a novel by Christopher Priest released in 1995 Nolan again worked with his brother Jonathan on writing the screenplay and whilst they removed some subplot from the book and changed the book’s modern day framing device they remained relatively faithful. One of the little quirks of the book in the naming of the characters was kept in that the initials of our protagonists spell ABRA as in abracadabra. Following the big budget of Batman, Nolan made The Prestige with $40 million. A staggering effort given the period setting and illusions on display.

Perhaps the best facet of The Prestige is that we are told within the opening five minutes exactly what will happen and given all of the information that we need in order to unlock the secrets to its mysteries within the first twenty minutes of the film and yet, just like an excellently staged magic trick we will not see what is in front of us and be thoroughly entertained by the experience. And even upon knowing the secrets subsequent viewings of the film are still fascinating as you look for these clues, piece together exactly what is happening and when it is happening and revel in the perfect manner in which it all fits together. In fact subsequent discussions with people about the film have opened my eyes to a possible alternative explanation to events that whilst I’m not entirely sold on certainly add new meaning to Cutter’s explanation that we want to be fooled by the trick.

Performances in the film are all round fantastic. Christian Bale is, as always exceptional. Dedicated, determined and single minded in his commitment to his art. Hugh Jackman, possibly the standout in the film is a consummate showman on the stage and filled with pain and revenge off of it. Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and David Bowie all have supporting roles as characters in the orbit of our two magicians, all providing able support and in the case of Bowie, providing the perfect allure to the mysterious Nicola Tesla.

As the film unfolds its tale of mystery, obsession and sacrifice result in a sad and bitter sweet resolution that will leave you rooted to the spot as the credits roll. 

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The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman (Christian Bale), Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) set out to crush the now weakened criminal element in Gotham City. However this triumvirate of idealistic men do not foresee the mob, in their desperation turning to a wildcard who will turn the rules of justice on their head. The Joker (Heath Ledger) challenges everything that they stand for and will make them question their approach to justice.

At the end of Batman Begins Gordon said to Batman that his existence would lead to escalation and The Dark Knight explores all of those possibilities whilst continuing to explore the symbiotic relationship between Batman and the villains that emerge directly from his existence. The Batman was always meant to be a symbol for the citizens of Gotham to rally to and not feel afraid of the crime in the city and thus remove its power. At this time in the story it has resulted in copycat vigilantes who rightly ask Batman what gives him the right to do it and not them, an idealistic district attorney who wants to finish the job the Batman started and a villain who says that Batman “completes him”. The Joker is “an agent of chaos” who wants to prove that everyone is as morally corrupt as him and in order to do so wants to bring down Gotham’s white knight (Dent) and dark knight (Batman). The concept of Dent/Batman and Joker/Batman being two sides of the same coin here are very important and will be seen literally by the end of the film. With Dent and Batman the important question is whether how you achieve good is important? Can the ends justify the means or is the way in which you do it as vital? Where as with Joker and Batman the question asked is if it is purely a moral code that stops them being the same?

The other area the film has escalation is in the scale of the action sequences and the clear debt that it owes to (greatest film ever) Heat, something that Nolan has been open about in interviews. Michael Mann’s masterpiece may initially seem odd as a touchstone for a comic book movie but when you consider Nolan’s search for realism and the theme of antagonist and protagonist being cut from the same cloth it makes perfect sense. Both films feature perfectly orchestrated bank robberies, a key vital one on one scene with their two leads and trucks side swiping other vehicles, but the key facet is the aspect that both films antagonist/protagonist are essentially cut from the same cloth with opposing moral viewpoints.

With the highest budget of his career to this point at $185 million Nolan is able to put on screen some of the most daring and realistic looking sequences in a comic book movie. From BASE jumping in Hong Kong, to a chase sequence culminating in the flip of a lorry to exploding an entire building the film features some eye popping moments. Although perhaps the most electrifying moments on screen involve Batman’s greatest villain The Joker.

An entire article could be written on the genius of Heath Ledger in this film, his tragic death during post production and the posthumous Oscar awarded for the performance and probably has been. All I will say is that every time I watch the film I am amazed by how unpredictable and scary he manages to make the character whilst also making him so magnetic that you can not take your eyes off of him. There are so many stand out scenes within the one film that it is hard not to want to talk about them all; the magic trick introduction, his scar stories, the interview room with Batman. For me though the stand out moment that sums up the character is the way he staggers from the wreckage of a crash muttering under his breath as he dares Batman to run him down. It seems to perfectly sum up his anarchic lust to corrupt.

As with the first film it is also filled with a plethora of excellent performances. Gary Oldman gets a much more expanded role here and makes the future Commissioner Gordon a beacon of good in a bleak world. Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over from Katie Holmes as Rachel adds more weight to a pivotal character and Aaron Eckhart delivers a strong performance as the White Knight Harvey Dent. Then of course we have the returning brilliance of Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

In a script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan there are also two more iconic lines to go with Begins “I’m Batman” and “Why do we fall?” moments. Here we have Dent’s “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” and Alfred’s “some men just want to watch the world burn”.

From greatest comic book origin story to greatest comic book film ever.

The Dark Knight

Inception (2010)

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extraction expert who uses people’s dreams to obtain corporate secrets. In return for the promise of having charges against him in his home country dropped he takes on the impossible job of inserting an idea into the mind of a C.E.O. of a major corporation.

The task of inserting an idea into a person’s mind is a difficult one. In order for this ‘inception’ to work the target must truly believe that they originated the idea. So Cobb comes up with a plan to layer a dream within a dream within a dream in order to convince the recipient that they came upon the idea. On this mission with him are his long time partner in crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), his thief and forger Eames (Tom Hardy), his chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao) and his customer Saito (Ken Watanabe). Will their biggest challenge be their target Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) or the manifestation of Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard)?

Nolan’s seventh film is an unabashed blockbuster albeit with some of his now common meditations on guilt and memory. Written and directed by Nolan on a budget of $160 million it makes a very good case for Nolan as a Bond director (something I believe he would be wasted on) and the fact that blockbusters do not need to be dumb to make money (it made just shy of $830 million at the global box office). The complex layered dreams set up is actually explained incredibly well within the film and it’s an impressive feat that he manages to keep the viewer informed without it feeling like an exposition filled movie. In fact, the film’s 148 minute running time absolutely flies past as it barrels along with thrilling action set pieces and mind bending architectural visual effects.

For me there are two facets that make it such a compelling blockbuster. Its original complex story and the fact that it’s open to interpretation. The film focuses entirely on one character’s motivations, Cobb. Via a non linear series of flashbacks and conversations we become aware of two things. He is unable to return home to his two young children for some unknown crime he did not commit and he feels huge amounts of guilt towards his now dead wife. All will be spelt out to us over the course of the film but we are left on tenterhooks as the information is drip fed to us. The fact that the film then introduces the possibility that our minds might not know when we are in a dream and the need for characters to have totems in order that they might know when they are in the real world is where Nolan injects some doubt and creates endless possibilities. Does the fact that we only see Cobb’s viewpoint mean we are in his dream? Can we take everything we see on face value? Does the fact that Cobb’s totem actually belonged to his wife change things? Does he have another totem that is his own?

Comparisons to Nolan’s early films Memento and Insomnia open even more discussion. Is Cobb essentially Leonard Shelby? Manipulating his own memories to assuage guilt. Leonard’s short term memory loss in Memento means he is able to ‘incept’ ideas into his own mind, is this what Cobb is doing? And just like Insomnia’s Dormer, Cobb’s guilt is driving him down a path that he knows is dangerous.

Following The Dark Knight’s opening bank robbery it seems that Nolan wet his whistle for a full blown heist movie. Inception is essentially one giant bank robbery, with the bank being a person’s mind. The action scenes within it are spectacular and large scale with the layered dream structure giving the opportunity for a masterclass in editing and tension building. The two biggest and best action moments are the entire final dream sequence’s snowbound assault on a fortress where Nolan underlines how good a Bond movie from him would be and the rotating hotel corridor fights in zero gravity.

As with the Batman films Nolan is now superb at juggling a large cast of big names and getting the most from them. DiCaprio is on true leading man form, whilst the likes of Murphy, Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, Watanabe, Page, and Cotillard provide great support. There is even space for Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite (in one of his final performances) to appear.

And finally there is that ending, will that spinning top fall?

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and Gotham is a city transformed. Thanks to “The Dent Act”, named after the city’s fallen hero, organised crime has been crushed and the city is flourishing again. The Batman has not been seen and Bruce Wayne is a recluse suffering the physical effects of his vigilante ways. But both Wayne and the city have become complacent and lazy as beneath them the mercenary Bane leads a fanatic army in his cause to free Gotham of its shackles whilst bringing it to its knees.

Where Batman Begins spent its opening hour creating the Batman, The Dark Knight Rises spends it dismantling him. Batman was always Gotham’s symbol of hope and Bane believes that to truly destroy Gotham you must destroy its citizens hope and his plan is truly grandiose in its means of doing so.

Nolan again writing with his brother Jonathan has created the perfect closure to his Bat trilogy. As with the other films we see a villain who is tightly linked to our hero. Batman has lost the hope and drive that guided him after the loss of Rachel and Bane aims to destroy him and his city finally by destroying that hope. Again the budget has increased to a huge $250 million and we can see that up on screen. Batman has another new vehicle in ‘The Bat’, the cast has swelled, the explosions are many and its most dramatic action sequence sees a mid air hijacking of a plane.

The ability to have a huge cast and have them all play key roles is now something that Nolan seems to manage almost effortlessly. Whilst we have the returning main characters of Batman (Christian Bale), Gordon (Gary Oldman), Alfred (Michael Caine) and Fox (Morgan Freeman) he provides continuity with brief scenes for Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and manages to introduce a plethora of new characters. Ambitious but possibly spineless police Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine), villainous businessman Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), idealistic policeman Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Wayne board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), conflicted cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and then there is the absolute genius of Bane (Tom Hardy).

Bane appears to divide people but I am firmly in the camp that he is a genius creation and possibly Tom Hardy’s greatest performance. Physically dominating both in terms of sheer body muscle and simple things such as the way that he carries himself with a costume that is striking with its full face mask and sheep skin coat, Bane is a striking presence. The plan that he puts into effect with his zealot army is complex but perfect for this world. And then there is that voice. Something that has inspired many parodies but also something that manages to be commanding, threatening and elevates his legend. The highlight of the film for me is the quiet moment at Gotham Stadium where Bane waits to reveal his master plan to the city whilst listening to a young boy sing the national anthem and he utters the words, “that’s a lovely, lovely voice”. I totally agree.

It may in large circles be considered the worst of Nolan’s Bat trilogy but when we are talking about a masterpiece series is that not just splitting hairs? Nolan even manages to end on a similarly hair tingling moment as he did with Inception with the simple image of a block rising from some water.

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Interstellar (2014)

At some point in the future Earth’s food supplies are dwindling thanks to a blight that is slowly killing all viable crops and reducing the oxygen content in the Earth’s atmosphere. Along with huge dust storms caused by the erosion of soil the inhabitants of Earth face starvation and suffocation. In a world where farmers are needed over the likes of engineers and pilots, school textbooks now tell children that the Apollo missions and Moon landing were faked in an effort to bankrupt the Soviet Union, discouraging students from a career choice no longer needed.

Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-engineer and pilot laments the fact that the human race has turned away from its ideals of being explorers and pioneers for a caretaker role on a dying Earth. He wants his children to aspire to more and it is his gifted daughter Murph who leads him to a mission that may save the human race. When she is able to read a gravitational anomaly that centres on her bedroom bookcase it provides coordinates to a secret NASA facility that has an interstellar mission to find humanity a new home.

A wormhole discovered near Saturn has led to the secret Lazarus mission where twelve astronauts were sent on a one way trip to twelve prospective new planetary homes with three sending signals with promising results. Cooper must leave his children to pilot the search making a promise to his daughter that he will return.

Given Interstellar’s complexity the above synopsis only goes a small way to describing its story. I have only skimmed the surface and there are plenty of secrets for people new to the film to enjoy. The underlying story facet that Nolan explores is that of the indomitable human spirit. Our survival instinct and more importantly our ability to love, something described in the film as an observable, quantifiable force just like gravity.

I should set my stall out early and say that I believe this is Nolan’s best film and given that I am well aware that it seems to be his most divisive I will endeavour to explain why.

On the surface a lot of Nolan’s hallmarks are here. In a script co-written with his brother Jonathan we have a film that plays with the passage of time featuring jaw dropping special effects and edge of your seat action. But it is in the perfect marriage of realism and emotion that they create a science fiction story that focuses on the most pure distillation of the human spirit, a parent’s love for their child.

In their pursuit of realism the Nolans’ took a number of steps. Throughout the film we see interviews of people who suffered through the dust storms devastating the planet. This footage is of real people providing accounts of their real life experiences. Documentarian Ken Burns allowed the use of footage from his series “The Dust Bowl” which covers the drought caused by soil erosion in the 1930’s. Jonathan Nolan studied relativity at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and Kip Thorne, Nobel prize winning Professor of Theoretical Physics at the institute acted as a scientific consultant on the film. Thorne has even wrote a companion book to the science of the film where he outlines the two guidelines he agreed with the Nolans at the start of the process. Firstly, that nothing could violate established physical laws and secondly that all speculation must spring from a scientific basis.

It is in the pursuit of showing love and a parental connection that the film takes its biggest risks though. Cooper’s bond with his children and especially Murph are pivotal both in terms of the plot and the underlying message of the film. Love is as important as gravity and both have the power to exact a pull on objects. If there is one scene that successfully conveys this it is when the crew have suffered a mishap during the mission and their proximity to a black hole costs them twenty-three years of relative time. Focusing on McConaughey’s face as he watches years of messages is devastating to watch.

As is now almost expected of Nolan all the technical facets of the film are outstanding. With a budget coming in at $165 million Nolan is able to make a beautiful space set film. Following Wally Pfister’s move to directing with Transcendence Nolan forged a new partnership with Hoyte Van Hoytema as cinematographer and combined with excellent visual effects he produces stunning work. From the vast farmland and dust bowl storms filmed in Canada to the alien worlds shot in Iceland the film looks fantastic. The score and sound editing are also immense. Hans Zimmer providing an emotional and soaring score whilst we are deafened inside violently vibrating space ships and stunned by the silence of space. The effects work on the space station, ships and especially the robots is top notch. One quick word about TARS and CASE, the crew’s robot assistants. Not only do they look like nothing you have seen in film before, with excellent voice characters from Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart but these are artificial intelligent life that serve their human masters as designed.

The cast is of course vast and universally superb with Nolan’s ability to get the most impact from small performances at its peak here. McConaughey leads the film admirably, a perfect Everyman. His controlled emotions play well against the colder scientific mind of Dr. Brand played by Anne Hathaway. Whilst Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn play the pivotal role of Murph at different ages. The cast is filled out with the excellent John Lithgow, a very young Timothee Chalamet, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, David Gyasi and of course Nolan’s talisman Michael Caine who gets to recite Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight”.

Epic, stunning and most importantly, just like its protagonists this film reaches for the stars. Perhaps some people will think that Nolan fails, but I think he soars.

INTERSTELLAR

Dunkirk (2017)

“The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.”

Nolan’s tenth film is his first foray into ‘real life’ and its opening title card quoted above is the only synopsis really needed. His approach to telling the story of Dunkirk is to take three separate stories that span different timescales and edit them together to wring out the most tension possible. My initial and immediate thoughts on the film can be found in my original review on its cinema release here and whilst these remain unchanged the comment about seeing this on the big screen should be underlined and placed in bold large font.

The stories that unfold are “1. The Mole (1 week)”, “2. The Sea (1 day)” and “3. The Air (1 hour)”. The Mole is the makeshift dock that the British Navy used on Dunkirk Beach to load large ships with men. It was eight feet wide and half a mile long and originally built as a breakwater. Our protagonist here is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a naive young soldier desperate to survive. The story taking place over the course of one day on the sea focuses on a civilian vessel diligently captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) that sets out to help with the rescue mission. Whilst the story of the air taking place over one hour follows RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they attempt to provide air cover whilst keeping an eye on their fuel supplies.

The manner in which the one week, one day and one hour story are edited together is a technical masterclass. We see events from different viewpoints, not necessarily in sequence and occasionally multiple times. But the overall effect extenuates the tension and emotional impact. Scenes where ships sink or slowly fill with water are especially suffocating and tough to watch. It is not however just the film editing that is so impressive, it is the sound editing and design too and this is where the importance of seeing the film in a cinema or on the best home cinema system you can muster comes into play. When I watched this film in an IMAX screen gunshots, plane engines and falling bombs battered your senses and made you jump in your seat. But even with a 55 inch OLED display and a decent sound bar it could not match up to the same impact. Perhaps further investment is needed on my part! But this is a petty complaint for something so expertly put together.

The cast includes Nolan regulars Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine (uncredited – listen for him on the radio) and adds gravitas to the officer contingent with James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh. Whilst Whitehead and Rylance are very good it is Hardy for me who runs away with the film, again behind a mask for Nolan and telling his story with his eyes he is exceptional.

Ending with Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech the film also holds a similarity with Interstellar in its assessment of the human survival instinct and whilst it looks at this on a grand scale I found it most interesting at the small cunning steps taken by Tommy to get off the beach anyway he can.

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Tenet (2020)

Scheduled for release in August 2020 (subject to Coronavirus lockdowns) I will link to my review when I have one. I just could not resist posting this picture of John David Washington and Robert Pattinson doing their best Cobb and Eames impression from Inception.

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Summation

This was a lot of fun.

I was able to watch the Batman trilogy with my nine year old son which was a shared experience like no other, my mind was blown when my podcasting friends at “At the Flicks” told me an alternate view of The Prestige and I bawled my eyes out during the second half of Interstellar.

So what do I think about Nolan? IMAX, film stock, technical brilliance, managing large casts, complex stories, featuring recurring themes of memory, guilt, love, human behaviour whilst bending time in a non-linear fashion. But most importantly, phenomenal films. From his second film onward Nolan has been a consummate master of his trade and I hope Tenet lives up to expectations.

Christopher Nolan Ranked 

Essential  – A must watch for everyone

  • Memento
  • Batman Begins
  • The Prestige
  • The Dark Knight
  • Inception
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Interstellar
  • Dunkirk

Good – Exactly that, a good film worth watching

  • Insomnia

For fans of their work – Fans will still enjoy these, less so for casual observers

  • Following

Eminently missable – Even fans might struggle, for completionists only

None

3 thoughts on “Christopher Nolan Retrospective

    1. Thanks. I’ve done the same with my other director pieces on Ridley Scott, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

      I did it that way because I find ranking to be quite arbitrary when I know that certain films will constantly change depending on mood and as time passes.

      I also thought that if it is a director someone is not aware of it helps them know which ones to start with.

      Liked by 1 person

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