Few directors are both as respected as auteurs and revered in the blockbuster sphere as Christopher Nolan. The British-American director, writer, and producer burst onto the scene in 1998, when he was merely in his late twenties, and has met with almost universal acclaim and success. With nine films under his belt and the release of his tenth – Dunkirk – this week, he has proved throughout his career that mass-market films do not have to be simplified to be popular and lucrative.
Nolan was born in London, raised between England and Illinois, and educated at University College London – a university he chose for its film department’s facilities and 16mm cameras. His filmmaking endeavours, however, had started at the age of seven, when he borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera for films starring his action figures and even made a stop-motion homage to Star Wars. After graduating he worked as a script reader and camera operator and made the short films Larceny and Doodlebug. Finding the British film system closed off and “clubby”, however, he launched his feature film career in the States.
Following, his first feature, was made in 1998 on a £3,000 budget and performed well on the festival circuit. Despite being Nolan’s smallest work, he does not consider it so. In a 2014 interview, he stated:
I don’t look at the scale of the films in terms of money or the physical size of what we’re shooting. It’s in terms of my life, my time, however much I’m investing in it. It took me a couple of years to make Following and another year to take it round the festival circuit. It was and remains a huge movie to me.
This ethos may contribute to the quality and appeal of his works; whether shooting on a limited budget and timescale or with the riches of Hollywood studios at his disposal, it is clear he pours great care and craftsmanship into each project.
Memento followed in 2000, establishing Nolan as a director with the skill, precision, and courage to tell a story in reverse with cohesion, coherence, and wide acclaim. The release shot Nolan to Hollywood renown, earning him major awards nominations and a gig directing the 2002 studio-fronted remake of Insomnia (his only feature film he did not also write) – in addition to giving him leverage with Warner Bros. to launch his Batman trilogy.
Batman Begins (2005) was the ninth-highest grossing film of the year (worldwide) and, according to critic Mark Hughes, may have been largely responsible for the trend in “dark and gritty” rebooted superhero origin stories. The Dark Knight (2008), featuring Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker, and the appropriately expansive The Dark Knight Rises (2012) solidified the trilogy as one of the best visions of Batman ever put on screen.
Between the superhero instalments Nolan made The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010); the former a novel adaptation garnering two Oscar nominations, the latter an original work that received eight Oscar nominations and four wins. Most recently, Nolan’s ambitious space epic Interstellar (2014) – filmed on a combination of 35mm cinema film and 65mm IMAX film – was nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Best Visual Effects.
Nolan is a director for both the ardent cinephile and the average cinemagoer: he cherishes the medium in this era of digital cinema distribution, insisting on 35mm or 70mm prints for Interstellar and Dunkirk, and he champions new talent and visions (see his off-type casting of Heath Ledger and Harry Styles). At the same time, his work always rewards the audience. He makes films he is passionate about, while at the same time serving compelling, rewarding, cerebral pieces to the masses.
Hallmarks of Nolan’s storytelling include nonlinear storytelling or awareness of time, skewed and rotating camera angles, a reliance on models and physical stunts over CGI, and ambiguous endings for its lead characters. Combined, these all have the effect of distorting perceptions of reality, identity, and morality in the worlds he creates. The same performers – notably Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard – appear across several of his works, often playing characters vastly different to their usual screen personas. The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar are also marked by Nolan’s creative collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer – a partnership whose experiments redefine the atmosphere of a blockbuster.
One of Nolan’s favourite tropes – the antihero – sees a character set up as good and righteous before either tearing him down or revealing his motives as less than pure. In Memento, The Prestige, and Inception, this reveal takes the shape of showing a primary character as an unreliable narrator – a move which might lose the audience’s trust but also completely captures the viewer’s attention as the plot thickens. This adds to his works’ skewed identities and visions; far from alienating viewers, it intimately involves them in the thick moral debate.
Considering that Dunkirk is based on real events while the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre (save the documentary short Quay) springs from his imagination, it will be fascinating to see if and how his reality-bending style adapts to the war genre. Considering Nolan’s relatively young age of 47 and the fact that his handful of films have almost all been critical and commercial successes – indeed, hailed as cinematic events – his accomplishments are striking.
Top five Christopher Nolan films (in chronological order):
Based on a short story by his brother, Nolan’s second feature is a neo-noir thriller told in reverse, where each unfolding scene precedes the one before it. The audience learns the truth in the same ways as protagonist Leonard, although he – unlike the viewers – does not learn it as permanently or accurately. The suspense sustained throughout showcases Nolan’s exceptional narrative prowess.
The Prestige (2006)
This darkly compelling tale of duelling magicians in 1890s London features an all-star cast (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, and a show-stealing David Bowie as Nikola Tesla) and – like a good showman – holds its worthy reveal to the final moment. It twists notions of science, magic, identity, and morality throughout its 130-minute run-time to captivating effect.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Redefining a genre is a bold, often unsupportable claim; if any film achieved this feat, however, the second instalment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a strong contender. Giving the superhero film a gritty, noir, quasi-realistic retelling was groundbreaking in the 2000s, and while Batman Begins may have started this trend (and the Nolan-produced Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice may have almost sunk it), The Dark Knight was where it was honed to near perfection.
Nolan’s magnum opus to date, Inception – set within minds and dreams – is complexly structured yet tied together by a grand concept superbly executed: a feat of craftsmanship both in terms of the meticulous script and the spectacle of Paris folding in on itself.
While the film’s space- and time-bending plot may have a few holes, Interstellar’s ambition, intelligence, and emotional strength make it a tremendous achievement and powerful cinematic experience. While the film’s sentimentality is not universally beloved, it adds a depth to an intensely intellectual view of a dystopian Earth and the lengths to which humanity will go to save itself.