No-one makes blockbusters like Christopher Nolan. He approaches his big-budget entertainments with the sensibilities of a low-budget arthouse film, combining loud, visceral, crowd-pleasing entertainment with mind-bending philosophy and psychology. The ideas and intricate plots reveal a respect for his audience, and stand as proof that wide audiences have an appetite for intelligent cinema. He has scornful detractors and die-hard fan-boys in equal measure. His new film, Interstellar, is at once a quiet study of a father-daughter relationship, and a stunning multi-dimensional odyssey of astrophysics and quantum mechanics. Here are five films which show off the talent of Hollywood’s greatest autuers.
5. Batman Begins
Whilst previous films about the Caped Crusader focussed on the villains because of a lack of faith in Batman being an interesting enough protagonist, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was the first to see the depth in the character of Bruce Wayne. To most people, the Batman origin story will be a familiar urban fairy tale; a rich heir sees his parents get killed by a mugger, which leads to a lifelong dedication to rid Gotham of crime. By dressing up as a bat and hitting people. Of course it is impossible for Batman to be completely realistic, but it is as convincing as it could be in telling the story of how the child became father of the man. Inspired by the gritty, intelligent comic books by Dennis O’Neil and Frank Miller, the film is less glossy than its high-octane special effects-heavy predecessors, opting for a grittier, noir-ish drama rooted in characters and psychology. This film saved the franchise after Joel Schumacher’s bafflingly incompetent Batman and Robin (why does the Batsuit have nipples?!) and showed the world that superhero film could be for grown-ups too.
4. The Prestige
This story of two magicians obsessively trying to outdo each other and perform the ultimate illusion is perfect for Nolan’s mental trickery and sleight of hand. The film’s three acts follow the three acts of a classic magic trick: the pledge, where something ordinary is shown; the turn, where the ordinary something does something extraordinary; and the prestige, the hardest part of the trick, where the object is brought back. The film is full of deception and twists, and starts to become very bizarre after the introduction of Nikola Tesla (played with enigmatic understatement by David Bowie), when the movie seems to break its own rules of everything having a simple explanation. Nolan’s serious approach to the material, even during the more batshit insane moments, is what stops the film flying off the rails. The film is clever, complex and calculating, whose fragmented narrative allows Nolan to show us what he wants us to see in order to misdirect and fool us. The movie feels big and serious, but thematically there actually isn’t a lot to it. The film is clever entertainment, but is ultimately just an illusion. Then again, what film isn’t?
The film that brought Christopher Nolan into the spotlight, Memento tells the story of a man who has retrograde amnesia, and can not store recent memories after being attacked. Each moment, he finds himself covered in tattoos and full of notes helping him track down the man who killed his wife. The narrative is told backwards, allowing us to feel his disorientation in time and existence. In certain ways, Memento can be seen as a companion piece to The Prestige; the fractured narrative makes for some interesting plot twists and shifts in perception of events and characters. It rewards close attention, and often something happens which makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve seen before. The film is brilliantly executed, and is not only a tense action thriller, but a psychological puzzle which shows how central memory is to our notions of identity and perception of the world.
2. The Dark Knight
More of a political thriller than a comic book movie, The Dark Knight is probably the best superhero film that’s ever been made. Everyone associates the film with Heath Ledger’s electrifying performance as The Joker, and rightly so. Everyone was understandably worried about how the guy from Brokeback Mountain and 10 Things I Hate About You would be taken seriously as Batman’s greatest villain, but he plays the role with a palpable psychotic intensity, disappearing completely into the character. The film goes beyond a simple good vs. evil story. The Joker becomes ‘an agent of chaos’, confronting Gotham with impossible ethical choices that arise in the face of chaos, and the film explores his conflict with Batman, the ultimate emblem of order and justice. They are both products of childhood trauma, but whilst Batman corrects this by trying to do good, the Joker descends into nihilistic anarchy. The Dark Knight is on one level an exciting action movie, on another level a character study of a madman, and on another, a parable on justice, chaos and morality.
Inception is a postmodern journey through the impossible worlds of lucid dreams, incorporating elements of heist movies, espionage and film noir. The screenplay took ten years to write, beginning during the filming of Memento, and it is not difficult to see why. It is the story of a dream heist, in which a team infiltrate a man’s subconscious to implant an extremely dangerous weapon: a thought. Perhaps the most intricate and complex of Nolan’s stories, and that’s saying something, things that happens in one world, whether the real world or a dream world, affect the others. The logic of the real world is thrown out the window, which lead to some indelible visual spectacles, the most famous and impressive of which is the image of a city rolling back on itself, and gravity-defying action sequences. The film is probably the closest any film has come to representing the disjointed weirdness of dreaming. Inception is a brilliant idea, perfectly executed, and is an experience incomparable to anything else.
What is your favourite Christopher Nolan film?