Interstellar Nolan cockpit

“I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies,” said writer/director Christopher Nolan in 2002. “They believe everything they’re hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.”

In nine films, Nolan has crafted a mathematician’s approach to luring audiences into realities only to question their very makeup. The films invariably follow similar characters: white guys of middle-age who have been deprived of family by violent means. These men deny truths about themselves and/or struggle to connect with the people closest to them. The term “auteur” is debased and often justly dismissed, but Nolan is one of the few who might earn the term — and even then there are big influences to factor in, such as his brother Jonathan Nolan, working partners David Goyer and Wally Pfister, and most importantly his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas.

On the eve of the release of Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, we’ve taken a look at it along with the other eight feature films that make up the bulk of his work. Read on for one examination of the films and find out how Christopher Nolan films ranked amongst his filmography.


9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer

Nolan’s third Batman film hangs on a few big hooks: the spectre of Bane, the weariness of an emotionally wounded and physically battered Bruce Wayne, and the fragile social stability earned by obscuring truths in Gotham. But while the masked Bane might work as a metaphor he’s exactly the opposite of the Joker when it comes to drawing us in — muffled and obscured, the role all but negates the powerful magnetism of actor Tom Hardy. Where The Dark Knight strides confidently, this sequel often feels thin and labored.

The machinations of Bane, Talia Al Ghul and the League of Shadows are dull, and Selina Kyle is a mismatch between script and actor. Most significantly, the director who had somewhat slyly embedded politics into the Batman films (through a concept of the relationship of fear to social order) stumbles with the tone-deaf segments featuring occupied Gotham. The film doesn’t actually mock the Occupy movement and position Batman explicitly as a tool of the 1%; it just seems to, which is actually worse.

And yet for simple entertainment, there’s good material here. The Dark Knight Rises has effective humor and moments that genuinely connect. The technical craft is on point, and even a different ADR technique might have rescued Bane. Yet as a follow-up to The Dark Knight this is a muddled and messy step down.


8. The Prestige (2006)
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest

Nolan’s most cynical film seeks to dazzle us with magic and illusion and the allure of a look behind the curtain. In truth, it coddles the lies that the director’s other films question. On my first viewing of the film I found it grating for its portrayal of Nikola Tesla (the guy was a badass; does he have to be a science wizard?) and for the ways in which Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson struggle with their role of a selfish and vengeful charlatan and his eager assistant. 

Upon revisitation I had a much more difficult time mustering interest in the two (three?) selfish, obsessive cads who dominate the film. Sure, the writing prompt is good — would you literally die for success, and to win? But Jackman and Nolan never find a way in to the head of Angier, simply replying on the “dead wife” trope to energize his story. The revelations about Christian Bale’s Borden go a step further than I can accept. (Furthermore, via Borden we’re asked to accept that two women could both be having sex with the same two different men over a long period of time and never realize that fact.) 

I wonder how The Prestige might have fared if Nolan had broken not only from the Batman films, but also from some of his regular crew. Would a new or distinct visual vocabulary give it more of its own personality, and push Nolan out of a comfort zone to find a better vision of his characters? (It is a minor but perhaps not irrelevant point that Nolan’s two least effective films are both connected by cast threads to the film that precede them: The Prestige to Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Rises to Inception.) Regardless, The Prestige rarely rises above the basic lure of its concept, and its biggest revelation feels like a cheap trick rather than an emotional punch.


7. Following (1998)
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan

The director’s first narrative film announces the debut of a filmmaker who clearly has a storytelling instinct, and who has devoted time to the logistical complexities of shooting an ambitious project on a shoestring budget. Furthermore, his instincts are recognizably his own. So many of Nolan’s tendencies are tipped off here in the story of a casual stalker who links up with a thief with a plan. There’s the reliance on exposition, the use of close-ups and inserts as prime building blocks (here a budgetary tactic, later a stylistic one), cross-cutting narratives, and the mechanisms of plans taking precedence over emotion.

The resolution of Following is too conventional to really stand up to the rest of the film; the final revelations are liable to be spotted by audiences long before they’re delivered. That weak end game is yet another frequent factor in his films, and something that will hamper many of Nolan’s efforts in the future. But there’s a raw nerve vibe in Following, and we have to give a nod to the value of seeing a template as distinctly drawn as this one.

Continue Reading Detectives, Deception, and Demons: Ranking the Films of Christopher Nolan >>

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