Christopher Nolan: A film-by-film career overview
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Like a fine wine, Christopher Nolan is getting better with age...
In the wake of my No room for Nolan: Why Oscar keeps snubbing Christopher Nolan's work article, I thought it was only appropriate to further support my argument; and what better way to do that than by a detailed evaluation of the man's work to date.
Weaving tales of characters from a simple London criminal to the darkest of mainstream superheroes, Christopher Nolan has continually impressed across a number of genres. As a director, he's shown real artistic flair and an almost innate understanding of what his audience wants; and as an individual he has made light of his critical rejections.
Here, we honour the wonderful work by a brilliant director, giving a summarised review of each. Mr Nolan, please...keep doing what you're doing!
A little over an hour, filmed at weekends on the cheap with friends, with no money, and it is quite possibly one of the most impressive debuts from a filmmaker I have ever seen. Following tells the story of a young writer who follows random Londoners for character inspiration, but upon breaking a rule he sets for himself, of never following the same person twice, he finds himself in over his head with an enigmatic criminal. To say more is to spoil what is, without doubt, a real gem of a movie; were he to have made this later in his career we would call it a masterpiece.
As it is, it has its wobbles, which is to be expected, but even at this early stage we see a film that already bears the hallmarks we would come to recognise as uniquely Nolan. Like films that would follow, it curls in on and around itself, point-blank refusing to give anything away until the last possible moment, compelling us to keep up and second-guess it, which we can’t do until the resolution is made clear to us, the audience, about one shot before it is to the central character.
Taking what is not quite as unique an idea as some think, and making it so, Nolan fractures two timelines and sets them in opposing directions, with each scene literally altering how you viewed the last. This creates not only quite a mind-bending exercise of a movie, one that deals with the reliability of our perception and memory, but a completely gripping, satisfying thriller.
Memento is a contemporary classic featuring Guy Pearce as our hugely unreliable protagonist, and which puts Christopher Nolan firmly on the map!
A loose remake, and probably the one most people would agree is his weakest work, which says a lot given that it remains an exciting piece of storytelling, featuring a stunning performance by Al Pacino, and a surprisingly dark turn from Robin Williams. Insomnia is perhaps most notable, though, for the challenge it presents of making a rather nasty pot-boiler thriller, about a small-town killer, sufficiently dark without there being any actual darkness; it is set in an Alaskan summer, and the sun never sets.
Due to a juicy sub-plot about Pacino’s possible corruption, Nolan again gets to flex his muscles in terms of weaving other ideas through the main events, which come together perfectly at the right moment. Of all the films it is the one that is not a must-see, but it is still a movie with enough of his fingerprints visible for fans to enjoy.
Batman Begins (2005)
I recall when this was released I was on the verge of becoming a Nolan fan, but was dubious about the idea of a Batman reboot. Many a good thing was reported and upon seeing it, I understood.
Batman Begins sees Nolan re-inventing the caped crusader in a way that arguably creates the figure fans had wanted over a decade before; and certainly tramples over Joel Schumacher’s effort, which shall remain unnamed. The title said it all – he insisted on telling a realistic origin story with depth, character and gothic tone; there is no sense of rush, and if anything the film plays out with more of an art-house feel. Whilst this may not have been what many expected, it nevertheless rebooted Batman for a new generation of fans, in a way that bred perfectly the tone of the Dark Knight's origins and the very real, artful imagination on display in Nolan’s work thus far.
As for the result? Well, Batman Begins was the beginning of the most successful comic book franchise ever, ironically by being not so comic book.
The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige asks the audience the question: Are we watching closely? It means it. This film saw Nolan go all Hitchcock on us, telling what appeared to be another linear tale of two magicians, made rivals by the loss of a lover. Once again evidence of just how great he is at manipulating his audience in the best way, it plays with a lot of classic thriller tropes and uses the story’s trappings of time period and magic to stunning effect. Again getting fantastic performances from all, including the often overlooked Andy Serkis, the director once again plays with our perception, constructing the film in such a way that it plays out like a magic trick, in exactly the same way as is described in the story itself; just like all good magic, we simply don’t see it happening.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Not a lot needs to be said about this film that most don’t already know. A terrific sequel featuring stunts never before tried in camera, IMAX shooting, a story that is even less comic book than its predecessor, taking inspiration more from thrillers like Michael Mann’s Heat, and featuring that iconic performance by Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight also deals with more lofty topics than one might expect, moral ambiguity regarding what makes a hero and a villain, underpinned with subtle commentary on political points about terrorism in a story which, as has become the norm by now, prompts the audience to engage its brain and keep up.
So we come to his fist real, full-scale and original masterwork; the movie that really proved, if there was anyone left to convince, that Nolan is one of the greatest directors of his generation, and certainly the best to come out of the UK for some time, by a long stretch! There simply isn't a flaw to this film; it is perfectly thought out and looks amazing, with a visual wizardry that is meant to support the clever idea, rather than replace it. Having Hans Zimmer on board again meant the music was going to be nothing short of perfect, with the score really standing out as a major character in the film. Another one to which you can return over and over and see new things, which at no point patronises the audience, or checks if we're keeping up. Some say it is complicated, but just watch and listen; Inception demands a lot of you, but rewards you greatly.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises shows itself to be the biggest film he has ever made, grand in scale, Dickensian in delivery, and again not without its political teeth, as it unashamedly reveals itself to be, effectively, a war film, and a very good one at that. It is dark, bleak, even depressing to a point; it is shocking to see just how intent Nolan is on upping the stakes to just about as high as they can get. He is relentless in putting you through a chilling experience, and it is incredible how often you find yourself realising his Batman is a trilogy of its time in the real world. His insistence on working in-camera as much as possible, without the aid of CGI, really grounds the action too; you truly feel the weight and intensity of it, because it is being caught for real, with real people and real stunts. It is complex, in-depth storytelling, requiring your attention to detail, and as with all of Nolan's work, repeat viewing actually reveals more treats, rare for what we think of as a superhero film. It is long, but from the incredible opening scene, to the perfect final sequence and shot, it pulls the pieces together gradually, upping the pace as it moves along, and builds toward a final forty-five minutes which was undoubtedly some of the most exciting cinema of 2012. Nolan is able to keep winding up the tension with a "Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse" approach through the whole of the second half; it isn't often we get to use the expression "on the edge of your seat" literally, is it? I can forgive some of what I consider a few misjudged moments when I consider just what an achievement the movie is, both on its own, and as the exclamation point to close the best vision of Batman ever created, and one of the greatest trilogies of all time!
Christopher Nolan’s next project is strongly rumoured to be Interstellar; penned, like most of what he directs, by his brother Jonathan. From what has been revealed so far, this is a story involving explorers using wormholes, time travel and discovery of other dimensions, inspired by the work of physicist Kip Thorne. Interestingly, Jonathan originally wrote it for Steven Spielberg to direct, but it was put aside, and it would appear is to now be re-written to incorporate an original idea of Christopher’s, no doubt giving it more weight than it already has. Whether he will actually make the movie is yet to be seen, but having seen what he did with an idea such as dreams within dreams, it is definitely exciting to consider what he might do with wormholes and other dimensions! If he does make it, with his dedication to working in-camera as much as he can, his preference for IMAX over 3D, his commitment to the notion that an audience can keep up with him, and that an apparently complex idea can still make a great blockbuster, I am sure few will disagree it is set to be impressive, not to mention, perhaps, the most important sci-fi film for quite some time.
Christopher Nolan may one day finally be recognised as the impressive and actually rather uncompromised talent that he is. Should he care if he’s not? Not really. After all, Martin Scorsese got his Best Director award – eventually – a long time after he was already declared a master filmmaker. The Oscar seemed only to be a confirmation of what everybody else already knew anyway, and it was humorous that after so long in the business and so many classic movies, that it should be awarded for the wrong film that year, The Departed.
Now, does Nolan care? That is a different question. As with all sincere artists, he was never in the game for the awards, or even money; cinema is clearly his passion, and by his own words, whether working on a blockbuster like Inception or an independent, low-budget drama like his debut, Following, his process remains the same and his care for the work comes first. Such has been his integrity from the outset, he refuses to tell a story he does not want to, and that integrity seems undiminished thus far. Whatever the reasons for such an awful oversight as the one he has experienced, they could never be good enough to excuse it. His resume shows that he keeps upping his own game, and I suspected that will continue. We might think his work so far is impressive, but I suspect, as the song goes, we ain’t seen nothing yet. How many filmmakers have, by this stage of the game, genuinely made not one dud picture? I think we can rest assured that he will remain true to himself and continue to prove that, whilst they may be reluctant to nominate him for such a title, he is one of the best directors working today.
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