Nolan has built a reputation in the film industry as a grand showman and visual magician firmly in command of his craft.
He’s infamous for assembling his complex and intricately layered plots like a puzzle, presenting them in such a way that respects the audience’s intelligence while simultaneously indulging their desire for exhilarating escapist entertainment. He tells stories on a tremendously large scale, and it’s all too easy to be swept away the sheer scope of his vision and ambition.
Best known for his record-shattering, paradigm-shifting DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan’s meteoric rise to consistently unprecedented heights of financial and cultural success has established him as one of those rare filmmakers who are able to harness the full power of the Hollywood studio system to his benefit.
It wasn’t always this way, however– Nolan’s ascent to the stratosphere of visionary directors was preceded by a long period of obscurity and rejection that any aspiring filmmaker can relate to.
Christopher Nolan was born in 1970 in London, the 2nd of 3 boys born to a British advertising executive and an American teacher. The jarring culture split that the Nolan boys experienced through their childhood is perhaps best exemplified by the difference in accents between Nolan and his younger brother, Jonathan– who would go on to become his writing partner and a close professional collaborator.
Also, check out Chris Nolan's Screenplay Collection for PDF Download
Nolan speaks in an elegant British lilt, while Jonathan’s all-American speech patterns reflect the fact that the Nolan boys spent a great deal of time living in Chicago as well as the UK.
From an early age, Nolan found himself enamored with cinema, and after seeing George Lucas’ STAR WARS at age 7, he was inspired to make Super 8mm stop-motion movies with his father’s film camera. He would go on to attend University College London, where he studied English literature in the absence of a film program.
In lieu of a formalized education in filmmaking, he established an on-campus cinema society with Emma Thomas– his classmate, future producing partner, and future wife– in addition to devouring the works of key influences like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Orson Welles, and Michael Mann.
At age nineteen, he made his first film, TARANTELLA– an 8mm short that was eventually shown on English television. That development encouraged the burgeoning director to make another short called LARCENY, which debuted at the 1995 Cambridge Film Festival.
For quite some time afterwards, Nolan toiled in obscurity, paying the bills with corporate and industrial films he was able to commission. All the while, he was applying to various British film organizations in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain grant money for another narrative effort.
Perhaps disheartened by the rejection, and emboldened by the take-no-prisoners, do-it-yourself attitude of the 90’s indie scene, Nolan decided to take matters into his own hands.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational/editorial collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors.
5.1: THE NON-LINEAR NEO-NOIRS is the first chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES' examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his pair of breakout independent neo-noirs:
Nolan: DOODLEBUG (1997)
After marrying Emma in 1997, Christopher Nolan enlisted her help to produce his third short film, DOODLEBUG. The three minute piece– the earliest of Nolan’s publicly-available works– stars the British actor Jeremy Theobald, who would go on to headline Nolan’s first feature a year later.
Shot on grainy 16mm black and white film, Nolan imbues the film with a kinetic energy at odds with the claustrophobic setting. Nolan’s idea of a man chasing a bug around his apartment, only to find out the bug is a smaller version of himself, foreshadows the narrative sleight of hand he’d bring to his feature work as well as his inventiveness with practical visual effects.
Nolan: FOLLOWING (1998)
Around the time of the making of his short DOODLEBUG (1997), director Christopher Nolan found himself the victim of a burglary. Whereas most people would be understandably distraught if their apartment had been broken into and their belongings stolen, Nolan’s chief reaction was curiosity.
He wondered what the burglars were thinking as they rifled through his things– what conclusions could they come to about his life based solely on the artifacts and totems of his existence? In time, he would shape these musings into a story for a feature-length film he called FOLLOWING.
Having learned his lesson not to rely on the favor of unsympathetic British film institutions, Nolan fashioned the film as a lean, mean, razor-taut little thriller he could shoot for as little money as possible.
Taking the idea of a low-budget production to its very extreme, Nolan self-financed the film with the earnings from his day job– stretching the value of his dollar by shooting on weekends, employing friends and family as cast and crew, and commandeering their homes and flats as free locations.
This approach naturally caused the shoot to drag on in fits and starts over the course of a year, but when all was said and done, Nolan had his first feature film in the can– and it only cost him six thousand dollars.
Jeremy Theobald’s protagonist is not given a name– a fitting choice for a lonely writer who lives vicariously through the strangers he follows around his grimy London neighborhood.
Owing to the down-and-dirty nature of the film’s production circumstances, Theobald’s performance isn’t exactly the most natural or convincing, but it’s compelling enough to sustain the audience through the breathlessly-brief 70 minute runtime.
It helps that he’s given a charming and enigmatic antagonist in the form of Alex Haw’s Cobb. Cobb is an impeccably-dressed, charismatic thief– his cavalier philosophy towards burglary as a cathartic form of human connection is presented as seductive and cool, almost like a boarding school Tyler Durden.
FOLLOWING borrows many elements from the well-trod noir genre, not the least of which is the inclusion of a blonde, morally-ambiguous femme fatale– played here by Lucy Russell. There’s a photograph by Theobald’s character’s desk of Marilyn Monroe, and one can’t help but notice Russell’ eerie resemblance to the iconic movie star.
Like Theobald, Russell also isn’t given a name– she’s credited only as The Blonde, a conceit that lends some fuel to critiques that Nolan’s female characters on the whole are not particularly well-developed.
Russell is perfectly convincing within the film’s framework, but the stock-character nature of The Blonde’s personality doesn’t afford her many opportunities to transcend the material. Funnily enough, however, Russell would be the only member of FOLLOWING’s cast to go on to a larger acting career.
Nolan has pioneered the use of large-format film mediums like IMAX to create a super-sized canvas for his high-stakes narratives, but even within the square confines of FOLLOWING’s 16mm frame, he’s able to convey a palpable, larger-than-life approach.
While the scope of his later work would command some of the highest budgets the industry has ever seen, the single largest expense for FOLLOWING’s scrappy production was the 16mm film stock itself. Nolan and his crew conserved as much of their precious stock as possible, rehearsing extensively prior to shooting so they could nab what they wanted in one or two takes.
Indeed, his insistence on celluloid is what separates Nolan from his peers, most of whom got their own no-budget projects off the ground by embracing the relative cheapness of digital video.
FOLLOWING’s photochemical cinematography points to Nolan’s purist attitude towards the medium, and foreshadows his eventual position as one of the industry’s most vocal defenders of celluloid in the face of digital’s unstoppable advance. In shooting FOLLOWING, Nolan acted as his own cameraman, utilizing mostly natural light to expose his grainy black and white images.
The majority of Nolan’s camerawork is handheld, which gives the film a kinetic and swift energy thanks to the fluid mobility and quick setup time afforded by the technique.
While Nolan used handheld camerawork primarily as a way to keep costs down, he was concerned that his choice might also lead to the impression that the film was amateurish, or that he didn’t know what he was doing. To counter these concerns, he employed the smooth, polished movement of a dolly track during the interrogation scene that opens the film as a way to communicate to the audience that the predominant use of a handheld camerawork was a deliberate, stylistic choice.
While Nolan essentially acted as a one-man crew during production, he used post-production as an opportunity to enlist the collaborative efforts of musician David Julyan, who provides FOLLOWING with a pulsing, grimy score comprised of droning synths and jittery staccato tones.
By virtue of its shoestring budget, FOLLOWING’s aesthetic is easily the most radical within Nolan’s canon. It speaks in a language born of necessity and deprivation, a world apart from the style that he’d solidify in his studio work. However, FOLLOWING does establish techniques and ideas that Nolan would further develop in the years to come.
For instance, he’s gained a bit of a reputation as a meticulous dresser, showing up to set in a business-casual wardrobe he’s refined into something of a uniform. This aspect of his personality makes its way into his films, as many of his characters are given a palpable sartorial sensibility that’s high on functional style and low on extraneous embellishment.
Even in the context of a no-budget film like FOLLOWING, Nolan still places an emphasis on his characters’ costuming, using it as a story tool to highlight the strategic advantages of a presentable appearance in the world of burglary.
The structuring of FOLLOWING’s narrative signals another key component of Nolan’s aesthetic: the non-linearity of time. Simply put: time is never a straight line in Nolan’s films– whether it’s BATMAN BEGINS utilizing a recurring flashback motif, MEMENTO unfolding entirely in backwards chronological order, INCEPTION playing out against multiple parallel planes of space-time connected by a relativistic relationship, or INTERSTELLAR exploring gravity’s ability to warp our perception of time itself.
Christopher Nolan cites this aspect of his aesthetic as being inspired at a very young age by Graham Swift’s novel “Waterland” and its parallel structuring of time. FOLLOWING pays tribute to this conceit by jumbling the order of its scenes non-sequentially– a decision made in large part to disguise the story’s major twist.
Indeed, the only visual clue Nolan gives to clue us on in which shard of the fractured timeline we’re in is via Theobald’s changing appearance from scraggly slacker to polished businessman and then to his final form as a defeated mound of ground-up beef.
While presented as something of a random shuffling of loosely connected scenes, Nolan’s ordering of the narrative is actually rather surgical, meticulously designed to enhance the impact of the mounting drama while constantly challenging our assumptions about what’s going on.
And just to show that the integrity of his story isn’t dependent on the gimmick of its nonlinear presentation, he even goes as far as assembling the scenes into proper chronological order in a completely separate linear that’s no less surprising or structurally sound and including it on the Criterion Collection’s 2012 Blu Ray release.
Just as the Batman logo on Theobald’s apartment door foreshadows his eventual cinematic involvement with the Caped Crusader, FOLLOWING’s unique structure portends the puzzle-like, revelation-based storytelling style that Nolan would build his career on.
Like so many no-budget films of its kind, the completion of FOLLOWING in 1998 wasn’t greeted with instantaneous acclaim or a great deal of attention. It almost even didn’t get finished in the first place, had it not been for the saving grace of indie producer Peter Broderick, who secured completion funds after screening Nolan’s rough cut.
Thanks to its lack of star power and technical polish, FOLLOWING was shut out from several major film festivals– event those devoted to truly independent cinema like Sundance or Slamdance (in Slamdance’s defense, however, they would eventually accept the film into their festival after Nolan submitted his completely re-tooled final cut a year after his rejection).
FOLLOWING would ultimately premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, gathering modest (yet consistent) praise as an engaging, if obscure, little thriller. The film would find a distributor in Zeitgeist Films, who would release it to a tepid box office haul of fifty thousand dollars.
Nolan didn’t have much cause for concern though– by the time FOLLOWING had wound through its interminable festival circuit and theatrical release window, he had already optioned the script for a follow-up that would give him the breakthrough he needed and desired.
As Nolan’s career has since played out, the thematic similarities between FOLLOWING and his 2010 dreamscape thriller INCEPTION have become more pronounced. In his essay “‘Nolan Begins”, former chief film critic for Variety, Scott Foundas, goes so far as to dub FOLLOWING a first draft for INCEPTION, citing that both films are in effect “a heist of the mind” masterminded by a slickly-dressed career criminal named Cobb.
On its own merits, FOLLOWING is a fascinating insight into the early voice of a massively influential contemporary filmmaker and the raw directorial powers he could exert with minimal resources and a tireless drive.
Nolan: MEMENTO (2000)
As if shooting and releasing his first feature film (1998’s FOLLOWING) wasn’t momentous enough an undertaking, around this time director Christopher Nolan was also undergoing a big move across the Atlantic to pursue his aspirations as a filmmaker in Los Angeles. He stopped first in Chicago to meet up with his brother Jonathan, who would be accompanying him on the cross-country drive.
As they drove west, Jonathan pitched an idea for a short story called “Memento Mori”, about a man suffering from acute short-term memory loss. Instantly taken with the idea, Nolan encouraged his brother to continue developing it even as he repurposed the concept into an entirely separate story. The brothers worked independently from each other for some time afterward, giving each other notes on their respective stories while not directly adapting what the other was doing.
As such, the two finished works are very dissimilar. Nolan’s finished screenplay– simply titled MEMENTO– was taken by Emma Thomas to Newmarket Films, where executives reportedly hailed the script as one of the most innovative they had ever read. With a greenlight to make MEMENTO for $4.5 million over 25 shooting days, Nolan finally had a chance to make his big break– but in order to make the best of it, he had to move quickly.
MEMENTO marks the first time that Nolan would work with established talent, but very few know just how big of a name he almost had. Before scheduling conflicts caused him to drop out, none other than Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in the role of protagonist Leonard Shelby, a former insurance claims investigator suffering from anterograde amnesia.
The role was eventually filled by Guy Pearce, who delivers a breathlessly fierce performance as a man out to avenge the brutal rape and murder of his wife, despite the fact that he can’t remember what he did two minutes ago. The character of Leonard Shelby is one of the more peculiar protagonists in American cinema– driving a Jaguar he doesn’t remember how he obtained, and wearing an ill-fitting suit that he’s pretty sure he didn’t buy.
Incapable of storing memories in his mind, he instead tattoos his flesh as a way to remember the clues he needs to find his wife’s killer. As such, he’s vulnerable to the designs of others with malevolent intentions, and the nature of his illness means that he can’t fully trust any relationship he has. One of these ambiguously-defined allies is Carrie-Ann Moss’ Natalie, a cocktail waitress whose boyfriend troubles might have more to do with Leonard than he realizes.
Fresh off the breakout success of THE MATRIX, Moss was imaginably quite helpful in securing her co-star Joe Pantoliano for the role of Teddy, an undercover cop whose eagerness to help Leonard find his wife’s killer can’t shake a profound sense of suspiciousness about him.
Seasoned character actors Stephen Tobolowsky and Mark Boone Junior also appear, with the former as a case study of Leonard’s with a similar condition and the latter as a self-advantageous motel clerk who is surprisingly honest about how he profits off Leonard’s memory loss.
MEMENTO represents a huge step up for Nolan in the visual department, thanks to a budget that’s quite generous by indie standards. On the most basic level, Nolan graduates from the square 16mm frame to the anamorphic 35mm gauge– an upgrade boosted by his first collaboration with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to become an integral creative partner for Nolan throughout his subsequent work.
Pfister’s eye for stark contrast, subdued color, and naturalistic lighting mesh perfectly with Nolan’s gritty vision of a slightly-heightened reality. MEMENTO’s use of color informs its innovative and distinct non-linear structure, alternating between color and monochromatic sequences in an effort to orient the audience as to where they currently stand in the timeline.
The color blue in particular becomes a potent visual signifier, appearing on doors, hotel room walls, bars, and even Leonard’s suit, almost as if they were signposts for him to follow.
Nolan scraps FOLLOWING’s shaky handheld camerawork in favor of an elegant, fluid approach that favors dollies, cranes, and steadicam shots and signals his desire to merge classical filmmaking techniques with radical, almost-Cubist storytelling structures. Returning composer David Julyan serves as one of the few stylistic carryovers from FOLLOWING, crafting a brooding suite of Vangelis-style synth cues that manages to evoke old-school film noir despite its inherent electronic modernity.
MEMENTO is perhaps best-known for being “that film that plays in reverse order”, but the conceit is far from a gimmick employed to sell tickets. Building from FOLLOWING’s earlier innovations with the idea, MEMENTO solidifies the use of nonlinear storytelling devices as a major component of Nolan’s artistic aesthetic.
Just as FOLLOWING’s deceptively-random ordering of scenes proves an effective way to navigate its labyrinth of deception, so too does MEMENTO’s unique structure become a key factor in the successful telling of its story.
In order for the audience to empathize with his protagonist’s condition, Christopher Nolan felt the most appropriate course of action would be to tell the story in backwards chronological order– thus emulating, in a cinematic sense, what it would be like to have no short-term memory; deprived of crucial orientating information and context that we usually take for granted. It’s a radical idea– one that requires a delicate balance of finesse that a lesser filmmaker could easily stumble over.
Nolan wisely uses the opening titles as an opportunity to prep his audience for his unconventional storytelling, lingering over a closeup shot of a hand shaking a developing Polaroid picture — or rather, un-developing, as the audience slowly realizes they’re watching the action unfold in backwards motion.
He then shows us the immediate aftermath of Teddy’s cold-blooded execution before showing us the crucial moment itself. Its also worth noting that this opening sequence wasn’t simply shot and and then reversed in the edit suite. Nolan and company actually ran the film backwards through the camera on set– an act that reinforces his career-long commitment to capturing special effects in-camera as much as possible.
Discontent with simply presenting the film in backwards order, Nolan takes an extra step: the insertion of a parallel, forward-moving storyline that sees Leonard languishing in his motel room while talking into a telephone about his condition.
Nolan separates these scenes from the A-plot by rendering them in expressionistic black and white handheld photography, in effect creating a bridge between FOLLOWING’s scrappy shoestring style and the ambitious classical style he’d adopt for the rest of his career.
These brief, recurring interludes give us crucial bits of backstory and context about Leonard’s memory loss without subjecting us to tedious or unnecessary exposition.
However, its within these scenes that Nolan plants the seeds for MEMENTO’s big narrative twist. This pair of parallel timelines almost-effortlessly converges at the story’s apex– a transition point that Nolan marks with a color fade so subtle that many viewers tend to miss it entirely. As he did with FOLLOWING, Nolan would subsequently assemble an alternate, aprochryphal cut of MEMENTO in proper chronological order, including it as an easter egg on the film’s home video release.
MEMENTO premiered at the 2000 Venice Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim. Executives from the major studios echoed the festival circuit’s warm embrace of the film, yet they were reluctant to claim it for distribution.
The sheer power of Nolan’s vision was undeniable, but they feared that audiences would be too confused by the backwards ordering of the film. Eventually, Newmarket Films took it upon themselves to distribute– a risky move that paid off in spades when MEMENTO debuted to healthy box office and rave reviews that hailed it as one of the most original and refreshing films in years.
Come awards season, MEMENTO took home several Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director, Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Female. It would also go on to score Academy Award nominations for Nolan’s screenplay and Dody Dorn’s groundbreaking edit. All these plaudits earned Nolan the attention of fellow indie maverick Steven Soderbergh, who would soon become instrumental in helping him transition into studio pictures.
Simply put, Nolan was on the map– in a big way. He was leaving behind the independent sphere on a high note, with MEMENTO demonstrating his taut sense of control and vision while avoiding the distractions and indulgences that come with a significant leap in budgetary resources.
FOLLOWING and MEMENTO– Nolan’s breakout pair of non-linear neo-noirs— may be small in size and scope, but Nolan’s desire for larger-scale filmmaking is already apparent In their DNA. It would only be a matter of time until he made his mark in the studio realm, but no one– not even him– could’ve ever predicted just how big that mark would be.
Nolan: INSOMNIA (2002)
MEMENTO caught the eye of many established Hollywood players– most notably, actor/director George Clooney and indie iconoclast Steven Soderbergh. Their frequent collaborations together, especially as producers, cultivated a shared taste in talent, and they both saw in Christopher Nolan the perfect candidate to helm a project they had in development over at Alcon Entertainment– a remake of a Norwegian film from 1997 named INSOMNIA, about a detective investigating a grisly murder in an isolated town located so far north that the sun doesn’t set for months at a time.
Alcon’s development deal with Warner Brothers effectively meant that INSOMNIA would become Nolan’s first studio film– a testing ground to see if he really had what it took to play in the big leagues. As such, he would have to make a few concessions on the production methods he was predisposed to; namely, working from a script that was not his own.
While he would ultimately perform his own pass on credited screenwriter Hilary Seitz’s draft just prior to shooting, INSOMNIA was, more or a less, a work for hire. Nevertheless, Nolan finds plenty of artistic common ground with Seitz’s prose– enough that his first big budget effort would feel apiece with the puzzle-esque nature of his earlier work and empower him to deliver a uniquely captivating thriller on par with its Swedish counterpart.
The wet evergreen mountains of British Columbia stand in for the majestic landscape of Alaska, where a pair of LAPD detectives have been sent in to investigate the murder of a young local girl. Nolan’s successful collaboration with the likes of Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano in MEMENTO begets here a cast with a higher industry profile and a sterling pedigree.
Indeed, INSOMNIA begins Nolan’s enviable habit of attracting award-winning talent, boasting no less than three Oscar winners among its ensemble. Al Pacino headlines the film as Detective Will Dormer, a driven yet compromised cop besieged by an internal affairs investigation back home.
Pacino plays the part liked a subdued, run-ragged version of his character from Michael Mann’s HEAT– an aspect that no doubt wasn’t lost on Nolan, a self-styled disciple of Mann’s. A big city cop in a small frontier town, Dormer is literally and figuratively adrift in a mental fog, isolated from any semblance of a familiar surrounding and lost in a perpetual state of exhaustion thanks to a winter sun that never sets and refuses to let him sleep.
To further complicate matters, his inability to think coherently leads to the tragic accidental killing of his own partner during a raid on on the suspected killer’s hideout. The local Nightmute police investigate the circumstances of the accident, led by the doggedly determined and fiercely insightful Ellie Burr.
Hilary Swank imbues the character with a palpable sense of independence cultivated by a life lived on the outermost boundaries of civilization; the alpha to Nicky Katt’s beta– a fellow Nightmute police officer with a wispy mustache named Fred Duggar. Meanwhile, Dormer pursues his suspect, a local crime novelist named Walter Finch.
Played to chilling effect by the late Robin Williams in one of his rare serious turns, Finch uses his occupational insights into the law enforcement profession to become a formidable and unpredictable adversary to Dormer. He’s a killer, yes, but he’s not barbaric– Williams projects the same warm sense of paternal authority he had in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING, albeit turned on its ear to emphasize its innately creepy undertones.
Finch differs from other murder-thriller heavies in that his guilt is never in question– he admits his deed to Dormer openly and without shame, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Williams’ performance is the standout of the film and, in light of his recent passing, stands as a somber reminder of the great talent we lost far too soon.
INSOMNIA is arguably Nolan’s most overlooked major work, but the impeccable quality of its craft lets it to stand toe to toe with his best efforts. It certainly helps that the lush, pristine Alaskan wilderness provides a stunning and majestic backdrop entirely unique within the larger canon of crime thrillers.
The production values afforded by studio backing amplifies the scope of Nolan’s stylistic choices, which begin to coagulate here into an identifiable aesthetic. He brings back MEMENTO’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, in the second of what would be many more subsequent collaborations; filling the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with sweeping panoramas and earthy texture.
Working in conjunction with production designer Nathan Crowley, who would also become a key collaborator in Nolan’s filmography, they cultivate a distinct color palette comprised of stark whites, blacks, and earth tones– with the surrounding evergreens in particular evoking that particular blue-green color characteristic of the lush Pacific Northwest. Warm colors are typically avoided, concentrated mostly within the interior hotel sequences to convey a cozy, hearth-like atmosphere.
The overall effect is one of majestic beauty pervaded by gloom and unease, especially so when a heavy fog envelopes Dormer during the pivotal raid sequence. Nolan’s camerawork here is much more ambitious, perhaps even a little incongruous considering the staggering sense of scope he imposes on what’s otherwise a relatively grounded story.
His films frequently employ lofty aerials, and INSOMNIA marks the point in which Nolan’s camera finally takes flight, soaring through the dramatic vistas via a combination of helicopter mounts and cranes.
On the ground, Nolan alternates between handheld camerawork and classical dolly moves, making full use of his new toys to convey an epic scope as well as the unique cultural character of his setting.
Editor Dody Dorn and composer David Julyan round out Nolan’s returning crew, with Dorn’s expressionistic approach reprising MEMENTO’s quick-cutting technique as a means to jar the protagonist’s thoughts with flashes of violence, while Julyan’s last collaboration with Nolan moves away from the electronic nature of their earlier work to embrace a big-budget orchestral sound reminiscent of a brooding Hitchcock film.
INSOMNIA may not have initially sprung from Nolan’s mind, but his artistic character permeates every aspect of the film. As previously noted, Michael Mann is a key influence on Nolan’s aesthetic, and INSOMNIA allows the burgeoning director to play in his idol’s wheelhouse.
Aside from the shared casting of Pacino in a similar character archetype used by Mann, Nolan also evokes his spirit in the detailed and tactical accuracy imposed on even the most minute aspects of policework.
For all his virtues as a man of justice, Dormer is also profoundly corrupt; he plants evidence to justify his own version of events, and even goes so far as to cover up his role in the accidental killing of his own partner. Nolan’s interest lies in Dormer’s struggle to achieve his objectives without sabotaging himself, continuing the tradition he established in both FOLLOWING and MEMENTO where the fundamentally-compromised nature of his protagonists allows him to better access the psychological underpinnings of their actions.
The twisting nature of INSOMNIA’s plot also evokes the revelatory, puzzle-like character of Nolan’s storytelling, which allows him to turn time itself into a compelling narrative and structural device.
Perhaps rightfully so for his first mainstream Hollywood film, INSOMNIA is the first of Nolan’s features to unspool in linear, chronological order. Nevertheless, time still plays an important factor in the drama– by setting the story in a place where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time, the circadian day-to-night rhythm is utterly disrupted.
In other words, Dormer is literally removed from the dimension of time itself. This wreaks havoc on his ability to function, which, in a profession that’s entirely dependent on clear-eyed critical thinking and razor-sharp reflexes, becomes a formidable antagonist in and of itself.
Just like he did for the home video releases of FOLLOWING and MEMENTO, Nolan would also assemble an alternate, apocryphal cut of INSOMNIA– rearranging his scenes in the order that they were shot and overlaying his commentary.
Unlike those prior alternate cuts however, the narrative and logical cohesion of the story completely falls apart in this particular version of INSOMNIA. Thankfully, clarity isn’t Nolan’s purpose here– rather, this version marries its disjointed order with his astute commentary to provide a unique glimpse into the day-by-day challenges of mounting his first big studio effort.
The commentary also yields intriguing insights into his personal growth as a filmmaker. If his increasing directorial confidence wasn’t palpable enough in the film itself, he reveals that, during the shoot, he didn’t use crucial preparation tools like storyboards, shot lists, or video monitors. Instead, he let the choices of his actors organically block the scene for him, which he’d then think up coverage for on the fly while he stood by the camera and watched their performances directly instead of behind a screen.
Indeed, these techniques require an astonishingly high degree of confidence to embrace, and aren’t typical of a director on only his third feature… but yet, there he was, pulling it off quite effortlessly.
That gamble of confidence paid off when INSOMNIA debuted in May of 2002 to critical and financial success as one of those rarest of remakes that managed to match, if not transcend, its original material.
Roger Ebert perhaps summed up the sentiment best in his review, hailing it not as “a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play”.
INSOMNIA may have been easily and overwhelmingly eclipsed by anything Nolan’s made since, but it’s nonetheless a strong and notable addition to his canon– and an important one, too, as it would serve as an audition for his next high-profile film, setting the stage for the crowning achievement of his career thus far.
Nolan: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
After the completion of INSOMNIA, Christopher Nolan used his newfound access to studio resources to develop an ambitious project on the life of Howard Hughes. The film would purportedly have starred Jim Carrey as the reclusive billionaire, if he hadn’t scrapped it following his discovery that Martin Scorsese was about to embark on shooting THE AVIATOR with Leonardo DiCaprio.
It was around this same time that he learned Warner Brothers was looking to make a new Batman picture– the property was one of the studio’s crown jewels, but had lain dormant ever since Joel Schumacher effectively bludgeoned it into a coma with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, a two-hour consumer products department memo and toy masquerading as a movie. Various pitches had already been made by other such high-profile directors as Darren Aronofsky, and spanned a wide range of ideas from Schumacher’s continuation of his run with a third film titled BATMAN TRIUMPHANT, to a live-action adaptation of the animated television series BATMAN BEYOND.
The closest any of these pitches came to reality was Aronofsky’s own riff on the iconic BATMAN YEAR ONE graphic novel, which explored Batman’s origins and early forays into crimefighting from the perspective of the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon.
Aronofsky’s take would have dramatically reworked some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore, to the point that executives ultimately got cold feet and abandoned his vision. Nolan, like many others of his generation, had grown up adoring the Caped Crusader and his surrounding universe of villains, so his interest in the vacant director’s chair was more or less a foregone conclusion.
He wasn’t interested, however, in making a quote/unquote “comic book movie” — indeed, he made no effort to conceal his lack of knowledge with the medium. Rather, he was interested in imbuing the character of Batman with what he called a “cinematic reality”, giving the story the weight and gravitas of a real-life event.
His initial pitch meeting with Warner Brothers apparently lasted a mere ten minutes, but so confident in his vision of a realistic superhero film was he, that the executives cast aside their doubts about his relative inexperience as a studio filmmaker and hand over their most valuable piece of intellectual property to his control.
Nolan’s next move would pave the way for his eventual reputation as a Hollywood trendsetter. He did away entirely with the continuity of the previous Tim Burton and Schumacher films, opting to reboot the story from square one so he could tell it his way with no compromises or obligations.
Rebooting a failing franchise has now become the go-to trick for frustrated development executives (especially those assigned to the Spider-Man franchise), so it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking of an idea this was in the early 2000’s.
This decision, combined with the fact that money was essentially no object, allowed Nolan to envision a boundless Gotham City against which he could stage an epic story exploring Batman not just as a character, but as an idea.
Ridley Scott had always served as a chief influence in Nolan’s artistic development, and Scott’s seminal classic BLADE RUNNER became a key reference in imagining a new kind of cinematic Gotham — a living, breathing city densely populated by diverse subcultures desperately in need of a hero.
Whereas Gotham City had generally been understood in previous iterations to be a fictional version of Manhattan, Nolan modeled the soaring architecture of his Gotham after Chicago, the city in which he’d spent a great deal of his upbringing.
With its deep ties to the colorful history of organized crime and bureaucratic shadiness, Chicago would prove an inspired fit for Nolan’s grandiose vision of a once-great city mired in corruption and decay.
By grounding the action in a tangible place, he could inject the necessary gravitas into his story while immediately differentiating his Gotham from the crumbling Art Deco spires of Burton’s Gotham or the garish day-glo labyrinth of Shumacher’s.
Developing a project as high-profile as Batman, with so many rabid fans angling for a big scoop, naturally required a high degree of secrecy — a requirement that dovetailed quite harmoniously with Nolan’s own showman-like penchant for strategic opaqueness.
He adopted Stanley Kubrick’s late-career practice of working from home, developing the story in his garage with a small team that included returning production designer Nathan Crowley, Nolan’s producing partner and wife Emma Thomas, and seasoned superhero genre screenwriter David S. Goyer.
Indeed, Nolan and company were so insistent on their veil of secrecy that Warner Brothers executives had to travel to them, forced to read the script on Nolan’s couch in an effort to prevent unwanted copies from leaking. When the necessities of the pre-production process finally required him to send out physical copies of the script, he did so under a fake title — “The Intimidation Game — to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.
This unconventional process, while admittedly unwieldy, ultimately proved fruitful, empowering him with a dream cast and crew and a budget in the hundreds of millions to help realize the majestic vision he would come to call BATMAN BEGINS.
Christian Bale essentially beat out every eligible actor in the business for the title role by formulating his approach based on, what seems now in retrospect, the obvious concept of the character’s dual nature. Far from the elegant and assured playboy embodied by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a tortured young man whose psyche was profoundly fractured by the murder of his parents when he was a small boy.
The hoarse growl he adopts as Batman is the object of frequent parody now, but Bale’s choice to differentiate the speaking voices of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego came as something of revelation to Nolan during the casting process, immediately setting Bale apart from the pack of candidates.
Bale brings his signature commitment to the role, fully inhabiting the character in mind, body, and soul to arguably create the definitive screen version of the iconic hero. As the newly-orphaned son of a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Bruce grows up in his parents’ mausoleum-like mansion, his every need and desire attended to by his caretaker and butler, Alfred.
In his first of several collaborations with Nolan, esteemed British actor Michael Caine effortlessly also creates a definitive version of the character, giving his young charge the necessary warmth and support he needs to one day take take over the reigns of his late father’s business empire, Wayne Enterprises.
Whereas prior Batman movies had audiences simply counting the minutes between the Caped Crusader’s crimefighting forays, Nolan makes the radical choice of delaying our first glimpse of Bruce in full Bat regalia until the halfway mark.
Instead, he traces Bruce’s formative years as his restless desire for justice prompts him to drop out of college and travel the world, giving himself a firsthand education in the nature of crime so that he can deliver said justice himself. After landing himself in a Chinese prison, he is approached by Ducard, the urbane and charismatic face of a secret vigilante syndicate known as The League Of Shadows.
Liam Neeson proves an inspired choice in the role, becoming a firm yet compassionate mentor to Bruce while dispensing sage advice and virtuous platitudes that slowly reveal their inherently malevolent nature.
He presents himself as an underling to Ken Watanabe’s Ra’s Al Ghul, the enigmatic and Sphinx-like figurehead of The League Of Shadows– but appearances can be deceiving, and Bruce’s refusal to complete his final test (the execution of a common thief) brings his ideological compatibility with Ducard into urgent question.
Ducard’s lessons nevertheless prove influential when Bruce returns to Gotham and begins to formalize his own vigilante identity.
Of all Ducard’s teachings, Bruce’s biggest takeaway is that he is more powerful as a symbol than as a man– a key concept of Nolan’s vision that would fundamentally inform the remainder of the trilogy. For Bruce, that symbol takes the form of a bat, inspired by a formative moment of fear from his childhood.
Combining his flinty determination for justice with the nigh-bottomless technological resources of Wayne Enterprises at his disposal, Bruce sets out into the night as Batman, intent on eradicating the cancer of organized crime that has infected the Gotham Police Department with corruption.
Batman’s will to act inspires clandestine partnerships with a cop named Jim Gordon and Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, who has grown up to become an ambitious district attorney. Renowned for his many villainous turns, Gary Oldman initially seemed an unusual choice to portray Gordon, the only decent cop in a police force besieged by compromise and corruption, but he would deliver a brilliant performance that cuts straight to the core of the character.
The character of Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes, is an original creation of Nolan’s with no comic book counterpart. She’s an ambitious district attorney and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, stretching all the way back to their childhood. As such, she is the only person besides Alfred who can penetrate his veneer of AMERICAN PSYCHO-style narcissism and nonchalance to access the broken little boy at his core.
The Batman universe has always been known for its rich world of well-developed allies and enemies, a grand tradition in which BATMAN BEGINS easily follows. In his performance as Wayne Enterprises R&D head Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman takes one of the most underappreciated characters in Batman comic lore and transforms him into one of the property’s most indelible personalities and a key ally on par with Gordon or Alfred. By supplying Bruce with the gear he needs to function as Batman, he becomes analogous to “Q” from the James Bond series, and a vital tool for Nolan to ground Batman’s fantastical tech in the real world.
Nolan is gracious enough to give Freeman his own character arc, as well as his own nemesis in the form of the smug chairman of the Wayne Enterprises board, played memorably by Rutger Hauer in yet another nod to BLADE RUNNER’s key influence on the picture.
MEMENTO’s Mark Boone Junior embodies the Gotham PD’s shameless corruption as Gordon’s slovenly partner, Flass, while Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone serves as the refined face of the city’s organized crime epidemic.
With his appearance here as the psychopathic psychiatrist Dr. Crane, Cillian Murphy would join Caine and Bale as a recurring collaborator in Nolan’s larger body of work. Crane, of course, is better known by his supervillain alter ego The Scarecrow– a rogue who employs fear as a weapon, imposing terrifying hallucinations on his victims.
Like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow is one of the more fantastical villains in the Batman canon and doesn’t necessarily lend himself to a grounded cinematic reality, but Christopher Nolan creates a highly effective adaptation while staying true to the character’s comic roots. His ability to incite fear stems not from a supernatural source, but from a chemical that he’s weaponized into a spray that paralyzes his targets with debilitating waking nightmares.
Whereas prior BATMAN films chose their villains first and forced the script to twist itself into narrative pretzels to accommodate their pairing, Nolan avoids marquee villains like The Joker or Penguin to place the focus squarely on Batman himself.
Besides the obvious benefit of using villains never before seen on the big screen, Nolan’s emphasis on story allows him to create a rather harmonious pairing between Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, linking the former’s fear spray directly to the latter by revealing its active ingredient to be a mysterious blue flower that grows in the mountains where The League Of Shadows has established their temple.
This unique pairing also allows the ideological concept of fear to emerge as the central theme of BATMAN BEGINS, a pillar upon which every narrative decision can revolve around. Part of what makes THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY so resonant is Nolan’s ability to distill each individual installment into a singular, unifying theme.
In the case of BATMAN BEGINS, that theme is fear, and it doesn’t just make for a convenient justification of Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul’s master plot– it’s also an entirely appropriate prism through which to explore the genesis of Batman himself.
Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS is the first Batman film to truly understand and portray the character’s nature as something that strikes genuine fear in the hearts of criminals. Finally, Nolan uses the opportunity to include a few minor cameos that are nonetheless notable in the context of his artistic growth.
For instance, FOLLOWING’s Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell make fleeting appearances, the former being a technician for the Gotham Water Board and the latter being the elegant foil of a heated political discussion at a fancy restaurant.
GAME OF THRONES fans will also recognize the inclusion of King Joffrey himself, Jack Gleeson, as a small boy growing up in the Narrows who encounters Batman outside his back porch.
If INSOMNIA’s majestic cinematography hinted at Nolan’s ambitions towards classic Hollywood spectacle, then BATMAN BEGINS makes those designs clear for all to see. Nolan is something of an iconoclast in the film industry, in that he vigorously bucks modern trends in favor of old school techniques.
He’s become a valiant defender of celluloid film, resistant to the relentless advances of digital filmmaking. He endeavors to ground his stunts and set-pieces in practical effects as much as possible, where the vast majority of his peers prefer the surgical precision of computer-generated imagery.
He dismisses Hollywood’s convictions about 3D as the way to attract modern audiences to the theater, presenting an alternate argument for larger 2D formats like IMAX that are capable of staggering clarity.
This aspect of his artistic profile is why the release of a new Nolan is regarded as such a cultural event– his methods simply give his films the kind of weight and gravitas we accord to monuments. BATMAN BEGINS is the first instance of this, harnessing the full power of a nine figure budget and putting it all up on the screen in a way that would popularize the concept of the “dark and gritty reboot”.
Cinematographer Wally Pfister returns for his third collaboration with Nolan, capturing the action on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and coming away with an Oscar nomination for his trouble.
Deep wells of inky shadow, low-hanging clouds of impenetrable fog and torrents of rain conjure up an appropriate film noir look that’s less THE THIRD MAN and more BLADE RUNNER in its rendering of a dystopic urban landscape.
Nolan packs his story with epic compositions and soaring camerawork, further peppering his signature helicopter aerials throughout to find Batman’s majestic silhouette amidst Gotham’s towering spires. A color palette of earth & metal tones further grounds BATMAN BEGINS’ aesthetic in realism while immediately differentiating itself from prior cinematic iterations of the Caped Crusader.
While Nolan actively avoids replicating the frenetic handheld camerawork typical of action films of the time, he works with editor Lee Smith to bring a chaotic quick-cut approach to the film’s action scenes, especially in fights that aim to convey Batman’s mastery of hand-to-hand combat as an unstoppable and disorienting force, doling out a barrage of street justice in handy bite-size form.
The challenge of reinventing Batman goes much further than overhauling his iconic cape and cowl. It also means redefining all the other little things that make Batman “Batman”: Wayne Manor, the Batmobile, his grappling hook, and the fantastical theatricality of his villains amidst a myriad of other aspects.
It’s a very intimidating task, but production designer Nathan Crowley proves up to the challenge, reinforcing Nolan’s grandiose vision of a cinematic reality. All of Batman’s gear is based off real military tech in some capacity, the Batmobile (referred to within the film as The Tumbler) is completely overhauled into the bastard lovechild of a Hummer and a Lamborghini, and the sheer size of the practical sets — indeed, spanning the size of multiple city blocks — would require one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world to house them in.
Composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard tackle the unenviable task of following Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, one of the most instantly recognizable music cues in recent film history, but their efforts result in a score that obliterates our musical memories of Dark Knights past and provides the necessary lift for Nolan’s interpretation to soar.
Zimmer and Howard are excellent composers with highly celebrated individual careers, so their pairing here must’ve seemed very unusual in theory. In practice, their partnership — an idea brought to the table by Zimmer when Nolan initially approached him — proves quite inspired, reflecting Batman’s fragmented psyche with a bifurcated approach that sees Howard tackling dramatic sequences with sweeping strings and mournful brass instruments, while Zimmer fuels the action with an urgent orchestral staccato and atonal electronic rhythms inspired by flapping bat wings.
The score has since become widely recognizable and imitated in the wake of the success of the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, so one could be forgiven for failing to remember just how visionary it truly is — it’s so radical in its adherence to the story’s key themes and willingness to experiment that it’s something of a minor miracle that Warner Brothers ever allowed it anywhere near their most prized property.
BATMAN BEGINS, and the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, is not content to simply detail the exploits of the iconic hero as he romps through Gotham fighting crime. It aspires to something greater, using its pulp framework to explore heavy ideological concepts.
Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS often plays like a law school thesis paper masquerading as a summer blockbuster. While this has an unintentional side effect of forcing its characters to contort themselves into unwieldy “idea delivery machines” rather than sound like living, breathing people, the overall effect is nonetheless one of profound resonance that must have felt quite relevant at a time when news headlines were dominated by overreaching surveillance measures and the controversy of pre-emptive war.
With its exploration of of the urban landscape’s relationship to crime and justice, BATMAN BEGINS provides an opportunity for Nolan to fully inhabit the wheelhouse of a key influence, Michael Mann.
He uses Batman as an entry point into a philosophical deconstruction of justice itself– what is justice, especially when delivered outside the bounds of conventional law enforcement or the court system?
When it comes to vigilantism, do the ends ever justify the means? The justice system is just one of many that Nolan utilizes to tell BATMAN BEGINS’ story, taking inspiration from HBO’S THE WIRE in detailing how corruption spreads its tendrils into the various infrastructural systems that support a city.
This can be seen most immediately in the villains’ plot to use Gotham’s water supply as a delivery mechanism for an inert chemical agent that, once activated, causes anyone who ingests it to go insane with fear.
Gotham’s transportation system is also utilized, with an elevated subway car being another delivery mechanism for the machine that will catalyze Scarecrow’s fear drug upon reacting Wayne Tower. We also see social systems, represented by diverse economic castes and the varying appearances of different districts, giving Gotham a tangible, realistic quality that eluded Burton or Schumacher’s rather theatrical interpretations.
There’s an elegant, modern financial district anchored by Wayne Tower and inhabited by Gotham’s privileged class, while the poor and other undesirables are condemned below ground to a seedy, forgotten underbelly that appears to have been, at one point, the street-level Gotham before it was built over by the current one.
There’s also the Narrows, a densely-populated island of slums and abject poverty set apart from the mainland; home to Arkham Asylum and the majority of Gotham’s criminal population.
The inclusion of such a destitute neighborhood as the setting for the film’s climax contrasts directly with the mask of privilege and wealthiness Bruce bears to the public, further illustrating the extent to which he must depart from a life of luxury in order to purge himself of his interior demons.
BATMAN BEGINS’ exploration of urban systems and the malleability of the built environment has come to be a prominent theme in his subsequent work, culminating in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with characters physically re-sculpting cities to their own singular designs.
A common image throughout Nolan’s filmography is that of imposing architectural monoliths brought to rubble by a fundamental weakness, an aspect of his artistic character no doubt profoundly affected by 9/11.
BATMAN BEGINS establishes this conceit rather literally, defacing the city streets around Wayne Tower by crashing a runaway subway train into it. The fact that The Narrows is an island is also important– its isolation from the mainland becomes a critical flaw when Scarecrow’s fear gas is unleashed, instantly transforming the island slum into a confined labyrinth of terror.
In an oblique way, this aspect of BATMAN BEGINS also hits on the magician-like, puzzle-esque nature of his artistic persona, in that he takes something exceedingly mundane like the subway or an urban island and turns it into something of a spectacle.
That same nature also causes him to take what might otherwise be a fairly linear story and jumble up the timeline into a highly strategic non-linear order. BATMAN BEGINS ostensibly covers Bruce Wayne’s long transformation into Batman, from his first encounter with bats in an old well as a child, to his first victory as a vigilante, and finally to the solidification of his new identity after saving Gotham from an insidious crime syndicate.
However, Nolan doesn’t quite tell the story in that order– at least, not during the first half. We first meet Bruce as an inmate in a Chinese prison, detailing the circumstances leading up to his meeting Ducard and becoming involved in The League Of Shadows.
While he trains to become one of them, Nolan peppers in flashbacks that fill out the backstory, showing how Bruce’s parents were murdered and how his frustration over being unable to avenge their killer himself led to his travels abroad.
The ordering of these sequences is quite deliberate, calculated in such a way so as to maximize the emotional power of BATMAN BEGINS’ first half by feeding us visceral nuggets of backstory that underscore the context of the scene at hand.
This is what director Guillermo Del Toro is referring to when he calls Nolan an “emotional mathematician”– he evokes emotion by structuring his stories in a way that’s precise and measured– almost to a fault, as his detractors tend to find his films devoid of organic warmth, akin to the gut level revulsion of encountering the uncanny valley.
As Nolan’s filmography has grown, there indeed appears to be a formula for how he structures his stories for maximum emotional impact. One of the most evident products of this formula is the specific manner in which he ends most of his films, riding an emotional wave conjured by a cathartic montage and swelling score before smash cutting to the film’s title (which is usually the first time we actually see the title itself onscreen).
BATMAN BEGINS marks the first time that Christopher Nolan employs this formula, a choice that’s quite apt for the subject matter and, in particular, the closing scene at hand.
The film naturally accommodates other thematic fascinations of Nolan’s, both established and emerging. BATMAN BEGINS continues a tradition seen in all of his work since FOLLOWING by positioning the protagonist as profoundly flawed. Admittedly, this has always been a core aspect of the character since his creation by Bob Kane in 1939, but previous Batman pictures mostly chose to overlook it in favor of highlighting his heroic qualities.
Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by a horrible tragedy and desperately in need of a guiding purpose in his life. His solution to dress up as a bat and fight crime, then, requires an intimidating amount of philosophical reflection in order to combat the sheer psychosis of the idea.
Even then, Bruce knows his quest is doomed– he’s well aware that no amount of crimefighting can bring back his parents or heal his psychological wounds, yet he can’t help but become utterly consumed by his desire for justice.
Nolan’s sartorial fascination with functional style finds plenty of opportunity for indulgence in BATMAN BEGINS, not just in the various utilities of the Batsuit’s design but also in the amount of screentime he allocates to the discussion of what the suits means on a symbolic level.
Finally, BATMAN BEGINS’ expansive, almost operatic scope allows Bruce to be seen travelling the world before settling back in Gotham, whereas previous Batman films never left the city limits. Nolan would bring this same globetrotting sensibility to his subsequent work, orchestrating his stories so as to require frequent travel to exotic locales that help to convey a larger-than-life scale.
As his career has grown, his travels have extended beyond the confines of Earth itself, venturing to entirely new worlds in INTERSTELLAR’s outer space as well as the lucid unconscious of INCEPTION’s inner space. BATMAN BEGINS has its sights set on far more modest horizons, employing the dramatic and almost-alien vistas of Iceland as a stand-in for the majestic Himalayan Mountains of Asia.
All of this led up to what was easily the most ambitious film of Nolan’s still-fledgling career. His ability to convey scale had grown from FOLLOWING’s modest back-alley origins to that of a sweeping overview of an entire city under siege.
His self-confidence as a director, evidenced by his refusal to storyboard or sit in video village during the production of INSOMNIA, enabled him to execute his vision with awe-inspiring clarity while further bucking long-established studio filmmaking practices– indeed, he felt that every shot was so vital to telling his story that he dispatched with a second unit altogether, gathering every single action beat, establishing shot, or insert himself.
While not without its fair share of criticisms, BATMAN BEGINS debuted in the summer of 2005 to very positive reviews, many of which claimed that the Caped Crusader had finally been done cinematic justice. The film also established Nolan’s enviable ability to create box office juggernauts, earning $373 million in worldwide receipts.
Far from simply being just another summer blockbuster, BATMAN BEGINS has proven highly influential, causing a chain reaction of events still being felt across the cinematic landscape nearly fifteen years later.
Hollywood’s trend of comic book adaptations had truly begun with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000, but BATMAN BEGINS showed the world that these properties could be something more than just escapist fare– they could be legitimate forums in which to explore complex social and political issues.
Furthermore, it pioneered the now-stale trend of “rebooting” a dormant or failed property as a way to restore its freshness– indeed, CASINO ROYALE and the Daniel Craig-era of the James Bond series was a direct reaction to BATMAN BEGINS.
The success of its limited IMAX run also established a viable market for large format presentations of narrative features, offering a technical advantage suited to huge spectacle that conventional theaters or television simply couldn’t match. Nolan himself would become enamored of the format previously best known for short-form nature documentaries, beginning a love affair that would fundamentally shape his career.
For audiences, BATMAN BEGINS would begin their love affair with Nolan himself– the character of Batman became, for many, an entry point into the burgeoning director’s particular style of filmmaking and created a whole new wave of Nolan admirers and acolytes.
For the Nolan faithful who had already seen the light with MEMENTO, the massive success of BATMAN BEGINS reinforced their convictions in his formidable technical skill-set and narrative dexterity.
In one fell bat-swoop, Nolan had gone from indie maverick to the biggest VIP on the Warner Brothers lot, well on his way towards a destiny as a director who would revolutionize and revitalize old-fashioned spectacle filmmaking for a new generation of audiences around the world. The Hollywood machine demanded a sequel, and quickly, but a return trip to Gotham wasn’t on Nolan’s itinerary just yet.
Nolan: THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Director Christopher Nolan didn’t have to search very far to find the subject material for his follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS– his fifth feature film had already been in development since MEMENTO, and would have been his fourth after INSOMNIA, had Gotham City not beckoned so urgently.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan had been working intermittently over the previous five years adapting Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel “The Prestige”, a tale about dueling magicians in London at the turn of the twentieth century.
The brothers no doubt felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a fitting adaptation, considering that they had been chosen by Priest directly over higher-profile filmmakers like Sam Mendes, who wished to make the picture as his own follow-up to the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).
Nolan benefited from Priest’s preference for up-and-coming filmmakers, wowing the author off the strength of FOLLOWING alone, as MEMENTO was still in post-production at the time. The Nolan brothers attributed the length of their writing process to the complexity of their ambitions, wishing to reshape the form of their screenplay to the thematic structure of the book in a bid to become the cinematic embodiment of the magic trade’s core principles.
Capturing these ideals proved teasingly elusive, to the extent that the brothers delivered the final shooting script only three days before the start of production. Thankfully, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed– THE PRESTIGE has gone on to become one of Nolan’s most closely-scrutinized efforts, regarded not just as a compelling and complex dramatic thriller, but also as a revelatory expression of Nolan’s own artistic character via the philosophies that inform his craft.
THE PRESTIGE continues Nolan’s symbiotic working relationship with Warner Brothers, who co-produces with Touchstone Pictures, but it also sees him reuniting with Newmarket Films, the entity that launched his career with MEMENTO.
The story is concerned with the sustained game of one-upmanship between rival magicians– the aristocratic American, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and the coarse, working-class Englishman, Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale.
Bale’s casting, as well as Michael Caine’s as a paternal stage engineer named Cutter, reflects how quickly THE PRESTIGE came together once BATMAN BEGINS got off the ground: both actors are able to parlay the creative momentum of their prior collaboration with Nolan into compelling performances that bring the period alive with fresh immediacy. As the game of wits between Borden and Angier escalates, they draw their friends and family into the fray to increasingly devastating results.
Rebecca Hall fares better than her role as Borden’s increasingly put-upon wife might otherwise suggest, taking what very little she has to work with in terms of dramatic meat and chewing it vigorously.
Scarlett Johansson pulls heavily from the “femme fatale” archetype in her performance as Olivia Wenscombe, a double-crossing magician’s assistant whose allegiance is– to put it politely– fickle.
David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Ricky Jay round out Nolan’s cast of note; an inspired trio, considering all three are illusionists in their own right. Jay is a magic enthusiast in real life, and helped to coach Bale and Jackman in the trade while serving in his role as a fellow magician named Milton.
Serkis is well-known for his innovations with motion capture performance, using digital effects to transcend what the human body can physically do, or transform it into something else entirely. However, he gets no such opportunity to practice that trade in THE PRESTIGE, in which he plays Nikola Tesla’s decidedly human assistant, Alley.
Bowie plays Tesla himself, the eccentric real-life inventor who is fictionalized here as something of a reclusive wizard of the electric occult– the mastermind behind a mysterious technology that allows Angier to harness a power far beyond his ability to truly understand it.
Returning cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley cement their status as core members of Nolan’s inner collaborative circle, each scoring a respective Oscar nomination for their efforts here.
THE PRESTIGE expectedly reinforces Nolan’s reputation for impeccable cinematography and unrivaled production value– but this time, it almost comes in spite of the significant budgetary resources at his disposal. Stylistically-speaking, the film has more in common with his earlier independent work than his two recent studio efforts, often employing a handheld camera that finds the 2.35:1 frame organically instead of imposing precise and deliberate compositions on his subjects.
Nolan and Pfister complement this approach by avoiding artificial light whenever possible, which works in unison with the handheld camerawork to bring Nolan’s first recreation of a historical period to vivid life.
Whereas Nolan’s prior reliance on natural light on FOLLOWING was born of practical necessity, his adoption of it here exhibits his supreme confidence as a filmmaker, in that he’s actively choosing to deprive himself of the luxury of a controlled lighting scheme. It also serves as thematic reinforcement for the story itself, being set in a world that was coming out of the industrial revolution and into a bold new era of electricity.
All this being said, Nolan doesn’t quite fully embrace his indie roots– he still delves regularly into the studio toybox, pulling out dolly tracks, crane arms, and helicopter mounts to imbue his picture with a majestic, classical sense of scale. Angier’s journey to see Tesla in his isolated compound at Colorado Springs also allows Nolan to dabble with the iconic visual language of the western genre.
Just as he had done with BATMAN BEGINS, production designer Nathan Crowley spent a great deal of THE PRESTIGE’s development process working out of Nolan’s garage, working intimately with the director to establish the physical aesthetic as manifest in the sets, props, and costumes.
THE PRESTIGE utilizes a similar color palette to BATMAN BEGINS, rendering the 35mm film image in earth & metal tones, warming up interior sequences with a cozy amber hue while lathering exteriors in a cold, cobalt veneer.
The color red is used sparingly, saved for the interiors of the majestic theatres or Angier’s Colorado stagecoach so as to better evoke the romanticism of their profession while contrasting it against the grimy working-class environs from which their shows provide a fantastical escape.
Unlike his work on BATMAN BEGINS, Crowley built only one set for THE PRESTIGE– the under-stage section of the theatre where Angier, Borden, and Cutter congregate after a hard day’s work of amazing the unwashed masses.
With the exception of the Universal backlot subbing in for the muddy streets of London, much of THE PRESTIGE was shot on location, giving the film a smoky, industrial texture that simply can’t be replicated on a soundstage.
Some might be surprised to learn that the majority of THE PRESTIGE was shot in Los Angeles, utilizing well-chosen locales that handily pass for 1900’s-era London, like Greystone Mansion– a grand oil tycoon’s estate in Beverly Hills often seen in a variety of other films like The Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1988) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007).
The various theatres seen throughout the film were found amidst the opulent, forgotten auditoriums and movie palaces of downtown LA’s Broadway Theatre District– many of which had been sitting unused for years, ready to play the part with little need for additional set dressing.
Post-production offers yet another opportunity for Nolan to reteam with previous collaborators. BATMAN BEGINS’ editor Lee Smith reprises his duties here, effortlessly juggling the complicated machinery of Nolan’s narrative.
Composer David Julyan also returns for his fourth collaboration with Nolan after sitting out the scoring job on BATMAN BEGINS. Julyan’s suite of cues for THE PRESTIGE bears a heavy resemblance to his prior work for Nolan, foregoing any sort of melodic shape in favor of a brooding, orchestral drone.
Of all the creative aspects that make up THE PRESTIGE, most critics agreed that Julyan’s work here was the weak link, content to be regularly overwhelmed by Nolan’s visuals while offering up very little in the way of its own character.
Indeed, the most interesting aspect of THE PRESTIGE’s music is the fact that Nolan uses the Thom Yorke track “Analyse” over the credits– notable by its rare exception to Nolan’s otherwise-established preference for original score over licensed needledrops.
As of this writing, THE PRESTIGE marks the last time Nolan would work with his oldest collaborator, with the consensus of critical disappointment surrounding Julyan’s score perhaps solidifying Nolan’s burgeoning partnership with Hans Zimmer as a more appropriate fit for the big-budget studio filmmaker he was becoming.
THE PRESTIGE may have been overshadowed in the wake of the larger success of his subsequent films, but it stands to reason that it’s also a highly personal work that most intimately convey’s Nolan’s artistic worldview towards his own profession. He clearly sees undeniable similarities in the stagecraft behind both magic and filmmaking, like a shared emphasis on sleight of hand and visual trickery to make the audience believe in something unreal, or impossible.
The central philosophy of magic that gives the film its title consists of three prongs– The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. Nolan weaves this philosophy into the structure of the screenplay itself, assigning each prong to its corresponding act. The Pledge presents the audience with a seemingly normal object, just as Act 1 introduces the status quo of a particular story’s setting and characters.
The Turn finds the illusionist doing something extraordinary with that object, like making it disappear– a fitting allusion to Act 2’s need to present the protagonist with a problem that must be solved.
But as the film continually reminds us, it’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring it back. Act 3 and The Prestige serve the same purpose: to return to the status quo via extraordinary, and sometimes even supernatural, effort.
In typical Christopher Nolan style, however, THE PRESTIGE doesn’t present it sequence of events in such a simple or linear fashion. The story rests on a series of key revelations, many of which become more effective or intriguing when the audience doesn’t yet have full context.
Just as he did in his previous films, Nolan and editor Lee Smith chart the rise and fall of both Angier and Borden out of sequence, jumbling up the chronology for strategic effect much like a magician will employ distraction techniques and sleight of hand to conceal the machinery that makes the trick possible.
Angier and Borden also follow in Nolan’s grand parade of profoundly flawed protagonists– both men are consumed by their ambition and competitiveness, driven to do great things that give them renown and acclaim, but also horrible deeds that tarnish their careers with infamy.
Their shared desire for greatness, no matter the cost, becomes their Achilles heel, forcing them to new lows even as they struggle to one-up each other. Nolan’s interest in functional style takes a necessary turn towards opulence in THE PRESTIGE, dressing his protagonists in peacocking threads that reinforce their strategic need to dazzle their audiences with flash and elegance.
Their garb even serves to conceal complicated undersuits vital to executing dramatic, impossible tricks; best seen in a primitive, mechanical contraption of Cutter’s design that looks like something Batman would have worn had he been born a century earlier.
Nolan’s direction clearly benefits from the confidence and wealth of experience he accumulated on the set of BATMAN BEGINS, navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of THE PRESTIGE’s narrative with effortless ease and dexterity.
Interestingly enough, THE PRESTIGE was one of three films released in 2006 to deal with the world of magic, the other two being THE ILLUSIONIST and Woody Allen’s SCOOP (which also starred Jackman and Johansson).
The film enjoyed a robust run at the box office and a slew of positive reviews from critics, attaining a level of success it might not have had otherwise, had interest in Nolan’s artistic character not been fueled by the monster hit that was BATMAN BEGINS.
In the years since its release, THE PRESTIGE has only grown in critical and cultural regard, continuing to reveal new layers of thematic complexity and technical mastery with each repeat viewing.
Nolan: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The runaway success of BATMAN BEGINS in 2005 revitalized the flagging Batman movie franchise, leaving fans clamoring for more of director Christopher Nolan’s expansive and groundbreaking vision.
A sequel was inevitable, but rather than capitalize off the resurgent Batmania by pushing out the next chapter as fast as possible, Warner Brothers executives did something quite unimaginable by today’s standards– they gave Nolan the space and time he needed to regroup and refresh his artistic approach.
THE PRESTIGE served as an effective palette cleanser in this regard, its warm reception further consolidating Nolan’s influence and bolstering his directorial profile as a breakout visionary. Now that his artistic deck had been cleared, Nolan was ready to consider what a return trip to Gotham City might entail.
There were certain expectations, of course– a sequel would no doubt find Batman operating at the apex of his powers, and BATMAN BEGINS’ ending teaser scene suggested he would finally do battle with his arch-nemesis, The Joker.
Beyond that, Nolan had near-limitless creative and financial freedom to realize his vision. As it would turn out, that vision would grow to become so complex and ambitious, it would require a canvas no less than four stories tall to properly contain it.
In crafting a fitting follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan once again looked to classic graphic novels for inspiration– specifically, THE KILLING JOKE and THE LONG HALLOWEEN, which respectively detailed the origin stories of two iconic Batman villains The Joker and Two-Face.
While he didn’t adapt those stories outright, certain aspects of these comics nevertheless served as touchstones for Nolan’s second foray into the wider Batman universe. Receiving another story assist from David S. Goyer, Nolan set about crafting the screenplay with his writing partner and brother, Jonathan.
The brothers were intent on using this opportunity to depart significantly from established Batman lore and remake the Caped Crusader in their image, to the extent that they dropped the word “Batman” from the title of their screenplay entirely– a first in the property’s cinematic history.
The title they would use instead — THE DARK KNIGHT –simultaneously invoked one of Batman’s alternate mantles while signaling their intention to transcend the confines of the character’s comic book origins.
To make a Batman movie without “Batman” in the title is an admittedly risky move, and the fact that Warner Brothers allowed this to come to pass speaks volumes about the total trust they placed in Nolan as the current steward of their most-prized property.
As we all know now, their faith would be rewarded many times over, with THE DARK KNIGHT becoming a financial and critical juggernaut that not only installed Nolan as one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors, but fundamentally changed the course of American studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future.
THE DARK KNIGHT picks up roughly nine months after BATMAN BEGINS left off, with the revelation of Batman’s existence compelling the citizens and bureaucrats of Gotham City to build a better, more-just society.
The cobwebs of organized crime that once riddled the city with corruption have been largely swept away to the fringes, held in check by a debilitating fear of an unexpected appearance by Batman (or one of his many knockoff impersonators).
From his vantage point in a spartan penthouse high above the city, Bruce Wayne overlooks a cleaner Gotham and eagerly anticipates the day when Batman’s brand of vigilante justice can be replaced by legitimate agents, like the ascendant District Attorney, Harvey Dent.
Christian Bale reprises his role from BATMAN BEGINS, finding the iconic hero at the peak of his powers. As this particular incarnation of Bruce Wayne, Bale appears much leaner– gaunt, even– than he did previously. This Bruce is a man who is deep into his obsession with justice, burdened by the philosophical weight of his calling and the growing realization his work may never be done.
His best hope for retirement lies in the efforts of Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart in a performance that draws heavily from the legacy of tragic political idealists like Robert F. Kennedy. Hailed as a “White Knight” and a legitimate response to Batman’s shadow campaign, the city’s new top cop sets about ridding Gotham of corruption through the court system and a relentless zeal for prosecution.
The relationship between Batman and Harvey Dent is the emotional backbone of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story, with both men bound to each other by principle, ambition, and their love for Rachel Dawes.
Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces BATMAN BEGINS’ Katie Holmes, arguably delivering a superior performance that ably evokes the nuanced heartbreak of loving two men who aren’t just willing, but eager to risk their lives in the name of justice. She continues to be a key figure in Bruce Wayne’s life, with the switch in performers hardly registering thanks to the compelling and unexpected way in which Nolan expands and develops the character’s arc to its logical — and tragic — endpoint.
BATMAN BEGINS closed on a triumphant, albeit cautious note– taking great pains to warn of the perils of escalation. Naturally, THE DARK KNIGHT details how this manifests in a world where the good guys dress like bats and leap off of rooftops. As the city’s various criminal factions are squeezed to their breaking point, they turn to a man they don’t understand– a psychotic criminal with no allegiances or backstory and known only as The Joker.
Easily the most recognizable and influential of all Batman’s various villains, The Joker as manifest in Nolan’s universe is, first and foremost, an agent of chaos. He matches Batman’s theatricality even as he positions himself as the Dark Knight’s philosophical antithesis. He spreads his nihilistic worldview by finding and using the weaknesses that lie in his opponents, turning them against themselves and each other.
After teasing his presence at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, there was much anticipation as to just how exactly Nolan would portray The Joker through the prism of his grounded, real-world approach.
The casting of Heath Ledger, then, was met with a significant amount of premature criticism from the blogosphere– here was a good-looking actor who, while generally regarded as a talented thespian, was so completely outside the physicality expected of someone entrusted to play Batman’s most iconic nemesis.
On top of that, Ledger had to compete with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989)– a performance that many considered to be the definitive screen depiction of The Joker. To prepare, Ledger reportedly locked himself away in an isolated motel room for six weeks, keeping a journal he wrote in character and drawing inspiration from figures like Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as he developed and perfected a slithery, serpentine energy all his own.
Topped off by a mop of greasy green hair, smeared face makeup, and a sinister Glasgow Smile, Ledger’s performance immediately silenced the critics the moment he appeared on screen and performed his now-infamous Magic Pencil Trick.
A budding director in his own right, Ledger went as far as directing the Joker’s hostage videos himself– a rare instance of Nolan ceding total directorial control, and an illustratration of both Ledger’s complete command of the character and Nolan’s unwavering trust in him as a collaborator.
The collective interest in Ledger’s depiction of the Joker was no doubt magnified by his untimely death in January 2008, which fueled something of a morbid fascination considering he was playing such a ghoulish character.
When the final product was unveiled, Ledger’s last complete performance was met with unanimous praise by critics and audiences alike, generating a wave of appreciation that culminated in a posthumous Oscar win for the late actor in the Best Supporting Actor category– a first for the superhero genre.
Since then, Ledger’s depiction of The Joker has gone on to invade our collective consciousness, leaving behind a legacy of anarchic iconography that’s been used in anything and everything: from political protest memes, to Halloween costumes and, most unfortunately, real-world copycat killers.
Nolan’s handling of the equally-iconic villain Harvey Two-Face was also fraught with peril– a rogue made infamous by the grotesque disfigurement covering half his body and his penchant for flipping a coin over his murderous decisions, the character as established in the comics was already a far cry from Nolan’s vision of a grounded reality.
Tommy Lee Jones’ hamball depiction in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER (1995) was essentially Diet Joker, so Nolan and Eckhart had a low hurdle to clear when it came to molding an adversary who could hold his own against Ledger’s dominating performance.
As mentioned previously, Harvey Dent’s fall from grace is the major dramatic through-line of THE DARK KNIGHT, with his death having profound implications for Gotham’s future that will resonate through the remainder of the trilogy. Nolan takes great care to establish the monster already lying within before Dent’s fateful transformation, showing how his passion for justice and his friends can be perverted and twisted in a way that betrays his core principles.
The loss of Rachel Dawes and the burning of half his body in a gasoline fire orchestrated by The Joker doesn’t drive him to evil, it only brings out the evil that was there all along– simmering beneath his good looks and cool confidence. Nolan and Eckhart wisely imbue Harvey Two-Face with a tragic sympathy that allows the audience to swallow the more outlandish aspects of his character, and more crucially, mourn for the loss of Gotham’s bright future during his brief reign of terror.
Owing to the film’s epic sense of scope and vision of a city gripped by crisis, a large supporting cast anchors Nolan’s core players while serving as a testament to his ability to attract prestigious talent. Familiar faces like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy reprise their respective roles from BATMAN BEGINS, their loyalty rewarded with compelling dramatic arcs all their own.
Caine’s Alfred is the same dependable old butler he’s always been, but the burden of keeping Bruce’s secrets is clearly beginning to take its toll on him. Freeman’s Lucius Fox continues to balance supplying Batman with updated crime-fighting gear while running Wayne Enterprises, but we also find him grappling with the ethical dilemmas inherent in assisting a vigilante unbound by the constraints of legitimate justice systems.
In order to find and combat The Joker, Batman has to resort to ever more-precarious methods of surveillance that blur the line between right and wrong– in this context, Fox becomes something of a cypher for 2008 audiences grappling with their own ideological standing on The War On Terror’s overreaching domestic surveillance measures. Oldman’s Jim Gordon is more grizzled and battle-hardened since we last saw him, and his continued immunity against corruption sees him finally elevated to his character’s classic rank of Commissioner.
As Jonathan Crane and his villainous alter-ego Scarecrow, Murphy finds his character having fallen on hard times since the failure of his plot in BATMAN BEGINS– his influence reduced to that of a lowly drug dealer hawking his toxic fear compound as a recreational hallucinogen.
A few new faces join the fray, such as Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell, Anthony Michael Hall, and William Fichtner. Roberts plays the smug heir to the Falcone crime empire, Salvatore Marone; his general ineffectiveness symbolizing organized crime’s waning grip on the city.
Carbonell draws influence from real-world bureaucrats like then-Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in his performance as Gotham City’s mayor, Anthony Garcia — a confident and idealistic politician who is eager to usher in a new age of prosperity for his beloved city.
Hall, better known for his turns in various John Hughes movies as a gangly awkward teenager, appears all grown-up here as a prominent news anchor who finds himself ensnared by The Joker’s masterful manipulation of the media. Fichtner is the first of Nolan’s many nods to Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), cast as a feisty bank clerk during the Joker’s robbery sequence that opens the film.
Whereas BATMAN BEGINS used the idea of fear as its thematic backbone, THE DARK KNIGHT organizes its narrative around the central theme of chaos. The Joker’s chief objective is to break down the established order by calling attention to the fragility of the ideological pillars that hold it up.
A rigid structure that won’t bend will break instead, rendering itself ineffective against a force that needs no structure whatsoever. He sows the seed of doubt in his victims, calling into question their inherent natures, and then simply sits back and enjoys the ensuing fireworks as they do the destruction for him.
A perfect example of this is the chaos that ensues when The Joker calls on the citizens of Gotham to murder a Wayne employee who is threatening to reveal the identity of Batman. If the man isn’t dead within an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital– the identity of which he strategically declines to divulge. Faced with the prospect of losing their loved ones, the citizens of Gotham turn out en masse to eliminate the employee, besieging the police with an overwhelming and unpredictable wave of opposition.
THE DARK KNIGHT’s expansive canvas allows for the exploration of several other core concepts that inform the greater scope of the trilogy, such as escalation and various sociopolitical systems. Foreshadowed by Gordon at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, escalation becomes a major driving force of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story– in their desperation, Gotham’s criminal underworld takes on a theatricality to match Batman’s, while their efforts become more pronounced and destructive.
Batman’s vigilantism inspires a slew of copycat wanna-be’s decked out in hockey pads and armed with shotguns. Even Batman’s crime-fighting techniques become more invasive and unethical as he’s forced to lower himself to combat The Joker’s unconventional campaign.
Indeed, Christopher Nolan uses THE DARK KNIGHT to explore how the cost of justice is higher when doing combat with an agent of chaos– the sheer unpredictability and absence of a pattern necessitates the blurring of the thin blue line that stands between criminality and law & order. While these ideas resonate regardless of time or context, THE DARK KNIGHT felt profoundly resonant in 2008, drawing clear parallels to the Bush Administration’s use of overreaching measures like the Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home and abroad.
Critics were divided on whether Nolan’s treatment of the subject matter was critical or actually supportive of these policies, which reflects not on Nolan’s ability to convey a stance on the subject, but rather the ethical quandaries that such a complicated subject engenders. Rather than simply retread his exploration of the justice system from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan finds new avenues to wander, showing how the system is limited by the arbitrary boundaries of jurisdiction.
A city cop in New York simply can’t go and arrest someone in Boston, for example– only an agency with federal jurisdiction like the FBI can do that. However, a vigilante unaffiliated with an official law enforcement agency has no such limitation. THE DARK KNIGHT finds Batman venturing outside of Gotham for the first time on-screen, traveling to Hong Kong to forcibly extraditable a corrupt accountant back to Gotham to answer for his crimes there.
As Batman, he can do things the Gotham PD can’t– a power that serves him well when needed, but also casts the nature of his heroism into doubt. One of the film’s most memorable lines belongs to Harvey Dent: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”.
The legality of Batman’s crimefighting forays has always been a grey area, but can usually be justified on an ethical level. The nature of The Joker’s antagonism forces Batman to compromise his ethics, building a giant array of networked cell phones that visualizes signals into a kind of sonar so that he can better track his nemesis.
Indeed, the manipulation of communications systems like cell phones, satellites, and transmission towers as weapons to use against the populace echoes BATMAN BEGINS’ use of water & transportation systems for similar ends.
The blatant privacy invasion of spying on the city’s population via their cell phones has profound implications for the righteousness of Batman’s quest, setting the stage for his self-imposed exile at the end of the film.
The Joker’s self-proclaimed “ace in the hole” is his turning of Dent into a homicidal maniac– a development that stands to destroy the morale of Gotham’s citizens and tear down everything Batman and Gordon have worked so far to build. In order to beat The Joker, Batman realizes he must take the fall for Dent’s crimes, sacrificing his heroic standing so that the dream of a better Gotham can survive.
THE DARK KNIGHT represents a major turning point in the development of Nolan’s visual aesthetic, establishing a super-sized approach to cinematic spectacle that’s since become his dominant artistic signature. The bulk of the picture was shot on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but in his pursuit of higher image quality over technical gimmickry, Nolan chose to shoot crucial action sequences and other select shots with IMAX cameras.
A longtime tenant in the nature documentary realm, IMAX had never been used to shoot all or even a portion of a conventional Hollywood feature, and for good reason: the cameras were gigantic, bulky, and cumbersome, and the mechanical noise produced by the 70mm film running horizontally through the camera meant that any sound captured on-set was often unusable.
Shooting a simple dialogue scene, let alone an ambitious action sequence, posed enormous logistical problems that would scare away any filmmaker– but Nolan was undeterred; he reasoned that if an IMAX camera could be lugged up into space, then there’s no reason it couldn’t be used for studio filmmaking.
This understandably caused no shortage of skepticism and trepidation on the part of Nolan’s crew — especially the Steadicam operator, who had to physically mount that monster onto his body on a regular basis — but Nolan’s supreme confidence and eagerness to innovate pushed them through their initial wariness to deliver an awe-inspiring cinematic experience the likes of which had never been seen before.
Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister found they had to adjust certain aspects of their style accordingly, such as designing their IMAX compositions to leave a significant amount of dead space at the top of the frame.
This was done to compensate for their discovery that audiences faced with a four-story screen had to keep their eyes trained towards the center out of sheer necessity. While the use of IMAX is vital to conveying the truly epic scale of Nolan’s vision, its intermixing with the Cinemascope 35mm footage makes for an admittedly disorienting viewing experience at first– especially on home video.
While he uses IMAX mostly for self-contained sequences like the opening bank heist, he also employs it for select aerials and individual “statement” shots, which causes an abrupt change in the aspect ratio, filling out the screen at one moment and then compressing into the letterbox form factor in another.
To Nolan’s credit, however, one becomes quickly accustomed to the shift, and it ultimately doesn’t detract from the power of his storytelling. It is a testament to Nolan’s reputation as a visionary that his use of IMAX has only seldomly been adopted by other directors– indeed, shooting a large portion of his films in the format has become a high-profile artistic signature of his, to the degree that anyone else who tries it risks being seen as a copycat or a pale imitation.
Rather than simply replicate the general aesthetic of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan and returning collaborators, Wally Pfister and Nathan Crowley, expand upon its conceit of a cinematic reality by further embracing an air of immediate and visceral realism in the sequel. Pfister’s cinematography departs from the amber-toned look of BATMAN BEGINS in favor of a colder, steel & stone color palette that consists primarily of greys, blues, and greens.
Nolan maintains his use of classical, spectacle-oriented camerawork, covering Batman’s crime-fighting forays with a mixture of grandiose dolly shots, majestic cranes, and sweeping helicopter aerials while also sprinkling in the occasional handheld move, speeding Russian arm maneuver, or circular dolly.
The circular dolly in particular is an admittedly overused technique in contemporary filmmaking — a quick and easy way to add stylistic flair — but Nolan finds the perfect use for it in a sequence where the Joker taunts Rachel Dawes at a high society political fundraiser, unmooring the audience’s sense of safety and building the suspense with a dizzying loss of control.
In a rather surprising move for a Batman film, Nolan chooses to stage a great deal of THE DARK KNIGHT in the cold light of day. As such, the film’s aesthetic deals in bright washes of natural light instead of the sculpted theatricality of BATMAN BEGINS’ noir-influenced lighting scheme.
Crowley’s production design echoes this sentiment, foregoing the control of a soundstage for the tactile realism of a location shoot. Nolan and his team once again use Chicago as the base for their particular conception of Gotham, but refrain from obscuring it behind layers of exaggeration and stylistic artifice as they did on BATMAN BEGINS.
As a result, the Gotham City of THE DARK KNIGHT feels like a real world location, and not one from a comic book. Just look at the dramatic differences in the facade of Wayne Tower between the two films– BATMAN BEGINS features Wayne Tower as a grand Art Deco spire anchored to the center of Gotham, whereas THE DARK KNIGHT’s rendition is simply just another hulking slab of concrete and glass rendered in a generic, corporate style of architecture.
This isn’t Nolan and Crowley’s only major departure from established BATMAN lore– the sacking of Wayne Manor in the previous installment gives the filmmakers an excuse to relocate Bruce to a spartan penthouse high above the city, which makes for a compelling change of scenery while adhering to the core themes of Nolan’s story.
Gone too is the iconic Batcave, replaced by a minimalist bunker hidden underneath a shipping yard and accessed via an elevator hidden inside an unassuming container. It’s here that Batman temporarily stores his computers, suits, and his Tumbler, which Nolan has the audacity to destroy during a major chase sequence.
In doing so, he reveals a secondary vehicle hidden inside: the Batpod, which is essentially a futuristic motorcycle built from the machinery around the Tumbler’s oversized front tires and gifted with the kind of supernatural maneuverability that the Hell’s Angels could only dream of.
The major risk in developing Batman’s world out to include more toys and tech is the power it gives to the merchandising department — it is, after all, the original sin that sunk Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN and put the franchise into a coma for nearly a decade.
Thankfully, Nolan’s expansion of Batman’s crime-fighting tools is done first and foremost in service to story, merchandising needs be damned. This kind of artistic integrity strengthens his overall vision, giving it a palpable weight and gravitas that commonly eludes other comic book adaptations.
On the postproduction side, Nolan retains key collaborators like editor Lee Smith and composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Grandiose but understated at the same time, Lee’s work often gets lost in the conversation, upstaged by the more immediate aspects of THE DARK KNIGHT’s craftsmanship.
However, Lee proves himself a crucial contributor to Nolan’s aesthetic, his ability to trace and intercut multiple parallel lines of action across one sustained sequence dovetailing effortlessly with Nolan’s epic scope and penchant for orchestrating the action like a symphony– each character thread becoming, in effect, its own instrument; played in harmony with the others and swelling to a climactic crescendo.
A prime example of this is the fateful sequence where Batman must choose to save Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent, only for his choice to be foiled by The Joker’s tricky manipulations.
There’s several different threads going on here that Nolan and Smith must track– Rachel and Harvey being held captive, each in a separate location that’s primed to explode at the same time; Batman, racing across the city to save Rachel; Gordon with the assist, racing to the other end of the city to save Harvey; and The Joker, stuck in custody at the MCU and taunting his captors even as he puts his escape plan into action.
Nolan and Smith expertly orchestrate a cascading series of events towards their stunning conclusion, cross-cutting between the various threads so as to wring out the maximum amount of suspense.
The original score by Zimmer and Howard works overtime in this regard, driving the action with a thundering orchestral sound that develops and expands upon the themes introduced in BATMAN BEGINS. A brand new theme for The Joker was to be expected, but Zimmer and Howard manage to produce a unique sound that no one could have expected.
Foregoing any sort of symphonic sound entirely, the composing team captures the anarchic essence of The Joker by distilling his theme down to a single, solitary note. A mix of string instruments are electronically manipulated to produce an unconventional sound, their pitch seemingly escalating in perpetuity without breaking.
The effect is profoundly — and appropriately — unsettling, like dancing on the edge of a razor. The Joker’s theme mirrors the minimalism of Batman’s theme even as it becomes its ideological counterweight, musically reinforcing THE DARK KNIGHT’s emphasis on Batman’s and The Joker’s yin-and-yang relationship in an inspired and wholly unexpected manner.
With its ambitions and successful execution as a sprawling urban crime drama, THE DARK KNIGHT owes a profound debt to the influence of Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, HEAT. A self-styled acolyte of Mann’s, Nolan finds in THE DARK KNIGHT a prime opportunity to make his own HEAT equivalent, albeit one where the bank robbers wear clown masks instead of ski masks.
Indeed, there are many direct connections to Mann’s film that we can draw from THE DARK KNIGHT. In both its conception and execution, the opening bank heist sequence reads as a comic book twist on HEAT’s centerpiece scene, right down to the tactical minutiae and precision timing the criminals employ to successfully carry out the operation.
It’s not a coincidence that William Fichtner cameos in this scene, his presence serving as a playful nod to his Van Zandt character from HEAT. While Van Zandt was a fairly meek criminal banker predisposed to hiding out in his office when the going got rough, here he’s empowered with the braggadocious confidence that only a high-powered shotgun can provide.
HEAT’s influence continues to course through THE DARK KNIGHT, whether it’s the latter inheriting the former’s signature cobalt & steel color palette, or Bruce’s spartan penthouse echoing Neil McCauley’s infamously empty beachside condo.
The fateful interrogation sequence between Batman and The Joker riffs on HEAT’s iconic coffee shop scene, with both staging themselves respectively as a battle of wits between two men sitting around a table and psychoanalyzing each other until they realize they have met their ideological inverse and intellectual equal.
Additionally, Gordon is shown heading up Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, the same department that Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna commanded in HEAT. Indeed, Nolan lavishes a substantial amount of attention on the inner workings of the law enforcement complex as it pertains to government and the maintaining of order.
Naturally, they have their work cut out for them in regards to The Joker, and must respond in a far more dramatic fashion than Hanna’s crew in HEAT ever did. Among its many praises during release, critics marveled how THE DARK KNIGHT had transcended the trappings of the superhero genre to become a truly great urban crime drama– even then, the comparisons to HEAT were admittedly immediate, but the fact remains that, by applying HEAT’s storytelling template to the world of Batman, Nolan showed that a comic book movie could be so much more than its source material, and that the character of Batman was more relevant to our current political climate than ever before.
THE DARK KNIGHT echoes Tim Burton’s sequel BATMAN RETURNS, in that both he and Nolan found their sensibilities somewhat constrained on their respective first films by the nature of the property and the expectations of the fans. In other words, they were compelled to deliver fairly straightforward takes on the Caped Crusader while suppressing certain aspects of their artistic signature.
The opportunity of a sequel repays their good faith, giving them more creative control as a reward for their responsible stewardship. In this regard, THE DARK KNIGHT is first and foremost a Christopher Nolan film, and a Batman movie second.
The character provides a natural conduit for the exploration and development of many of Nolan’s directorial signatures, to the extent that THE DARK KNIGHT becomes a defining work in his filmography.
Nolan’s narratives have always concerned the personal and intimate plights of profoundly-flawed male protagonists, but BATMAN BEGINS marked the turning point where these plights began to play out on an epic, monumental scale. The grief and rage that drives Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego had been well-established in BATMAN BEGINS and the decades of comic book lore prior, and those same scars continue to inform the character in THE DARK KNIGHT.
His psychological issues remain unresolved, even after delivering Gotham into a period of relative peace and prosperity– his parents are still dead, and his love for Rachel Dawes remains unrequited. The events of THE DARK KNIGHT compound his trauma by shattering his hopes for a better life with Rachel, as well as his dream of the day when he can give up the mantle of Batman entirely.
Indeed, Bruce’s emotional trajectory throughout the film revolves around his questioning the necessity of Batman’s existence and the devastating consequences he’s wrought upon the city he swore to protect. The two and a half-hour running time provides ample room for Bruce’s arc to play out on Nolan’s largest scale yet, showing how his actions reverberate throughout the whole of Gotham.
As mentioned previously, Nolan even finds the time and a justifiable narrative reason for Batman to travel to Hong Kong, further expanding the scope of his story while satisfying his own directorial fondness for globetrotting narratives. While many other blockbuster spectacles can lay claim to a similar epic scale on running time or narrative sprawl alone, very few deliver it with the visceral weight and tangible physicality that THE DARK KNIGHT and Nolan’s larger filmography does.
His pursuit of practical effects wherever possible is undoubtedly a key contributor to this effect, grounding THE DARK KNIGHT’s astonishing cascade of spectacle with the gravity of real-world physics.
The world of computer-generated imagery allows us to destroy entire star systems or bring back actors long since dead, but as impressive as those visual feats are, they somehow pale in comparison to the visceral physicality of flipping a Freightliner upside-down on an actual city street or physically blowing up the entirety of a full-scale building.
Of course, one simply can’t make a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT without a generous dose of CGI, but by choosing practical in-camera effects wherever possible, Nolan successfully imbues the film with the kind of monumental gravitas that marked the classic epics from which he drew inspiration.
The bulk of Nolan’s larger filmography takes place in urban environs– as such, man’s relationship with architecture and the built environment forms an integral component of his artistic aesthetic.
THE DARK KNIGHT surveys the tapestry of urban life and its various social systems from a birds-eye view, encompassing so much of the city’s sprawl that many critics at the time argued a better title for the film would have been, simply, “GOTHAM CITY”.
Just as he examines how the contours of Gotham shape the flow of his narrative, so too does Nolan use THE DARK KNIGHT to explore the malleability of the urban landscape, and how those same contours can be actively reshaped for the purposes of criminality or justice.
Batman’s ability to glide between rooftops allows him to navigate the urban labyrinth of Gotham in a manner far different than the civilians below. He can create doors and entrances for himself where there were none previously.
He can take advantage of negative space within a building’s design, turning it into a shortcut accessible only to him. An arsenal of equipment and a re-tooled Batsuit facilitates these abilities, giving him an edge by navigating Gotham in ways that conventional law enforcement officials cannot.
The Joker enjoys similar advantages, albeit through lower-tech tools like gunpowder and gasoline, but his use of them nonetheless positions him as Batman’s equal and a formidable counterweight.
Their mutual ascent to this elevated plane naturally manifests in a palpable theatricality, which Nolan balances with his artistic interest in functional style. A common complaint shared by previous Batmen like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s current iteration alike is the sheer discomfort of Batman’s latex rubber suit– the outfit was a single, heavy piece that was hot, stuffy, and greatly restricted mobility and vision.
Bale famously channeled the anger and the crippling headaches he felt inside the suit into his performance for BATMAN BEGINS, using the pain and discomfort to his benefit. For THE DARK KNIGHT, the filmmakers wanted to design a new, functional Batsuit that would reduce these problems, and so replaced the latex with individual plates of armor conjoined by a mesh undersuit.
The final result is a dramatic reinterpretation of Batman’s iconic outfit that maintains the classic silhouette– a design that Nolan actively works into the narrative by having Bruce communicate to Lucius Fox his desire for a more functional suit that can stand up to the elevated threat posed by The Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime’s sartorial sensibilities also echo the conceit of functional style– his scraggly purple suit pays homage to the character’s classically campy appearance from the comic books while staying within the confines of Nolan’s grounded reality.
As evidenced by the fact that his handmade clothing contains no labels, The Joker’s choice of outfit appropriately conveys his anarchic identity, but it also serves a tactical use– whether it’s the cavernous pockets of his overcoat hiding an array of explosives rigged to his person, or a stinger blade hidden in his boots that can pop out at will.
Finally, one cannot talk about THE DARK KNIGHT as a definitive work in Nolan’s canon without mention of what is arguably the core component of his directorial identity– time, and the manipulation thereof. BATMAN BEGINS unspooled in somewhat non-linear fashion, incorporating flashbacks at strategic story junctures as Bruce gradually became Batman.
With his vigilante alter-ego firmly established, THE DARK KNIGHT naturally inhabits a constant forward flow of time; its story progressing in linear order. That being said, the manipulation of time does serve an important narrative function. The trope of the “ticking clock” is about as cliched as they come, but it’s nonetheless a vital tool to generate suspense for the audience.
The Joker incorporates this tool into his own arsenal, using “the ticking clock” as a way to persuade his victims to act against their self-interests or compromise their principles. The best instance of this is also one of the highlights of the entire film– a nail-biting suspense sequence where two ferries carrying a load of law-abiding civilians and incarcerated felons respectively are revealed to be rigged with explosives.
The Joker’s characteristic twist on the situation is that he’s given both boats the detonator to the other bomb, challenging them each to blow the other sky-high before a predetermined time– if neither side hits the button before time runs out, then he’ll personally blow both boats with his own detonator. This sets up an agonizing moral quandary for the occupants of either boat: do they destroy the other boat to save their own lives? The fact that one of the boats is filled with convicted criminals adds another wrinkle to the dilemma– the law-abiding civilians would be justified in hitting the button, citing their fear that the criminals would not have the same respect for human life as they do.
However, to do so would be to pass blind judgment on the inmates, denying their humanity and capacity for compassion and, in effect, making them more inhuman than the killers and rapists they stand to destroy.
This sequence, which could have made for a captivating feature film in its own right, uses the pressure of a ticking clock to effortlessly distill THE DARK KNIGHT’s core conflict between civilized society and anarchy to its ideological essence.
Additionally, Nolan’s fondness for cross-cutting between parallel threads of action allows him to manipulate time himself, compressing it into one cosmic instance across sprawling distances. Naturally, this does away with the objective truth that real time provides, but Nolan inherently understands that cinema has the unique ability to subvert the flow of time while uncovering the emotional truth hidden underneath.
To Nolan, time is not an unstoppable, forward-marching force beyond our control — it is merely another storytelling tool; a dimension that can be stepped outside of and manipulated to his will. THE DARK KNIGHT makes frequent use of this technique, structuring its story around several nexus points of action like the opening bank heist, the Hong Kong extradition, the Wacker Drive chase, or the hostage situation in the unfinished tower, and subsequently compressing time and space into tidy narrative blocks that each build to a cathartic emotional release.
The end result is an experience that some critics decried as a breathless succession of 3rd-Act climaxes– an admittedly reductive judgment, to be sure, but one that aims to convey the impression that a lot happens in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Simply put, Nolan’s vision for the film is exhaustive; his epic ambitions and his tackling of some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore combine to make what is arguably the ultimate screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader. Nolan’s ability to compress long narrative distances over short spans of time is a key aspect of his artistic skill set, and in the case of THE DARK KNIGHT, it is a major driving force behind the film’s critical and commercial success.
Indeed, to call THE DARK KNIGHT “a success” is an extreme understatement– it’s essentially THE GODFATHER PART II of superhero films in both execution and critical standing. By any reasonable metric, the film’s release and reception proved a watershed moment in mainstream studio filmmaking, the effects of which are still reverberating across the cinematic landscape nearly a decade later.
Just as BATMAN BEGINS sparked the trend of the “dark and gritty” reboot, THE DARK KNIGHT inspired a countless wave of bombastic imitators that drew the wrong lessons from Nolan’s success, like equating an epic scope with bloated running times or reveling in misguided dramatic beats masquerading as “bold” storytelling.
Produced for $185 million dollars and scoring over a billion dollars in ticket sales to become the 26th highest-grossing film of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT was a box office success of biblical proportions. To put this into perspective, it only took six days for THE DARK KNIGHT to surpass the numbers posted by BATMAN BEGINS’ entire domestic run.
The film’s monumental success was the result of a perfect storm of factors: it belonged to an iconic franchise with a rabid global fanbase, it was a highly-anticipated sequel to a well-received predecessor, and it was film by a director known for his riveting storytelling and impeccable technical craftsmanship, to name just a few.
The X factor, the one thing it had that other films of its caliber did not, was Ledger’s tragic death– and the morbid curiosity it fueled at the prospect of witnessing the final performance of an actor as such a ghoulish character.
Nolan’s desire to transcend the confines of the comic book genre propelled THE DARK KNIGHT all the way to the Oscars, where it was nominated in eight categories and would win for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor.
The Academy obviously leaves a tangible impression on the films it honors, but rarely does it happen the other way around– THE DARK KNIGHT’s failure to score a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director was seen by many in the industry as an injustice (if not an outright travesty), and the ensuing chatter was so loud that, the following year, the Academy doubled the number of nomination slots in the Best Picture category from five to ten in a bid to be more inclusive of well-received films that didn’t quiet meet the conventional expectations of an “Oscar-worthy” picture.
It may have failed to enshrine itself in Oscar glory, but THE DARK KNIGHT is a triumph from every conceivable angle.
It’s not hyperbole to call THE DARK KNIGHT the most quintessential mainstream American film of the 2000’s– its identity is profoundly shaped by the ideas and anxieties that drove the course of history around it.
As for Christopher Nolan himself, the film is arguably his most definitive work– the capstone to a towering and influential body of work that still has several decades yet to play out.
Nolan: INCEPTION (2010)
With the staggering success of THE DARK KNIGHT, director Christopher Nolan was in a prime position to make whatever he wanted. Rather than capitalize off his momentum with a third Batman film, he turned instead to a long-gestating passion project he’d been thinking about since he was a teenager.
He’d always been fascinated by the experience of dreams, drawing many parallels between the nonlinear logic of dreamscapes to his professional practice as a filmmaker.
He pitched his initial kernel of this idea to Warner Brothers after the completion of INSOMNIA, describing it as something of a horror film set within the architecture of the mind. With the studio’s approval, he went off to write it as a spec that he would simply deliver as soon as he finished it.
That process would ultimately take eight years, its slow pace dictated by the rigorous mind pretzels required in formulating its plot as well as his expansive and time-consuming forays into the Batman universe. Given the name INCEPTION, the script that Nolan delivered to Warner Brothers in 2009 was a far cry from what he had initially pitched– indeed, he had orchestrated an action thriller so complex and stunningly inventive that it could be thought of as the ultimate “high concept” movie.
Naturally, the price tag to realize such an effort would be enough to stop other filmmakers in their tracks, but INCEPTION’s $160 million budget was an easy ask considering Nolan had just delivered one of Warner Brother’s most successful films in its century-long history.
Even then, the studio had to partner with Legendary Pictures just to cover it all. In relatively short order, Nolan and his producing partner / wife, Emma Thomas, were off shooting his seventh feature film– one of the most ambitious and original visions cinema had ever seen.
INCEPTION is structured as a fantastical heist set, in Nolan’s words, within the architecture of the mind. While the story is packed with an overwhelming amount of fantastical imagery, arguably the most outlandish aspect is the proposed existence of experimental military technology that allows people to enter and act within an individual’s dreams. Nolan’s story focuses on a rogue group that has repurposed this technology to extract information from a target’s subconscious in the name of corporate espionage.
As mentioned in a previous episode, Nolan’s microbudget indie debut FOLLOWING can be read as something like a first draft of the story that would ultimately become INCEPTION. Both films are structured as heists of the mind, and both feature a slickly-dressed character named Cobb.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the latter iteration– a major score for Nolan personally, as he had endeavored to work with the actor many times before and had thus far been unable to secure his participation.
It’s interesting, then, to note that DiCaprio’s portrayal of protagonist Dom Cobb seems to be a fictionalization of Nolan himself, from his unique intellectual acuity down to the external aspects like a shared hairstyle, goatee, and buttoned-down sartorial sense.
The latest tortured hero in Nolan’s grand parade of them, Cobb is a reluctant expat with a tragic past, and is given the chance to return to his children in the States by a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito.
Played by BATMAN BEGINS’ Ken Watanabe in a role that makes full use of his refined talents, Saito offers Cobb this last shot at redemption in exchange for a journey into the mind of a business rival with the aim to plant the idea of dissolving his company into his mind.
To help him achieve this task, Cobb recruits a crew of professionals, each with their own specialty.
In determining what particular talents would translate to the manipulation of the dream state, Nolan used the roles he knew best: the various positions of a film crew. As such, each member of Cobb’s team possesses expertise and experience analogous to the filmmaking process. If Cobb is the director, then his manager / researcher, Arthur, is his producer.
Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Arthur is cool, calm, and collected under pressure, but finds himself frequently tangling with Cobb over things he couldn’t have accounted for. The production designer finds her analogue in Ellen Page’s Ariadne, a graduate architecture student who puts her talents to work designing the worlds of these dreams.
A charismatic master of disguise, Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, describes himself as a “forger”, embodying any role needed to manipulate the target much like an actor does. Saito acts much like a studio, bankrolling the entire operation and insisting on overseeing the process so that he can ensure his funds are spent wisely.
All of the crew’s efforts are focused towards manipulating the emotions of Robert Fischer, the petulant heir to a vast business empire. Played by Cillian Murphy in his third of many appearances throughout Nolan’s work, Fischer becomes aware of the crew’s attempts to deceive and incept him.
They must suspend his disbelief while appealing to his emotion, to the extent that they eventually bring him into the heist himself as an active participant. Knowing all this, it becomes clear that Fischer is akin to the audience, albeit a particularly savvy one that’s seen it all before and stands resistant to cinema’s transcendent charms.
Nolan’s supporting cast doesn’t quite deal in the same clear-cut filmmaking metaphors as Cobb’s crew, but they nevertheless turn in compelling performances that reinforce the director’s ability to attract some of the finest talent around. Since BATMAN BEGINS, Michael Caine has become a stalwart presence in Nolan’s work.
His performance here as university professor and Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles, amounts to little more than a cameo in terms of screentime, but his presence injects a profound emotional resonance to the story by making him the last living link Cobb has to his own children.
Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, who killed herself over her inability to separate her dreams from her reality and now lives on as a malevolent projection of Cobb’s subconscious, sabotaging his efforts at every turn.
The character is arguably more of a plot device than a full-fledged entity, but Cotillard nevertheless gives it her all, creating a beautiful, menacing ghost who haunts not just Cobb’s dreams, but every aspect of his waking life.
Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Pete Postlethwaite round out INCEPTION’s cast of note: Haas as the original architect on Cobb’s crew who’s given up to Saito’s colleagues when he bungles a mission; Rao as the chemist who creates the specialized sedative that enables shared dreaming; Postlethwaite, in one of his final roles, as Robert Fischer’s bedridden father; and Berenger as Fischer’s business partner and an advisor of sorts to Robert.
Visually speaking, INCEPTION is arguably Nolan’s most audacious work, filled to the brim with wild, impossible imagery. Nolan continues his creative partnership with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to win the Academy Award for his efforts here.
INCEPTION reinforces Nolan’s commitment to film, as well as his preference for large formats over marketing gimmickry like 3D– indeed, the studio had initially approached him to shoot the film in 3D, but thankfully Nolan had the clout to flat-out deny their request. Instead, he and Pfister capture their preferred 2.35:1 frame on good, old-fashioned 2D 35mm film. Despite his positive experiences shooting on IMAX cameras for THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan doesn’t employ the format here, but he does use the 65mm film gauge for select shots.
For an action thriller taking place entirely inside the mind, INCEPTION boasts a staggering, monumental scope consistent with his previous work. Towards that end, Nolan blends classical and modern camerawork, mixing grandiose crane and helicopter aerial shots with visceral handheld setups and smooth Steadicam runs.
The story also provides ample opportunity to explore varying frame rates, availing Nolan of techniques like speed-ramping and extreme slow motion to better convey the varying speeds of time across parallel tiers of dream space.
A somewhat-neutral stone & steel palette drives the overall color theory behind INCEPTION, but Nolan and Pfister take great pains to establish distinct looks for the various dreamscapes– especially during the climactic sequence, as a means for the audience to better track their orientation across a relentless cascade of cross-cuts and parallel action.
The first tier, in which Yusuf wildly drives a van to evade his pursuers, uses a torrential downpour of rain to justify a foggy, cold look with a heavy cobalt color cast. The next tier down is the hotel, rendered in a warm amber patina and pools of concentrated light.
Going another level down, a snowy mountainscape topped by a concrete fortress deals in stark monochromatic tones, with little else but the crew’s skin tones to provide color. Finally, we come to limbo–raw, unstructured dream space where decades can pass in a span of minutes in real time. Nolan and Pfister use varying shades of gray here, as if to suggest the pure building blocks of the subconscious before we color them in with our experiences and our environment.
Expectedly, a considerable amount of computer-generated imagery is necessary to fully realize limbo, as well as some of the more outlandish visuals the film presents.
However, Nolan stays true to his convictions regarding the supremacy of practical effects, always using an in-camera element as the foundation of the shot and employing digital wizardry only when absolutely necessary.
As such, INCEPTION boasts far fewer digital effects shots than most spectacle epics of its ilk– 500 compared to today’s standard of 2000 plus.
Christopher Nolan goes to great lengths to reinforce his legacy as a visual magician of the highest order– where other filmmakers would simply let computers digitally insert a train ramming through downtown traffic, Nolan drops a physical train onto a real street, rigging it up in the precise manner needed to achieve the shot.
In his pursuit of delivering the impossible through practical effects, he even manages to one-up director Stanley Kubrick by expanding upon the techniques he developed for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s mind-bending space station sequences.
In order to realize a stunning hallway fight sequence in varying degrees of gravity, Nolan builds the entirety of the set on a massive gimbal capable of tilting every conceivable angle while also rotating a full 360 degrees.
By fixing the camera’s perspective to the set and not the actors’, he’s able to create breathtaking images of fighting on ceilings and walls. This drive to shoot as much in-camera as possible informs Nolan’s overall visual approach, making us believe in the impossible while safeguarding his creation from the inevitable advances in digital effects technology that otherwise might date INCEPTION’s visuals as crude and primitive.
Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley is absent here, leaving Guy Hendrix Dyas to act in his stead. The rest of Nolan’s core team of collaborators remains intact, with returning editor Lee Smith expertly navigating the labyrinthine and intellectually-dense plotting, and composer Hans Zimmer providing yet another instantly-iconic original score.
Zimmer’s innovative, minimalist inclinations would not only score him an Oscar nomination, but would also go on to influence pop culture in surprising ways. A blend of old and new sounds, the score finds Zimmer recruiting The Smiths’ Johnny Marr to perform a moody electric guitar riff that recalls the midcentury cool of the James Bond films.
This element serves as the base of a larger electronic and orchestral texture, with thundering brass and lush strings that also would not be out of place in a Bond film. Nolan doesn’t employ needledrops often, so when he does, the audience would do well to pay close attention to its importance to the narrative at hand.
In this regard, Nolan incorporates an Edith Piaf song directly into the storyline, becoming an audio cue that Cobb’s crew employs to sync up their timescales across multiple tiers of dreamscape.
Zimmer takes this idea and runs with it, slowing down the track to the point where it becomes an unrecognizable texture of raw sound and throbbing percussion. In the process, he achieves what is easily one of INCEPTION’s biggest contributions to pop culture– the brassy “BRAHM” blasts that countless movie trailers have since copied to the point of parody.
A film stuffed to the brim with the themes and imagery that Nolan has spent a lifetime exploring, it’s not inconceivable to see INCEPTION as the director’s most definitive work– even more so than THE DARK KNIGHT, when considering its original storyline, unencumbered by the constraints of any pre-existing intellectual property.
The narrative affords Nolan the opportunity to explore and indulge in his fascination with the mechanics of time in a comprehensive and integral manner– befitting their place in a heist film, Cobb’s crew naturally races against a ticking clock, but they are uniquely positioned to alter the bounds of the race itself.
The relativistic relationship of time across several parallel tiers of the subconscious becomes their ace in the hole. By venturing deeper into a dream-within-a-dream, into a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, and so on, Cobb’s crew finds that time slows down in proportion to the tier above it.
What passes for a minute of real time would be an hour in tier 1 of the dreamscape, while decades will pass in limbo during that same span. Likewise, when Saito is shot early on during the heist, he’s able to regain some of his health, his wounds working slower and slower as he descends the various tiers.
INCEPTION’s unique take on the mechanics of time is a singular signature of Nolan’s– only he could stage a twenty-minute action sequence within the time it takes for a van to plunge off a bridge into the water.
The heist format enables Nolan’s further exploration of functional style, evidenced in the slick, well-tailored suits that Cobb’s crew wear throughout the film as a manifestation of their professional attitude.
The constant presence of suits, tactical combat gear, and even tuxedos can’t help but remind one of the James Bond films– no doubt an intentional move on Nolan’s part as a lifelong fan of the series. Indeed, INCEPTION at times feels like Nolan’s audition for the director’s chair on the Bond franchise, right down to the snow fortress ski chase designed to pay tribute to his favorite 007 film, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.
The globetrotting nature of Nolan’s aesthetic, and INCEPTION in particular, reinforces this notion, featuring the characters jetting around to exotic locales like Mombasa, Paris and Tokyo as well as abstract interior spaces like limbo. Nolan even structures the climactic heist so that it takes place while his characters are flying over the Pacific.
Like THE DARK KNIGHT before it, INCEPTION also draws considerable influence from Michael Mann’s HEAT, in that Nolan stages his own version of that film’s iconic downtown LA shootout– albeit with a degree of restraint that keeps his efforts in service to the story and firmly out of the territory of full-blown homage.
As evidenced by the logo of Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, the iconography of mazes and puzzles have become a defining feature of his artistry– a conceit that INCEPTION revels in with its labyrinthine plot structures that turn the world around its characters into a giant Rubik’s Cube.
Architecture and the malleability of the urban environment plays a big role in this regard, as the characters are empowered via lucid dreaming to actively reshape the environment around them.
This leads to some of the film’s most iconic imagery, such as the scene where Ariadne peels back the horizon as if it were on a hinge, causing whole city blocks to fold over on themselves. The plane of limbo becomes a veritable playground as the characters build entire cities for themselves, spending decades in an endless sprawl of imposing monoliths that grow more faceless and abstract as they extend outwards.
It is here that architectural styles can clash together, achieving a strange harmony in their impossible pairings. One need look no further than Dom and Mal’s earthy, craftsman-style home situated high above the city inside a sleek modern tower. INCEPTION makes brilliant use of this idea of paradoxical architecture, exploring the strategic value of impossible structures like the Penrose stairs, which only become possible from a singular point of view.
No discussion of INCEPTION would be complete without addressing its infamous ending, the implications of which are still hotly debated across internet forums and college dorms.
In a film loaded with symbolic imagery, the closing image of a top spinning on the table– wobbling ever so slightly before abruptly cutting to black– is arguably INCEPTION’s most provoking one. The audience finds itself left on a sharply ambiguous final note, and an extremely frustrating one for those who prefer their movies to spell everything out for them. Is Cobb truly free of his dreams, or is he still trapped somewhere in his unconscious?
The question has inspired numerous armchair detectives to suss out an objective truth– most investigations point to Cobb’s wedding ring as his personal totem, and the film’s key signifier as to whether or not we are currently in a dream state. Cobb sports his ring in the dream sequences, but in his waking reality he appears without it. When he lands in Los Angeles at the end of the film, he’s not wearing his ring.
This, along with the presence of Michael Caine– who had only appeared previously in a scene ostensibly set in waking reality– should be our chief clue that Cobb has ultimately woken up and joined the objective timeline. However, even this is a deception– Nolan explicitly states via Arthur that one cannot use another’s totem, for fear of losing touch with reality. Despite Cobb’s constant use of a spinning top, we know that it is actually Mal’s totem.
This raises the question of whether Cobb has been lost in his own subconscious from the very start. To Nolan, the question is irrelevant– he’s gone on record to express his sentiment that it’s whether or not the top is going to topple that’s important, but rather, for the first time in the film, Cobb isn’t watching it. After spending much of the film obsessing over this little spinning top, he has moved on emotionally, finding happiness in his reunion with his family.
Far from a final “gotcha” twist, INCEPTION’s ending arguably hits a precise note, cementing the film’s murky ambiguity between dreams and waking reality while challenging his audience with the notion that our own realities can be just as subjective.
Billed on its release as “the new Matrix”, a staggering $100 million marketing budget endeavored to convey INCEPTION as an explosive head-trip that played fast and loose with the laws of physics.
The number is all the more remarkable considering its release in an era where franchise filmmaking is king– in the absence of any pre-existent intellectual property, Warner Brothers leveraged the success of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT to present Nolan himself as the franchise. The strategy worked beautifully, driving worldwide box office receipts north of $800 million and generating a wave of critical acclaim.
INCEPTION’s top-flight craftsmanship earned itself a small collection of golden statues come Oscar season, with the Academy celebrating the film’s technical innovations in categories like Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. If THE DARK KNIGHT established Nolan as one of mainstream American cinema’s most valuable filmmakers, then INCEPTION chiseled it in stone and enshrined it in gold.
Nolan: DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Despite the record-shattering success of 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, the promise of an early retirement-enabling payday and a higher budget than the GDP of most small countries, the prospect of Nolan returning to the world of Batman a third time initially inspired hesitance. There was no ill will or negative experience fueling his reluctance, but rather, the demons of artistic integrity.
“How many good third movies of a franchise can people name?”, Nolan reportedly asked of himself; indeed, he was all too cognizant of the hard and simple truth that, more often than not, threequels turn out to be the worst entry of a given franchise. Case in point: THE GODFATHER PART III, or SPIDER-MAN 3– even RETURN OF THE JEDI was arguably disappointing in relation to the episodes before it. THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jackson’s third chapter of his LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, seemed the exception to the rule, what with its several Oscar wins including Best Picture.
Even then, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is usually regarded as a single, unified narrative rather than three separate installments. Simply put, Nolan valued his artistic integrity over a dump truck full of cash, and if he was going to return to Gotham City for a third time, there needed to be a great — and necessary — story to tell.
He kept the opportunity in the back of his mind as he shot INCEPTION, even going so far as sketching out rough outlines as to what a third Batman film might entail. His initial plan, which would have seen Two-Face become the main villain after The Joker throws acid on his face during his trial, was no longer an option considering Heath Ledger’s death and his earlier decision to fold Two-Face’s villainous arc into the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT.
Once Nolan hit on the idea of using a third film to definitively end his rendition of Batman, the necessary elements that would ensure his return began to come together.
As they had done for their previous Batman films, Nolan and his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan, looked for inspiration in classic graphic like KNIGHTFALL, NO MAN’S LAND, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
The brothers also drew from unexpected literary sources like Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, braiding its themes of violent revolution and massive social upheaval into their massive script– the first draft of which apparently ran four hundred pages long.
Titled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the project quickly asserted itself as Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date, with a story containing no less than the fall of modern civilization and the potential death of millions within its staggering scope.
Thankfully, Nolan had a crack team of producers at his disposal– his wife Emma Thomas and Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven, both of whom had been invaluable allies in making Nolan’s previous Batman visions possible.
Given that this was as close to a surefire billion-dollar blockbuster one could possibly get, Warner Brothers saw little problem in greenlighting Nolan’s massive epic despite a price tag upwards of $200 million.
Their unwavering faith in Nolan’s ability– a faith that’s practically unheard of in modern commercial filmmaking– gave him the creative freedom and near-unlimited funds he needs to fill in his largest canvas yet while ending his groundbreaking DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY on his own terms.
Escalation has been a key foundational principle in Nolan’s take on Batman. As the stakes of his crusade have intensified, so too has Nolan expanded the scope of the Dark Knight’s world.
With each successive installment, the narrative scale has ballooned exponentially, so where else can THE DARK KNIGHT RISES go but the uppermost strata of epic spectacle?
Eight years have passed since Harvey Dent fell to his death and Batman took the blame, going into exile to protect Gotham’s citizens from the devastating revelation that their White Knight had been twisted into a murderous psychopath named Two-Face.
In that time, Gotham has entered a period of relative peace and prosperity– a city no longer in need of a vigilante savior. So too has Bruce Wayne gone into exile, sealing himself away in the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes-style recluse.
Christian Bale returns for his third and final appearance as Bruce, bearing the signs of significant wear and tear as he hobbles around on a cane throughout his mausoleum of a mansion.
Without Batman, he’s a sad, lonely figure– a man without a purpose, and after the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, a man with very little left to live for. He’s finally shaken from his long stupor when a prized personal memento — his mother’s pearl necklace — is stolen by a crafty cat burglar posing as a caterer during a gathering for the anniversary of Harvey Dent’s death and the passing of sweeping anti-crime legislation in his name.
This development coincides with a number of others simultaneously swirling around Gotham, like clouds gathering for a massive storm that will make Bruce’s return as the Caped Crusader not only inevitable, but necessary.
Indeed, Christopher Nolan has many masters to serve in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES– not only does he have to cook up compelling narrative arcs for a suite of new characters; he has to service lingering threads from the previous two installments while bringing everything to a satisfying close.
As a result, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES clocks in at a truly monumental two hours and 45 minutes long– every second being essential to the advancement of Nolan’s narrative. Naturally, there’s a lot of story to cover, and Nolan doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on huge developments.
The startling revelations and showstopping sequences come so fast and furious that the audience must race just to catch their breath, but that is the magnitude of scale that, unwittingly or not, Nolan has set up for himself. Indeed, nothing less than the threat of Gotham City’s full-stop annihilation will satisfy Nolan’s narrative and thematic requirements.
This necessary existential threat is embodied in the figure of Bane, an ideological zealot excommunicated from The League of Shadows (previously embodied in Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS).
A relatively new figure in Batman’s rogue gallery, Bane became a high-profile villain instantly upon his comic book debut in the early 1990’s by breaking Batman’s back and putting him out of commission for several years.
The character had made a filmic appearance before, in Joel Schumacher’s disastrous 1997 film, BATMAN & ROBIN, but the filmmakers had stripped him entirely of his formidable intellect and reduced him to a one-note, brutish henchman of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy.
He had been so badly mishandled that the revelation of his inclusion in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was initially met with profound skepticism by fans, if not outright derision. However, Nolan’s choice of villain had always been informed by the story’s key ideas and formative themes first– he reportedly rejected early pressure from Warner Brothers to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as The Riddler, refusing to build his narrative around a predetermined villain.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES required an adversary who could match Batman on both the physical and mental level, and Bane — at least in his comic-book incarnation — fit the mold.
Like The Scarecrow or The Joker before him, Nolan’s rendition of Bane is informed by a grounded reality that ditches his usual mutant-luchador aesthetic in favor of a militaristic, revolutionary edge complete with a monstrous mask that delivers san analgesic gas to quell crippling chronic pain from a prior injury.
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He arrives in Gotham to finish Ra’s Al Ghul’s mission to annihilate the city, although his strategy — to cut Gotham off from the outside world and use the threat of a nuclear bomb to turn the city’s economic classes against each other — is decidedly more sadistic than his predecessor’s.
He plans to nuke the city anyway, but first he wants to systematically break down the people’s confidence in their own civilization while figures like Batman and Commissioner Gordon are forced to helplessly watch their beloved city tear itself apart.
Tom Hardy, one of three cast members to make the jump from INCEPTION to Nolan’s Batman saga, reportedly gained thirty pounds for the role, transforming himself into a hulking brute with a brilliant, tactically-oriented intelligence.
Hardy faced a considerable challenge in playing Bane, considering the cumbersome mask that covers half his face– all that intellect and unhinged megalomania had to be conveyed entirely with his eyes.
As such, Hardy infuses Bane’s eyes with the quiet intensity of conviction, his piercing stare commanding his small army of mercenaries like a brutish cult leader. One of the more peculiar aspects of Hardy’s performance is the particular voice he uses, affecting a high-pitched musicality inspired by the voice of Bartley Gorman, a Romani gypsy and Irish bare-knuckle boxing champion.
The choice, while unnervingly effective, wasn’t without controversy– audiences in early screenings of the film’s opening prologue complained they couldn’t understand Bane’s dialogue at all. The final product alleviated those concerns, thankfully, allowing the full power of Hardy’s showstopping performance to shine through and achieve a pop culture infamy similar to the type enjoyed by Heath Ledger and his interpretation of The Joker.
Nolan also brings back INCEPTION’s Marion Cotillard, who plays a new character named Miranda Tate. An enchanting member of Wayne Enterprises’ Board of Directors, Miranda is initially positioned as Bruce Wayne’s best hope for the continued operation of his profit-draining fusion energy program. Cotillard brings her signature elegance to the role, presenting herself as a potential love interest for Bruce who can help soothe the lingering pain of Rachel Dawes’ death.
However, Miranda has other plans in store– namely, using Bruce’s trust and her corporate credentials to gain access to a nuclear fusion reactor underneath the city. At the risk of spoiling one of the film’s biggest twists, Miranda eventually asserts herself not only as the true mastermind behind Bane’s evil plan, but also as a key figure that links THE DARK KNIGHT RISES directly to BATMAN BEGINS.
With only so much screen-time left to realize the vast universe of Batman characters and plot lines, Nolan risks painting a picture that feels, at best, incomplete. His grounded interpretation of the property naturally would exclude some of Batman’s more fanciful villains like The Penguin, Killer Croc, or Clayface, but there are some characters that are so iconic that any version of the Caped Crusader would feel lacking in their absence.
Thankfully, Nolan is able to smuggle in two more just under the wire, albeit radically reimagined from their comic book counterparts. The character of Catwoman is integral to Batman’s universe, but is admittedly too theatrical for Nolan’s take on the property.
He strikes a satisfying middle ground in casting Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, downplaying the slinky cat burglar’s feline affectations to the point where the name “Catwoman” is never even uttered.
Instead, Nolan and Hathaway rely on the character’s duplicitous mystique to convey her comic book heritage (in addition to subtle visual cues like a pair of night vision goggles that resemble cat ears when flipped up on top of her head).
Drawing from the classic femme fatale archetype, Hathaway further honors Catwoman’s origins by basing her performance on the Hollywood Golden Age starlet Hedy Lemarr, the original inspiration for Catwoman in the comics.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Selina Kyle attempting to obtain a secret device that will erase her criminal history and allow her to start over with a clean slate– a path that conveniently crosses Batman’s while communicating her murky moral compass. Additionally, her self-aware cynicism allows Nolan to infuse an otherwise somber and bleak storyline with crowd pleasing moments of natural levity.
The other iconic character whose absence would make for an incomplete depiction of the Batman universe is his sidekick, Robin. It’s admittedly difficult to imagine how the plucky Boy Wonder would fit into Nolan’s grim and grounded approach– indeed, Bale has gone on record to say that he would leave the franchise if Nolan ever brought Robin into the storyline.
With the inclusion of INCEPTION’s Joseph Gordon Levitt as a driven young cop named John Blake, Nolan gets to have his cake and eat it too. The fresh-faced rookie doesn’t just share Batman’s burning passion for justice– he also feels a direct kinship with him, having also grown up as an orphan and felt the need to hide his emotions behind a figurative mask. Indeed, it is this quality that allows him to deduce Batman’s secret identity when no else can.
While he doesn’t become Batman’s sidekick in the traditional sense, Blake’s tireless ambition nevertheless positions him both as a crucial ally in the quest to take back Gotham from Bane’s vice grip as well as an ideal successor to the Batman mantle itself– playing beautifully into Nolan’s vision of Batman as an incorruptible symbol beyond the reach of death or decay.
Nolan throws a brief nod to Robin’s place in the annals of Batman lore by revealing Blake’s real name to actually be “Robin”, thus bringing all of the character’s thematic and functional qualities to his vision of Batman while dropping the sillier, distracting elements.
Nolan’s sprawling supporting ensemble is marked by faces both familiar and new, with the one consistent quality among them being an impeccable pedigree. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman all return as Bruce’s triptych of mentors, allies and father figures– their own respective arcs reaching their logical ends in a satisfying manner.
Caine’s reprisal of Bruce’s trusty butler, Alfred, finds an unexpected degree of emotionality, having reached a breaking point in his relationship with Bruce where he can no longer abide his reckless risks. He regrets indulging his master’s whims, fearing he’s created a monster while betraying his sworn duty to Bruce’s parents.
Oldman’s third turn as Commissioner Gordon sees his character on the verge of retirement– a war hero rendered useless and irrelevant by a prolonged peace. He too is disillusioned and burdened, deeply ashamed of his role in the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s death and the lies he has perpetuated since.
The events of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES gives Gordon one last chance at redemption, enlisting him to serve his beloved Gotham City as he never has before. Freeman, as the usually-jovial head of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox, also finds that his association with Batman has dug him into a deep hole, forced by Bane to pervert a miraculous nuclear fusion device into a devastating atom bomb that will decimate the city.
Nestor Carbonnel returns as Gotham’s mayor, Anthony Garcia, and although he doesn’t have much in the way of a compelling character arc, he nevertheless serves as a vital embodiment of civilized law & order– everything that Gotham has to lose when Bane takes the field.
Two major characters from BATMAN BEGINS also make fleeting appearances in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, helping to tie Nolan’s trilogy together into a unified whole.
Cillian Murphy returns as Dr Jonathan Crane — better known as The Scarecrow– and while he doesn’t don his signature mask here, he does find a suitable role for himself in Bane’s new world order as the merciless judge of a kangaroo court, gleefully sentencing his enemies to an icy grave.
Ra’s Al Ghul also appears in two iterations: one being Liam Neeson in a brief cameo as Bruce’s hallucination in the pit, and the other being Josh Pence as the younger Ra’s in a revelatory flashback sequence.
Finally, a handful of faces unfamiliar to Nolan’s Batman series portray notable new characters. Matthew Modine, best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, plays Foley– a petty, vindictive police officer positioned to take the reins from Gordon. He manages to just barely fit in a compelling arc within THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ sprawling narrative, ultimately finding the courage and conviction within himself to join the fray against Bane’s forces of destruction.
Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn plays Daggett, a smug billionaire and a petulant business rival who thinks he can use Bane for a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, only to find that Bane serves no one unless it also serves himself. Finally, Juno Temple plays Jen, a low-level thief and Selina’s partner in crime.
From a thematic standpoint, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES must contend with the un-enviably tricky balancing act of fashioning a narrative that resonates with distinct, clear-cut themes within the confines of its running time, while also paying off the themes set up in the previous two installments.
BATMAN BEGINS dealt with the concept of fear, while THE DARK KNIGHT focused on the idea of chaos. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ primary theme is pain– embodied not just in Bane’s brutal methods, but also in Bruce’s quest to overcome his own pain and complete his life’s work as Batman.
Up until this point, Bruce’s pain had been mostly internal– anguishing over the deaths of his parents and Rachel Dawes. Throughout the trilogy, Nolan has taken great care to show the physical toll that the life of a vigilante takes on Bruce’s body. Indeed, the success of Nolan’s entire take on the Batman universe rests on the fact that Batman is not a superhero; that he’s flesh and blood like the rest of us.
THE DARK KNIGHT shows bruises and scars pockmarking his body, while THE DARK KNIGHT RISES establishes that Bruce’s knee has basically been destroyed, necessitating the use of a cane. Bane simply finishes the job, breaking Batman’s back and throwing him down into a pit halfway across the world. Pain defines the limits of Bruce’s physicality, with each successive installment in the trilogy finding those limits constricting ever-tighter. In order to meet the extraordinary challenge of Bane, Bruce must fight through his pain and rise above his physical limits.
In this light, ascension also becomes a defining theme of the story– Bruce’s internal quest is externalized by his attempts to climb out of a pit that had only been previously conquered by Bane himself.
An ascent naturally implies a lower starting point, and Bane’s own rise to power begins in Gotham’s labyrinthine sewer system– the perfect vantage point from which to observe the deep social divisions that roil beneath the fabric of the city. Even with a team of crack mercenaries at his disposal, Bane knows he doesn’t have the manpower to mount a successful siege against the whole of Gotham.
Instead, he turns the population into his unwitting agents by inciting class conflict between the have and the have nots. He encourages the Gotham rabble to lay siege to the penthouses of the wealthy elite, as righteous punishment for their greed and gluttony. He also advocates open anarchy, prompting the citizens to liberate criminals unjustly imprisoned by sweeping legislation passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death.
Indeed, he does away with conventional justice systems entirely, instituting kangaroo courts that make a mockery of due process in a bid to quickly condemn his enemies to death.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES paints a vivid– and perhaps extreme– picture of what modern life might look like following the violent overthrow of society; a picture that resonated far more than Nolan could have enter anticipated, considering the film’s release during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In provoking the simmering resentment between the various economic classes of society, Bane is able to expose the fragility of the institutions that keep us from the brink of madness. THE DARK KNIGHT was released a few months prior to the bottom falling out of the economy at the start of the Great Recession, which sparked a widespread conflagration pitting the poor, working and middle-class population against the wealthy elite class.
In drawing inspiration from this conflict, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES becomes something of a cathartic experience for those hit hardest by the recession. Nolan allows audiences to revel in sequences like Bane’s stock exchange heist and images of wealthy Gothamites being forcibly pulled from their penthouses and thrown out onto the street.
This plot point also makes for compelling character development on the part of billionaire Bruce Wayne, whose ability to maintain his superheroic exploits has always rested in his immense wealth.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Bruce stripped of that wealth, forced to save Gotham with whatever meager resources remain at his disposal– only at this point is Bruce able to ascend to the realm of the “superhero”, transcending the limits of his mortal physicality and securing the legacy of Batman as an incorruptible and enduring symbol.
As the conclusive chapter of the trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES also uses its thematic foundation to connect directly with BATMAN BEGINS.
The first film painted Gotham as a dark, filthy, and crime-ridden city where the police force was universally corrupt– an environment primed for a solitary vigilante intent on taking justice into his own hands. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES comes full circle, with Batman’s efforts having inspired the police to clean up their city and act out en masse against the tyranny of evil.
It’s noteworthy that Batman — a character often depicted as operating only at night and in the shadows — faces Bane for a final standoff in the bright light of day. The various forces that have been swirling around Gotham all these years are finally out in the open, fighting with the crystal clarity of conviction and purpose.
Batman finally fights side by side with his comrades in blue, united in their effort to pull Gotham back from the brink. Nolan had taken great care with his previous Batman films to flesh out the urban tapestry of Gotham via its various infrastructural systems– the villains of BATMAN BEGINS repurposed water and transportation systems towards their own ends, and Batman harnessed the power of communications systems in his fight against The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.
When combined with Bane’s utilization of underground sewer systems as a hidden staging ground and his perversion of a fusion-based energy system into an atomic bomb, we as an audience stand to know exactly what Batman and the citizens of Gotham are fighting for.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES furthers Nolan’s exploration of IMAX in the narrative realm, shooting in the format as much as possible.
Emboldened by the substantial punch it gave THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister employ IMAX frequently– essentially, any shot that doesn’t require dialogue due to the operating noise of the camera itself.
That being said, the filmmakers are well aware of the format’s visceral impact and are careful not to dilute it, carefully staging full action sequences and select shots in order to play to IMAX’s strength as an immersive experience. As it did on THE DARK KNIGHT, this makes for a viewing experience that frequently switches between the full IMAX frame and the standard 2.35:1 35mm film frame– many times from shot to shot.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would be, at least as of 2017, the last collaboration between Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, with Pfister graduating to the director’s chair himself in 2014 with his debut, TRANSCENDENCE.
This final collaboration finds Nolan and Pfister building upon the aesthetic they developed for THE DARK KNIGHT, adopting a neutral, desaturated color palette dominated by steel and stone tones.
With the trilogy now complete, it becomes evident that the filmmakers have fashioned a transitory lighting scheme that gradually moves from the darkness of BATMAN BEGINS to the snow-capped brightness of day in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, echoing Batman’s deliverance of Gotham from moral decay to virtuous law & order.
So too has Nolan’s scope expanded appropriately, ballooning to stakes that are nothing less than apocalyptic as Bane mounts his revolutionary siege on an entire city.
Nolan’s camerawork ably conveys the sweeping scale of his narrative, employing a mix of classical dolly and crane moves with handheld maneuvers and majestic aerials to capture stunning images like the movement of huge crowds doing battle in the streets, or a series of coordinated explosions detonating across the city.
As we’ve come to expect by now, Nolan captures most of these astonishing visuals in-camera via practical effects, supplementing with CGI only when absolutely necessary. The plane hijacking sequence that opens the film serves as a prime example, with Nolan and company painstakingly staging an high-altitude heist over the Scottish countryside.
Visually speaking, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES represents the aesthetic apex of Nolan’s particular style– since his lo-fi debut with 1998’s FOLLOWING, he has steadily built upon his visual skill set and developed his ability to realize epic spectacle while managing the intimidating logistics that such efforts entail.
While critics may argue over the logical integrity of an admittedly overstuffed narrative, the excellence of Nolan’s technical craftsmanship is never in question. Returning production designer Nathan Crowley marks his seventh consecutive collaboration with Nolan by partnering with Kevin Kavanaugh.
The art department maintains aesthetic continuity with the previous two entries while subtly building upon them, giving a slight update to THE DARK KNIGHT’s iteration of Wayne Tower and the corporation’s cavernous R&D department.
Crowley and Kavanaugh update other iconic aspects of Batman lore like Wayne Manor and The Batcave, giving each a fresh appearance that feels nonetheless similar to how they looked in BATMAN BEGINS. For instance, Wayne Manor retains its familiar Gilded Age architectural flourishes while expanding upon the mausoleum concept from BATMAN BEGINS.
In the first film, the idea of Wayne Manor being in a constant state of mourning was communicated chiefly by the white sheets draped over the furniture. With THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the lack of color has seeped into the walls themselves, as if happiness and passion have left Wayne Manor entirely.
Indeed, the appearance of Wayne Manor is a manifestation of Bruce’s initial interior state, which is one of aimless despair and endless sorrow. The Batcave has been upgraded to include a computer platform that rises up from its hiding spot underneath a natural pool of water.
No doubt installed shortly after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s evident that this equipment hasn’t been used in several years. Crowley and Kavanaugh’s fresh-but-familiar approach extends to Batman’s fleet of vehicles, which now includes a revisionist take on the classic Batplane that transmogrifies its usual sleek silhouette into that a steroid-addled bat crossed with a military helicopter.
Ever true to form, Nolan chiefly uses CGI to augment what is predominantly a practical effect– production footage reveals the Batpod to be a full-size anchored atop a truck that would later be digitally scrubbed from the shot. The filmmakers had even built an animatronic Batman to sit in the cockpit, giving their illusion that much more of a tactile believability.
The Batpod from THE DARK KNIGHT makes an encore appearance, becoming Batman’s vehicle of choice after the Tumblr was destroyed in the previous installment. Indeed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the first Batman film in which his signature Batmobile is absent entirely, save for the desert camo R&D models owned by Wayne Enterprises and later stolen by Bane’s mercenaries.
The appearance of Gotham City also evolves, with Nolan’s vision of the fictional city changing rather radically from the one that drove its design in the previous two films.
The influence of Chicago, so deeply felt in the bones of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, here gives way to the iconic spires of New York City. Since the conclusion of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has been steadily chipping away at the layers of stylistic artifice he’d initially imposed on Gotham.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES envisions an entirely new Gotham– one that drapes a thin veil of fiction over famous Manhattan landmarks like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, and 1 World Trade Center (then still under construction).
This particular rendition of Gotham also incorporates sections of other cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, which editor Lee Smith seamlessly cuts together to form one cohesive urban environment. In addition to other key sequences, the concrete arteries of LA’s downtown host the concluding beat of Bane’s Wall Street heist– which, thanks to the magic of editing, began 3000 miles away in New York. Here, LA’s multi-level network of highways provides Batman a convenient escape route when he’s cornered by an armada of police cruisers.
The urban interior of Pittsburgh is the stage for the film’s climactic battle, while Heinz Field doubles as the home stadium for the Gotham Rogues football team before it becomes the unwitting site for Bane’s explosive debut.
When blessed with a virtually-bottomless production budget, one might wonder why Nolan and company saw fit to disguise their locales as the fictional city of Gotham by simply spraying a little fake snow on the streets and calling it a day.
However, those who might feel disappointed or even cheated by their perceived lack of imagination fail to realize that this was Nolan’s endgame all along. As far back as his initial pitch to Warner Brothers executives, Nolan’s take on Batman was always built upon the notion of the character existing in reality.
Rather than build an elaborate, fantastical world to draw the audience into, he means to draw Batman into our world. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES achieves this aim once and for all, juxtaposing the Caped Crusader against a landscape we can very much recognize as our own.
In regards to the film’s score, one could be forgiven for expecting the composing team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to finish what they started with BATMAN BEGINS. However, after Nolan paired with Zimmer exclusively on INCEPTION, Howard reportedly felt he would be a third wheel, and decided to bow out.
While this act arguably streamlines the score’s creative process, Howard’s absence is palpable– gone are the romantic swells of strings that find Batman or Bruce in a quiet moment of introspection, depriving the score of a crucial emotional resonance.
This isn’t to say Zimmer fails to deliver of his own accord, however– the dynamic of the score simply shifts to favor the militaristic and intense nature of his prior contributions.
He appropriately builds on the themes established in the previous entries, developing them towards their logical conclusions. Naturally, new characters mean new themes, and Zimmer once again manages to embody the characters of Bane and Selina Kyle in musical form.
Expectedly muscular and percussive, Bane’s theme immediately communicates an overwhelming sense of strength and power, his background in the League of Shadows and his apocalyptic ambitions conveyed through a hypnotic male chorus chanting the Moroccan word for “rise”.
Selina Kyle gets a slinky, playful theme that echoes her comic book heritage as Catwoman, employing light flutters on a piano bolstered by quietly urgent strings. While not as well-rounded as the scores for BATMAN BEGINS or THE DARK KNIGHT, Zimmer’s efforts here nevertheless close out Nolan’s trilogy on an epic, triumphant note.
Nolan’s artistic signatures as a filmmaker are on full display throughout THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, from its massive scope to its jet-setting narrative that takes his crew to far-flung locales like Morocco or Scotland.
His take on Bruce Wayne and Batman has always been informed by his penchant for extremely-flawed male protagonists. The character’s development as seen in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues the trajectory Nolan established with BATMAN BEGINS, all the while uncovering new angles of his psyche.
We first find Bruce so disheartened by the loss of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent that he’s exiled himself and Batman away from the world for almost a decade. He’s lost heart in the myth that he spent so much time, energy, and money building up.
When he decides to once again put on the cape and cowl, his regaining of his life’s purpose ironically makes him too proud.
His conviction about the righteousness of his mission has been warped to such a degree that he drives Alfred, his closest ally and friend, away from him entirely. This also leads to his merciless beating at the hands of Bane, having failed to do his homework on his opponent beforehand.
Bruce’s story in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of re-earning the mantle of Batman, of gaining a renewed conviction for justice that will enable him to finally fulfill his lifelong quest.
The conceit of functional style that runs through Nolan’s filmography maintains its presence here through Batman’s iconic suit, in addition to other aspects like Bane’s militaristic garb and mask, Selina Kyle’s jet-black burglar outfit, and even a wearable device that allows Bruce to regain the power lost to destroyed cartilage in his knee.
The plot affords Nolan ample opportunity to explore his fascination with architecture and the malleability of the urban environment, with Bane exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of Gotham’s civic infrastructure.
The underground sewer system allows him to move throughout the city undetected while staging his massive operation. This position allows him to penetrate fortified structures like Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department by tunneling up from below.
The strategic placement of explosives on bridges and other key points throughout the city allow him to effectively shut down Gotham in one fell swoop, cutting it off from the outside world and effectively creating his very own kingdom to rule as he sees fit.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t as concerned with the manipulation of time as his previous work, opting for a linear narrative that progresses steadily forward– save for a massive time jump in the middle that sees several months pass under Bane’s occupation.
More so than he did in THE DARK KNIGHT before it, Nolan structures his climax around a literal ticking clock: that time-honored movie trope of a bomb counting down to detonation. Considering the inspired turns of story that drove Nolan’s previous two Batman entries, it isn’t difficult to see why some critics felt let down by his use of an admittedly-cliche narrative device.
That being said, the ticking clock nonetheless provides a propulsive framework for Nolan to employ his signature cross-cutting techniques, nimbly tracking multiple threads of action and character as they race to save or destroy Gotham.
A purist attitude towards the supremacy of celluloid film over digital acquisition has always been a crucial aspect of Nolan’s artistic character, but his reputation for active advocacy really begins here, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Thanks to the monumental success of films like THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, he had enough industry clout to gather a number of high-profile directors like himself for a private IMAX screening of the film’s plane hijacking prologue shortly before this film’s release.
With some of Hollywood’s most-celebrated luminaries as his captive audience, he proceeded to make his case about the importance of keeping celluloid alive as a vital option for filmmakers to employ. In this bold new digital age, film has taken on an inherently nostalgic quality– one that’s easy to romanticize, or take for granted.
Nolan used his platform to underscore the dangers that digital poses towards the continuance of celluloid, the least of which being its appeal to the studio’s bottom line.
Digital may now have the capability to match (and even surpass) the resolution of film pixel-for-pixel, he argued, but there’s a lot that digital couldn’t replicate and that they thus stood to lose– qualities like a wide latitude, an organic texture, and its strength as a long-term archival format immune to the ravages of memory rot and data corruption.
In the wake of major manufacturers like Fuji closing their doors and leaving Kodak as the only game in town, they faced the imminent risk of losing the choice to shoot on film altogether. Thankfully, his pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears; his colleagues and contemporaries agreed that the preservation of celluloid as an acquisition option was of urgent artistic and cultural importance.
This alliance proved instantly formidable, with their efforts leading to several studios agreeing to a processing partnership with Kodak that would guarantee film’s immediate survival. Of all of Nolan’s contributions to the art of cinema, his active advocacy to preserve the availability and the magic of photochemical film for future generations stands to become one of his most important and enduring.
Thanks to the bar set by THE DARK KNIGHT and the passing of four years when most sequels aim for two, expectations were understandably sky-high for Nolan’s trilogy capper. It was, simply put, the most anticipated film of 2012.
It’s box office dominance was a foregone conclusion, with the marketing campaign aptly positioning the film as a major cultural event that was not to be missed. The moviegoing public responded in kind, the most dedicated of whom turned out en masse across the country for midnight screenings on release day: July 20, 2012.
The overwhelming excitement of the film’s release was immediately tempered by tragedy, however, when a young man named James Holmes dressed up, in his words, as The Joker and opened fire on an audience at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.
Twelve people lost their lives, with fifty-eight more injured. Nolan and his collaborators immediately issued statements about the massacre, expressing their profound heartbreak. This unfortunate brush with history no doubt must have deeply affected Nolan– to him, the movie theater was a sacred space, akin to a cathedral. It was a forum where people could gather and share a communal dream-like experience, and once that bubble had been popped, it was like innocence lost– there was no going back.
Whatever the purpose might have been, Holmes’ barbaric act couldn’t keep audiences away– perhaps inspiring some to go to the theater as an act of righteous defiance against fear and terrorism.
This defiance, coupled with the overwhelming popularity of the Batman property, quickly propelled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES past the billion dollar mark to become the 19th highest-grossing film of all time. Critics admired the film for the most part, lavishing praise on Nolan’s technical craftsmanship and command of vision while conceding that the narrative was overlong and rather unwieldy.
Individual criticisms aside, critics and audiences alike mostly agreed that Nolan had closed out his trilogy in satisfying fashion. Nobody, however, could deny the impressiveness of his achievement: not only had he shepherded one of the most successful and well-regarded trilogies of all time, he had capably (and seemingly effortlessly) executed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES on the largest and most challenging scale of mainstream studio filmmaking.
In completing THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan had formed the bedrock of his cinematic legacy, and a solid platform upon which to build his towering works to come.
Nolan: INTERSTELLAR (2014)
Mankind is a race of explorers– from the governmental level on down to the individual family unit, we’re constantly pursuing the expansion of our domain into uncharted territory.
The fundamental desire that drove us across entire continents and oceans has also given birth to the tribal mind-set of nation-states, drawing up arbitrary borders in a bid to separate ourselves and our natural blessings from the nebulous “other”. It wasn’t until the dawn of space flight in the mid-twentieth century that mankind was able to ascend high enough to observe the entire planet within their field of view.
Up there, they realized that there were no borders, no nations, no distinct divisions of heritages and cultures— there was only, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, a single blue marble suspended in a black void. The planet Earth is a lifeboat in the middle of a vast, turbulent ocean… completely at the mercy to the fickle whims of the fates.
It is hard for those of us stuck here on terra firma to grasp just how precarious our cosmic existence is. Thanks to our relatively short lifespans, we are cursed with abysmal foresight– we don’t worry about tomorrow because there’s already too much to deal with today. But what if there was no tomorrow?
What if the mounting effects of industrialization and civic “progress” had turned our fragile blue marble into a dusty wasteland of blight, drought, and decay? What if we had to find out the hard way that, unlike our fancy electronic gadgets, there was no cloud backup for humanity? “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here”. This phrase, while admittedly devised as an unusually-eloquent bit of marketing tagline copy, is the fundamental sentiment that drives Nolan’s ninth feature film, INTERSTELLAR. The film dares to show The Last Frontier as it really is: an experience beyond the limits of our wildest imaginations.
While INTERSTELLAR’s heritage harkens back to the tactile innovations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), its actual development history began much more recently, when theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst hatched the initial seed of the story and set it up for further development at Paramount. In 2006, the studio hired Jonathan Nolan to write the script as a directing vehicle for Steven Spielberg.
Six years later, Spielberg had departed the project for greener pastures and Christopher was in search of his next film after wrapping up his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. He was intimately familiar with Jonathan’s aspirations for and frustrations with INTERSTELLAR by virtue of his familial relation, but over time he found that he too had become interested in the project from a directorial standpoint. When he learned the director’s chair was open, he simply placed a call to Paramount and offered his services.
Having made all his previous studio features at Warner Brothers, Nolan had forged warm relationships with the top executives there. Unwilling to miss out on the next project from one of their most valuable talents, Warner Brothers took the unorthodox step of co-financing INTERSTELLAR with Paramount.
As such, two of the largest studios in Hollywood threw their combined weight behind Nolan to the tune of $175 million dollars– an astronomical sum considering that Nolan also enjoyed a $20 million salary, a 20% profit share of the film’s gross and carte blanche control over the execution of his vision.
That kind of creative freedom– nearly unheard of at this budgetary level– was a testament to the faith that studio executives had in the significant commercial appeal of Nolan’s aesthetic. The fact that Christopher Nolan ultimately brought the picture in $10 million under budget is, conversely, a testament to Nolan’s disciplined work ethic and goodwill towards his financiers.
INTERSTELLAR finds Nolan working with the largest canvas he’s ever had, which is pretty damn big considering the overwhelming scale of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Funnily enough, Nolan’s first foray into science fiction succeeds almost in spite of its limitless scope, finding its profound emotional resonance in the simple, intimate theatrics of human connection.
Drawing from iconic sci-fi works like the aforementioned 2001, METROPOLIS, BLADE RUNNER, STAR WARS, and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as offbeat sources like Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Dust Bowl, Nolan infuses INTERSTELLAR with a Spielbergian wonder towards the mysteries of the cosmos.
Indeed, Nolan strives to evoke the artistic sensibilities of Spielberg by structuring INTERSTELLAR as an ode to spaceflight, a paean to the romanticism of adventure, and a portrait of the special and complex bond shared between a father and his children. If THE DARK KNIGHT RISES heralded the end of the world with a bang, then INTERSTELLAR sees it arrive with a whimper.
The world, simply put, must be saved– but this time, the responsibility falls not to superheroes but to scientists and mathematicians. We begin in the back half of the twenty-first century, where the mounting effects of pollution, industrialization, and other byproducts of modern civilization have ravaged the earth.
Crops are failing, water is growing scarce, society is stagnating. A desperate and hungry world has discouraged frivolous pursuits like space exploration in favor of raising more farmers to till the increasingly-infertile fields.
Short-sighted bureaucrats have even gone so far as to formally disband NASA and publish textbooks that assert the moon landing was faked in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union and win the Cold War. There’s a pervading sense that our future is decidedly earthbound.
In America’s blight-plagued heartland, where a new Dust Bowl rages with increasing intensity, an ex-pilot turned corn farmer named Cooper is trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence with his two children and father-in-law.
When Cooper examines the curious phenomena of patterned dust in his daughter’s bedroom, he manages to decode it as geographical coordinates. Cooper and his daughter, Murph, follow the coordinates to a secret underground bunker, only to discover a secret refuge for the remnants of NASA– an underground facility in which to build the next generation of starships and ferry mankind off the dying planet. The mission has been spurned on by the discovery of a wormhole near Saturn, placed there by an unknown intelligence.
Almost overnight, an entirely new galaxy has been placed within their reach– complete with three potentially habitable planets orbiting a supermassive black hole named Gargantua.
One of the few pilots qualified to lead a mission of this importance, Cooper is duty-bound to leave his family behind and command an interstellar reconnaissance mission to find a new home for the human race– before we lose the only one we’ve ever known.
The consistent pedigree of Nolan’s work naturally attracts (and retains) high-caliber talent, and INTERSTELLAR serves as yet another prime example. It’s tempting to assume that the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Cooper was a reactive action on Nolan’s part– jumping on the “McConnaissance” bandwagon and securing the talents of a performer operating at the peak of his prestige.
If the study of Nolan’s filmography yields only one insight, however, it’s that any artistic choice he makes is never a reaction to current trends in filmmaking or Hollywood at large. Indeed, he’d been aware of McConaughey’s flinty, blue-collar physicality for quite some time– over the years he’s proved himself to be one of the few actors capably of truly embodying the “everyman” persona Nolan felt was so crucial to the proper conveyance of his protagonist.
McConaughey succeeds Guy Pearce, Al Pacino, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio as the latest in a long line of tortured and haunted male heroes within Nolan’s work. Cooper’s story so far has been one of quiet tragedy; he’s a former pilot who had to give up dreams of spaceflight for an unglamorous life growing a failing crop and raising a family doomed to do the same.
Like MEMENTO’S Guy Pearce, INCEPTION’s DiCaprio, and, to a certain extent, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Cooper is a widower; cursed to wander the rest of his life without his mate. Also like those characters, he’s whip-smart and resourceful; a natural-born leader with bottomless reserves of courage and a ferocious commitment to his family.
The loss of his wife in and of itself does not make Cooper a tortured protagonist in the typical Nolan mold, however– it’s the fact that he must leave his beloved family behind if he’s to save them, along with the very real possibility that he may never see them again.
As Cooper’s absence stretches from months, to years, to decades, his children grow into disillusioned, bitter adults.
They’re angry at the father who abandoned them, the most vindictive sibling being Murph– ripped from her father’s warmth and guidance at a fragile young age. Jessica Chastain continues her winning streak of strong performances for prestigious directors here as the adult Murph, a brilliant and driven scientist working for NASA.
Her insightful ability to see patterns where others do not allows her to successfully receive messages sent by the universe and employ them towards the salvation of the human race, all while communicating with her long-lost father in a way that transcends both space and time.
Casey Affleck is even more humorless and bitter as Cooper’s grown son, Tom. In his father’s absence, the work of maintaining the family farm has fallen to him, and the hard, fruitless work and tragic death of his firstborn son has left him an angry and hollow shell of the optimistic and eager boy he once was.
Well known for his gangly, boyish physicality, Affleck instead conveys an imposing corn-fed frame and a pragmatic coldness that puts him at odds with Murph’s good intentions.
Ever since THE PRESTIGE brought back several members of the cast from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has made a habit of retaining key actors for multiple successive collaborations. Michael Caine is easily the most visible example of this aspect of Nolan’s career, having appeared in all of the director’s films since 2005.
In INTERSTELLAR, Caine plays Cooper’s mentor Professor Brand, the weary NASA scientist in charge of the Endurance mission. The character is a variation on the archetype he typically plays in Nolan’s work– that of the sagely mentor and charming bearer of exposition– but where the Professor Brand character diverges the most from prior performances is in his intentional misleading of Cooper and his crew about the ultimate impossibility of their primary mission objective.
Anne Hathaway, hot off her first collaboration with Nolan in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, plays Professor Brand’s daughter, also named Brand. As a character who finds herself caught at the intersection of faith and reason, Hathaway capably conveys her character’s vulnerable intelligence and idealistic confidence.
More than just a potential love interest for Cooper, Brand is a conduit through which Nolan presents one of INTERSTELLAR’s key ideas– the idea of “love” as a powerful, quantifiable cosmic concept. In other words: the idea of “love” being a separate dimension unto itself that can transcend and influence time, space, and gravity.
The rest of INTERSTELLAR’s supporting players are comprised of faces well-known, obscure, and surprising. Shielded from all marketing materials prior to the release of the film, Matt Damon unexpectedly turns up halfway through the film in a major role as Mann, a team member from a previous reconnaissance mission who is discovered on a desolate, icy planet ensconced in his hypersleep pod.
Upon waking, Mann is initially grateful and overwhelmed that someone came to find him, but as the realization dawns that his planet is ultimately not suitable for Earth’s new home, he reveals the ruthless and cowardly survivalist side of his nature. His name is no doubt a nod on Nolan’s part to director Michael Mann, a filmmaker who has served as a profound influence on Nolan’s particular aesthetic.
Following the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan’s casting of Topher Grace and John Lithgow here evidences what could seen as a curious fascination with 90’s sitcom stars, with Grace making his way from THAT 70’s SHOW and Lithgow well-known from his stint on THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN (which also starred Gordon-Levitt).
Grace plays Getty, adult-Murph’s NASA colleague, while Lithgow eases into a grizzled seniority to play Donald, Cooper’s father-in-law and grandfather to Murph and Tom. One of the more interesting aspects of Lithgow’s character is his age in relation to the timeline of Nolan’s story, which would place him as a member of the contemporary Millennial generation.
Veteran character actress Ellen Burstyn is a poignant presence as the elderly Murph, having eclipsed her own father in age thanks to the relativistic aspects of time and space travel. Wes Bentley and David Gyasi play Doyle and Romilly, respectively– two fellow astronauts on the Endurance mission who help explain the film’s brain-twisting concepts about relativity to the audience.
Bill Irwin makes the best of a thankless task by providing the voice and puppetry for TARS, a non-humanoid, artificially-intelligent robot that accompanies the Endurance crew. Despite having his presence painted out of the frame entirely, Irwin ably injects a genuine sense of lively humanity into TARS, resulting in a memorable silver screen robot in the mold of HAL-9000 and C-3PO.
Nine features into his career, Nolan has solidified a core group of trusted craftspeople in service to his vision: producer/wife Emma Thomas, production designer Nathan Crowley, composer Hans Zimmer, and editor Lee Smith. However, INTERSTELLAR forces Nolan to make a radical change in a key department.
Wally Pfister, who had shot all of Nolan’s films since MEMENTO, was unavailable to shoot INCEPTION because of the production of his own directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE. Understandably, Pfister leaves big shoes to fill, but Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema proves a more-than-capable replacement, reinvigorating Nolan’s outsized aesthetic by virtue of his fresh perspective.
He ably replicates the muted earth and metal color palette of Nolan’s previous films while infusing INTERSTELLAR with a gritty, documentary-style immediacy uncommon to most sci-fi films. He achieves this by shooting a majority of the film handheld, which results in naturalistic compositions that evoke an organic, lyrical nature not unlike the late-career aesthetic of Terrence Malick.
Hoytema employs other tools like blown highlights and Spielbergian and Abrams-esque lens flares that fan out into concentrated horizontal bands of light– a visual artifact unique to anamorphic lenses.
From the cinematography on down to the final sound mix, Nolan intended for INTERSTELLAR to be his most technically ambitious work to date. The lion’s share of his attention is lavished on the visuals, building on his innovative use of large-format film gauges in a narrative setting.
If its staggering runtime of 2 hours and 49 minutes wasn’t enough, Nolan projects the unprecedented scale of INTERSTELLAR’s narrative by shooting his largest ratio of IMAX to 35mm film yet. The supersized IMAX format betters conveys the infinite depths of space, restoring a sense of grandeur and wonder to a genre that’s otherwise been lost in recent years to an orgy of flimsy CGI-fests.
Indeed, when Nolan juxtaposes the microscopic insignificance of human spacecraft against the massive backdrop of Saturn, it’s hard to imagine any other format that can better communicate the awe-inspiring scale of the heavens.
With each successive film, Nolan further innovates and strengthens IMAX’s capabilities for narrative storytelling, and INTERSTELLAR provides him with the opportunity to use it in conventional dialogue scenes or handheld in cramped quarters in addition to grandiose moments of spectacle.
The use of IMAX also highlights Nolan’s preference for celluloid, allowing him to better demonstrate film’s strengths while combating the ballooning resolution of digital formats fast approaching their ten-thousandth pixel.
In a way, Nolan achieves a poetic sublimity in his use of IMAX on INTERSTELLAR– one of his primary motivators for using the format in the first place was his reasoning that if an IMAX camera can be lugged into space, it can be used to shoot a narrative feature film. With INTERSTELLAR, this reasoning comes full circle, finding Nolan employing the format in service to the depiction of space.
One of the core operating principles of Nolan’s approach to INTERSTELLAR was that anything that could be captured in-camera would be captured in-camera. Granted, Nolan typically avoids CGI wherever he can, but the particular challenges of making INTERSTELLAR presented special consideration. As he had done for select scenes in INCEPTION, Nolan once again looked to the model of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a science fiction masterpiece whose groundbreaking practical effects are still convincing after half a century.
While one could certainly make the case that Kubrick would have preferred the control and precision afforded by digital techniques had they been available to him, 2001’s practical, in-camera effects are nevertheless a major component of its longevity.
Following Kubrick’s lead, Nolan mandated that INTERSTELLAR would resort to computer-generated imagery only when necessary. As such, a grand majority of the film’s spaceships, costumes, sets, and non-human characters are physical builds or miniatures.
INTERSTELLAR’s two robot characters, TARS and CASE, were achieved through a mix of computer graphics and physical puppetry, with actor Bill Irwin giving life to the bulky slab of inanimate metal via an elaborate counterbalance system.
Rather than juxtapose green-screened astronauts against a computer-generated alien landscape, Christopher Nolan simply flew the production to the real-life alien landscape of Iceland, which stood in for the film’s water and ice planets.
This approach also extended to sequences set on Cooper’s farm back on Earth, where he had his team actually build a functional full-scale house and plant fields of corn out in the Canadian province of Alberta.
The spaceship sets, built on a soundstage in LA by returning production designer Nathan Crowley, were designed to be as realistically functional as possible in a bid to emulate the harshly utilitarian conditions of space travel.
This meant foregoing the luxury of breakaway walls while projecting high resolution images of space onto a giant cyc, enabling the cast to look out the windows of the Endurance and actually feel like they were in space.
Even the four-dimensional tesseract sequence– one of the most abstract concepts ever presented in a mainstream Hollywood film– was, surprisingly, built as a practical set. This isn’t to say that INTERSTELLAR doesn’t contain its fair share of computer-generated imagery, but rather that Nolan’s conscious decision to capture as much as he could in-camera should be celebrated, and has arguably created a piece of work that will hold up considerably well in the years to come.
INTERSTELLAR further echoes 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in striving to depict the challenges and logistics of space travel as accurately as possible. Towards this end, Nolan brings on Kip Thorne not just as an executive producer, but as a key creative partner on the level of a cinematographer or production designer.
Thorne is one of the leading minds in his field, which makes the ideas presented in INTERSTELLAR not only scientifically accurate, but exceedingly cutting-edge. These ideas aren’t just limited to technical aspects like the conceivably-realistic spaceship interiors or the accurate approach to sound design in the vacuum of space; every development in the story bases itself upon the established laws of physics and relativity, no matter how fantastical or impossible it may seem.
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Admittedly, the film does deviate dramatically from hard science when Cooper allows himself to drop into a black hole, but the ultimate impossibility of knowing what lies beyond the event horizon is an appropriate enough excuse for a little dramatic license.
To Nolan and Thorne’s credit, the depiction of the black hole itself is derived as accurately as possible from our current understanding of them– Thorne worked out complicated relativity equations for the computer graphics team so they could accurately recreate the warping and luminescence of Gargantua’s accretion disk.
Even the simulation itself was an immense undertaking, generating over 800 terabytes of information and some frames taking a hundred hours or more to render. In the process, Thorne and the visual effects team managed to make actual, quantifiable scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the heavens’ most mysterious phenomenon.
INTERSTELLAR goes to great lengths to explain how black holes entwine the forces of gravity and time, using the relativity of time as a major source of emotional conflict. Each time the Endurance mission faces a delay or unexpected problem, years or decades go by on Earth– and Cooper’s chance of ever seeing his family again drops precipitously.
Naturally, this is a very heady concept that isn’t easily grasped, necessitating frequent expositional and jargon-laden monologues that lay out the challenge our characters face in no uncertain, unsubtle terms.
Yet, these moments never feel like a chore or a burden to struggle through. Nolan deals with mind-bending plot devices so frequently that he’s made the delivery of bulky exposition into something of an art form. Since their first collaboration on BATMAN BEGINS, composer Hans Zimmer has played an increasingly important part in shaping Nolan’s artistic identity. After spending several years working as something of a journeyman composer for big-budget action films, Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan have increasingly steered him towards an avant-garde minimalism. Nolan has pushed Zimmer to reinvent the wheel with each successive project, and INTERSTELLAR just might be the veteran composer’s most ambitious score to date.
Having grown weary of the conventional director/composer collaborative relationship, Nolan employed an inspired tactic: rather than scoring off of the edited film, Zimmer was given a one page brief before the start of production.
The brief did not outline the story of the film, describe the character, or give any indication of the scale– it didn’t even state that this was a science fiction film. Instead, the brief described abstract sentiments about family, parenthood, and time that zeroed in on the beating heart of the film’s emotional core.
From this barest of sketches, Zimmer generated a beautifully atmospheric, mysterious, and hopeful suite of music. Advised by Nolan to stay away from the tried-and-true orchestral string arrangements, Zimmer sourced his sounds from a palette of ticking clocks, melancholy piano chords, and most notably, an urgent church organ.
Indeed, the organ (and the particular acoustic resonance gained by recording it inside an actual cathedral) is the defining characteristic of INTERSTELLAR’s score, perfectly evoking the religiosity of the celestial heavens as well as our tireless search for a higher meaning to our existence.
By not tailoring his score to the expectations of the science fiction genre, Zimmer is able to tap directly into universality of the human experience at the center of the story and deliver one of the finest works of his career.
INTERSTELLAR dovetails quite naturally and cohesively with several of the core thematic fascinations that comprises Nolan’s artistic identity. Time (and the manipulation thereof) consistently shapes the structure of his films, and INTERSTELLAR posits that time is a spatial dimension unto itself– one that can be stepped outside of and looked in on as it stretches and warps in a relativistic relationship with gravity.
Whereas MEMENTO played with the lateral direction of time, or INCEPTION explored how a single action’s effect could compound along multiple parallel timelines, INTERSTELLAR goes one step further by turning time into a physical dimension, embodied in the four-dimensional tesseract that allows Cooper to interact with his daughter across multiple points of her lifespan.
It’s immediately apparent that Nolan sees great dramatic potential in the relativity of time as it pertains to gravity– one of the film’s most emotionally resonant sequences finds Cooper and Brand marooned on a water planet closely orbiting the gravity-dense black hole.
Because the individual perception of time differs according to the strength of gravity’s pull, they perceive themselves as being on the surface for only a few hours. When they return to the ship in orbit, however, they learn that twenty-three years have passed on Earth, and Cooper has an inbox with a lifetime’s worth of messages from his kids, who have grown up in his absence and have reached the same age he had been when he left home.
Nolan’s fascination with time is also represented by his usage of montage and cross-cutting in pursuit of a subjective emotional experience and the building of dramatic intensity.
Looking over his series of collaborations with regular editor Lee Smith, it’s not uncommon for Nolan to employ cross-cuts that span great distances of time and space, but INTERSTELLAR’s cross-cuts compress whole decades and unfathomable light-years within the space of a single frame.
One memorable sequence late in the film cuts between Murph diverting her brother’s attention by burning his corn crop, while on an icy world in a separate galaxy, McConaughey battles for his life against Damon’s attacks. They are separated by untold millions of miles and several dozens of Earth-years, but they are united in their singular, cosmic struggle to save the human race.
Nolan’s films explore and subvert our perception of time in pursuit of a greater, unified statement about the subjectivity (and fragility) of our individual realities– there is no single objective truth in his films, no matter how hard his characters search for it.
Perhaps that’s why his protagonists are always so tortured or burdened with regret… they’ve devoted the entirety of themselves to the pursuit of something they ultimately can never attain.
Nolan has sometimes been called an “emotional mathematician”, most notably by fellow director Guillermo Del Toro. Beyond his championing of technical precision and a tendency to manipulate the emotions of his audience through calculated technique instead of raw artistic ingenuity, the phrase also alludes to his use of academic disciplines like geometry and science in his storytelling.
In other words, a large portion of his life’s work has been a celebration of the magic of data. This is true in INTERSTELLAR more so than any of his previous films, with entire plot points hinging around the conveyance of ideas and messages via morse code, binary coordinates, flight path equations, and even gravity as a form of interdimensional communication.
A considerable amount of screentime is dedicated to Cooper and his crew figuring out how to best conserve their limited fuel supply, which isn’t as boring as it sounds when it means we get to see him pull daredevil spin maneuvers to slow down his lander rather than using fuel-consuming air brakes. This conceit folds in well with Nolan’s reputation for structuring his plots as puzzles his characters must solve.
INTERSTELLAR’s astronauts must summon all their intellect and resourcefulness in order to solve the biggest puzzle of all: gravity. Architecture plays a significant role in this regard, most notably in the design of NASA’s cavernous underground bunker.
The space is shaped like a massive centrifuge, and for good reason– once Brand solves the problem of gravity, he plans to physically lift the building into space as a 21st century ark that will ensure humanity’s survival. Its circular shape will allow the station to spin in orbit, generating artificial gravity for its inhabitants.
The exotic world of space travel allows Nolan to indulge in his continued exploration of functional style. Great consideration was given to the film’s spacesuit costumes, with Nolan striving for a sleeker silhouette than the cumbersome suits employed by modern astronauts.
As a piece of equipment designed to sustain an astronaut’s life systems in hostile environments, these suits are inherently functional, and Nolan finds the opportunity to enhance their functionality towards the film shoot itself by building microphones directly into his actors’ helmets.
Classic literature has also played an increasingly prominent role in Nolan’s work, stemming from his college years as an English Lit major and most recently evidenced in the inspiration that Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” served in the development of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
In INTERSTELLAR, Professor Brand routinely recites Dylan Thomas’ classic poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a propulsive mantra, continually reminding us of the ultimate cost humanity will pay should the mission fail.
Though Nolan is very mechanically-minded in both the thematics and execution of his story, INTERSTELLAR’s ultimate message is surprisingly organic and optimistically abstract: that love is a higher dimension than both space and time; that we all draw from an interconnected, cosmic soul; that our love for each other gives the human race meaning and significance in the face of a cold, endless oblivion.
By the time of INTERSTELLAR’s release in November of 2014, Paramount had completely ceased the distribution of celluloid release prints in favor of an all-digital delivery to theaters. However, Nolan harnessed his considerable clout and convinced the studio to make an exception for him, even going so far as providing an incentive to see the IMAX, 70mm and conventional 35mm film prints over digital by making them available a full two days before the film’s official release.
INTERSTELLAR scored mostly-positive critical reviews, most of which praised Nolan’s considerable technical showmanship and awe-inspiring ambition even as they found some faults in the overall cohesiveness of his story.
While the film’s box office performance didn’t post BATMAN kinds of numbers, Nolan’s rabid fanbase and INTERSTELLAR’s buzz as “the most anticipated film of 2014” all but guaranteed a healthy haul.
INTERSTELLAR’s legacy as a technical triumph was confirmed at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.
It would go on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects– the same category that Kubrick won for his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. While INTERSTELLAR may not end up as timeless a classic as Kubrick’s masterpiece, it will nevertheless go down as one of the most audacious and ambitious science fiction epics ever made.
Nolan: QUAY (2015)
As a noted champion of practical effects and technical craftsmanship, director Christopher Nolan has a vested interest in supporting similarly-minded filmmakers. As the director of some of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, Nolan also has the power to shed light on underexposed voices by using the pedigree of his own name to help them find a new audience.
In 2015, Nolan did just for that the Quay brothers, two masters of imaginative puppet animation celebrated for their handcrafted gothic aesthetic that’s less Walt Disney and more David Lynch.
The 8-minute QUAY is Nolan’s first documentary effort, and the first short he’s made since 1997’s DOODLEBUG. Working with co-producer Andy Thompson, Nolan acts as a one-man crew like he did on his feature debut FOLLOWING (1998), serving as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor as he documents the Quay brothers giving a tour of their cavernous shop and their myriad creations.
Ever true to his purist approach towards celluloid cinema, Nolan shoots QUAY on 35mm film in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio, conforming his high-contrast, desaturated earth-tone aesthetic to a handheld, observational tone. Nolan is content to simply let the Quay brothers riff on the nature of their work without inserting himself into the conversation or imposing any sort of contrived narrative, ultimately creating an intimate portrait of two artisans and the lo-fi, handmade artistry behind their inimitable body of work.
QUAY screened at the Film Forum in New York before being made available on a boutique Blu Ray release collecting several of the brothers’ iconic shorts. Nolan’s reverence and appreciation for the Quays is palpable; there’s no question he regards their work as a formative influence on his own approach to filmmaking.
Naturally, the Quays were renowned long before Nolan turned his lens on them and didn’t necessarily need a documentary like QUAY to expose their work to a wide audience, but the film does however reach a different audience– the kind whose diet consists only of mainstream Hollywood spectacles and isn’t particularly inclined to seek out the eccentric deep cuts of indie animation.
In showing us a key influence in his advocacy for practical effects in the face of digital wizardry, Nolan reveals a deeper insight into his own artistic character while suggesting the beginning of a more-intimate and experimental phase in his professional development.
QUAY is available in high definition on the The Quay Brothers Collected Short Films Blu Ray via Zeitgeist Films and Syncopy.
Menento Analysis Transcription
Well my brother told me the story verbally before he finished writing it and the screenplay is an extrapolation of his basic idea which I was fascinated by. He told it to me while we were driving cross country between Chicago and Los Angeles and we both decided right away that by far the most interesting way of approaching that concept was subjectively to tell a story in the first person. So he went off to write his short story.
I went off to write the screenplay and my solution to telling the story subjectively was to deny the audience the same information that the protagonist is denied. And my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards that way when we meet a character we don't know just like the protagonist how he's met that person whether he's even met that person before and whether or not they should be trusted, that kind of thing.
So the story is basically told back which is basically told as a series of flashbacks that go further and further back in time. What’s similar to my brother story as he finally finished it. It's being published next month actually in Esquire magazine and in the States and the similarity in structure is both the film and the short story deal with repetition and internal echoes and also both alternate between the objective in the subjective.
So in the screenplay what I did as I said I need a way of breaking up the flashbacks so that we separate the scenes in our mind and feel this progression further and further back in time. So what I did is I alternated between these color sequences that are intensely subjective, everything in the color sequences is from caller’s point of view, we're always in his head at least to begin with. We alternate with these black and white sequences that at least to begin with our objective.
They present a little bit more filmy black and white, it's grainy the shots are sometimes the overhead a little bit more distance it's a more objective. We don't hear the voice of the other end of the telephone; we're not really in his head. The voice overs and the color sequence in the Black wants it was a very different and the color sequence is the voice of the mind.
It's the first person it's very much his thoughts as he's thinking them in the black and white scenes they sound a bit like interview grabs you know a bit like this kind of interview edited and laid over pictures of him in this room going about his life.
So I wanted to introduce this almost documentary style element at the beginning to give the audience a little bit of information, objective information about how this guy lives his life and what he thinks and to break up these scenes. So the black and white sequences, the chronology is forward, they run forward in time as we realize as we go further and further along with film. As the film progresses the color sequences become a little bit less intensely subjective.
I think towards the end of the film we really start to step outside his head a little bit and start to question some of the things we've been told about this character or some other things he's told us himself. The black and white scenes on the other hand as the movie progresses, they become less and less objective.
We start to get more and more into his head as he exists in this my tower. And in fact when the black and white and the color scenes actually meet towards the end of the movie and I think these two perspectives, the objective, the subjective of the backwards running narrative in the forwards running narrative they actually meet at what is the end of the movie chronologically I guess you could call it the middle of the movie.
It's confusing because I don't think pictorially diagrammatically. OK you have the beginning of the film here. The best way to draw it is as a hairpin like that, that's basically the end of the movie, this stuff is the black and white stuff, this is color and this is running backwards as a series of jumps and what we do is we cut tween the two the whole way through, so we alternate scene here scene, scene here and here and they meet towards the end of the film.
But then within this you have flashbacks to a different timeline which is actually even earlier somewhere around there. Also within this you have flashbacks to an earlier time, some in there.
So I guess you could use the heap in shape to represent the bulk of the film. With the black and white with the color meeting in the last reel, the end of the film being sort of their after it turns really color and kind of lead us into the beginning of that proceeding scene.
But you have other material that actually precedes the beginning of the black and white scenes and the gap between the beginning of the black and white scenes and this long term memory stuff, some of which is color some of which is black and white. That gap is unspecified. The lead character because of his particular condition he can never know how long that's been he's cut loose in time effectively.
So we never wanted to specify for the audience. We imply a length of time to it because it's the time in which he's had these tattoos put on, he's been living this life so forth. So that gap to me is where the most interesting ambiguity of the film is the end you know we never wanted to step fully outside of his head and you know specify too many of these things in terms of an objective reality because to me one of the interesting things about the film and what we were trying to do is essentially present an idea of the tension between our subjective view of the world, the subjective way in which we have to experience life and then our faith in an objective reality beyond that.
And most movies present a quite comfortable universe where we've given an objective truth that we don't get in everyday life, it's one of the reasons we go to the movies. In this film, we don't want to do that, we don't want to step outside his head. We wanted to present the audience with that problem effectively and say ‘he can't ever get outside his head and recognize what the objective truth is’ So I think the audience at the end of the film is left to make certain of the same judgments that he is the invited to believe or disbelieve certain elements of what is supposed to have happened in his life much as he is.
And I think the way that we try and focus on this end of the film and making that as extreme as possible is by taking this subjective view on this objective view and effectively having them meet at the end, so that what we achieve is still subjective but with enough objective information built into it that we start to question the point of view that we've been given for the whole film.
Well within the hip and structure, we have different elements of his past life that we want to introduce and we the way we divided them is that some of them are presented in black and white and those are the ones that relate to a parallel story that runs parallel to his life. But it's a story of another character who has the same condition. And that is all presented chronologically and cuts into the black and white scenes not into the color scenes.
The memories of his longer time life, his own life the life within his own head therefore also to me you know that the subjective experience these sort of memories of his wife, these images of his wife are all shot in color and I will present in the color sequences not in a black and white sequences, so we keep those separate.
But as you may have noticed towards the end of the movie there is a certain amount of joining of these images and confusion of these images and some of the things we've only seen it in color are presented in black and white and vice versa. So certainly once again we're trying to basically merge the subjective and the objective, the memory versus the sort of narrative that he has in his head of this other this other character.
So the other thing we want to be doing in the end in terms of the way in which we mix images and reinterpret images is to suggest the complex relationship between Imagination and Memory. And we see him towards the end, we present certain images that we've seen from his past life within a different context and in a different context they have slightly different meaning and I think the suggestion there is that he like all of us is able to manipulate the meanings of certain memories or manipulate his own interpretations of certain memories according to his present circumstance.
Yes the way in which we cut between these two things is will take a color scene and then we'll cut to a black and white scene that's shorter in length and then we come back to the colors here and we basically, as these are going essentially backwards in time, we sort of leap frogging and we wind up repeating the beginning of a scene at the end of another scene vice versa. And in that way we use repetitions of certain parts of scenes to clear the audience in to where they are chronologically.
So essentially what we're always doing is we're beginning every scene with something a cliffhanger, something of an unusual situation or a memorable image and then in our later seen we're explaining how that situation has been arrived at and that's the rhythm of the film over the entire course of the movie. So it's in a way taking a familiar cinematic rhythm. You know the rhythm of the cliffhanger orthe question and then the answer and it's presenting that as an alternating rhythm the whole way through the film.
Yeah, the black and white stuff is all derived from a forward running sequence. So if you take these individual Black and White sequences, they run forwards. If you stick them together they actually overlap in the same way that the backwards scenes overlap. It's not quite so obvious when you're watching the movie but you know it begins with him sort of shaving his thigh and answering the phone and everything and in fact these actions overlap.
So there is a suggestion that in fact and it is the case that you can stick our scenes together and achieve one sort of long scene effectively. And that episodic structure was one that I wanted to employ because the overlapping flashbacks of the color sequences for complex structure, the black and white stuff is actually pretty simple to follow because it follows the basic episodic structure was very familiar with me from watching T.V.
You know it's like you break something up with T.V. commercials, very easy to just keep following a very simple forward progression in this case it's him on his own in a room speaking on a telephone, so it's a very simple sequence of forward progression and it's not too difficult as we return to it to just tap into it and say OK this is where we are we're back here on familiar ground we're just going to get a bit more information about you know who he is and what he's discussing on this telephone call.
The overlaps become shorter as the film progresses because the assumption is that it seems to work that the audience gets into the kind of rhythm they begin to understand that the structure is backwards. We in fact begin the film with a literally backward scene at the head; I mean we're literally running reverse action. The rest of the film is forward action but in a series of backward steps, it's kind of you know one step forward two steps back the whole way through.
But at a certain point those repetitions are able to be a little bit shorter because the audience isn't rhythm and then there is a point at which in certain scenes we actually don't achieve the same repetition we actually make an illusion. You know we make a complete jump the same way in a conventional movie they will do that. You know when you reach a point with two scenes so obviously connect chronologically so you don't have to explain the chronological relationship.
So there's a point sort of midway through the film where we begin to do that a little bit. But then we come back to the repetitions because some of the repetitions later in the film I think are important for their own sake, not just for explaining to the audience where we are but also for hammering home this in notion that it's the context of a scene, it's the context within which a particular action happens like there's a point at which he's searching for a pen and he's trying to write some down to remember something and all the rest and we see that once so we don't really understand and we see it again has a rather different meaning.
So there's repetition start to take on a more substantial role I think in the narrative other than just orienting in time they actually start to suggest the way in which the narrative context in which a particular action happens is changing what that action represents. And that relates once again to his subjective view of what he's doing in the room and how that's actually affected by what's going on around him which becomes I think very important to the overall theme of the movie.
At the beginning of the movie I was looking for a way into this structure, the way into this storytelling. So what I wanted to do was to show something in reverse to suggest that the backwards movement of the film. But the way in which the Polaroid is used through the film is as a replacement for short term memory.
It seemed like showing a Polaroid picture on developing, showing the picture on developing and showing this information being lost. It seemed like a very useful way of suggesting the problem that he's having to deal with which is you know this faulty short term memory and this information dribbling away and in fact the opening shot is you know it's a Polaroid of what that body.
I think the significance of that becomes clear later in the movie in terms of how I was interested in looking at his relationship of his perception of revenge versus the notion of whether it has any objective reality or has any value outside his out head. So this achievement of revenge, the satisfaction of that body, this gruesome image fading and actually I'm developing and losing itself from his mind.
That actually is pretty much of the whole movie; in fact you can just watch opening shot you to the movies. Thank you.
Director Christopher Nolan has spent most of his career imagining and entertaining various apocalypses, manifesting them onscreen via a series of big-budget action spectacles.
He probably never imagined that the 2020 release of TENET, his eleventh feature film, would arrive in the midst of a very real one— an all-consuming “end of days” scenario for movie theaters and the medium of cinema, brought about by the devastating, still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the world that Nolan released TENET into was not dissimilar to one he might have devised for his own work.
Early on in the crisis, empty grocery store aisles were a common sight, echoing the famine that brought about a dust-choked existence in INTERSTELLAR (2014). As weeks stretched into months, a collective sense of pulling together to overcome a shared challenge splintered into a bitter divide drawn along political lines, eventually culminating in a failed siege on the US Capitol that — at the risk of making of a reductive comparison to one of the darkest days in American history — was strangely reminiscent of the mass street brawls that marked the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).
TENET, then, would become not unlike one of his own protagonists: an individual possessed of elite skill and considerable financial resources, tasked with nothing less than saving the world. In this case, the world needing saving was the conventional theatrical experience— the megaplex.
When health restrictions ruled out the ability to sit in a dark, enclosed room with hundreds of strangers for several hours, the beloved ritual of moviegoing collapsed overnight. Theaters around the world closed their doors; some, like LA’s cherished Arclight cinema chain, unwittingly shuttering forever.
Even as case numbers dropped in the summer, prompting several chains to open back up and test the waters, auditoriums remained empty. Desperate for revenue and starving for a government bailout that wouldn’t come for several more months, theater chains (and studios) came to see TENET as their last great hope. After all, if Nolan’s latest effects spectacle couldn’t lure audiences back to the cinema, what could?
As if saving the cinema wasn’t enough pressure, TENET also faced a challenge that Nolan hadn’t experienced since 2002’s INSOMNIA: making its money back. At $205 million, it wasn’t just Nolan’s most expensive original film, it was also one of the most expensive original films in history (1).
Furthermore, it was the most expensive film ever produced featuring a person of color in the lead role. The stakes had never been higher, and theatrical distribution was the only way a budget this high could hope to recoup its expenses.
Rather than dump the film directly to streaming services as other studios had done, Warner Brothers repeatedly delayed the film’s theatrical release in hopes that case numbers would improve enough for audiences to feel comfortable returning en masse.
This prospect seemed increasingly unlikely as 2020 slumped over the finish line and the numbers of the infected were higher than ever. Unable to wait a year or more (as other high profile releases like FAST 9 or NO TIME TO DIE had done), Warner Brothers had no choice but to put the film in theaters and let it play to an empty house.
Thus, it would seem TENET was doomed to be Nolan’s first financial failure before it even had a chance to prove itself.
Nolan could take some consolation in the fact that the film had lived up to his own exacting creative standards. As an intensely-cerebral, time-bending spy thriller, TENET possesses a Nolan-esque pedigree that verges on the quintessential. The ideas contained within had been percolating in Nolan’s mind for twenty years, only manifesting themselves as an actual screenplay in the last six (1).
After the comparatively narrow focus of 2017’s DUNKIRK, he harbored a desire to return to the expansive, globe-trotting scope of his previous epics (2). TENET — inspired by the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that had so formative an influence on his youth — would suggest itself as an ideal fit.
However, this was not to be Nolan’s take on a Bond movie; this was to be, rather, what he described as a “memory” or a “feeling” of the genre. Not a direct homage per se, but a pure intuiting of its mechanics from a broader exposure, with each of his key collaborators bringing their subjective experiences to the table in pursuit of something more original.
Indeed, there’s never been a spy picture like TENET, what with Nolan’s signature manipulation of chronology as a core plot point. It’s easy to make light of the general concept— “Nolan just discovered Avid’s ‘reverse’ button” — but it’s clear that he is after a much more complicated understanding of time as it relates to physics.
Despite soliciting guidance from his INTERSTELLAR consultant and Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist Kip Thorne, Nolan is the first to admit that scientific accuracy is not the goal. Nor is TENET about the concept of time travel in the way that pop culture understands it, grounding its central idea in the concept of reverse entropy as a way to assign backwards chronological travel to individual objects rather than our timeline as a whole.
The end result is as intellectually elusive as it is viscerally engaging; a two-and-a-half hour embodiment of an expositional character’s exhortation to TENET’s hero: “don’t try to understand it. Feel it”.
Like a true spy film, TENET zips around the world in its chronicle of The Protagonist, a rather cheeky moniker given to John David Washington’s elite field operative who is tasked with preventing a future war his handlers only know about because its detritus is peppering our present. Washington, son of the great Denzel, plays down his celebrity lineage to deliver a star-making turn all his own as the unflappably cool, enigmatic hero.
He’s emotionless, but not cold; the embodiment of the word “spook”, he seemingly has no personal life to speak of, having devoted the entirety of his existence to the shadows.
When a counter-terrorist operation at a Ukrainian opera house results in his capture, The Protagonist attempts suicide by cyanide capsule to avoid giving up crucial information to his captors.
The afterlife that awaits him on the other side is a bit unexpected, to say the least: after waking up in a tanker in the middle of the ocean, the mysterious stranger at his bedside (INSOMNIA’s Martin Donovan) recruits him for a top secret mission with an enigmatic code word: “tenet”.
The word is also the name of an equally-secret organization that has been collecting various objects evidencing a state of reverse entropy; that is, they move backwards. The organization believes these objects to be the detritus of a devastating war in the future, and the only way to avert it is for The Protagonist to track down a Russian oligarch named Sator.
Played with an icy intelligence by fellow director (and DUNKIRK performer) Kenneth Branagh, Sator is a nasty piece of work— a cruel, abusive, nihilist with the financial means to satisfy any earthly desire. There’s two things his fortune can’t buy him, however.
One is time, as he’s slowly being consumed from within by terminal cancer. The other is love; unable to earn the affection of his wife, Kat, he’s opted for her fear instead. As the film’s chief feminine presence, the 6’3 actress Elizabeth Debicki quite literally towers over her co-stars as Sator’s kept companion.
She’s a professional art appraiser who effortlessly glides through high society circles, none of whom have any idea about the bitter abuse she endures for the sake of her son. She proves a valuable partner in The Protagonist’s mission, granting him access to Sator’s inner circle at great risk to her own life.
Robert Pattinson’s Neil is another valuable asset to The Protagonist. Cavalier, laidback, and rakishly disheveled, Neil is an elite agent for Tenet who seems a little too well-equipped to follow along with the mind blowing revelations of the mission at hand.
His laidback attitude balances rather nicely with The Protagonist’s buttoned-up focus, leading to the warmth of unexpected friendship that counters the aesthetic coldness frequently levied against Nolan by his critics.
As the gargantuan scope of The Protagonist’s mission becomes clear, Nolan’s supporting cast responds in kind, giving the audience a handful of additional characters who each contribute another piece of the central puzzle. Aaron-Tyler Johnson goes full commando as Ives, a brusque, hipster-bearded special ops officer who helps The Protagonist acclimate to the unworldly working conditions of a reverse entropic state.
Dimple Kapadia, a prominent Hindi actress making a rare appearance in an American studio picture, plays Priya, a wealthy, Mumbai-based arms dealer who counters the moral bankruptcy of her profession with a warm elegance and matronly demeanor. Nolan mainstay Michael Caine makes a brief cameo as the bespectacled Crosby, a British intelligence officer who conveys early intel about Sator.
Jeremy Theobald, the protagonist of Nolan’s lo-fi debut FOLLOWING (1998), also makes a brief cameo in the same sequence, playing a buttoned-up concierge and waiter at Crosby’s dining club.
TENET reunites Nolan with his INTERSTELLAR and DUNKIRK cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, with those prior works becoming a platform upon which to further experiment with large-format filmmaking. The pair switch confidently between 65mm and IMAX film, the latter deployed primarily for action sequences and awe-inducing establishing shots.
Also like all of Nolan’s prior films since THE DARK KNIGHT, the mixing of formats would require a constant switching of aspect ratios— 2.39:1 CinemaScope for the 65mm and 1.43:1 for IMAX (further matted to 1.78:1 for home video). Beyond setting a personal record for the most amount of IMAX footage shot at 1.6 million feet (1), TENET doesn’t attempt to expand Nolan’s stately technical aesthetic beyond the reverse conceits required by the narrative, choosing instead to deliver the weighty big-screen experience that we’ve come to expect (and demand) from him.
Whether mounted to a crane, a helicopter, or atop the operator’s shoulders, the camera maintains its dogged focus on spectacle and scope as the characters push the story forward.
The familiar stone & steel color palette of Nolan’s previous films gives TENET a washed-out, earthy feel, while pops of red & blue are used as visual signifiers of the flow of time— a reference to the Doppler shift, which points out how light moving away from the observer takes on a reddish quality due to longer wavelengths, whereas the shorter wavelengths of incoming light reads as blue.
There’s a case to be made for TENET as Nolan’s ugliest film, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Though the desaturated color palette certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of vibrant color, the deliberate choice to shoot primarily in the Eastern European city of Tallinn, Estonia (1) imbues the film with a grey, Brutalist quality reminiscent of the utilitarian edifices of the Soviet era.
Supplementary locales like Mumbai further add to this feeling, with a sweaty, overcrowded populace laboring underneath the shadow of Priya’s looming residence— a needle-like high-rise built for a single family that serves as a physical embodiment of globalism’s treacherous side effect: runaway income inequality, which has paved the way for a handful of billionaires like Sator to bend society to their exploitative whims.
Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley uses these unfamiliar locations to his advantage, subsequently fashioning a kind of abstract urbanity that anonymizes their surroundings akin to INCEPTION’s monolithic cityscapes. This particular aspect finds particular resonance in TENET’s climax, which finds The Protagonist and his colleagues undertaking a massive operation in both conventional and reverse chronology amidst the towering ruins of a decimated ghost city that was once Sator’s home.
Though TENET benefits from the expected pedigree of longtime collaborators like Crowley, Hoytema, and Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner in production as well as life, two other key figures — editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer — abstain from the proceedings, the former already committed to Sam MENDES’ 1917 and the latter turning Nolan down so as to score Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE (1).
Rather than lament the temporary loss of valued colleagues, Nolan would take this opportunity to inject some young blood into the film, replacing Smith with Jennifer Lame and Zimmer with Ludwig Göransson. Known previously for her work on Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, Lee proves her editing chops are just as capable in the action arena as they are in drama or horror.
She deftly handles TENET’s display of reverse entropy in action, helping us make sense of where (and when) we are in sequences that could just as easily be a cumbersome and confusing succession of images.
Göransson further cements his reputation as arguably the fastest-rising star in film composing, creating a rather stunning original score that favors percussion and experimental electronic textures over conventional orchestration.
Composed of crashing synth waves, aggressive drums, sirens, and dubstep-adjacent rhythms, the overall effect is not unlike having a bad trip at a warehouse rave… but in a good way. Indeed, the score’s most conventional element is a guitar accent that evokes James Bond without emulating John Barry’s iconic theme.
The massive character of Görannson’s sound is even more impressive considering that its orchestral elements were recorded separately by individual musicians working around strict lockdown measures (1).
For the character of Sator specifically, Göransson employs an inspired leitmotif that sounds like someone gasping for breath, musically reinforcing his terminal condition as well as the story’s conceit that one must rely on an oxygen mask while in an inverted state. The effect was reportedly achieved through heavy electronic distortion of the original recording, which funnily enough, featured Nolan himself breathing heavily into a microphone (1).
To cap things off, Göransson repurposes the score’s unique sound as the backing track to a collaboration with rapper Travis Scott, resulting in an original single titled “The Plan” which boasts the distinction of not only being the first hip-hop song to be used in Nolan’s filmography, but also the first time that the director had used a companion single in conjunction with any of his works (1).
Though it’s tempting to imagine what Zimmer might have contributed to Nolan’s latest opus, Görannson’s Herculean efforts keep us from dwelling too much on the elder maestro’s absence.
Beyond his demonstrable mastery of filmmaking’s technical conceits and the visual grammar of epic spectacle, the aura of “timeliness” that envelopes Nolan’s storytelling seems to be rooted in his ability to harness our modern anxieties and transpose them onto a gigantic apocalyptic canvas.
Unlike the shock-and-awe, landmark-destruction porn engineered by disaster-movie contemporaries like Roland Emmerich, Nolan’s apocalypses are rather intimate, the sharp end of their spears angled directly at the individual even as the rest of the world hangs in the balance.
Even without the threat of coronavirus looming over its release, TENET’s central macguffin — the so-called “algorithm” that Sator seeks to reassemble from pieces sent to our present by mysterious agents from the future — evokes the rapidly-destabilizing nature of the social media age.
Just as Sator’s efforts are veiled under the guise of benevolent climate change reversal, so too are the data-based algorithms that build our timelines and newsfeeds being twisted away by bad actors from their original community and relationship-cultivating purposes in order to mislead, disinform, and divide; instead of connection, these algorithms are ultimately fostering isolation, siloing us off into our respective echo chambers and alternative realities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem, subsequently imbuing TENET with an eerie prescience that seems to predict the age of sickness to come. Images of The Protagonist wearing an oxygen mask that serves to sustain him in the face of an inhospitable reverse entropic state unwittingly transcend Nolan’s personal artistic fascinations to coincide with our new masked reality.
Likewise, the aforementioned gasping leitmotif that Göransson builds into the score loses its impressionistic storytelling quality as it transforms into a breathless dispatch from hospitals overwhelmed by respiratory failure on an unimaginable scale.
Furthermore, the isolating effects of a year in lockdown served to obliterate our collective perception of time, robbing it of meaning while entombing us in a suspended state of waiting— waiting for case numbers to decline, for vaccines to arrive, for our lives to resume.
It was almost as if we had been “incepted” into one of Nolan’s films, with the strings that constitute our sense of temporal continuity and progression being manipulated by some unseen puppetmaster for reasons beyond our comprehension.
TENET’s exploration of reverse entropy, the latest snaking tendril in Nolan’s careelong fascination with the manipulation of time, also finds an oblique relevance in the broader cultural obsession with nostalgia.
It seems in recent years, the comfort of looking back on supposed “better times” has become a kind of drug, and media conglomerates its dealer. Popular shows like STRANGER THINGS, or reboots/remakes/reimagining of beloved properties from our youth consume the media landscape, delivering continual hits of pleasure and dopamine.
In recognizing and profiting off our collective desire to travel back in time, they have effectively weaponized our nostalgia against us, lulling us into willing complacency as the world burns; they keep us jonesing for the next entry, the next installment… the next hit.
TENET recognizes this danger, building its backwards-moving story progression around the idea of reverse radiation as a byproduct of nuclear fission. In short, what’s promised to be the next great technological leap forward in civilization — the achieving of cheap, clean, and infinite energy via the replication of the sun’s natural processes on earth — is a double-edged sword that threatens to destroy our past & present even as it promises to save our future.
The film repeatedly makes clear the perils of moving backward in time; it could be argued that our desire to do so is rooted in wanting to return to a simpler state than our complicated present allows.
What TENET tells us, then, is that the past contains the seeds of said present; nostalgia is a false illusion that, while admittedly pleasurable, ultimately inhibits growth— and as the protagonists of our own stories, forward movement is the only way we will achieve our various objectives.
In the context of Nolan’s own growth, TENET is another prime example of the unique artistic traits that distinguish him as an undeniably compelling voice. The use of entropy as a means of manipulating time speaks to his reputation as a kind of “emotional mathematician”. He roots the fantastical in the practical, turning to physics, science and data as storytelling tools in their own right.
At times, TENET is a touch too dense for its own good — I’m no rocket scientist, but I’ve at least been able to follow along with the various plot convolutions of Nolan’s previous films until now. The climatic “temporal pincer movement”, in which one team moves forward in conventional time using intel derived from a second team simultaneously moving backward, requires the closest of attention be paid to fully understand its narrative intricacies.
To his credit, Nolan understands the intellectual unwieldy-ness of his setup, and the aforementioned scene in which the Protagonist is urged to “feel” the reverse entropic state instead of understanding it serves as an urging of his audience to do the same. It’s an acknowledgment that TENET is far more enjoyable as a visceral experience than an intellectual exercise, and the film is all the better for it.
This loosened, near-self-aware approach extends to other signature aspects of Nolan’s artistry, such as the functional style of his characters. Though The Protagonist is well-dressed to the extent that anyone wouldn’t hesitate to call him stylish, his sartorial sensibilities are nevertheless muted and utilitarian; they favor shape and structural integrity over color or flash.
His clothes speak to his singular focus on his profession and strategic advantage (a key plot point sees him need to wear an expensive designer suit to even gain an audience with Sator).
At the same time, another beat sees The Protagonist casually dismiss a Tenet operative’s urging to wear tactical protective clothing before venturing outside in his reverse entropic state.
It’s Nolan’s way of telling us to not take things too seriously, and it’s advice directed as much towards himself as it is his audience; a self-regulating bid to prevent TENET from being too obtuse for its own good.
It likely wouldn’t have mattered whether or not TENET was too convoluted or conceptually dense; it was the latest Nolan film, after all, and it would be the biggest hit of the year outside of Marvel.
But this wasn’t a normal year. This was the pandemic year— the year of global crisis that affected all of humanity and yet seemed perfectly-engineered to imperil the most personal aspects of our individual lives. To Nolan, champion and defender of the theatrical experience, the forced closure of cinemas across the world was a direct attack against the core of his artistic being.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”, Harvey Dent famously intones in 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, and a figure who insists on audiences seeing his work in his preferred viewing experience while putting them at risk of exposure to a deadly, out-of-control virus could certainly be described as something of a villain.
As other studios and filmmakers shifted gears, embracing a gradual shift towards streaming that had only intensified in lockdown, Nolan insisted that the cinema was the only place his new film could be seen. As such, the release was delayed no less than three times while case numbers ebbed and surged in relentless waves.
In the end, TENET was indeed released theatrically, but only to the handful of theaters that were still open— most of them in international markets that had done a much better job controlling case numbers than the US. Considering all of that, its $363 million worldwake box office take should be impressive, but pales in comparison to Nolan’s billion-dollar track record.
A disappointment, even one with several caveats, is still a disappointment, and the occasion of Nolan’s first true professional disappointment is cause for reflection on mainstream filmmaking’s high-stakes, unsustainable addiction to immense returns… which requires ever-higher production and advertising budgets to generate.
As the pandemic began to recede into the rearview of history, TENET has enjoyed the opportunity to be seen by more people, and for its many positive qualities to be embraced. A collection of generous reviews would sing the film’s praises, with The Ringer’s Keith Phillips notably proclaiming that its bungled release actually positioned it well as a future cult favorite (3).
Nevertheless, the occasion of TENET’s release came coupled with an unexpected development. In their haste to embrace the newfound flexibility of the streaming age, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 release slate would be available to subscribers on their proprietary streaming platform, HBO Max, the same day the films would hit theaters.
In so doing, they ran afoul of the talent they otherwise proclaimed to value, robbing them of significant shares of theatrical revenue they had previously negotiated for. While this development came too late for Nolan to be personally affected, Warner Brothers’ spurning of the theatrical window was nevertheless a bridge too far— and presumably the end of the road with the studio that had been his home for most of his career.
He publicly eviscerated their decision, even going so far as to call HBO Max “the worst streaming service”. It remains to be seen whether feathers can be unruffled, and the question of his next move is a rather large one.
Whatever his next project may be, it will undoubtedly emerge into a profoundly-changed exhibition landscape; his lifelong quest to “save the movies” will face its biggest challenge yet. From our current vantage point, it’s unclear whether or not he will ultimately succeed, but one thing is certain: in trying, he is ready to risk everything.