Filmmaker Retrospective: The Intelligent Cinema of Christopher Nolan

Out of all the directors working in mainstream cinema today, Christopher Nolan is proving to be one of the most interesting and compelling. Born in London in 1970 and of a British-American ancestry, this is a man who always aspired to make films, starting to experiment, very much like Steven Spielberg before him, at a young age with a Super 8 camera borrowed from his father.

Having studied English Literature at University College London, he specifically chose to study at this institution for its filmmaking facilities, making two short films during his college years, Tarantella in 1989 and 1995’s Larceny, the latter of which played at several film festivals and is considered one of the best short films to come out of UCL.

Nolan made his feature debut in 1998 with the film Following. Shot on weekends with friends and self-funded on a modest budget of three thousand pounds, it announced Nolan, who directed, photographed and edited his feature debut, as a talent to watch.

He made something of a quantum leap with his second film in 2000, Memento. Deploying a highly innovative reverse narrative, this was the film that made the world in general sit up and take notice of Nolan’s prodigious talents.

It has been heartening over the past fourteen years to watch Nolan mature and grow as an artist. While his films deal with wildly different stories, they all share similar thematic themes and concepts, such as human morality, the concept of time and the shifting, subjective experiences of memory, personal identity and being.

What makes Nolan particularly special is the way that he beautifully walks the line between what can be described as ‘art vs commerce’. Namely, he creates films that fulfill his personal aspirations and vision, while at the same time making films that connect with large audiences. Never one to play it safe, he continually pushes himself and his public with intelligent, thought provoking work.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who make what could be best described as ‘franchise’ films such as Sam Raimi (Spiderman) and Bryan singer (X-Men) as Nolan has done with his reinvention of the world of Gotham City and Batman, he hasn’t gone back to back with making said films and, in the process, burnt himself out as an artistic talent and/or lost his mojo with what he does. He has spaced the three films he did set in that world with highly interesting and original works such as The Prestige, Inception and, most recently, Interstellar.

He is also to be commended for his use of practical effects rather than over-relying on CGI which, in the hands of some directors, can leave a film lifeless and looking like a video game, thereby robbing the audience of that human connection with its characters.

Nolan is a director who, over time, has broadened his ambition and scope with every film he has made. What really makes the films work is that he never loses sight of his characters and narrative. In other words, whether you like or hate the characters presented, you always find them interesting. As an audience, that is one of the points that a number of blockbusters fail at getting right time and time again.

He also runs Syncopy Inc, the company that distributes his films and those of other directors, such as his former regular Director Of Photography Wally Pfister, who made his feature film debut with Transcendence (2014), starring Johnny Depp.

In New Hollywood Cinema of the Seventies, many directors subscribed to what the French called the ‘auteur’ theory, in that they were the author of the films they made. Nolan is very much in this style and method.

However, he is also smart in that he has learnt from the mistakes of directors of the past and avoids the excess that brought that period of filmmaking to an end, most notably personified by the infamous 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate, a film that attempted to paint a broad canvas and instead both tanked at the box office and, due to its exorbitant budget, bankrupted the studio that made it, United Artists.

Nolan also has a spot on eye for casting in each of his works, utilising great actors and actresses such as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, the late Heath Ledger, Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to name but a few. All great actors, over time they have formed something of a repertory for Nolan, a number of them working with him several times.

Here, we look at the cinematic life and times of Christopher Nolan and the way that he has changed and shaped film as we know it.


1. Following (1998)


Nolan’s feature debut is strikingly shot in black and white, Following depicts a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who follows people across London, hopefully gaining material to write a novel. Through the course of his actions, he becomes involved with a criminal named Cobb (Alex Haw).

Inventive, lyrical and striking, the film presents itself in a non-linear fashion, beautifully coming together in the last ten minutes or so. This was one of debut films that was highly polished and accomplished, without an ounce of cinematic flab on it.

Interestingly, there is an option on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release of the film that lets you watch it in a linear fashion, rather than the seemingly random way in which Nolan depicts his story. Either way, Following is a compelling and highly effective calling card for a director who, in the space of the next decade, would become a major force in film making across the world.

Shot on weekends over a year on a modest shoestring budget, this was an auspicious debut for Nolan.


2. Memento (2000)


Memento is the film that truly brought Nolan to the attention of the world. With a truly original take on narrative structure and style, this film, considered by many as one of the best of the 2000s, tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) and his attempts to hunt down whoever killed his wife, all the while suffering short term memory loss.

Where Memento truly excels in in the way that it depicts the constantly shifting sense of human emotion and experience when one is put under physical, mental and spiritual pressure, whether it be of their own doing or the world around them.

While the idea and concept of amnesia is a somewhat overused device in cinematic narrative, Nolan infused it with a freshness and energy that was impossible to ignore. It is this ‘different’ point of view that would infuse and shape his later work that makes Memento such a different and unique film.

Garnering an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay, this is still one of the most unique and striking films of the past fifteen years.


3. Insomnia (2002)


Insomnia was the first big budget Hollywood film that saw Nolan step up to higher budget film making. A remake of the Norwegian film of the same name, this is a tense, unnerving, incredibly claustrophobic and beautifully made detective thriller, something of a kindred spirit to David Fincher’s Se7en. It details two detectives sent from the city to a small Alaskan town to investigate a series of murders.

The film beautifully details the fact that the Alaskan town is experiencing a seasonal shift in weather in that the sun doesn’t set, and the way that plays on the inner demons and guilt of Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino).

Out of all the Hollywood remakes of foreign films, this is one of the stronger entries, with a powerhouse cast, especially Hillary Swank and a brilliantly against type Robin Williams, really giving this film light and shade.

Insomnia depicts mental and moral fragility in a visceral and effective way. It’s not often that one can say that this ‘Hollywood’ take on a foreign film stands up against the original, but this is one of those rare exceptions to the rule.

In regards to stepping up in budget and scope of vision, this was a highly polished and strong step for Nolan to take, and one that would lead to the franchise of films that would cement him in cinematic history as one of the greats, the Batman franchise.


4. Batman Begins (2005)


The Batman franchise has had something of a chequered history over the decades. Whether it be the camp Sixties TV series or director Tim Burton’s gothic take on the metropolis of Gotham City, there have been interesting but not quite satisfying visions over the years.

The franchise was at something of a low point when Nolan stepped into the frame. Director Joel Schumacher had made his take on the franchise with two films, the rather pedestrian Batman Forever (1995) and the perfect storm of awfulness that was Batman And Robin (1997), a film that all but killed the cinematic franchise.

Eight years after that debacle, Nolan made Batman Begins. As it turned out, this was the film that fans of the franchise had been waiting for. An intelligent, mature and gritty take on the origins of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, this was a rich, new and darkly brooding vision of a world that, as lovers of cinema, we thought we knew.

Aided by a compelling script and a cracking cast, this was Batman, but thrillingly not as we knew it. Christian Bale, one of the best actors of his generation, proves to be an inspired choice as Batman/Bruce Wayne, capturing the man’s inner turmoil and vengeance against the crime world of Gotham to an absolute tee.

Gone is the glitzy, day glo visual style and cartoonish look of previous Batman films. What really makes Batman Begins fly is its firm rooting in a reality, while removed from that of real life, is one that is vivid and highly believable. Featuring little to no CGI, Nolan really took the story and mythology of the Gotham universe and, in the best way possible, turned it inside out.

At a time when blockbusters consisted of bloated self-indulgence, bum stinging running times and were the cinematic equivalent of empty vessels, Batman Begins was an absolute breath of fresh air. It also cemented Nolan’s reputation as one of the great directors working in modern Hollywood.