Filmmaker Retrospective: The Intelligent Cinema of Christopher Nolan

5. The Prestige (2006)


Following hot on the heels of Batman Begins and something of a complete change of pace from that film, The Prestige, set at the end of the Nineteenth Century, tells the story of two rival magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) locked in a psychological battle against each other, with both attempting to stage the ultimate trick and illusion as part of their respective acts.

A hard film to pigeonhole in regards to genre, it is a compelling tale of obsession and compulsion, aided by an incredibly well-chosen cast, a superb script and crisp, focused direction. As corny as it sounds, Nolan really seems to push himself as a director and get better with every subsequent film he makes. The Prestige is a great example of this.

It’s also a classic example of storytelling in cinema, something that, again, had been corrupted and tainted by the ‘blockbuster’ mentality, where profit at the box office is the be all and end all, no matter if the film is actually enjoyable or not.

It also showed his knack for highly effective, left field casting, as he did with Robin Williams in Insomnia. Here, we have rock star David Bowie playing real-life inventor Nikolai Telsa. Not really well known for his thespian abilities, he really shines here, stealing every scene he’s in. Only one other director has been able to truly harness Bowie’s unique, almost otherworldly persona on screen, being Nicholas Roeg who cast him as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth.

It’s been heartening to see the way that there is much more to Nolan than just the Batman films. His own work has proven to be unique and compelling in its own right, as he would further illustrate in the 2010 film Inception and 2014’s Interstellar.


6. The Dark Knight (2008)


Comparable to sequels such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II (1974), The Dark Night, the first film not to use the word ‘Batman’ in its title, is a classic example of a sequel developing upon its parent film and expanding the world that we saw there.

There are several aspects of The Dark Knight that make this an exceptional film. It truly does capture the momentum created with Batman Begins and build upon it. It’s admirable in the way that it initially shows a city solving its crime problems, only to be thrown into absolute chaos by The Joker (the magnificent Heath Ledger in his final performance before his untimely death).

Examining how one reacts to events and circumstances beyond reason or control, it really hones in on the psychological conflict that Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) experiences when dealing with, in the eloquent words of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), someone that ‘wants to watch the world burn’.

Like its predecessor, gone is the campy attitude of visions of Batman and Gotham City depicted in previous incarnations, as well as gratuitous placement of pop songs designed to sell soundtracks. There is a purity of vision to The Dark Night that is haunting and impossible to ignore. As a viewer, you simply get lost in what is before you, and have the pleasure of seeing cinematic storytelling at a truly compelling level.

In The Dark Knight, Nolan truly excels in getting that balance right between action and character, eliciting great performances from his cast and working with a brilliantly written script depicting Gotham in its darkest hours. An absolutely massive box office hit across the world, it gave his backers, Warner Brothers, the confidence to let Nolan make his next move as a director, the challenging and hugely ambitious Inception.


7. Inception (2010)


This is the type of film that you can only make after you’ve grossed over one billion dollars for the company that makes your films. Wildly ambitious in scope and attack, Inception is a bold, striking and truly original work, and a brilliant illustration of Nolan’s growing and maturing skills as a director.

Sharing his surname with a character from Nolan’s debut film Following, Don Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is an expert in the new field of dream espionage, namely stealing ideas from the dreams of people, when they are at their most vulnerable psychologically. This talent he displays has come at a cost as we find out, making him an international fugitive and rendering him unable to come back to America and his children.

To redeem himself and rebuild his life, Cobb and his team are offered an impossible task-inception. Instead of stealing an idea from the mind of an individual, they are given the job of planting an idea instead.

Highly ambiguous in its depiction of the world of dreams, Inception has a great deal in common with one of the great films of cinema, the 1984 Sergio Leone film Once Upon A Time In America. Both films share that quality where, as a viewer, you ask yourself what is truth and what is dream.

In lesser hands than that of Nolan, this idea and concept would come off as somewhat muddled and pretentious. A good contrast would be director Richard Kelly, who thematically explored similar themes and motifs in his debut release Donnie Darko (2002), an interesting film, but one that had a severe attention span issue in that it didn’t fully explore its story and potential, something that is definitely not the case with Inception.

Nolan displays a sense of clarity and vision that holds the viewer, showing them a world they haven’t seen before. Like Batman Begins before it, Inception was released in a period of sequels, reboots and remakes. To say it was unique would be an understatement.

It’s admirable the way that Nolan both continues to challenge himself and his audience and refuses to become lazy and repeat himself as a director and also not treat his audience like children. These qualities are proving to be something of a rarity in Hollywood in our current day and age.


8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


Proving he is a director to finish things on a strong note, this is the last Batman film that Nolan has delivered. Sharing the same gritty, visceral visual and thematic style of its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises ties the trilogy together in a borderline flawless way.

The Dark Knight Rises goes even further than the immediate film before it in how it depicts Gotham City in a state of crisis. This is brought forward by the incredibly intimidating and psychopathic Bane (Tom Hardy).

Unlike its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises also serves as a parable for America under attack from outside forces. More political than the two films Nolan made before it, this adds a powerful strand and subtext to what was already a highly compelling vision of a comic book and franchise that, as viewers, we thought we knew.

This film also saw Nolan, bolstered by the critical, artistic and financial success of Inception, really step up in regards to his ability to create astounding action set pieces within the story’s frame. The last hour or so of The Dark Knight Rises all but pins the viewer to the back of their seat and takes them on a highly compelling ride.

Although Nolan is producing the next Superman film directed by Zach Snyder, in which we’ll see the Man Of Steel face off against Batman (to be played by Ben Affleck), The Dark Knight Rises feels like a perfect full stop to Nolan’s vision of this world and its characters.


9. Interstellar (2014)


A production that was surrounded in one of the highest levels of secrecy ever seen in cinema, Interstellar revealed itself to be an incredibly ambitious, intelligent and thought provoking work, right up there with the best of some of the major works of science fiction cinema, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).

Set on a dying Earth, beset by dust storms, famine and drought that immediately bring to mind the period of The Great Depression, Matthew McConaughey plays farmer and former astronaut Cooper, charged with the task of finding an alternate world for his people to live on in the face of environmental devastation and decay on his home planet.

This is a film that asks a lot of big questions about life and the universe. Where it really excels is how it never loses sight of the human element amongst all this. It’s incredibly affecting the way that it depicts how time slips between one world and another, with people on Earth aging faster than Cooper and his crew do when they leave our universe.

Proving to have an incredible knack for spot on casting, the film also features great turns from actors such as Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain and, in small roles, a handful of the most underrated actors of cinema such as William Devane, John Lithgow and Ellen Burstyn.

This continues the way that Nolan can give somewhat ‘forgotten’ actors great roles, as he did for Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins, Tom Conti and Matthew Modine in The Dark Knight Rises and Tom Berenger in Inception.

It also features an actor that has worked in the majority of the films that Nolan has made and has become something of a good luck charm to the director, Michael Caine. In all of the films he’s done with Nolan, Caine brings a sense of dignity and grace that warms the screen, no matter how short the screen time of the actor or the role.

Interstellar is truly a film that is for the heart, the soul and the mind. Again, the way in which Nolan refuses to play it safe and really push himself and his audience is something to behold. Unlike a great deal of the popcorn fodder that passes for cinema these days, this is a film that will make you truly think about and question the world in which you live.

Magnificent in vision, the film was shot primarily in 65mm on film as opposed to being made with digital cameras, something Nolan is a big proponent of. Along with the Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master (2013) and the upcoming The Hateful Eight, directed by Quentin Tarantino, Interstellar will probably be one of the last films to use this visually striking way of making cinema.

It will be particularly interesting to see where Nolan heads after Interstellar. This particular film is the one that he has been working towards for the majority of his career and has confirmed him as one of the exciting and compelling directors working in the industry today.

Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.