Has Christopher Nolan lost his way?

There’s no single director I can credit more with fostering my interest in cinema than Christopher Nolan. I was ten when I first saw Inception and it’s had a major impact on my cinema: it’s no wonder that my own drafts sometimes buckle under the weight of a high-concept premise. Inception follows Dom Cobb – an ‘extractor’ who infiltrates the dreams of his targets to steal information from their subconscious. His abilities have made him valued goods in the world of corporate espionage, but have also cost him everything he loves. Cobb is offered a chance at redemption when he’s presented with a seemingly impossible task: planting an idea rather than stealing one. Is Inception Nolan’s magnum opus? Maybe. It’s certainly a marvel of practical effects filmmaking: slick, well-acted, boasting a heady premise, all without skimping on its themes or characters. In the decade since Inception’s release, Nolan’s films have steadily grown in scope and ambition, from superhero action flick The Dark Knight Rises, to sci-fi epic Interstellar, and more recently, 2017’s taut war thriller Dunkirk. These films all have their own merits, but none quite reach the lofty heights of Inception – in my belief, Nolan’s last masterpiece.

I don’t use this term frivolously, mind: the true definition of a masterpiece is difficult to pin down. We’re taught as screenwriters that the mark of quality in a script is efficiency, especially when it comes to dialogue. Dialogue is used in a screenplay to reveal information, whether that’s character motivation, themes, or exposition. This all needs to happen in a dramatic context of course, so the best dialogue does all of these at the same time. This definition, therefore, seems apt for determining a film’s overall quality. While a fab script will obviously contribute to making a masterpiece, the performances, timing, sound, visuals and themes are also vital. A great film will be able to deliver on all of these simultaneously – efficiently. Further, it’s important to distinguish between films that are great and films that are my favourites. To illustrate, I love Superbad. It’s one of my favourite films: it’s laugh-out-loud funny, the acting’s great, and it’s surprisingly touching. But could you really call it great? What about something like 2001: A Space Odyssey? An unparalleled level of technical craft, suffused with a gorgeous score breathtaking visuals – especially for 1968. It’s certainly a classic – great films logically would be, but it’s also a masterpiece. These sorts of films are rare beasts: a perfect storm of outstanding artistry and skill. To call every film a masterpiece does nothing but devalue the term. That Nolan managed to turn out at least three in a row (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception are unambiguously sublime) marks him out as one of the greatest directors working today – and I’d argue ever, but it also makes his fall from grace in the last ten years all the more puzzling.

Nolan’s pre-Inception filmography is almost noir in tone, employing chiaroscuro lighting and labyrinthine plots. His first film, 1998’s Following, adheres to this philosophy most explicitly, playing out in a series of flashbacks unreliably narrated by the protagonist after the fact. Nolan even shot the film on 16mm black and white film stock and preserved the standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio from the genre’s 1940’s and 50’s influences. Memento also draws on some of these motifs: a troubled central character, feelings of paranoia, anxiety, regret, and the non-linear structure. The Prestige, perhaps encapsulates Nolan’s early filmography best (it’s my favourite), chronicling an unwieldy web of supernaturally permeated espionage, whilst achieving a meta-metacinematic tone Nolan subtextually guns for in all his films. 2008’s The Dark Knight serves as the apotheosis of this rising equilibrium, then. Story and spectacle hang in perfect balance: the set-pieces are undeniably thrilling – Nolan’s most ambitious up to this point – but the psychopathy of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and its effect on Gotham’s collective psyche, remain at the forefront. Suggestions of the impending imbalance between story and spectacle are present even in a movie as perfect as Inception. Many of the film’s foundational rules are thrown out the window in the final act, and the hero’s trauma feels more like a puzzle to be solved, rather than the emotional odyssey Nolan seems to be angling for. Crucial plot beats are covered at full tilt – requiring multiple viewings to fully comprehend – and the film’s large cast, spread over a number of dream levels, can be hard to keep track of for the uninitiated.

By the time of The Dark Knight Rises, this imbalance has been amplified. Nolan likely wanted to go all-out with the final instalment in his Batman Trilogy – and who could blame him? The result, however, is less Dark Knight, and more grandiose war film – featuring a man in a bat costume. It’s overburdened with underdeveloped characters, nonsensical or worse, contradictory, plot beats, and a final act that strays too far into the fantastical superhero territory that Nolan has, up until this time, been paralleling. Then comes Interstellar. It’s definitely better than The Dark Knight Rises, elucidating accurate relativistic theory to its audience, and is a fantastic entry into the modern ‘sci-fact’ canon, but jesus is it loud. In Interstellar, characters bawl more than they talk, and when they do talk it’s more like mumbling. The film also spends way too much time on Earth (ironic) and then rushes when it gets to exploring its themes of isolation and survival.

Post-Inception, Nolan’s filmography is characterised by extravagant, even operatic scale. Rises and Interstellar both exceed the 160-minute mark, trading the tight, quippy dialogue of Nolan’s 2000’s back catalogue for lengthy speeches – Matt Damon’s diatribe about survival instincts lasts nearly ten minutes in Interstellar. Mike D’Angelo voiced similar disquiet in his review of The Dark Knight Rises: “Nolan’s increasing trend toward gigantism concerns me—spectacle is not his forte.” What is consistent, however, are the set-pieces, which remain as impressive as ever – particularly Interstellar’s docking sequence or the plane heist from the opening of Rises. But while their counterparts in Inception or The Dark Knight (the former’s rotating hallway is a personal highlight) would both impress and immerse, Rises and Interstellar simply impress – technically more than anything else; although only Christopher Nolan could fall short by just impressing. The fantasy concepts in these later entries read more like vehicles for action sequences than to introduce an innovative way of telling a story – like Inception or Memento did.

Of course, Nolan has played with fantasy elements before: magic, superheroes, time travel, etc. But these have always been grounded – handled with a degree of restraint – as his films walk a fine line between the real and the fantastic. The result has been something authentic and unambiguously Nolan-esque. All the new stuff, though, they’ve dialled everything up to eleven. The climax of The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce carry a bomb out to sea with a bat-shaped plane where it can be detonated away from the city (all in under two minutes I might add). And while Interstellar’s wormhole/tesseract scene is really cool – and noisy – for a film so committed to realistic space travel to completely change tack and go full blown sci-fi at the end is disappointing at best. It’s hard to put my finger on it: neither of these final acts are ‘bad’, just… a bit wacky. You’ve got to separate these plot beats out from the narrative context of the story to truly appreciate this: they just… they don’t work.

Dunkirk, then, is interesting. With the exception of Following (which gets a pass for its shoestring budget), Dunkirk is probably the most minimalist of Nolan’s filmography, and the most experimental when it comes to its narrative structure; it sidesteps the problems faced by Rises and Interstellar by not really having ‘characters’ – or ‘acts’ for that matter – in the conventional sense, therefore avoiding sacrificing one for another. The varied characters in the film are more akin to archetypes of the period – shell-shock-ridden soldier, naive young boy, heroic pilot – than dramatic roles. The complexity of Dunkirk’s narrative structure outstrips that of Memento; it’s not simply told out of order, rather it’s bereft of any order: its temporal strata stretched and squeezed into alignment. Despite the reflexivity of its narrative though, it reaches a breakneck, almost bewildering pace during the climax, that feels unnaturally separate from the tension of the first two-thirds. Bending the rules is no excuse for the film’s narrative deficit, though. People move around but they don’t do anything: a few lads argue on the beach, a few lads argue in a boat, then a few lads argue in a plane, and it ends the same as most Nolan films. The music swells, the narration crescendos, and the final image reinforces the film’s throughline while leaving the audience with a few more questions.

And then there’s Tenet… Nolan’s latest film resolves a few of the problems that have plagued his recent output. Tenet follows an undercover agent as he travels through a twilight world of international espionage using technology that can invert the entropy of an object. As the premise suggests, Tenet requires one to “look at the world in a new way” in order to follow the plot, similar to Memento and Inception – which gives it a major boost. Hoyte van Hotema’s revolutionary cinematography and Ludwig Gorannson’s fantastic score also lend the film an increased sense of maturity compared to Nolan’s recent output. Tenet also remedies my complaints with the director’s recent final acts, actively improving following a car chase around two-thirds of the way through the film. Prior to that, the film only occasionally engaged with its ‘inversion’ concept – it was more akin to a quirky spy film, especially that bizarrely unnecessary bungie jumping scene. Afterwards, things picked up: the concept was used to advance the plot, introducing new unseen applications, especially the principle of a temporal pincer movement, which is just baffling to me, but fun nonetheless.

However, many of Nolan’s shortcomings remain present in Tenet. The sound mixing aside, the first half of the film seems intentionally obfuscated, amounting to little more than a montage of dialogue-heavy scenes. While this problem will supposedly be remedied by a second viewing (which I’ve already arranged), it presents both financial and moral questions for the industry about whether the onus to unravel a film’s mysteries on a single watch lies with the director or the viewer. The film’s lack of humanity has also been lambasted, coming across “chilly and cerebral.” It makes me wonder why these problems weren’t picked up on in Nolan’s earlier work. Entering the final stretch – just when the film should be paying heed to the characters, it shifts its focus to the concept! Tenet also has, in my opinion, the worst writing in any Nolan film. Nolan’s tendency towards excessive speeches continues, and they’re the worst kind of melodramatic drivel: preachy, conceited and, worst of all, unrealistic. Overall, progress is definitely needed before another of Nolan’s films could be called a masterpiece, but Tenet is a step in the right direction. As his best film since 2010, I’m unsure which temporal plane Christopher Nolan plans to tackle next.