How hard can it be to get into Christopher Nolan movies? Not very, if his box-office clout is any indication of his popularity. His last 11 films have made more than $5 billion worldwide, and a reliable reputation for putting out big, rewarding tentpole films goes a long way towards that success. That doesn’t mean he makes it easy.
Over the years, Nolan’s come to be associated with the ‘brainy blockbuster’. Alongside massive setpieces – a plane crashing into an airport hangar, a plane being stripped for parts mid-air, a plane exploding into flames (he really seems to hate planes, huh?) – are ideas of considerable intellectual heft. His fondness for playing with time means that his movies could start in the middle, flit between multiple timelines and have scenes that play out in chronological and reverse order, sometimes even both simultaneously. These films often work like intricate puzzles, each piece slotting itself neatly into place until the larger picture gradually comes into focus. Nolan’s indelible imagery – a Polaroid that fades rather than develops, a van falling in slow-motion, a man fighting an inverted version of himself – points to a director who he uses the cinematic medium to freeze and compress time, loop or extend it, even as his protagonists struggle to acquire the same mastery.
That’s not to say his films are all brain, no heart. Nolan’s brand of cinema is the exploration of heartfelt, intimate themes, just on the largest of canvases. If a father desperate to get back to his children in Inception (2010) must first navigate the labyrinthine layout of the human mind, in Interstellar (2014), he must traverse beyond the reaches of the solar system, across space and time, grappling with the cruelly crushing weight of years lost. Nolan’s movies are characterized by their often immoral protagonists – thieves, dirty cops, murderers. These are often men who must come to terms with a terrible truth, or their consequences of their lies. They illustrate the malleability of identity – people who wear literal and figurative masks, who aren’t always what they seem. And they helplessly seek to command forces so much bigger than they are. Time, yes, but also space and science.
One of the most enduring criticisms of his work has been his inability to write strong female characters that stick around. In several of his films, the death of a woman serves as fuel for the male protagonist’s motivations. This also makes Nolan’s movies (unintentionally?) homoerotic – in the absence of women, friendships between men take on a charged romantic slant.
Ahead of Oppenheimer, here’s a quick guide to getting into Nolan’s works, if you’re still one of the few holdouts. As Tom Hardy in Inception put it, you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
Set in a world in which technology has made it possible to infiltrate another person’s subconscious, a thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts the job of planting an idea in a businessman’s (Cillian Murphy) mind. Inception combines the tropes of a heist narrative with a form that allows for temporal manipulations as only Nolan can envision – intercutting between various sections taking place over different periods of time, what blooms throughout the film is an ache for promises left unfulfilled, years that have slipped by. Inception is a distillation of Nolan’s most potent ideas – the power and fragility of the human mind, the wonders and dangers of invention, familial love as a driving force. The denseness of its concepts and sheer scale of its exposition are minor complaints, offset by just how propulsive the film is. The limitless potential of the dreamworld enables Nolan to stage visually spectacular sequences, including a hallway fistfight in zero-gravity, Paris streets that fold over themselves and a temple flooded by water cannons.
A cipher that unfurls with the flourish of a magic trick, The Prestige features multiple alternating timelines, voiceovers from multiple characters, men reading from each other’s diaries, doubles, entire identities as a construct. It’s tricky stuff, but watch closely as a character advises you to do early on, and you’ll come away gratified. Set against the backdrop of the Tesla-Edison rivalry, this tale of dueling magicians (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale), snaps into focus one of Nolan’s most recurring themes – the price of obsession. The idea that art requires sacrifice is taken to its extreme. Can an artist only be great through complete self-annihilation? To the two magicians, there’s only one right answer.
Beginning with a drop of blood staining a fiber red, Insomnia examines guilt as a stain that’s harder to wash out. A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name and the only Nolan film that he did not write, Insomnia follows two detectives (Al Pacino, Martin Donovan) investigating the murder of a teenage girl in Nightmute, Alaska. The audience will find Nolan’s time trickery more straightforward here – the town experiences daylight for 24 hours – but it still disorients the protagonist, who finds himself unable to sleep, wracked by guilt and kept up by the perpetual sun. A twisty, deeply sad tale about people losing their way in the brightest of places, Insomnia is Nolan’s most underrated film.
Nolan’s long spoken about wanting to direct a Bond film and Tenet, with its fondness for globetrotting men in sharp suits pulling off massive action setpieces is certainly a distinctive spin on the franchise, but also one of the most frustrating films in his body of work. Unfolding in a world that envisions an impending temporal war, the film follows a CIA operative (John David Washington) who must stop a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) with the ability to reverse the flow of time. Tenet is fantastic action cinema, in which Nolan films a plane crash with all the giddy glee of a child rooting around in his toybox. But it also doubles down on his worst impulses – incredibly convoluted time machinations, flat characters, women whose lives exist only in relation to the men in them, a certain cold aloofness to the proceedings. It's only towards the end that any emotional impulse seeps in. Tenet is as cerebral a film Nolan’s ever made, but where is the sentiment?