Christopher Nolan Ranked
Worst to Best
The Nolan-verse is about as rarefied as one gets in the blockbuster realm: chilly, cerebral storytelling enlivened by more populist approaches to scale and subject matter. The results have, on occasion, scored a resounding bullseye, on others exposed the separate components in rather unforgiving fashion. What endures, however, is a director in demand, one who may have peaked with the public a decade ago but can be relied upon to avoid the easy route. Which means he may yet engender a burst of event-appeal glory again, and in so doing give the MCUs and his former stomping ground DCU a run for their money.
Factoring into this is his current status in Hollywood, a town that has crumbled since the coof and collapse of its subsistence diet. How to countenance Nolan as White Hat* with what may be construed as his persistent gestures towards confirmation of the Hegelian dialectic? More still, his continued affair with La La Land itself, whereby, surely, if you don’t play by their rules, you don’t get out alive? No one of Nolan’s stature would have escaped the attention of the cloning centres, so his continued perseverance, as one not getting with the programme beneath it all, would presumably have entailed some expert juggling.
The degree to which Nolan simply said what he was told to say, as against slipping in his own commentary where he might, is thus open to debate. Assuming he is a White Hat – and Oppenheimer may confirm to us transparently* – he may be seen either as having reluctantly gone along with the programme, or alternatively choosing to fight the good fight in whatever small way he could (his pictures have, after all, been critiqued as conservative in politics, and that alone ought to have made him a Hollywood pariah). One might ask, though, if the latter was his modus operandi, and one could nevertheless “mistake” his movies for selling their message, is that such an achievement? His brother Jonathan, on the same team, has made several series that seem to be promulgating the inevitability and humanity of AI, the lure of the transhumanist future. He may be presenting this as a warning, but how different, fundamentally, is such an approach to standard-issue predictive programming? Attempting to glean the truth can be a little bewildering, to be sure. The line between commentary and advocacy may be a thin one, and it might escape the average joe. Certainly, I didn’t really countenance the idea that anyone making movies on his level could be other than a fully paid-up member of the club.
I mentioned Oppenheimer, and my understanding is that the film is expressly designed to expose the nuke lie for what it is*. Which would mean it was made with an assumption of how the global landscape would have changed by the time of its release – next May – such that there would be nothing stopping it. Nolan was never one to bet against, but if there really is something of that nature going on beneath the lid, well, a (partially) black-and-white film about a well-worn historical subject suddenly doesn’t seem quite as big a gamble after all. What would you rather see? The truth about nukes or Tom Cruise’s double in the penultimate Mission: Impossible? Assuming this reading of Oppenheimer’s content is accurate, I wouldn’t expect the full-length trailer(s) – one to be release with Avatar: The Way of the Water – or any of the movie mag puff pieces to let the cat out of the bag beforehand (indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the trailer includes fake footage so as not avoid this). And if Oppenheimer is more in the vein of Dunkirk, sturdy but toeing the party line? Well, we saw what happened to the last big movie on the Trinity Test (Fat Man and Little Boy). And what will be next for Chris? Perhaps he’ll be given carte blanche to make that Bond film, with his Tenet star Aaron Taylor-Johnson…
This Worst to Best is, then, in part, an attempt to appreciate the Nolan oeuvre through the lens of the benefit of the doubt. As such, it’s a refocussing of my prevailing assumption in revisiting his movies individually over the last year or so, that Nolan was merely working for the man (or reptile man). I’ll be considering how his oeuvre might be argued as drawing attention to how it shouldn’t be, or forebode how it might be, and how his protagonists, rather than staged to entrench the system, may be disposed to free themselves, or others, from its shackles. Neither angle actually affects the ratings of the movies, which run the same gamut as before. So don a blazer, preferably with patches on the elbows, pick a tipple, and consider the conundrum that is Chris.
Note: I haven’t included Man of Steel in this ranking, for which he co-wrote the story but didn’t direct. There, the saviour of humanity resists his calling at the behest of his adoptive father, until events conspire to give him no choice. What may we construe from that? Well, while there’s never any doubt that Pa is wrong to urge Clark to neglect his mission, the general takeaway was that the Nolan sensibility – and the Zack Snyder one – wasn’t such a great fit. The general tone of the picture was seen to too grimdark. Perhaps it simply came down to Nolan (and David Goyer) being too much of a realist to savour Supes’ ideals.
*Addendum 24/06/23: So, I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with this one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, and it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).
Labouring under the assumption of the nuke hoax led me to consider the possibility that White Hat Nolan might be going to tell the “truth” thereof. Oppenheimer is telling the truth about nuclear weapons, but the truth happens to be that they did exist, and the conspiracy theory that they didn’t/don’t is one – it’s inevitable, there have to be some to ensure the movement gets a bad name – that actually deserves the disdain with which deniers greet all such theorising.
(2017) The respectable equivalent of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, with the title announcing an important treatise on a pivotal World War II event that is really no more than an exercise in “What exciting rollercoaster event can I pile onto Dunkirk beach next?” But with a reigning air of sobriety and verisimilitude, of course. If Hollywood is attempting even a fictional account of a historic event, it is invariably designed to support the official narrative, which means, by implication, that its content – the bedrock “facts” on which it is based – is consequently, to a greater or lesser extent, suspect. So Bay tells us Pearl Harbour was a surprise attack (yeah, right). Spielberg gives us staged D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan. And Nolan, it would appear, is intent on reinforcing what a dangerous and heroic mission it was to evacuate 335,000 out of 500,000 men from the French beaches.
Nolan fleeting mentions “The enemy tanks have stopped” but otherwise scrupulously avoids emphasising that the Allies were allowed to flee, in favour of a few nasty Luftwaffe sorties. The commonly cited reason is that Hitler made a boo-boo, and from there, that he likely still hoped some form of rapprochement was possible with Britain. This might be the case. Another reading would be that, the wheels of such conflicts being what they are, his restraint was necessitated; as Antony Sutton documented, the Nazis were being funded by the same Wall Street financiers as the Allies. Which isn’t to suggest they were necessarily controlled opposition, or that Hitler wasn’t a psychopath (by virtue of opposing the Elite system). Simply that the wheels and mechanics of a(nother) World War was quite in keeping with the grand scheme of things.
The precise cause and effect involved will quite possibly be examined at some point in a manner mooted for Oppenheimer and the nuke lie*. But for the purposes of Dunkirk, Nolan doesn’t seem preoccupied with posing such questions (he “didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of the situation”); he’s all about drawing you in to the immediacy of his non-stop, ticking-clock actionfest. To that end, he employs some typically tricksy time framings – there are three periods depicted, comprising land, sea and air – a device failing to disguise that the individual narratives are on the thin, pedestrian side, in terms of character, plot and theme.
Nolan’s films are designed as big-screen events, which means it’s quite easy to find oneself swallowed up by them if first seen as intended. Revisiting his more recent efforts has tended to reveal highly unflattering failings up close. Dunkirk’s triumph of defeat has an inevitable boys’-own quality, in spite of its serious-mindedness and diligence, simply because it is so shamelessly devised to thrill its audience.
This began to actively annoy me on second viewing. A picture like A Bridge too Far has its expediencies, but the movie as a whole at least gives the impression of trying to get it right. Dunkirk is all about contrivance upon contrivance in the name of escalation. The Mark Rylance skipper plotline is especially irksome in this regard, a succession of calculated conflicts and conveniences (Barry Keoghan bangs his head and dies; Cillian Murphy is shell shocked; Rylance comes armed with a fighter-plane designer’s knowledge of enemy aircraft in 1940). Rylance himself is tiresome too, a caricature of his standard underplayed dedication.
The land stuff is also pretty tenuous, as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles) and Frenchie (Aneurin Barnard) are apparently hexed, unable to board a soon-sunk hospital ship, succeeding in boarding a destroyer that is hit by a torpedo, and then having an altercation with some highlanders in a shot-up, beached trawler (Frenchie Gibson drowns, presumably because he has to be punished for dressing as a British soldier and attempting to scarper; Nolan is practising his preferred perceptions of reality here. Gibson is deceiving others, despite being on the same side, and perhaps he must pay the price because his personal-interest deception will be at the expense of others, on whatever level). It’s the manipulative quality that bothers; Nolan somehow gets plaudits for embossing a fairly unremarkable story. It isn’t so far from a Sully, only with more French dressing.
The Tom Hardy fighter ace plotline fares better, in part just because it’s so visually arresting (Hardy, per Bane, is in a mask for most of the movie; it might have been more effective still had Bane been flying the plane). Tom has a remarkable hit rate against the Hun, particularly when you consider the (official) stats for WWII fighter aces compared to the enemy’s. On the plane front, it’s been suggested that, had the Germans wanted a war with Britain, they would surely have designed ones that could carry more fuel (it seems most German aircraft were lost in the Battle of Britain because they dropped into the English Channel with empty tanks). Of course, speculation along these lines regarding WWII is anathema, because we all know it was a good and just cause, right? Rylance’s sober earnestness aside, Nolan at least isn’t overegging that aspect – we’re spared soggy Hanks/Spielberg sentiment here, fortunately – but the absence of anything very searching means Dunkirk tends more towards a 1917 than a Thin Red Line or Cross of Iron.
The Dark Knight Rises
(2012) While it made a box-office bundle, even the most charitable Nolanites agreed The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t touch the hem of its predecessor. The passage of time has been even less kind to a movie bogged down in a surfeit of subplots, supporting characters, ungainly exposition and plot developments, along with a Batman who has no sooner donned the cape (now with a cowl the wrong side of ridiculous) than his back has been broken and he’s been thrown down a pit. The Dark Knight Rises wades in knowing it has to be an epic trilogy capper, and it is resoundingly undone as a result.
To be sure, there are things I like about this movie. Tom Hardy’s Bane voice is absolutely hilarious, as if someone made a bet with him that he couldn’t get away with it, and he’s slightly stunned he was allowed to go there. Hans Zimmer’s score is completely crucial to the mix, doing the heavy lifting in layering the intended epic, iconic quality (it’s the only thing that allows the opening plane heist even to half work; it’s otherwise about as dramatically shot as a ’70s Airport flick). And, while it’s too little too late, and doesn’t take a genius to work out the misdirection, the “twist” of Miranda Tate’s identity at least means the third act isn’t entirely at the mercy of leaden devices in the aid of advanced threat and confrontation (the ones it does run with include a risible series of farewells while Bats has less than two minutes on the clock before the Bomb goes off).
Unfortunately, too much else is onto a loser. This is “realist” Batman, meaning he has to be shot away physically in a post-The World is Not Enough, pre-Craig gammy-knees 007 manner (let’s not forget Nolan’s Bond fetish). And yet, simultaneously, Bruce is able to recover from a broken back – okay, dislocated vertebrae – and make a number of flying leaps that ought to have done for him irreparably and suddenly overcome man-mountain Bane during a rematch. The suffering hero narrative is an exasperating bolster now; you just want Bruce to get on with it, rather than hearing all the right things from Robin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who does his best but is entirely capsized by John Blake’s consistently appalling writing, exposition and backstory). Alfred trots out his usual annoying Alfred act, including a contender for Michael Caine’s worst moment ever (“I’m sorry, I failed you!”) Gary Oldman’s saddled with a dreadful epitome of bland sincerity. Anne Hathaway, well she isn’t bad exactly (tho’ I’m not a fan), but Selina Kyle is a too-many-cooks inclusion who adds nothing essential, while Bruce switching from Miranda to Selina midstream serves to emphasise he really is shallow after all.
It’s been suggested The Dark Knight Rises is a right-wing fantasy, both via those taking it at face value as anti-Occupy Wall Street, anti-green energy, and those suggesting it is explicitly right wing in construct. A contrasting take is that it’s rather “a radical traditionalist puncture wound against modernity”, one that “is far too dark for ever-optimistic American conservatives to internalize. Gotham only functions when it is built on lies… Is there a Gotham still worth saving? An America?” One might argue either position is only nominally applicable as a reading, since any right/left starting point is bound to miss the wood for the Hegelian trees. This may be Nolan’s point. Batman can’t see beyond the immediate, which is why he’s caught slugging it out with brutes in masks and suffering numerous indignities for his art.
Yes, there are plot points concerning market manipulation and gun use (killing someone does sort them out, though, and it’s a sop that Batman always doesn’t; in context, Blake discarding his used weapon in disgust is only as cheesy as every other scene Gordon-Levitt is ladled). Bane is wearing the mantle of Occupy in his speechifying, explicitly as a means to bring about system collapse; in the Hegelian take, this mechanism is symptomatic of an extreme confirming the need for the (inherently corrupt) establishment, solidifying its basis (as Gregory Hood and Luke Gordon intimate, the city’s survival must be built on lies).
That would arguably be closer to the truth, of an engineered movement ultimately designed to aid collapse and reinvention under the Fourth Industrial Revolution (come the end of the movie, Bruce Wayne has nothing – not even a Manor, which becomes a home for orphaned children, a better fate than the Elite usually give them, but one has to ask if this is not also representative of the ultimate displacement of the family unit – and he is happy. He appears to have dropped off the grid – impossible in such circumstances, since as Selina says “Everything we do is collated and qualified. Everything sticks”; the Clean Slate programme is a McGuffin that makes no sense, as much of a fantasy as anything the Joel Schumacher Batmans brandhished).
As we’ve previously seen (Batman Begins), the League of Shadows operates as the Elite in all but name, choosing when to wield devasting population control; in the reality of the movie, Batman’s efforts are sincere, but in terms of theme and function, the League utilises the same persuasive means as Bruce in bringing the State back into focus. Bruce, after all, professes misgivings about anything that could be misused, from his own company’s Department of Defence contracts to the “Save the World” fusion project.
One might read into this the Elite and their stooge billionaires burying the truth about free energy amid lies over “fossil fuels”. After all, this accompanies Bruce’s protestations that he is willing to “destroy the world’s best chance of a sustainable future” if the world’s “not ready”. Transpose the movie to the real world, and both Bruce and the League are presenting the nuke (lie*) as their crucial bargaining chip. Bruce’s energy source is inherently bad because it can be used to as a weapon, so it’s best to avoid it all together. Bane threatens to destroy the world with a conceptual lie (nuclear weapons) just as Bruce denies saving it with one (fusion); neither eventualities will occur, quite aside from the fundamentals, because neither figure is truly autonomous (Bane would not be allowed to set off a nuke, if one existed*, while Bruce would not be allowed to present free energy to the world, as he’d end up dead, or have his patent and device mysteriously appropriated).
The Dark Knight Rises’ perceived political position may be taken as a mask for its dramatic deficiencies, however you slice that perception. Is it presenting the terms for all Hegelian conflicts, reaffirming the need for the State and its adjuncts, right down to the stir and repeat of setting up a new figurehead defender (Robin)? Or is this Nolan’s intentional commentary on the same, that the fight never stands a hope of resolution, however genuine one’s intentions? Such are the slim pickings in mainstream product, it would be easy and understandable to assume the least laudable reading. After all, no one who really believed in the cause would retire the way Bruce does (not dissimilarly to the way Miles Mathis has celebrities exiting the limelight through sudden death). If one way to see Trump is as Batman (as he said he was), willing to take the brickbats for the ultimate betterment of humanity, the difference with Bale’s Bruce would surely be (in the White Hat scenario) that he has no intention of permanently leaving the ring.
(1998) Nolan’s micro-budget debut and thus inversely proportional to just about anything he has tried his hand at over the last fifteen years. All Nolan’s pictures are concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, with perceived reality (even Dunkirk, his “straightest” of forays), and the impulse is very clearly etched here at the outset.
If one is inclined to apply a moral lens to the director’s essentially immoral/amoral characters, it’s the very act of his protagonist (Jeremy Theobald’s Young Man/Bill/Danny), in extending himself to a darker path, however apparently noncommittal in that regard, that decides his fate. Indeed, he effectively invites his world to come crashing down upon him.
Bill’s habit of following others around leads him to Cobb (Alex Haw), a burglar whose interest in Bill isn’t as “innocent” as it first seems, so triggering a trap Cobb blunders right into. This is perception/deception on an individually applied basis, one person privy to a layer of which the other has no awareness. If that layer is more House of Games than Inception, it is nevertheless within the same arena.
Following’s performances are resolutely on the non-professional side, and the initial premise – of the habitual voyeur – is more interesting than the crime-genre route Nolan takes it to, but this first feature evidences his approaches to plot and theme from off.
(2002) It’s difficult to appreciate Insomnia as much more than a well-crafted calling card. Nolan does a remake (of a 1997 Norwegian picture), one that neatly fits with his developing oeuvre, but does it really stand out from the pack? Well, since few, even Nolanites, talk avidly about it, I’d suggest not. It’s biggest point of interest is the precise circumstances in which Al Pacino’s flawed veteran cop – he’s being investigated by Internal Affairs – Will Dormer shoots and kills his partner Hap (Martin Donovan). Intentional or accidental? Come the end of the movie, Will attests that he doesn’t really know himself, but anyone tending to the benefit of the doubt must consider that the whole movie is built on budding serial killer Walter (Robin Williams) professing they’re quite similar as they both committed their acts “accidentally”.
There are sturdy performances here. Pacino’s reliable in a well-trodden furrow, Williams is queasy in the way his inherent desire for appreciation accentuates. In respect of Nolan obsessions, we’re back to perception and misapprehension, with both good guys and bad guys willing to blur or conceal the truth. As with Memento, he utilises cinematography and editing to accentuate the subjective state (sleeplessness, brightness, disorientation). And he illustrates how easy it is to be led down the wrong path due to blind faith (Hilary Swank’s devoted, eager rookie Ellie is willing to lie for Will). This was Nolan’s first post-9/11 picture, wherein the “good guys” commit murder to conceal evidence of their actions (which is one reading of the reasons for the false flag). Obviously, though, even if you follow that admittedly slender analogy, Will eventually comes clean…
(2005) This seems to be the “surprise” Nolan film people will go to bat for. In some quarters, you’ll see his other Bat outings dismissed in favour of this very literal-minded origins story. Which is understandable, in respect of the third episode, but nevertheless a curious advocacy. Batman Begins undoubtedly sets the thematic groundwork for the rest of his trilogy, but its otherwise a very ordinary, serviceable picture – it has that in common with his previous feature, a remake – both difficult to decry or extol from the rooftops. Nolan, who would have liked to shepherd Bond to the screen, ends up influencing it, fashioning a “grown-up” comic-book movie in the process. The result is an intermittently effective clash of the heightened and grounded, most limited by its director’s action acumen. He’s fine with expansive vistas, much less so with fight scenes, chase scenes, or anything that’s really intrinsic to the exaggerated tableau of the DC milieu.
Batman has lots of gadgets, his own Q, a snazzy car (well, a functional one, anyway), but he’s ever-so grounded. More pre-Thunderball Connery or – yes – OHMSS Lazenby than Moore.
Liam Neeson’s ever soporific as Ra’s al Ghul, Katie Holmes smacks of studio insistence rather than Nolan’s choice, and Caine is a fizzle as Alfred, coasting on Alfie appeal with a grab-bag of pat wisdom. Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are fine. Tom Wilkinson is hilariously not a gangster. The origins itself is so-so.
Rutger Hauer and Cillian Murphy are great, though, adding a touch of extravagance and/or the sinister in their white collar and hessian sackcloth respectively. They are neither, though, to their marginal credit, intent on a depopulation agenda. Gotham is the world, and the League of Shadows is there to “restore balance” (so, like Thanos), to instigate a reset. Their means is the stuff of real-world nightmares – but just that, right? – with toxins absorbed by the lungs, induced by EM-waves.
Obviously, a true White Hat (black cowl) would do everything possible to defeat such a force and plan. And if we cast Nolan is a White Hat, the persona(s) of Bruce/Batman isn’t a bad fit. Someone who willingly lives the life of the privileged in order to do his bit secretly as a means to setting the world to rights (how he’d have expressed that via Bond is anyone’s guess). But as alluded above, one has to ask how adept that is, in messaging terms, if he’s so easy to misconstrue. Batman, opposing the Elite (League of Shadows, the Mob, take your pick), employs their tactics, tactics of fear and persuasion, “to turn fear against those who prey on fear” in order to win through. Not for nothing was the working title The Intimidation Game. One of the arguments of QAnon et al is Batman’s, that “People need dramatic examples to scare them out of apathy”. But what if apathy is boundless? Will they only sit up and listen, finally, if there’s an EBS as a prelude to global corruption announcements?
The alternative reading is that Batman and the League are just two opposing mechanism in service of a Hegelian conflict and the inevitable reaffirmation of the essential merit of the State apparatus. Bruce is not, after all, attempting to introduce a new system, merely repair the existing one. In my 2021 revisit, I suggested that, as one of Hollywood’s most bankable names, Nolan “must be intrinsically part of and a tool of the system that brandishes any extreme view as a means ultimately to underpin the importance of the State”. Why, to be fighting the good cause through subterfuge… Chris’d have to be Batman!
(2014) Flawed, majorly flawed, but also fascinating, most fascinating, Interstellar is nearly capsized by its origins as a Spielberg project. The kind of emotional largesse attempted here is not Nolan’s forte, with the result that, at times, it becomes very silly. Nolan isn’t a director who can send a character down the back of a bookcase as a deep-space-fried homunculus, his journey an equivalent to the Stargate, and suspend disbelief, if not hoots of derision.
Which hasn’t prevented Interstellar from becoming a popular mainstay with the public, if IMDB is any indication; it’s third among Nolans, after The Dark Knight and Inception, and No. 28 in their all-time 250. The conception of the story, back when Spielberg was involved circa 2006-9, was significantly different in some respects; if anything, it seems to have become more Berg-ified, while displaying the father-daughter connection spanning the universe idea that was also previously patented by Contact (see Lynda Obst and Kip Thorne, mutual to both projects). Certainly, the syrup of “To save the world! All of this, is one little girl’s bedroom, every moment!” is pure Spielberg, and you can sense Nolan struggling to keep his gag response in check.
This might be why he cast Jessica Chastain, one of the least sympathetic and most hard-nosed of actresses, as unforgiving daughter Murph (who becomes no more likeable when torching brother Casey Affleck’s crop). It makes for a curiously arid, distancing contrast to the unabashed fulfilment of Contact, with Cooper so desperate for reconciliation; when they eventually reunite, Murph practically orders him to leave her to her death bed, his having no place in her life. Of course, this might, in Nolan’s own kind of ruthless way, be construed as an intentional underscoring of the woman as hero of the human race (Cooper is wrong about the ghosts in her room, and he’s wrong about Hathaway’s Brand’s emotional intuition to go to Edmunds’ world; on the other hand, if he’d listened to them, the causal loop wouldn’t complete, so maybe it is all down to the men after all).
McConaughey brings his brand of earthy southern wisdom to the mix as Cooper; his name suggests Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff), probably not coincidental since Nolan cited Interstellar as an ode the days when space flight was happening (yeah, right). Although, Cooper’s more clearly modelled after Chuck Yaeger (farm-loving test pilot). He makes for a less cerebral Nolan lead than we’re used to, and that’s the problem with Interstellar all over, Nolan seemingly reacting against his comfort zone, at least in several key areas. Where it succeeds, it’s in concept and theme, rather than what it’s striving for, which is an emotional through line. Even then, though, the picture’s successes are more surface ones, since the ideas here are oh-so familiar at the core.
So yeah, there are some dazzling concepts and instances. In particular, the trip to Miller’s planet where time dilation means 23 years have passed for Romilly (David Gyasi) but only a few for Cooper and Brand (Hathaway). The visit to Mann’s planet is strong too (and showcases Matt Damon as a very plausible psycho). Hans Zimmer’s score is quite magnificent, a thing of beauty that does much of the hard graft; Nolan’s sense of wonder is seizing something and shaking it vigorously. It’s Zimmer who imbues the proceedings with feeling. That kind of prosaicism is sadly evident throughout. It was appropriate when approaching the dreamscape in Inception, because it was internally consistent and spurred the telling, but even something like The Dark Knight Rises is tonally more of a piece than this. When Nolan gives us a trip sequence – see also The Black Hole; 2001; Contact – it’s almost fiercely unremarkable (and, since it takes place down the back of a bookcase, unintentionally daft).
More problematically still, he hinges developments on some kind-of absurdist assumptions, extolling love via science as if to make the claim he’s no cold hard rationalist after all, actually. Unfortunately, this only makes it seem like he’s doubling down by trying to force a square peg through a round hole. Brand tells us “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it”, and Cooper later realises she’s right: “Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!” Someone like Besson (that’s Luc) can get away with this kind of emotional profligacy, playing goofy broad strokes in The Fifth Element, but it’s quite beyond Nolan’s reach; indeed, suggesting love as a scientifically verifiable thing makes it sound like the screenplay was written by an AI with learning difficulties.
While it seems churlish to complain about Nolan using a causal-loop plot, since it’s a staple, one has to wonder why 5D humans, with their “access to infinite time and space” couldn’t intervene earlier, long before Earth’s choking demise, finding similar avatars for Cooper and Murph. Oh, that’s right; because they’re simply fulfilling the loop, dummy. Don’t ask stupid questions. The cynic would present this as the bold transhumanist future. The alternative is that Nolan, invoking 5D, is less about Luciferian illumination than our natural progression (no star children in this dojo). The problem is, he’s less than adept at selling us such lofty spiritual destinations. He’s all about rendering the most tangible dreams ever, after all. And the picture as a whole seems to be an intentionally askance mix and match of the legitimate/unaccepted – 5D; time travel – and the guff-laden/officially ratified – space travel, NASA.
Teacher: It’s an old federal textbook. We’ve replaced them with the corrected versions.
While Nolan draws on Dystopia 101 for his apocalyptic future scenario, there are also curiosities here. The dustbowl planet fits broadly with Greta-espoused climate-change fearmongering and propaganda, but this society’s organisation seems vague: “There’s no more armies. The world needs farmers”. Fine, but what about Klaus and his world government? Such spectres are very much in the background, aside from an insight into education standards, which equate with an inversion of “stolen history”; there, the idea is that the truth about our history has been concealed and victim to fabrication.
In this 2067, belief in the Moon landings is a conspiracy theory (not space flight per se, though; the Apollo missions were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union: “You don’t believe we went to the Moon?” – how Cooper has gone along, seemingly unaware of the official line, is one of the screenplay’s many instances of sloppiness). Rather different, then, to the idea that visiting the Moon is impossible (because, say, it’s actually plasma). But Nolan throwing this kind of notion out there is very relevant, not just in an age of revisonism, where the media bombards us with increasingly suspect depictions of official history (recent and less so). It’s entirely possible that, while unfurling an ostensibly space-validating movie, he’s simultaneously throwing in references that might cause an alert audience to question the same.
Dr Brand: We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.
As a further inversion, NASA is an unadulterated defender of humanity, rather than in on the deceit. It is they who “refused to drop bombs from the stratosphere on starving people”, suggesting they were enlisted into a depopulation agenda, based on the projection of Earth’s limited resources due to climate change and as symbolised by Stephen King’s The Stand; the predictive programming interpretation here is to tell us we’re doomed, there are too many of us, and something needs to be done about it. Which, in this conception, is the fantasy of relocation somewhere else in the Universe. To this end, Cooper announces “All right gang, let’s mask up”. To prevent inhalation of dust rather than virus, but Nolan does so love his masks. Or was he warning us with them?
TARS: I don’t know, but they constructed this three-dimensional space inside their five-dimensional reality to allow us to understand it.
If one so were so inclined, one could find numerous marks against assessing Nolan as a White Hat. One being that there’s very little sense of God in his universe, so what we have instead is a very much humanist – and thence, goes the reading, transhumanist – doctrine. The advanced beings helping mankind reach his universal becoming may be simply an innocent and legit vouching for our progression. But consider that Spielberg was initially on board; Interstellar quickly becomes “we are Luciferians; we are transhumans; we are gods”; perhaps the Berg blanched because he realised it wasn’t entirely the screed he shelled out for (aside from taking DreamWorks to Disney), or perhaps it was because we already saw that future, of evolved AI dealing with humanity, in A.I.
Of course, Interstellar isn’t stating as such that our 5D status has an AI component, and giving Nolan the benefit of the doubt, that isn’t what he intends. However, Jay Dyer takes the view they represent “advanced AI-human hybrids of the future” (it’s Coop and TARS in tandem who solve the communication dilemma, and TARS, like Cooper, survives his encounter). While I don’t buy Dyer’s secret space programme interpretation – that seems to me to be a misdirect, like the programme itself – his suggestion “Nolan is saying for advancement to occur, what is needed is Jungian self-individuation where both the rationalism of science and the intuitive feel of the feminine are joined” does seem to match up.
Perhaps Nolan thrived in Hollywood because his pictures are so thematically mutable; one could approach Interstellar as Nolan saying transhumanism will involve love, or we will transcend beyond it – in the manner of evolving beyond time and space – this being the sort of deceptive carrot the transhumanists would dangle. But again, he could simply be saying that 5D is about love, which is as transcendentally unlikely of him as it gets. There’s another variation here, of course. You have the 5D humans, and then you have those who have rather contrastingly slipped a notch, future-humans of the Grey persuasion, a consequence of environmental change/collapse, encouraging us to embrace the transhumanist so as to improve their forlorn lot. Their inclination would surely be to ensure as many of us as possible don’t go 5D, instead joining them in their shit show.
Dyer also reads the overcoming of death into this scenario – 5D humans are beyond the shackles of time and space, so it is meaningless – which links in to the movie’s use of Saturn (as opposed to the actual Saturn, not an actual planet at all). Cooper comes to on a space station orbiting Saturn (the Roman god of time, agriculture, restriction and limitation). Dark Forces agent Steiner commented “Those who have a particular inclination towards Saturn in earthly existence are people who like to be gazing always into the past, who are opposed to progress, who ever and again want to bring back the past”. And what does Cooper do after a very brief stay? Announces “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started” and heads off to the new future.
There’s a lot to Interstellar, then, but it frequently comes out in ungainly globs. Some of the visuals here are terrific, and there are times it achieves that sublimely transportive sense that comes from Nolan teaming with Zimmer, but it’s ever inconsistent. On the design front, a note for the contributions of Nathan Crowley; Aleister was his Grandfather’s cousin. With such diabolical connections, it should be unsurprising he worked on Lady Gaga’s perfume Fame video ad (blood and semen were to be in its ingredients, very nice). His earliest movie credit is Dangerous Game (Madonna and Abel Ferrara), and the design of the robots, which Dyer suggests resembles the 2001 Monolith, is reminiscent of the practical AI achieved for Proteus in Demon Seed, directed by another with Crowley connections, Donald Cammell. Still vouching for Nolan as a White Hat? Or is he simply keeping his spiritual enemies closer?
The Dark Knight
(2008) The Dark Knight is ground zero for Nolan-mania, obviously. It was a phenomenon, propelled to a $1bn gross largely on the merit of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and proved instrumental in the addition of Best Picture slots to the Oscars (it was passed over). Does it deserve the hype? Of course not. This is where you really start to notice Nolan’s reach exceeding his grasp, the desire to make movies with legendary action spectacle far outdistancing his ability to deliver the same. The picture, like its influence Heat, has numerous characters and subplots. But in The Dark Knight, it’s mostly the maverick villain who holds them together, such that Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) fails to make nearly the necessary impression when he becomes Two-Face, Commissioner Gordon is as grey as his moustache, and the ferry dilemma is the most banal variety of moral quandary, complete with empty gestures affirming our essential humanity.
That said, there are also more than enough great moments here. The sound design and scoring are often masterful. The interrogation scene is Nolan on top form, and if his assembled ethical dilemmas are imperfect in conception and execution, he gets full marks for attempting to lead with them, when such elements more generally get fudged completely. Bale is strong throughout, because a part that isn’t, let’s face it, the most interesting is forced into an avenue of enraged desperation; his opponent may try anything, which means Batman’s own code is inevitably challenged if he is to respond with any meaning; the worst of it being, whatever he does has already been anticipated by this cackling loon.
All of this leaves the third act, revolving as it does around Harvey and Gordon, something of a fizzle. Which is easy to forget, as The Dark Knight offers enough for several movies at its most memorable. And even during the final sections, there’s interest to be had from the acts of Bats. Making the presumption that Nolan is a White Hat, and further that this fed into the film on some level in its messaging, one must accept that the good guys take it as a read that they will be required to manipulate, deceive and break rules in order to achieve the ultimate goal. They will manufacture heroes. They will condone mass surveillance (the language/science of which conjures 5G imaging capacities).
In The Dark Knight, the Joker, the genuine agent of chaos, is what you don’t have in the Elite system. He’s the uncontrollable wild card, rather than the puppeteered polarities that would be both their Batman and Joker (both re-entrenching the need for the State, the order it can bring, when the dust settles). The only way you might conceive of such a force causing disruption in the real world would be if, I don’t know, say, a President somehow managed to slip past all the checks, masquerading as a bad guy in order to instil a good agenda. As if Batman – with whom Trump compared himself – was playing the Joker, for instance. “He’s not being the hero. He’s being something more”. Taking the fall, in the short term, for all our benefits. That may be why the ferry revolt, where the common people say no, has the whiff of Nolan not having his heart in it. He knows it’s a nice idea, but everyone rising up as one against the Elite, saying they ain’t going to take their paradigm any more, just wasn’t going to happen.
And then there’s the influence the movie had, in terms of false flags and MKUltra, emphasising that, whatever Nolan was or was not a part of, the greater canvas was much bigger than him. Did he know who was playing his Joker, for example? Heath Ledger, per Donald Marshall, broke his neck breakdancing (and was then finished off as a mercy), and Marshall had to perform some of the scenes in a Ledger clone body. In Marshall’s account, it wasn’t Heath in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus; it was a clone. For The Dark Knight, they “Had me in a Heath Ledger clone and made me run around making up lines in a role-playing situation to add catch phrases and lines to the script. Not all, but a lot… like I was in a boardroom with a bunch of criminals… and they were like ‘You think you can just walk in here and rob US’? I couldn’t think of anything funny to say… couldn’t think of any witty comeback, so I just said ‘Um yes’ as in, like, obviously… I thought they’d get mad that the comeback was not good enough… but the idiots said it was genius and used it in the movie…”
One might see Nolan’s commentary on Harvey Dent – “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain” – as an indication of the fates of Hollywood leading lights who invariably end up attending the cloning centres, their souls fully bought up. Nolan, as one of the top five Hollywood directors, most surely attended, so how was he able to preserve his “purity”?
(2020) In some ways, Tenet is Nolan’s most flawed feature. Not so much conceptually, although you could make that charge, as aesthetically. Because Nolan never quite works out how to express his high-concept time-travel idea – as in, high-concept even relative to high-concept time travel – in a manner that is visually and narratively coherent. This isn’t Inception, where he managed to relate his tri-fold dream with deftness and palpable dramatic tension. This is closer to one of his Dark Knight action extravaganzas, but with added impenetrable physics and causal relationships.
And yet, as conscious as I am of Tenet’s flaws – it isn’t even a particularly nice film to look at – I find it fascinating. I’m never bored by it, even as the only character who really makes a strong impression is arguably Sir Ken as the evil-est Russian oligarch you ever did meet (it’s a really good performance, actually, prone as I am to belittle little Branagh). Such thinness is arguably by design – John David Washington’s character is only called the Protagonist, after all – serving to emphasise that everyone involved is wagged by the dog that is temporal logic (“What’s happened’s happened”).
At one point, the Protagonist is asked “Time travel?” and replies “No”, and we’re given the clarification that we’re actually seeing “reverse chronology”. But that’s being cute. This IS time travel. It is dealing with it – the part we see, and it’s arguably a dramatic limitation that we never get more than a sniff of just what the future antagonists are thinking/about, just as its essential to Nolan’s basic position of maximum impenetrability – in a limited form that gives the picture both its distinctive edge and also its most frustrating distancing.
The mechanics of time disruption suggest an immediacy closer to Project Pegasus and its 24-hour Groundhog Day resets than massive, epochal leaps back and forth, and Nolan is keen to emphasise that everything about this IS complex, that we are limited by our basic 3D sensibilities (“No, that’s just the way we see time” the Protagonist is told when he objects that cause comes before effect). I actually think someone like Zack Snyder, because he has a very tangible, spatial impulse in the way he visualises, might have been better to attempt get this across to an audience than the uber-cerebral Nolan. He’s compounding himself by making Tenet the way he does.
My impression, even though things are, at times, perilously close to the McGuffin-ish in assumption – “He can communicate with the future?” asks the Protagonist, and receives by non-clarification “The question is, can the future speak back?” – is that Nolan has set out Tenet’s rules and logic in his own mind. How this all works, with its inversions and intricate web of interactions. For him, it appears there is only one timeline – that matters – the one being etched out in the film, and it is, replete with grandfather paradoxes, impermeable. No one’s attempting to bend that, which is why Neil stoically heads off to fulfil his destiny at the end. Possibly, the director’s even been watching his Doctor Who, with warnings of the consequences of meeting oneself à la the Blinovitch Limitation Effect – in this case stressed by the danger of particles coming into contact. While there’s much emphasis on causal loops, Tenet fortunately avoids the laboriousness of TimeCrimes in revealing its workings.
When I first saw the picture, I was struck by the motif of mask wearing as a necessary measure to save the future, released as it was amid plandemic activity of similar edict. The question was whether it was warning of or prescribing a doomed future (one so doomed, its occupants want to end our present). I also noted “the world will never know what could have happened, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care” as an indication of the efforts of White Hats (albeit I was, at that point, conceiving a somewhat gloomier prognosis; vacillating by the day, that’s me).
I had not, however, entertained the idea of time travel itself as part of efforts to secure an optimal timeline for humanity. But the combined efforts of this and The Tomorrow War, in which the announcement of the fight for humanity’s future arrives during the World Cup final in December 2022, could be construed as dropping its instrumental value right in front of us (in The Tomorrow War’s case, this looks like predictive programming on the face of it, a Project Bluebeam with humanity uniting against an alien threat. Albeit, like the Draco, near enough, they’ve been here all along). In Tenet, the Protagonist is told “Your duty transcends national interests. This is about survival”, which is effectively the point of Trump giving Putin a football.
The Protagonist: The danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.
While there are White Hat interpretations available, then, climate disaster and nuclear threat are present in Tenet, just as they would be in any trad example of Hollywood predictive programming. While Sator’s plan involves nuking us all, an early conversation qualifies the threat in trying to prevent World War III: “Nuclear holocaust.”; “No. Worse”. Pretty much the last lines are the above, and while Nolan, who will, fingers crossed, be setting things straight with Oppenheimer*, may call on nukes as a readily malleable plot device, he’s setting out that the real threat is a future devised for us through meddling, rather than some literal apocalypse, either environmental or atomic.
Also notable in retrospect is that Tenet’s confusing – surprise, surprise – opening sequence is set in the Ukraine, revolving around the procurement of plutonium. Depending on your reading, Sator’s involved in this operation – placing bombs at the opera – or it’s the Protagonist at a later date, ingeniously setting up his own induction. The latter interpretation would be an interesting one, if you subscribe to the notion that the Ukraine conflict itself is a lot of smoke and mirrors. Tenet is defective but strikingly so, then.
(2000) Effectively Nolan’s debut, given Memento was the indie movie from a bright young talent that got all the raves, announced his arrival on the scene and was a (minor) hit to boot. Characteristic of several earlier debuts or near-debuts, this is a quirky crime movie that plays with timeframe and perception – see Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects – but it also emphasises the subjective reality that would inform Nolan’s later SF work. At this stage, then, one might have mistaken him for having more in common with Darren Aronofsky or Richard Kelly, as opposed to someone who’d set out on auteur’s version of the Bryan Singer route (I mean that in the most superficial way, of course; Nolan quickly graduated to big-budget blockbusters, based on comic books at that, while retaining his identity. Aronofsky never stuck with Batman: Year One).
Sure, Memento is a gimmick, structurally and conceptually, telling the story (or part of the story) of a man with no short-term memory – he’s an anterograde amnesiac, unable to form new memories – and doing so backwards. Indeed, for confirmation, watch the film in chronological order and you’ll quickly find yourself looking at your watch. But that act of taking apart the mind the way Nolan does, and also assembling the key incidents on screen in a manner that is compelling in spite of the confusion, displays an assuredness that remains impressive. Indeed, for all that the director can handle thematic scale, he has never been terribly convincing with the staging of elements that come with it (grand action spectacle, I am thinking of you), so the manner in he coordinates plot, psychology and perception in his early pictures carries the satisfaction of consistency of vision that later tends to falter when he adds MORE to the mix.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) is on a quest to track down those who killed his wife, or thinks he is, taking photos, making notes, and inking the various vital clues and information on his body. None of which prevents him from being manipulated right, left and centre. When he isn’t being intentionally misled, he’s making wrong assumptions, and his inherently fogged perspective, via his functional incapacity to retain an overview, makes for an effective instruction on our own flawed interaction with the world. We can only access what we’re allowed to access, perceive truths through the veil of the predominant paradigm, because we aren’t furnished with sufficient information from the get-go. At best, we’ll understand we’re hopelessly confused and that restlessly following our noses like Leonard won’t actually reveal anything. At worst, we’ll simply submit, or as Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) suggests, “make up your own truth”.
Memento thus makes a good starting point for misassumption – if the premise of this Worst to Best is accurate – and one I succumbed to in my full review. That Nolan’s movie set out his store for complicitly revealing the method for his masters, TPTB. Rather than, you know, exposing it. The truth may lie somewhere between the two, out of necessity. If we’re Leonard, trapped in the maze, it’s a wonder anyone ever had the wherewithal to find a way out.
(2006) Any concern that Nolan had forsaken the ways of intriguing storytelling when he leapt from a tall building into the Batmobile were thrown into sharp relief with The Prestige, one of two of his features that earns the right to be labelled a classic. An adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, it achieved that rare thing, impressing the author (unless you’re Stephen King whoring out rentaquotes, anyway). It also provoked some degree of discontent for its Marmite ending (among the SF-deniers were Terry Gilliam and Roger Ebert). Contrastingly, I consider The Prestige’s destination is everything to its status. Besides which, it isn’t exactly throwing a curveball, since the Nikola Tesla interlude is entirely about laying the foundation for the final reveal.
Ah, yes. Tesla. Mysterious master magician, inventor of time travel (albeit not here), teleportation and cloning (the latter, not so much). The complaint is that the conceits employed thanks to his services are those of magic (or SF), but that would subscribe to the view that the film’s stage magic is what it’s all about. Rather, The Prestige is about the same thing all Nolan’s movies are about. We’re in the realm of the divide between perception and reality once more, in the most overt and deliberate manner the director has employed, since the characters are explicitly concerned with fabrication and deception in order to ply their trade. They are showmen, just like Nolan is a showman, and they lie for a living, just like Nolan… or does he?
Because in terms of the characters, The Prestige is about how willing you are to sell your soul for success (which might be why Nolan was able to get David Bowie on board). Would you, like Tangier, kill a clone body of yourself, night after night, in underground facility (cf Donald Marshall)? Or would you, like Alfred and Bernard, be willing to sacrifice a loved one (fingers, then a twin), so as to maintain a masquerade about who you really are? So does that make Nolan Cutter (Michael Caine), going along with the deception, or Tesla, warning of its dangers? Cutter asserts “You want to be fooled” of stagecraft, and this could be construed of the paradigm as a whole; you’d rather believe what you’re told than attempt to peer behind the curtain.
Because beyond simply the act of illusion, The Prestige culminates in an affirmation of the efficacy of science. But forbidden science. Occult science, if you like, the variety confined to the realm of fictional speculation rather than official endorsement. It’s Nolan offering a reveal, much like the stage magic, under the guise of sheer invention; when Angier’s Great Danton (Hugh Jackman) announces to a rapt audience “It’s purely science”, this isn’t trickery, but an announcement to the disbelieving cinema patron, the one who wants to remain blissfully fooled. The Prestige is, essentially, the perfect Nolan vehicle, a tale of the essential corruption of those placed there to distract the public from the investigation of the truth behind the world they are fed, and of a White Hat whose methods and outlook simply did not fit with maintaining that illusion.
(2010) Is the world even real? Inception stops short of solipsism, but the final shot is suggestive of the ponderance: is there any difference? Should we care? If we’re Leo’s haunted character, perhaps not, and a transhumanist destiny may be preferable to one without solace. But if Nolan is a positive force in cinema, then Inception is a warning, of how easy it is to manipulate the mind, not just with the “Is our reality merely a simulation?” gambit popularised by Illuminati drones the Wachowskis, but also our perception of the actual reality, a paradigm prone to plying, tweaking and shifting, such that we may think we’re making our own decisions, like Cillian Murphy’s business-empire heir, but they’ve long since been made for us.
Nolan’s heist movie is enthralling, inventive and edited with aplomb; even the action is, for the most part, well-judged, only reminding you of the director of limited spatial sense when it comes to the third act’s snowy fortress assault. The layered strategy with dreams – three of them, amounting to a week, six months and ten years – is both highly creative and literal-minded in a way that’s absolutely necessary to maintain coherence and drive but inevitably resulted in criticism that Nolan was abandoning dream logic. He had to. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Heist wouldn’t have washed. But when it comes to the crunch, and he’s running parallel suspense sequences, any doubt that your witnessing something very special collapses in upon itself.
He’s aided immeasurably by a superlative Hans Zimmer score that was the stuff of a thousand subsequent trailers. He also casts his film superbly, with the possible exception of Ellen Page (her character’s a cypher, though). Leo DiCaprio’s the lead, but everyone, particularly Hardy and Gordon-Levitt, makes strong impressions. I see Talulah Riley– of St Trinian’s – appeared as one of Tom Hardy’s disguises, darling. Six degrees of Talulah takes us to transhumanist Elon Musk, or the original Elon at any rate. Talulah apparently texted her ex, urging him to buy Twitter and rid us all of the scourge of woke.
Nolan presents a world of corporate conspiracy where there’s the genuine possibility of a company controlling “the energy supply of half the world… a new superpower”, as if that isn’t all surface dressing. But who knows, perhaps that’s the point. This is Cobb’s fantasy of a world where there are no dark overlords controlling our destinies, merely capitalist cronies. It makes sense that this is the take, in the same way Minority Report does. Albeit, while that was made by an Illuminati monster and Cruise’s character hadn’t the faintest, Inception shows a man aware of the possibilities but doesn’t care. That’s the biggest warning there is. You have to care. The alternative is that nuance of the theme, and what it is saying, is less important than the movie itself perpetuating the idea, the possibility, the doubt that is ratified by reputable scientists. But that would make Chris much less reputable.