Christopher Nolan & Time Obsession

Christopher Nolan & Time Obsession
February 7, 2015 Laura Kressmann


We watched Interstellar (review here), the last Christopher Nolan movie and wrote a review about it. Since we wanted to go a bit further, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to write a retrospective about his movies under the scope of one of his favorite topics.

Of course, as this analysis is based on the director’s filmography, it gives some insights about critical scenes, characters and moments of his films. I warmly advise you watch the movie first so you won’t be spoiled.

Why do I choose time as a leading line for this insight? First, you can realize it’s a recurrent topic in Christopher Nolan’s movies. Time is a fundamental foundation in Nolan’s scenarios. It is this variable that will give all the intensity to the plot. Lately in Interstellar, time takes a major place in Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) race to save humanity and his hope to see his daughter again.

Movie Guide Me Interstellar Matthew McConaughey

Time is omnipresent even in visual details of the films. Have you noticed one of them that is particularly obvious in Interstellar? It comes across all the time-space travels, follows through the characters from the beginning to the end: Endurance spaceship! With such an evocative name, when you look at it closely, you realize there are 12 compartments exactly like a watch face. Also, it is a very important object at the end of the film. How obsessive is that!
Movie Guide Me Insights Interstellar Endurance

Indeed, this obsession occurs in the scenario structure, the editing and most of all the under-thematics of Nolan’s characters. Time perception is an universal issue as Nolan, his characters but also people from the audience are mortal. Time fascinates and terrifies human kind who looks for understanding and controlling it. As the Professor Brand (Michael Caine) says, “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of time”.Movie Guide Me Insights Michael Caine

Consequently, many under-thematics are all linked together with time as the common denominator. As Murph claims, time is part of the equation and it’s the key variable. It is like one complex equation could sum up all our lives, or at least, Nolan’s characters’ ones.

Based on that fact, Time will be analyzed as a theme and as a tool that builds Christopher Nolan’s filmography on the dramatic tension of the plot, a key for his characters’ identity development and as an indicator of truth.

Time as a tool to accentuate Dramatic Tension 

First of all, Christopher Nolan, uses time as a tool in order to master the dramatic intensity of his plots.

In a more mechanic way, time structures his scenario with sequence blocks, like an introduction of the characters, a development, a confrontation & a revelation etc… a structure quite classic regarding the screenwriting. However, you can recognize the director’s style in his way to manipulate the attributed time in order to create an emergency feeling and a dramatic tension. The main characters are under a real pressure because they are facing impossible deadlines.

In Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), has to reach the deepest unconscious of Robert FisherINCEPTION ANGLAIS COULEUR 900x900 RATING (Cillian Murphy) by travelling into different levels in his mind where each of them has its own time perception. He must respect a precise time to do those tracking shots or he could be lost forever into the abysses. Inception is one of the film that plays the most with mechanism where in each stage unit (or dream level), time flies at a different pace. Likewise, Interstellar is based on this emergency and it obliges Cooper to realize his missions before human kind’s extinction and thus his own kids’ death. Thanks to these time variations, the director sets up a true infernal time-clock that intrigues you and explains why you stay hooked on your seat until the end of the movie. Like puppeteer, he manipulates time to his own desire and defines his own rules. He creates his characters’ range of action within a variable time scale, always too short, obviously threatening their missions’ success.

Another significant element regarding this time manipulation , is his ability to arouse a great curiosity of the audience.  Indeed, it is an incredible opportunity to imagine what is impossible at first. INTERSTELLAR ANGLAIS COULEUR 900x900 RATINGYou are able to experiment fascinating situations because they are totally unique. In Insomnia, the director is very explicit since the very beginning of the film. It is like you are going through a time-space specially created for his story. Time perception is totally distorted: when the inspector Will Dormer (Al Pacino) comes to Alaska to help on a case, sun never sets in this town. Besides, this film introduction doesn’t remind you another famous movie? With the plane flying around the mountains, the lakes and the fog, like a threat coming up or a heavy atmosphere where the main character will be tested….It strangely looks like the long introducing shot of the car ride in “The Shining”.

With Christopher Nolan, time is almost systematically a mean to break up the characters’ usual space-time and then allows him to accentuate the difficulty of their mission. However, when succeeding becomes vital, the time distorsion enables to reveal the characters’ true  motivation.   

>> Time as an identity Indicator


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