Born on July 30th, 1970, he is the son of a British father & an American mother, Christopher Jonathan James Nolan started at very young age to direct movies with his father’s Super 8 camera. His first short film shot in 8 mm, « Tarantella » was broadcast in the USA on while he was still a student in Literature at the University of London.
After that, he directed his first feature « Following » a low-budget thriller (only $6000) this story about voyeurism, acclaimed at several festivals, enabled Christopher Nolan to direct, two years later, “Memento”. Thanks to its brilliant construction, (a flash-back after another) and two Oscars nominations for best editing & best screenplay, “Memento” becomes a legendary film.
Nolan is solicited by the Hollywood biggest Studios and directs in 2002 Al Pacino, Robin Williams & Hilary Swank in “Insomnia” produced by Steven Spielberg & George Clooney which is a remake of “Insomnia” (1997) from the Norwegian Erik Skjoldbjærg. The movie is a success both at the box-office and for the critics.
Meanwhile, he founds with his wife their own production company Syncopy, which from 1998, will co-produce his every movies.
From this point forward, he is considered bankable by Hollywood & having an original artistic directing, Warner Bros. hires him to direct the Batman reboot. He also works on the screenplay with David S. Goyer; the movie « Batman Begins » is released in 2005, first opus from a saga of the Dark Knight. The film is a big success and differs considerably from the previous Tim Burton & Joel Schumacher’s ones. The directing is much more realistic & less idealistic. Nolan differentiates himself from other Hollywood directors because he chooses to use CGI as less as possible.
He becomes friends with Bale & hires him in 2006 for “The Prestige” with Hugh Jackman & Scarlett Johansson, a fantastic thriller dealing with two magicians at the beginning of the 20th century, adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel.
Christopher Nolan then directs the second opus of the Batman saga, called « The Dark Knight » a reference to Frank Miller’s works, and still writes the screenplay with David S. Goyer. His Jonathan Nolan works with him for the third time. The hero, still interpreted by Christian Bale is faced to his biggest enemy the Joker interpreted by the late Heath Ledger. This second film is very dark which is not common in that kind of big production movies. It doesn’t prevent it to get an incredible start at the US Box-Office with $155 millions in the first week end which was a record. “The Dark Knight” was a huge global success with more that a billion dollars at the Box-office ($ 1 001 921 825).
In 2010, Christopher Nolan conceived a new project, « Inception », described as « an sci-fi & action movie that explores the twists & turns of the mind ». Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead with Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy & Ken Watanabe as the other cast members.
On March, 8th 2013, after few weeks of rumors, Christopher Nolan officialy announces that he will direct an sci-fi movie, « Interstellar », written by his brother Jonathan Nolan. The movie partly shot in IMAX, was raleased november, 7th, 2014 in the USA.
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.
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!
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”.
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 Fisher (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. You 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.