The Insipid Influence of Christopher Nolan (or Complex vs. Convoluted)

I want to take an objective look at the works and influence of Christopher Nolan. I will fail. I am not a fan of the man’s work, but I am a fan of cinema and I care where it goes and how it goes there as I believe it’s telling of us; the viewers. It reflects how we view the world at a certain moment in time, the quality of our analysis of art, it influences our understandings and sets up our expectations of life in many cases. A responsibility many in the industry may not have earned. There seems a strong division whereby people feel you need to worship him as “the Kubrick of our generation” or tolerate him as “the new Shyamalan”. Nolan has become a rather influential figure and I worry this is not for the best. The purpose of this essay, however, is to let you, the reader, objectively, question why we have made him this powerhouse figure. Pay attention to the facts laden throughout my criticisms, and if you really like Nolan and are reading this for perspective, thank you and ignore my bias and please consider the ultimate points. I leave in comments regarding my personal opinion because it’s much more fun to listen to someone rip on something, hence why critics are called “critics” and not “appraisers”.

Memento (2000) was the film that carried Nolan into the limelight. A nonlinear trip into the life of a man with no short term memory, based on a story by his brother Jonathan. I find this film okay; it’s by no means a particularly bad movie. My problem with this piece is that, yes the editing is creative, but is it artistically justified when that’s by far the most interesting and memorable thing in the film? The characters are a tad bland (I honestly can’t remember even seeing Carrie-Anne Moss) and, while I don’t think Guy Pierce should ever be a leading man, or even a prominent supporting character, because he just has zero presence on camera, I felt sorry that he was forced to literally do a Brad Pitt impression for the entirety of the feature. If the film wasn’t edited the way it is it would in all honesty fall by the way-side with the rest of the psychological dramas of the late-90s/early-00s. Unlike Pulp Fiction where the stories alone are solid and engaging, the outlandish fiddling of the time clock adds to the interconnectivity of these peoples lives, as well as humorous reveals. In Irreversible (2002) the story is told backwards to emphasise the hideousness and irrevocability of how one single, purely evil act can menace and destroy the lives of ordinary folk. The jumpy timecode in Memento I feel only serves one purpose; to confuse you without actually adding any depth to the story. Here lies the seed for my personal dislike for the majority of Nolan’s oeuvre. Memento’s not going to change the hearts and minds of the people, but it doesn’t try to, it’s just an interesting idea taken in a competent and unique way.

Of course it was his vision of Batman with “psychological realism” that launched him into the mainstream. Batman Begins (2005) was a very well-received reboot, successfully washing out the bad taste from Schumacher’s comixploitation. The main problem people had with it was the rather weak third act conflict with the threat of a deadly gas being released all throughout Gotham (that would look jarringly different with each instalment). With the (somewhat childish for a deep, dark, psychologically tortured monolith) moral of “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” stated directly to the audience in an unintentionally humorous voice (that gets jarringly worse and worse with each instalment) the film concludes with the promise of a Joker-filled follow-up. Probably his most linear big-budget film that left me a little underwhelmed. The only issue I really have with it is the changing of the Wayne killer made into a nobody petty criminal which, artistic choices fine, but it is in the end a comic book movie and there should be more operatic elements. It’s a matter of taste, sure. It is, however, a film that kids can enjoy for the schlockier elements (though I suspect this was Goyer’s contribution) and for that I have no problem giving it a pass.

Then came The Prestige (2006) of which I don’t feel I can even attempt to talk about truly objectively as I personally loathe this film. Simply stated it may well be a great novel, Christopher Priest is certainly talented at world building and compelling narratives from other novels he’s written, but The Prestige does not translate literally to film well in my opinion. More intellectualism needed to go into the adaptation and already you can see why I won’t go into detail. Maybe this is unfair, but when I hear that a movie is going to be based on a book my expectations of the film both heighten and diminish slightly. Not to say I ever walk into a film in a predisposed mood (I’ve been let-down and surprised enough to know better). For a film to be adapted, the source material must have something to it but an original premise making its way to the big screen is just exciting, you don’t know what could happen and it could lay the way for more and more amazing, innovative movements. It gets very hard to peg a vision onto an adaptation. Tarantino has been stated as never wanting to do an adaptation of another book after Jackie Brown (1997) (based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch) because he doesn’t feel the sense of accomplishment. Not to say the movie can’t still be great but the filmmaker’s personalty needs to be injected and the material should be made more cinematic, regardless of how great the source material is. For example, I strongly dislike Rosemary’s Baby (1968) because I first watched it straight after reading the book and in my head it looked a thousand times better. The direction was lame and the only reason I think it gets acclaim is because the book is pretty good (great for the time) and Polanski probably shouldn’t get any credit whatsoever, as is how I feel about Nolan’s The Prestige. Interesting to note that while Priest likes Nolan’s early work, and the cinematic version of his book, he has recently commented on Nolan’s blockbuster efforts as “an embarrassment” and poorly written.

The Dark Knight (2008). The first of the two most influential films in the roster, with films like The Amazing Spiderman (2012), Robocop (2014) and Skyfall (2012) deriving clear inspiration from the hugely-successful blockbuster. Filled with references to arguably the best Batman comics and graphic novels, much like Batman Begins I think the film does fail in the third act, essentially the part of the film whereby The Nolan Brothers and comic book go-to scriptwriter David S. Goyer (who co-wrote Batman Begins) had to tie up all of these threads in an original way. I have a thing for endings, if the ending’s not good your movie probably isn’t. After the Joker blows up the hospital the cracks in the writer’s skills begin to glare. After the compelling speech regarding his unplanned, chaotic nature enticing Two Face to his side, the Joker then unveils this horribly complicated plan involving the evacuation of Gotham, disguising hostages as criminals without anyone noticing and bombs on ferries. It kind of kills the Joker’s message to instead deliver a tortuously forced social commentary. Chris Nolan has repeatedly stated he “makes movies that make you think,” which is often met with triumphant cheer when fans watch or hear of this. Unless the only other thing you ever watch are McG films, EVERY movie makes you think, and it’s usually deliberate too. The specific problem with this is that the more you think about one of his films the less it makes sense. Usually I’m thinking for weeks about a Nolan film after the initial viewing just appreciating how little, if anything of what I’ve witnessed, made sense. The ending where the wholesome duo of Batman and Gordon must decide what to do about Dent’s conversion to the dark side is no less contrived when they decide to say it was Batman that committed all the atrocities accomplished in the brief period Dent was Two Face. This leads to epic speech while epic music blares up and Batman escapes but… why didn’t they just say the Joker did it? The figurehead that’s been omnipresently alluding the police throughout the entire film… maybe you could just blame him. I mean you’re going to lie to people anyway, tell ’em that! Over the next several years this kind of logic would compound, multiply and dominate within his films.

With confidence practically unconditional from Warner Bros. executives, Nolan was allowed to realise his passion project, the mind-bending opus Inception (2010). I am a die hard fan of all sub-genres of science fiction, mostly because it’s a breeding ground for creativity as a fun and phenomenal way to question the world we live in and judge where we’re going. The premise of Inception is solid; a secretive corporation utilises a machine that allows you to enter the subconscious of others on multiple levels. The plot of Inception is truly uninspired, sucking out any chance for endless creative mindf**ks and effectively rendering it a heist movie, with a plethora of shallow trailer-shots scattered throughout (exploding coffee shops no exception). At this point I would like to mention something very important that I’ve left very late to say; Christopher Nolan’s films are gorgeous and phenomenally well-scored. This is not to say they’re good movies but simply part of the formula to trick you into thinking you’re watching a big important movie. Wally Pfister is a fantastic photographer and as you all know Hans Zimmer is rated just where he should be as, I would easily say, the new John Williams. There is nothing unique or inspired about the movement of the camera, the direction of the actors, the characters, the dialogue, or the set-pieces, with the exception of the spectacular but all-too-brief rotating hotel fight. I can’t honestly say what distinguishes any of the characters outside of backstory and nationality. Everything would play exactly the same if you changed up any of the principle characters and I would argue that the end morale in which Cobb effectively apologises to himself is tired and simplistic (especially for a 148 minute running time). As Stan’s Mom stated in season 14 episode 10 of South Park; when you just start adding pointless layer on top of pointless layer it doesn’t act as a complex story, but convolutes it and needlessly stretches out the run time to tell the same message. The concept of an individual or all of humanity or the entire environment being artificial is nothing new. The Matrix (1999), The Twilight Zone episode Shadow Play (1961), Mindwarp (1992), Red Dwarf, Star Trek, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. As well as all this, every story, after planning, will have plot holes. Always. Part of the way you can judge the creativity or smarts of a writer is how he deals with them. The writer must enclose the hole without appearing to contrive the story. This is the art of storytelling. The following is a purely fictional but possibly accurate internal dialogue from Mr. Nolan during the writing of Inception;

Inner Nolan: There needs to be stakes. They need to be able to fail.

Outer Nolan: But they can’t die in the dream, that’s too Matrix.

Inner Nolan: True. How about ANOTHER level in the dream. An evil level.

Outer Nolan: Evil, like sinister? How?

Inner Nolan: We’ll call it Limbo. If they die they’re stuck there.

Outer Nolan: So how do they get out of Limbo?

Inner Nolan: If they die in Limbo.

Outer Nolan: So why have Limbo if they can get out whenever they want?

Inner Nolan: No one’s gonna think that far.

Outer Nolan: But wouldn’t anyone stuck in Limbo get flown out into space when the van flips? Actually shouldn’t everyone on the mountain be flipped up as well?

Inner Nolan: It’ll be a while before anyone realises this stuff. A for effort, Chris.

See, Kubrick never had these problems, at least you have to think really hard and long about it. I have yet to find a legitimate plot hole, dare I see even convenience in any of his scripts. So to the world of circular mazes being more difficult than square ones, architects being great at mazes and various other superfluous reasons to justify the SYNCOPY logo, I give Inception a hard time but I think it’s deserved considering how revered this film is. Indeed, upon release, some critics who took a negative slant after simply not enjoying the film were attacked by the more influential critics before their articles were even published. This is emulated everyday by the dogmatic frenzy of Nolanites online at the slightest criticism.

Skyfall (2012). Boy-howdy was this a miserable sit. Sam Mendes openly stated that due to nerves taking the reigns of the Bond franchise, he took direct influence from The Dark Knight. He said this was mostly visual but the story structure and needlessly overloaded plot-points that either make no sense or lead to nothing force me to believe it was more than this. The Joker’s get-caught-on-purpose plan didn’t actually annoy me in the film and as a rule, if a film can whelm me to the point where I don’t notice plot holes and logic problems at the time I’ll forgive it when I think of them later, and the first two acts of The Dark Knight were genuinely enjoyable enough to achieve this initial ignorance from me. Plenty of people criticise Silva’s get-caught-on-purpose plan in Skyfall but by the time you realise how utter nonsense it is, so much time has gone by (the biggest section of film) you don’t initially realise; why did he need a plan at all? His entire climax was to just kill M, so why didn’t he just kill M, which he clearly can do at any time? If he needed to do it when she was in the courthouse then why didn’t he just show up at the courthouse and blow her away without anyone being the wiser. They think he’s dead! And everything else he can accomplish from his desolate island city (which totally doesn’t look like anything from Inception). It’s a Bond film, yes, but it’s a new Bond film (the name’s Bond, Jason Bond), clearly not only leaving behind the lighthearted romps of the wacky, misogynist hero, but openly mocking them with lines like “What, were you expecting an exploding pen?” and it does not then have the right to have an even more nonsensical plot than the silliest of Roger Moore adventures. The death of fun and the birth of pretentious mainstream cinema. The miserable thing was that I could see the influence and how sickened I was that I would be seeing more and more of this type of storytelling, judging by the raptured expressions of my fellow audience members. In two words; lazy and arrogant.

For some small sense of brevity I don’t wish to go too much into the miasma of plot holes i could with any of these movies and this problem with Skyfall is the least of my grievances. Some of you may be thinking about something like the “plot hole” in Raiders of the Lost Ark (from This Book is Full of Spiders, later to be stolen by the Big Bang Theory just like Breaking Bad stole the Star Trek ‘beam speech’ delivered by Badger) whereby if Indy had just stayed at home the film would’ve had practically the exact same conclusion. True as this may be, it’s not a plot hole, it’s just how the story develops There’s nothing wrong with it, you’re still a part of this big adventure and most importantly; it’s fun.

I will say this; I’m pretty certain that if it wasn’t for Inception, Looper (2012) would never have gotten green-lighted. For this I am eternally happy, and hopefully we will indeed see more original content on the big screen. I just want them to take more from Rian Johnson than they do Christopher Nolan. Ironically, I think Looper is the kind of film Nolan thinks he is making. Genuinely clever genre-bender with not only a sweet sense of humor and great, well-defined characters, but the same character is the protagonist and antagonist and they’re written so well you sympathise with both! I’ve never felt any emotion for ANY character the eponymous director has imagined.

Soon the inevitable “Ultimate Epic Concluding Chapter” in the Dark Knight story appeared and, granted they probably had plans to bring the Joker back, I don’t know, but even the unfortunate passing of Heath Ledger is no reason to have virtually nothing connecting The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises (2012). I say virtually because it does open with a speech on how Dent’s death has led to Gotham being all but free of organised crime yet by the halfway mark it’s already clear Bane wants to destroy it for being a human stain of decadence. And his plan only gets more insanely abstract from there. Something to do with not detonating a bomb that will detonate anyway and holding the police captive without killing them and not leaving before the bomb explodes and, I dunno. If Nolan has much say in the marketing of his movies, which I suspect he does, his control rivals JJ Abrams. His trailers get me every time; they’re incredible. As Man of Steel (2013) would go on to show, he writes for the trailers, and I partially blame this for the avalanche of exposition his films have become. Going into Inception I thought it’d be fantastic. Going into The Dark Knight Rises I thought it’d be fantastic and that I’d have to eat my words on the auteur. Interstellar looked great as well, but the exposition of the engineering-to-food problem being delivered to and engineer/farmer did ring alarm bells, but one epic at a time. The Dark Knight Rises. A lot of people actually didn’t like this one. True it has a high rating on IMDb but fanboys gonna fan. Even I’ll stand up for Spiderman 3 but in my defence, I’d argue Sam Raimi is a far more interesting and pleasant filmmaker to follow. One curious thing to point out regarding The Dark Knight Rises is that, in the trailer, when the prisoners and reprobates of society are rebelling and raiding the rich folks, there’s a shot of furniture being hurled to the ground floor of a lavish house or apartment. In the trailer this shot shudders and zooms ever so slightly with every item that crashes down, locking you into the frame and raising tension. I was impressed. This shows clever directing and not just photography; that’s he’s growing as a filmmaker. Come the screening, no such luck. Flat shot, no shudder, no zoom. Go back and look, it’s dastardly and sad to think of this marketing editor sitting unappreciated in his suite with a better flare for tension than the writer/director/producer of the actual film. I mentioned earlier how, if I don’t notice a problem when first watching a film I forgive it later when I realise; The Dark Knight Rises lost me from the get-go, and then lost me more and more until I was counting down the seconds to see in huge grey-steel letters; WRITTEN and DIRECTED by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, and then a longer gap for the rest of the credits. Presumably the movie is about some kind of literal of psychological rise of the protagonist, and the first two thirds of the film set up his increasing downfall to the point where he’s stuck in a pit in the middle of God-knows-where. I was curious; how is he actually going to get back to Gotham with no friends, no money, no gadgets and the city in complete lockdown from every possible angle. So he climbs out of the pit after hearing that a little girl could do it and then… he’s in the city. Costume and everything. The “Rise” happens off-screen. The rest of the film is just him running about and occasionally punching people until the bat-shit ludicrous ending (pun intended). Two possibilities, no-one said; “Sir, Mr. Nolan? Maybe this is really stupid and arrogant.” or, Chris Nolan knew how much of a middle-finger this is to the audience. There’s two comparisons I feel are to be made when talking about the man; James Cameron and Michael Bay. Though pure speculation it is, there’s a strong sense that all three of these filmmakers may have contempt for their respective audiences (which, judging box office results, may well be the same audience). Let’s start with James Cameron. Made a series of highly popular, technically impressive, emotionally engaging and imaginative (though potentially derivative of less famous sci-fi authors) genre blockbusters. As his techniques sharpened, his writing, well, didn’t. Yet more viewers he received. Fluke? I feel the man accomplished a lot before Titanic (1997) and proved himself very well versed in writing movies that the vast majority of people love, without compromising his artistic integrity. He had a lot riding on Titanic as he took the reigns for another ‘most expensive movie ever’ (his first arguably being Terminator 2) and the writing had to seduce as many people as possible, and that compromises the integrity of the script. He wasn’t writing for nerds in a way that outsiders could understand and appreciate too, this was a mass-market money device that was spectacularly well-made but wildly swallowable. Is this what Chris Nolan does? Honestly I think Nolan is more genuine than this. I think he does actually try but is either misguided, misinformed or too egotistical to see what he’s actually doing. I think he really believes he’s making films on a profound level and audience responses are sucking him deeper into this false sense of security. As eye-rolling as Cameron’s writing can be it’s never clumsy, however. Nolan’s dialogue is the audible equivalent of Inspector Clouseau at a fancy dinner party, and the end result is the same; laughter. Michael Bay also either hates his audiences and openly mocks them with his loud, manic tributes to excess and preposterously lightning-fast plots or this is simply what he enjoys doing, and doesn’t know any better. This is probably the more apt comparison as, in my opinion, neither Bay nor Nolan have earned the privilege to sell out, and still, Cameron does it with grace and technical acumen.

Interstellar (2014) is one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Laughably bad from beginning to end. Never mind how much of what you say should be the truth – how much should be exposition?! The answer, evidently, really is 90%. Good Lord, for a movie trying to emulate the subtle, silent brilliance and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey it manages to say little with 3 hours of dialogue, and nothing with visuals alone. I’m not sure if this is a lack of confidence in his visual storytelling ability or simply that he believed he had such a phenomenal story that the constant narration was necessary. There was a lot of talk about how reliable the ostentatious science in the film was and, as a Master of Astrophysics I can say with no small emphasis, it’s a load of bullshit. You don’t need a degree in science or engineering to know board rooms built directly next to open launch platforms are a frightfully bad idea. Relativistic time dilation existing on the surface of a planet and nowhere else in the system just for plot convenience, planets surviving around a balckhole, people entering said blackhole without imploding under the infinite gravity before the event horizon (btw this would’ve been a fun opportunity to explain away the fact with creative technobabble – especially since actual physicist Kip Thorne is an Execute Producer on the film – but instead they ignore the topic entirely yet still try to make it scientifically exemplary for a mainstream film). Not to say they needed to go all Shane Carruth on us and have no exposition to the point of making an art film (God-forbid), but make it an adventure, not a guided tour… of bullshit. Prof. Brand must have really hated his daughter too, after lying to her for no discernible reason about the plan back on Earth, he sends no other women to fart out, literally, an entire civilisation worth of embryos. What a dick. All of these things, and much, much more made the film a riot. I was not expecting it to be bad, I expect filmmakers to grow and their styles to mature but Interstellar is profoundly dumb, explaining so much directly at you that the average patron’s head is reeling (as mine would be had I not done the degree I done) about gravity and people evolving to exist in the fifth dimension a-la Slaughterhouse 5 (boy oh boy are people in the future ASSHOLES!). Yet again an ever-increasing obnoxious running time of 170 minutes because truly the genius that is Christopher can’t be contained by a typical length. It was a very fun experience, but had I not gone with someone (a fan for the most part of Nolan’s work) who knows a lot about what goes into filmmaking I would’ve been one of the countless people slumped this way or that way in their seats, waiting for pretty action sequences to build. Even so, had it not been for Zimmer’s terrific Phillip Glass-like score I would’ve fallen asleep at the unfortunate stretches that were just plain boring and unimaginative. For these sequences I think Pfister really would’ve improved the movie as I found Hoytema a lacklustre replacement. In the U.S. the film came second to Big Hero 6, which didn’t come out in the U.K. at the same time and I suspect if it had Interstellar would’ve met the same fate there (but considering the UK’s affectation with fellow Brit it may not have. Perhaps Danny Boyle’s comment regarding British crowds only going to the cinema to see Harry Potter and Bond, should be altered to the all too-uncomfortable approximation; Bond and Nolan flicks). Interstellar originally came about as Jonathan Nolan’s pet project, written along with Kip Thorne himself and experienced producer Lynda Obst while Christopher was working on his baby Inception. I’ve flicked through this script and… it’s not half bad. Definitely better at least; explores more topics, less contrived. It’s kind of a shame we didn’t get that version.

Whether he’s going on about how Pfister and Zimmer deserve some of the credit too, or Goyer stating in an interview prior to the release of Man of Steel that he and Nolan were “naturalist” screenwriters, Christopher Nolan is a controversial topic. And I worry why. Why are people so dogmatic about defending him and love being preached about how much of a genius he is when they struggle to define why they like his films? Do people find it a personal victory when they manage to follow his endless stream of plot technicalities? I find it on par with shallow teenage girls when they claim Justin Bieber isn’t that stupid or the delusion of Tommy Wiseau saying he made a dark comedy. If you want to put social commentary in your films fantastic, but it has to be good commentary and not dime store fortune cookie messages. One of my all-time favorite films is M (1931), a somewhat profound, simple little story that’s surprisingly complex and reveals a lot about how society functions and how people band together and how that might not always be the best thing. The more you think about it the deeper the meaning resonates and the more the film makes sense. Thinking about the rationale and logic should help build the world being created, not send it crumbling into ruin. Good commentary works within a well-structured, well-paced film that can only be achieved with rich, clever and subtle subtext. If you’re aiming to have that element in your film it should state something akin to; “this is how we are, and maybe it isn’t as great as we think.” Lowering our standards paves the way for more “serious” movies with these nonsensical stories to the point where we’ll be increasingly hearing the dreaded “but story doesn’t matter that much,” or “it’s a popcorn movie” and these imitations will only come faster if we claim that the watershed films like Inception are high art. All the while studio executives rub their hands greedily together having found another niche through which they’ll effortlessly squeeze into until it’s a gaping opening sucking in all hope like light into a blackhole. Like from that film; The Andromeda Strain.


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Perspectives at what's influences cinema, how it reflects upon us and what it reveals about our social unconscious.

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