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The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
July 19, 2012 2:04 PM
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"Memento" (2000)
"Following" might have been scrappy, but it was impressive, and long before the film started doing the festival rounds, Nolan had his follow-up ready to go. His producer and then-girlfriend-now-wife Emma Thomas had sold Nolan's script, "Memento" (based on a short story by his younger brother), to Newmarket Films, and it quickly became a hot property around Hollywood. According to James Mottram's "The Sundance Kids," Brad Pitt was interested in the lead role with Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane also in the running. But it was Guy Pearce, hot off "L.A. Confidential," who took the lead role of Leonard Shelby, a man unable to create new long-term memories, on the hunt for the man who caused his injury and killed his wife. It's in many ways a true successor to "Following," in the same neo-noir metier (though this time a gloriously lit California, courtesy of Wally Pfister, in their first collaboration), and with an even more intricate structure; Shelby's story is told backwards, from his execution of pal Teddy to a beginning/ending that reveals that much of what little he knows about his existence is a lie. It's an infinitely more confident film than Nolan's debut, controlled and playful, and the structure (perhaps bar the black-and-white segment, which feels a little too much) is far from a gimmick; a sad and ingenious series of snapshots that drip-feeds the torturous plot while putting the viewer in Leonard's disorienting shoes. Pearce is terrific, and in support, "The Matrix" graduates Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano got to show they were far more than sci-fi sidekicks. It might not be as rewatchable as some of his films (and watching it "forwards" as it were, is educational, but rather robs the film of its point), but it's a pretty astonishing leap up the ladder, and it could be argued that it's the director's most complete film to date. [A-]

"Insomnia" (2002)
Praised hugely on release, Nolan's studio debut has slipped in critical standing over the last decade. Looking back on the film, that's somewhat unfair -- it's a very strong little thriller, with some of the best acting in any of Nolan's films. But it's a hard film to truly love, perhaps because for arguably the only time in his career, it feels like a gun-for-hire job, a chance to prove himself with big names and more scope. Nolan had been picked out by Steven Soderbergh -- who had raved about "Memento," helping the film to get a U.S. release -- and hired him to direct a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name for his Section 8 production company and Warner Bros. Stellan Skarsgård took the role in the original, but here it's Al Pacino as the LAPD cop sent to Alaska with his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) to help with the enquiry into the death of a 17-year-old girl. Chasing a suspect, Pacino accidentally shoots his partner, who's just told him that he's going to testify against him to Internal Affairs, an incident witnessed by the killer (Robin Williams), who blackmails him into helping frame the victim's boyfriend for his own murder. Nolan handles everything handsomely in an old-fashioned way, but sometimes feels a little disengaged (it's the only time he's not worked on a script himself), and the screenplay by Hillary Seitz occasionally inches into cop movie cliches. But at the same time, Nolan gives the story a wonderfully creepy atmosphere (again, as with "Memento," the film takes place entirely in daylight; few filmmakers can make the sun as menacing and bleak as the nightime), and coaxes very strong performances out of his cast. Robin Williams was near-revelatory (this and "One Hour Photo," released the previous year, remain his best dramatic turns), and it's to date the last true Pacino turn of greatness, the actor perma-tired and letting a lifetime of sins catch up to him with quiet dignity. It's a world away from the Shouty Al we get more often than not these days. So in retrospect, yes, it's minor Nolan, but it's still markedly better than 99% of Hollywood procedurals these days. [B]

"Batman Begins" (2005)
"Insomnia" was enough for Warners to feel confident in giving Nolan the keys to their big franchise revival, and the helmer moved swiftly into developing a bold new take on Batman with co-writer David S. Goyer. The film made him the A-lister he is now, and spawned two massive sequels, but it can't just be us that finds it, in retrospect, the director's weakest film. The approach is absolutely something to be lauded; only Nolan could take the premise of man dressed as a bat fighting crime and make it as plausible as possible. And for the first time, we had a Batman movie that was actually about Batman, with Christian Bale giving three distinct, and excellent performances: Bruce Wayne in private, wounded and still grieving and furious; Bruce Wayne in public, the drunken, irresponsible  playboy: and the Batman, a terrifying force of nature. The little choices unquestionably make Bale's the definitive portrayal of the character, and in Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, he has wonderful support. But Nolan's still adjusting to his bigger playset, with the action mostly choppy and confusing, and the tone is slightly uneven. And while the first two acts are pretty good, Nolan loses the thread in the third, the realistic tone giving way to a hammy Liam Neeson performance ("Excuse me, I have a city to destroy!" -- although it should be said, Tom Wilkinson gives him some competition in the scenery chewing), some creaky lines, uneven, misjudged humor (including Gary Oldman acting like Jake Lloyd in "The Phantom Menace") and some slightly cheap and ill-conceived hallucination scenes (Batman the monster and the Scarecrow's fire-breathing horse are nice ideas, but let down in the execution). The film slows to a crawl every time Katie Holmes is on screen too -- the actress was reportedly forced on Nolan by the studio, and his disinterest shows. It's a laudable first effort, for sure, but far, far better things were to come. [C+]

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  • Raag | July 22, 2012 3:05 PMReply

    Excellent analysis, i must say. The Prestige and Inception are two of my favorite Nolan films as well, or rather i must say I consider them to be among the greatest films that I've ever seen. The Prestige was a movie that has simply blown me away during the first watch and even after multiple rewatches I get that same thrill and emotion that I had for the first time. The DarkKnight and Memento are 2 amazing films as well. I'm yet to catch Rises but would make sure to catch it in next few days time. And yeah, just to add, Nolan, for me is the greatest director in Hollywood right now.

  • Deep | July 22, 2012 4:13 AMReply

    Dark Knight is haunted tale and it is well made movie and Wow how great haters you are? Observing every bit of movie that what fans do You r best observer of this movie.
    Somewhat u liked this movie but pretending to hate this movie.

  • Amardeep | July 22, 2012 4:07 AMReply

    People have their own argument on Nolan's movie but it is real fact he that is most celebrated filmmakers in recent time you will not count him as greatest but he is better craftsman than any other great directors. For me and millions of people around the world he is great director than any movie director. In India people watch movies because it is directed by Nolan no other Hollywood director have that reputation. He make intelligent and sensible Cinema. Whatever the haters say but all his movies are above b grades for sure.

  • Schedel | July 21, 2012 7:43 AMReply

    Jim was afraid his family would be targeted by the Joker- he says something implying this in the film, I believe.

  • quickV | July 20, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    Following was much better than Insomnia in my opinion. Much, much better. I loved Following. The plot was simple and intriguing, the acting was good, and the progression, structure, and payoff was spot on.
    Batman Begins had some bright moments, but overall the "cheap" blockbuster look during the final scenes with the train hurtling around did it in for me. Still enjoyable though.
    Loved Inception, thought that The Dark Knight was really good, very much enjoyed The Prestige and Memento too. Not the biggest fan of Insomnia...
    I'd love to see someone else direct Inception without the exposition. See how coherent it is. Creating a world, a technology, whole concepts about concepts would require some explaining :)

  • zatopek | July 19, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    Exposition.. I mean Inception is hardly A. More like B or B+, like The Dark Knight.

  • TXW | July 19, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    TDK is a superficial, sloppy mess. Crib notes from Heat transcoded into a poorly plotted, inexplicably motivated slosh. It has like 50 aerial expository shots, but otherwise it's cramped and flat. It 'provokes' themes, perhaps, sets up reductive dualisms, yes -- then lets them stew. It has no perspective. The film dramatizes none of its thematic threads -- everyone just talks about them. Freeman is outraged by the breach in privacy inherent in that sonar nonsense (great, we get it), the Joker raves in pseudo-profundity about nihilism and chaos, Gordon expounds on Batman as symbol (-- and can we get much more didactic than that ridiculous boat scene?). So, awesome: platitudes and binaries. The boring chit-chat/talking-for-our-benefit scenes are then interspersed with the aforementioned aerials and a few spatially incomprehensible action scenes. Ledger gives a one dimensional performance, as does Gyllenhaal -- one all jitters and cheese, the other a vapid flirt who undoes all the solid groundwork laid by Holmes. All sense of Batman Begin's psychological realism is gone; yes, BB has terribly blocked and shot action, but otherwise it's a much, much tighter film (one whose Gotham isn't just Chicago or New York, too, which is nice). Batman/Wayne in TDK -- the most/only interesting character -- gets lost in the shuffle of plots, villains, deaths, double-crosses, and cops with one-liners. The film rushes through its convoluted amalgam of cliches and Mann-aped cinematography, talks out its dubious 'themes,' and then ends on a note that makes no sense. The Joker can't take the fall? cuz it's not like people believe everything the news tells them (but no, Gordon says, you can't cover up a few cops deaths when the city's been in a panic for the past few weeks and a bunch of cops and civil servants are already dead -- right...) Begins is Nolan's best film, Insomnia second, TDK worst, the others hovering in 6-7/10 territory. He's not a totally untalented director, but he relies on telling not showing (using faux-'epic' [I'm using internet movie-dork idiom here] visual tricks to cover that up and appear more cinematic [the aerials, the big actions set pieces, Batman standing on a 50 story building every fifteen minutes, dollying-in for every line delivery ever]), and on incredibly convoluted plots that, yes, raise questions, and are praised for it despite -- and here comes an important yet little discussed fact -- their triviality or minor applicability to lived human life (the high concept MO, dealing in thought experiment pseduo-thematics). In summation, this list sucks

  • tristan eldritch | July 19, 2012 5:09 PM

    Dude, your description of Dark Knight is 100% dead-on accurate. I have NEVER understood the Dark Knight phenomenon; it seems like some form of prolonged mass hysteria. I would be somewhat kinder to Ledger's performance, but other than that, everything you say is spot-on.

  • Tom | July 19, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    Ouch, harsh grade for Following. It's rough around the edges to be sure, but I'd say it's much better than you give it credit for. Also, the exposition nearly killed Inception for me. I really must give it another chance, perhaps I can go into it with adjusted expectations.

  • Jake | July 19, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    Can we talk about how terrible Eric Roberts is in The Dark Knight?

  • Nolan | July 19, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    I agree that Batman Begins is actually relatively weak. The initial reaction most had to it was more of a "wow, this is actually surprisingly pretty good" rather than "OMFG THIS IS SO GOOD NOLAN IS A VISIONARY", which is how everything he does now is perceived. But, it's interesting that you only call out Begins as having third act problems when, really, everything he's done SINCE Begins has had the same problems. TDK is 20 minutes and one needless setpiece too long, Inception completely goes off the rails once we get to the weird, Metal Gear Solid-esque snow-fortress set, and Prestige ends up trying to be too clever for it's own good as it winds down. I can't speal for TDKR, but I really do hope that he's figured out how to write a third act.

  • AS | July 19, 2012 4:13 PM

    I agree with you about Batman Begins but the biggest problems about that film, for me, are the performances. Everyone gives Nolan credit for taking Batman in a new direction with Begins, but actually, after the first hour, it's a by the numbers comic book movie. There are way too many cheesy moments (obligatory homeless guy going "nice wheels," cops looking up in wonderment as Batman jumps off a building, cutaways to cops having stupid pseudo-comic reactions to Batman driving across a roof) and embarrassingly weak performances (Katie Holmes, Mark Boone Junior, Colin McFarlane and an over-the-top Cillian Murphy). The film is at its best when Bale and Neeson share the screen. For a super hero movie it's good, for a movie-movie it's decent. I disagree with you, however, when it comes to the final acts of his films. As much as I like The Dark Knight, it's the first hour of that film that really struggles (again, mostly due weak performances, i.e. Michael Jai White). As the film moves along, it gets better and better, building to a terrific climax. Same goes for Inception (although, Inception doesn't really suffer from any weak performances, which is why it's my favorite of Nolan's films). In the beginning, Nolan has to deal with a lot of exposition but as the story starts to unravel, the film becomes more and more engaging.

  • sfdsf | July 19, 2012 3:23 PMReply

    Wow, your problems with Batman Begins are SO fishy. Batman Begins has some majorly misunderstood action scene aestetics. Nolan puts you in the shoes of the bad guys and therefore the action/fighting scenes are disorienting, chaotic and scary - just in line with the theme of fear! You've failed, Oliver. And Liam Neeson being hammy? Give me a fucking brake, you elitist tool!

  • HanTorso | August 15, 2012 6:04 PM

    The whole "the fight scenes come from the bad guys perspective" is such a weak defense of these awful action scenes. Liam Neeson didn't seem scared of Batman at all, so why was the fight with him shot incoherently. The same goes for the opening fight scene in the prison, and the fight with the Foot Clan members who had the same training Batman did. Way to try and rationalize a terrible movie.

  • Ryan | July 25, 2012 12:22 AM

    Calm down, fan boy.

  • A Hipster's Worst Nightmare | July 19, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    The jim gordon death has to happen in order to give the audience the illusion that chaos has taken over Gotham; that the stakes are high. It also sets up Harvey Dent's following scene with the Arkham patient; that even the white knight is corruptable when the Joker's chaos reigns. Don't try to be too smart all time, Playlisters, sometimes your critique is obviously fishy.

  • Mike | July 19, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Secondly, while I agree with you wholeheartedly that Insomnia features Al Pacino's last great big screen performance, he has done plenty of excellent work since then in things like Angels in America, and You Don't Know Jack.

  • Mike | July 19, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    I completely disagree on Batman Begins, its my favorite Batman movie because it focuses on Bruce Wayne as a living, breathing, psychological character, not the alter ego of a masked vigilante that plays second fiddle to a cavalcade of scenery-chewing villains. The Dark Knight is a thrill to be sure, but Bruce Wayne and even Batman is shoved aside into a part of an ensemble, and as electrifying as Ledger was, an antagonist with some tangible story or motivation makes a film more engaging for me. Plus I'd much rather we had more slightly unhinged but grounded villains & those not depicted on screen previously like Scarecrow here than what we got in the following films.

  • Day | July 19, 2012 2:50 PMReply

    Oh my god. Thank you for giving The Prestige top marks. I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan and was having a conversation with my friend the other day, I told him, while The Dark Knight and Inception are cool films, in my opinion when I went back to watch them for a second time, I couldn't really get anything new out of them. The Prestige is my favorite of all of Nolan's work, it has a way of always revealing something new. I also hope he tunes down the big budget projects and goes for something more intiment. With that said, cannot wait for The Dark Knight Rises!!!

  • Christian | July 19, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    The Batman Begins hate is ... just wrong!

  • Charles | July 19, 2012 2:47 PM

    Amen to that. Batman Begins provided the solid foundation for the rest of the series.

  • DG | July 19, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    Switch the scores around for Inception and Dark Knight and you've nailed it. Also I liked the Scarecrow's hallucination scenes but agree some of the action stuff in Begnins kind of fell apart.

  • cirkusfolk | July 19, 2012 2:28 PMReply

    This is your best director's retrospective yet. Not only do I agree with everyone of the grades for each film but the write ups for each are spot on, especially with regards to Batman Begins. Awesome job.

  • Brian Z | July 19, 2012 2:40 PM

    I would argue pretty heavily against Nolan as the greatest. If you love him, that's fine, he's definitely super talented. For me, I'd still go with Almodovar, Haneke, Cuaron, Fincher, Soderbergh, the Dardennes, Assayas, Desplechin and a few others over Nolan. Which isn't to say he's not great, just not the greatest today in my eyes.

  • cirkusfolk | July 19, 2012 2:31 PM

    Should've included The Dark Knight Rises as well though. So with that being said, how can anyone argue Nolan isn't the greatest director working today. Four A's a B and a C. That's quite a report card when compared to all the other directors you've already done retrospectives on, cough cough, Ridley Scott.

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