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The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 19, 2012 at 2:04PM

We can all agree at this point that a certain sub-set of Christopher Nolan's fans are out of hand, what with the death threats to critics and all. But even if we were one of those who didn't like "The Dark Knight Rises," or indeed the rest of Nolan's output, we suspect that we'd still be glad he existed. While some might find his movies humorless (though we'd disagree), or chilly (though we'd disagree), or overly rigid (we'd... mostly disagree), but no one else is making films like Christopher Nolan, taking nine figures of Warner Bros.' money, pairing it with big ideas and concepts, and making resoundingly entertaining and thought-provoking blockbusters.
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The Prestige
"The Prestige" (2006)
Nolan's strangest film by a country mile and probably his most divisive, "The Prestige" was the little passion project that he knocked off with his 'Batman' cred in remarkably short time (filming began in February 2006, and it was in theaters only eight months later). Based on the novel by sci-fi author Christopher Priest, it follows the story of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who become embroiled in a years-long feud after Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) drowns in an accident that he holds Borden responsible for. They move on, only crossing paths every so often, and each becoming famous for a trick which sees them vanish across a room into thin air, but each also holds a terrible secret that will have dreadful consequences. Many found the film (which is glorious-looking, thanks to Pfister's best-ever photography and Nathan Crowley's astounding production design) hard-to-follow, thanks to Nolan's puzzle-box-like structure, and hard to like, due to two murderous, bitter protagonists. But, if you're concentrating, the director's storytelling instincts never get you lost (the secret to the mystery is detailed in the opening shot, as it turns out), and to our mind, Bale and Jackman each give enough charm and sympathy to their performances that you can feel for both, although Nolan delicately lets your sympathies come down on one side of the fence by the end. And while it's certainly a film for the brain first and foremost -- Nolan using the world of magic as a metaphor for moviemaking and storytelling in general -- it packs an emotional punch, thanks in part to a tremendous performance by Rebecca Hall in, amazingly, her first major film role. A film quite unlike any in recent memory, and one that you suspect only Nolan could have directed, it's the kind of thing we hope he returns to now he's done with the Bat-franchise. [A]  

Dark Knight Ledger Bale
"The Dark Knight" (2008)
A sprawling crime saga running two and a half hours and until recently, the highest-grossing comic-book movie of all time (since surpassed by "The Avengers"), Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is still arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made (though that may change this weekend). But it’s also not without its flaws. Heath Ledger as the unhinged and unforgettable Joker and the cast elevate the entire thing, removing most traces of suspension of disbelief issues, but even Aaron Eckhart can’t make that realistic-style Two-Face make-up really work in Nolan’s ultra-realistic world (we spend most of his time on screen worrying what kind of infections he's going to catch). And if anyone can tell us the narrative reasoning for the faked death of Jim Gordon, we'd be most grateful, because that particular plot thread seems unnecessary, extraneous and poorly executed. Still, aside from minor problems such as that, thematically, “The Dark Knight” is rich, textured stuff, arguably a minor love story about two opposing forces that cannot exist in the same universe without one another. Moral themes of how the means justify the ends are provoked, and the political and social implications brought up in its grand finale are stupendous. Still, this is the Joker and Ledger’s show, the late actor playing a nihilistic villain who’s anarchist on the outside and deviously nefarious on the inside, who essentially is enamoured by Batman. He doesn’t want to kill him, the Joker wants to prove to this fellow freak that their methods are essentially one and the same and that the people he protects aren't worth fighting for. “You'll see...when the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other,” he cackles. And while he may never fully convince Batman, the villain always shakes the man to his core. [A-]

Inception
"Inception" (2010)
Honestly, until we sat down in the theater, we expected "Inception" to be Nolan's "Heaven's Gate" -- an expensive indulgent folly, the kind of film directors all too often fall to after being given carte blanche to make whatever they like. But we'd forgotten that Nolan had been working on the screenplay for a decade, and had honed his skills to a greater level than ever before, because "Inception" is an absolute triumph, and the culmination of everything the director's career until then had been building towards. A deeply personal art film disguised -- and also working brilliantly as -- a giant summer blockbuster, it sees Nolan focus in on a bold science-fiction idea: implanting an idea in someone's mind by entering their dreams. But while many would use that pitch as an excuse for Lynchian imagery up the wazoo, Nolan gives it his meticulous attention to detail and rules-setting, creating a clear and satisfying universe that, nevertheless, has enough texture that it doesn't become airless. He engages deeply with big concepts; about where ideas come from, about the function of dreams and consciousness, about love, grief and closure. And yet the film is consistently entertaining, a pacy caper film with cracking action sequences (the director finally nailing that side of filmmaking), that also doubles as a brilliantly thought out metaphor for the movie-making process itself. We can see how some can grate against the exposition, although as far as we're concerned, it's about as painless as it could be (although it's a shame that Ellen Page can never just ask the question "Why don't you get Michael Caine to bring your kids to you in France?"). And we can see that some might find it hard to identify with Nolan's rule-bound, organized, sexless dream world, but as we've said before, it's a hugely personal film, and we suspect that this is the way that Nolan's dreams look. It's as weird and difficult a film that has ever made $800 million at the box office, and if this is the kind of original filmmaking that Nolan will continue to make, we're positively pleased that he's retiring from the Bat-game. [A]
 

This article is related to: Christopher Nolan, The Essentials, Features, The Dark Knight Rises, Retrospective


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