Christopher Nolan is a man of many talents. His technical prowess and ever-growing sense of scope, especially when it comes to blockbusters, is only matched by the huge ideas driving his films. He mixes the non-satirical precision of Kubrick with the heart of Spielberg, but so often misconstrued in his presentation as trying to ape his predecessors turned colleagues. Nolan uses formalist approaches to film-making and creates his own stamp out of it. Undoubtedly one of our contemporary auteurs, a common criticism is that the director comes across as emotionally distant. Until recently, I thought the same.
His characters say what they’re thinking, possibly followed by an elaboration on how they’re feeling. The worlds they inhabit are cold and unforgiving, so they’re forced to act reserved and professional. You can trace a variety of inspirations through his visual and emotional pedigree but the most unsung influence is probably Michael Mann. The street-dream shootouts in Inception are cut from the same visceral cloth as Heat, while the plot of The Dark Knight is shockingly similar to Mann’s aforementioned crime epic. But Nolan exchanges their thesis statements, trading stern professionalism for exploration of the heart and mind.
His entire Batman trilogy, while noted for its acute exploration of the Caped Crusader’s psychological perspective, is up to this point, also the only Batman adaptation to explore the humanity of Bruce Wayne’s duality with Batman. It’s dark, but not crushingly so. That’s just the environment he’s crafted with Gotham.
For my money, Nolan has never been better at exploring hearts and mind than when he made Inception. A gigantic science fiction, heist thriller where the heist revolves around planting a mark rather than stealing something. Anybody can steal an object. The real trick of the hat is planting something that permeates a singular experience, and creates entire new ones.
To that point, I think it’s a mistake to put Nolan in the same style as Spielberg or Kubrick. Nolan’s exploration of emotions operates on a different wavelength than theirs, because while his presentation is almost excruciatingly formal, he merely presents emotions as facts. In his tendency to lay out exposition, weaved directly into the narrative of Inception, Nolan also articulates emotion in a precise and direct manner. Emotions are larger than mere plot points. They are unorthodox and obtuse in every sense of those words. They don’t jive when they are treated any less important than the singular reason we go to the movies: to feel something.
Nolan hones in on the rigid structures of his particular filming style because emotions are not quantifiable. He builds his movies around them because he understands how vital it is for movies to connect with the audience, so he comprises entire movies about feeling that resonance. The entire point of Inception and Interstellar is for all the rigorous planning and scientific endeavors, emotions are still the most powerful driving force of human nature.
Just take a look at The Dark Knight’s climactic battle between Batman and The Joker. The Joker is a vortex of hysteria and destruction, breaking down the socioeconomic nature of Gotham to its very core. By the finale, he’s even gotten a handful of citizens to turn on each other. His final message? A boatload of criminals and a boatload of civilians must decide their own fate, or he’ll blow up both ships. But they don’t blow up. They choose to not let The Joker drag the rest of them down with his anti-humanity. Just as it takes only one madman to drag others into madness, all it takes is one person to stand up and do the right thing. The Joker ends up proving there weren’t just two boats full of people worth saving in Gotham. Symbols and structures can be torn down, but the people of Gotham still endured. That isn’t a testament from the mind of a cold, callous storyteller.
And his most personal film, Inception, self-serves him as a deconstruction of his own views on film making. The architect, extractor, point man, forger, and chemist all reflect broad team blueprints of how to make a movie. The forger is an actor, chemist is a cinematographer/composer, architect is a writer, the point man and extractor can both serve as the basis for a director. Everyone has their part to play, but they all serve a common purpose to incept the audience and extract the emotions that have been cultivated from the project. Nolan’s formal techniques are used for informal purposes. The construction of his film’s are borderline deconstruction. You might not love his work, but he’ll be damned if you aren’t going to leave the theater without feeling something.