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The films of Christopher Nolan, explained

What marks a Nolan movie? Attention to time, memory, and every part of the cinematic experience.

Scenes from Christopher Nolan’s films The Dark Knight, Interstellar, The Prestige, and Dunkirk
Scenes from Christopher Nolan’s films The Dark Knight, Interstellar, The Prestige, and Dunkirk
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Reviews of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (including mine) are calling the movie the director’s best work so far — the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri says it is the “movie Christopher Nolan was born to make.”

High praise, indeed. But what does it mean to say that a movie is a Nolan masterpiece? What makes Nolan distinctive as a director? And how does Dunkirk — a movie about a historical event, not normal fare for the director — fit into his most distinctive interests?

Plenty of things mark Nolan’s work, some of which make him beloved to his fans and others that raise eyebrows. He’s sometimes dinged for making films that are too clinical, light on character development, largely uninterested in female and non-white characters except as props for the protagonists, and marred by their director’s private obsessions with time and trickery.

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s Inception
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s Inception

But while some of these criticisms have merit, it’s hard to dispute that Nolan is an important director, one who’s managed to find a way to make big-budget movies that people want to talk about, dissect, and revisit after they’ve seen them.

Dunkirk in particular leans hard into Nolan’s interests as a filmmaker, but with a twist that works to the historical story’s advantage. Here are four things to remember about Christopher Nolan’s films that help position Dunkirk in his larger body of work.

He’s very interested in memory

Most of Nolan’s films (many of which feature screenplays by his brother, Jonathan) explore big philosophical concepts, and none of them attempt to offer concrete answers. But whether he’s making science fiction, a crime drama, a superhero film, or a war movie, Nolan is remarkably consistent in his favored themes.

One of his most clear interests is memory: how it works, how it gets corrupted, and how our memories shape and even create what we consider to be “reality.”

Two of his films — 2000’s Memento and 2010’s Inception — are the most explicitly interested in the topic. In Memento, the protagonist (Guy Pearce) is literally suffering from a form of amnesia that leaves him without a short-term memory, and both his and the viewer’s perception of what’s “real” are affected by that condition. In the considerably higher-budget Inception, the protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to implant memories into someone else’s subconscious, and the nature of memory drives the plot.

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Following
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Following

But most Nolan films deal with memory in some way. Across the Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), Bruce Wayne is haunted by the memory of his parents’ death — and though this isn’t Nolan’s invention, it is something he pulled out of Batman lore and emphasized. In The Prestige, the big twist hinges on a person — and the audience — relying on their memory, only to discover it’s faulty. And the near-future world at the start of Interstellar has tried to scrub its society of a collective memory, claiming that the Apollo missions never happened.

While Nolan’s films are sometimes accused of being clinical and emotionless, he at least seems to consider memory to be tied very tightly to our emotions. Following the release of Inception in 2010, he told Wired, “I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts.”

In Dunkirk, the role of memory is subtler than it’s been in his other films. The memories of battle experiences, which seem to have settled more in the soldiers’ bodies than their conscious minds, certainly affect how they act under siege — how they duck for a bomb, or react to enclosed spaces.

But Dunkirk’s true relationship to memory is in its source material: It takes as its basis an event that is part of our larger history, then tweaks that memory ever so slightly. In addition to taking some of the wind out of the triumphalist mythology that has grown up around the event — it doesn’t end on an entirely upbeat note — Dunkirk illustrates how many and varied types of heroism contributed to the evacuation.

So with Dunkirk, Nolan doesn’t address memory directly; instead, the movie performs a small and benevolent inception of its own, subtly reframing the audience’s memories of a major historical event.

He’s also very interested in time

Particularly in movies like Inception, Interstellar, Memento, and his 1998 debut feature Following, Nolan likes to mess with the ways we’re conditioned to think about time, particularly at the movies, where we expect a relatively straightforward progression of time that mirrors real life: Start at the beginning, proceed in an orderly fashion, and end at the end.

But Nolan isn’t all that interested in following those rules. In his films, time is just another tool in the arsenal, meant to be bent to the filmmaker’s will and not the other way around.

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Memento
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Memento

So frequently, what you’re seeing in a Nolan film feels like it’s chronological, and then you get to experience the thrill (or maybe annoyance) of realizing that what you assumed about the movie isn’t true: These two scenes don’t follow each other logically, or that event actually happened at a different time. It’s usually not just a neat trick, but rather an integral part of the storytelling. You’re supposed to suddenly feel dislocated, realizing that all of your assumptions about the world are a matter of perception.

In Memento, for example, the story is told on two parallel tracks; one runs forward, but the other runs backward, and that’s something we in the audience discover on our own. The story is slowly constructed as a kind of dance between filmmaker and viewer, who are working together to find the meaning alongside the protagonist. The audience’s temporal disorientation mimics the protagonist’s — and that makes for a more powerful viewing experience.

Nolan’s love of messing with time is no surprise, given his interest in memory. Memories go hand in hand with time, after all; memories are the primary way that the past is “real” to us. But memories can be faulty, especially in Nolan’s world. That means that sometimes our perception of time is faulty, too. We lose track of when something happened, or we failed at the time to recognize how it fit into other life events. Nolan repeatedly compels viewers to reexamine the “facts” we take as settled truth about our world by giving us a mini-lesson at the multiplex.

One of the key features that sets Dunkirk apart from other war films is how it treats time: The movie moves along three separate planes of time, which it lays out right at the beginning of the film and cuts between throughout. We observe one set of characters over the course of a week, another set over a day, and another set over just an hour. The film itself is only about two hours long, which means “time” is moving much more quickly for some characters than for others.

Tom Hardy in Dunkirk
Tom Hardy in Dunkirk
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

That’s not normal for a historical film based on a famous battle, but it’s certainly done with purpose in Dunkirk. It helps underline an experience that’s hard to demonstrate in a more straightforward movie: that war (and other experiences of extreme stress) tend to distort memory and perceptions of time. Our experience of dislocation out in the cinema seats matches, in some small way, how people who were actually present at the events would experience them.

But in Dunkirk, right from the start, we know the planes of time will also eventually converge on each other. And that point of convergence — when all of these people who have been moving along separate timelines suddenly are in the same place, at the same time, at just the right moment to avert utter disaster — helps dismantle the tendency of war films to promote a kind of “great man” theory, or to make the eventual moment of rescue seem like it was inevitable. In war, nothing is inevitable; no one person is solely responsible for what happens; and chance (or Providence, depending on your philosophical commitments) governs both victory and defeat. Dunkirk’s unique time structure builds that insight into the film as a whole.

Nolan subverts the conventions of familiar genres in order to challenge our ideas about movies

Though he started with small, low-budget thrillers like Following and Memento, Nolan rapidly became a blockbuster director. Nolan’s evolution into a maker of big, plot-driven films reflects his interest in getting moviegoers to revise their expectations about what a popular, successful, big-budget movie can be.

One of the most effective ways he does this is by taking popular genres (mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, superheroes, war) and rethinking what they can do. This is something he shares with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen brothers, all of whom also love film, study the history of cinema, and want to move it forward by seeing what kind of new tricks old genres can pull off.

Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises

But when Nolan takes on a new genre, lots of people get excited, for good reason. His track record shows that a director with a distinctive style who’s given leeway by the studio to deviate from the norm can make a crowd-pleaser that brings in the big bucks at the box office and also lands critical accolades — whether it’s by reimagining comic book movies as political commentary (in the Dark Knight trilogy), sci-fi as quasi-post-apocalyptic family drama (Interstellar), or detective noir as psychological drama (Insomnia, Memento).

Nolan’s movies tell exciting, intriguing stories in popular genres, but science fiction films, superhero films, and war films all become something slightly different in his hands. Dunkirk is no exception; it’s certainly a historic war film, but its take on time and space through its multi-threaded storyline makes it something more universal and more distinctive at the same time. It seems to draw on fantasy epics as much as films like Saving Private Ryan — and that twist is vintage Nolan.

These interests are part of Nolan’s larger, prevailing quest: to think of movies as a complex art form

Usually when we think of what makes a successful movie, the first thing we think about is the story. But Nolan’s mission to challenge what audiences think about filmmaking shows that he isn’t just interested in the story: He’s deeply interested in all of the parts of film and in highlighting (and sometimes distorting) the essential components of any given movie.

A movie comprises visual images. It almost always has sound. (Even in the silent film era, films were usually shown alongside a piano player, and in the moments when a movie doesn’t employ any sound at all, the silence itself becomes a kind of sound.) And a movie unfolds over time, at the pace that the filmmaker intends; you could fast-forward through a film, but then you haven’t watched it. It’s these essential components — image, sound, structure — that define Nolan’s relationship with film as a work of art rather than a story to be told.

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige

Movie studios (and the executives who hold the purse strings) are often allergic to risk, which means experimentation isn’t as common in movies meant for a broad audience. And certainly Nolan has made his share of things that fit the studio system (he did, after all, reboot a superhero franchise with Batman Begins, then proceed to make two sequels). But he’s still very interested in how film itself works and how it can push boundaries, and that manifests in his working methods.

He’s been experimenting with both 70mm projection and IMAX for a while, including in the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises, parts of Inception, and Interstellar. For Dunkirk, he shot the whole movie in these formats. Like Tarantino and Anderson, he’s known as a traditionalist when it comes to how a movie looks, preferring film over digital and eschewing 3D. (The trio has an unofficial support group.)

Nolan is also known for making very loud films, with big, bold scores (and sometimes explosions) that can overwhelm the film’s dialogue. In fact, following the release of Interstellar, movie theaters had to put up signs informing audience members that their equipment was working just fine, and if they had complaints about having trouble understanding the dialogue, they should take it up with Nolan.

Nolan responded, telling the Hollywood Reporter that this was on purpose:

Many of the filmmakers I’ve admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways. I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound.

To Nolan, dialogue mixed down into the sound effects and music is a way to make viewers take in everything that’s happening in the film, rather than fixating only on what people are saying. The quality of the sound becomes part of the storytelling, rather than merely a vehicle for it.

This approach infuriates some audience members, but it’s certainly no accident. Dunkirk may be Nolan’s most effective use of this technique: There’s not much talking in the movie, and a lot of it is obscured by the sounds of guns firing and planes flying overhead. But that’s by design. That’s what war sounds like.

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Nolan is also fascinated by how ethical questions can be part of the blockbuster experience. Memento is not just about a man with amnesia; it’s about the morality of revenge. The Dark Knight is not just about Batman; it’s about the blurry line between random violence and vigilantism. The Prestige is not just a neat magic trick; it’s about rivalry, obsession, science vs. magic, and class warfare. And Dunkirk is not just about a war; it’s about what it takes to win a war, and the human cost that entails.

Over and over, Nolan has shown himself to be interested in both entertaining audiences and making them think, in pushing the boundaries of what they believe a movie can and should be. Like or hate the result, it’s hard to deny how popular his movies are, despite the often complicated ideas he explores and the risks he takes with his filmmaking.

The fact that Dunkirk — a war movie that subverts war movies, was shot in multiple formats, and once again messes with the way time and memory works — raked in 20 percent more at the box office than projected its opening weekend proves once again that Nolan’s idiosyncratic approach to film can be popular as well. Whether or not history records it as his masterpiece, it’s one more indication that Nolan is always a director worth paying attention to — and that his signature interests can make for compelling movies no matter the source material.

Watch: The sound illusion that makes Dunkirk so intense

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