As one of the most successful modern day directors, Christopher Nolan has brought to the screen many critical and commercial success and has complied a large amount of fanboys along the way. I am not the biggest fan of Nolan’s movies, while I will admit that none of his movies are bad, I just don’t understand the unrelenting praise and zero criticism for everything Nolan puts on screen. For those who don’t know Christopher Nolan is a director and cinematographer from London, England, who produces and writes his own movies along with his brother, Jonathan Nolan. In the modern day studio system for a director to be able to do exactly what they want is rare and Nolan’s success is definitely well deserve. This doesn’t change that I believe Nolan’s movies are built on overly confusing plots that are complicated for the sake of complicated. Along with a lack of memorable characters and world building. With Nolan’s ninth film “Dunkirk” (Another World War II movie, exactly what everyone was asking for) coming to theaters this Friday, I wanted to go through each one of his wide released films are explain my problems I have with his films that the average movie goer doesn’t seem to point out. I will skip Nolan’s 2002 film “Insomnia” because I have not seen this film and therefor can’t really give you my opinion on it. Also I’m not referencing the cinematography or visuals in Nolan’s films. Each one of Nolan’s films are a visual spectacle. My critiques and issues from Nolan’s films stem more from storytelling, plot, and characters, so that’s what I will be covering.
First up is Nolan’s neo-noir thriller “Memento”. The indie cult classic tells the story of Leonard, who suffers from anterograde amnesia and can’t create new memories. Leonard, played by Guy Pierce, is searching for the man who attacked and killed his wife. The story is told through a series of scenes, one shot in black and white which is shown chronologically, the other is in color which is shown in reverse order. This is suppose to simulating the mental state of Leonard for the audience, but is just the first example of Nolan using a gimmick in place of storytelling. Like most of Nolan’s films the idea of a man with amnesia, using clues he tattoos on himself to extract his revenge is different and interesting, but the nonlinear storyline causes too many storytelling problems for me. For most of “Memento” we are missing a true antagonist for our hero Leonard, and no matter how compelling our protagonist without a driving opposing force it’s hard to get behind him. Our antagonist is either the unseen “John G”, who we find out doesn’t exist in the end or Teddy, the man helping Leonard find “John G”. Due to the confusing narrative, we don’t know where our protagonist stands throughout the film, we can never really decide if Teddy is a friend or foe until the very end. By then it’s too late. In the final scene, where the color and black and white sequences meet, we are given a twist ending. I will keep out of this post just in case you haven’t seen it, so you can watch it and judge yourself, but the twist lacks the significant shock it should have, mostly because of the convoluted storyline up to this point. This is a problem I have with Nolan’s films, it seems he pick substance and complexity over really fleshing out the original idea that got the audience interested in the idea in the first place.
Next is the “The Prestige” which follows two stage magicians in London during the 19th century, while they try to one up each other creating the best stage illusion. Like “Memento” again we are not given a proper antagonist, but instead two protagonists that compete against each other throughout the film. The base of most storytelling is a hero vs a villain, it gives the audience a character to root for and character to root against. In “The Prestige” our two main characters swap protagonist and antagonist roles throughout the film and in the end I find myself not enjoying or rooting for either of them. “The Prestige” like most of Nolan’s movies is filled with twists and there is so much going on throughout the film, that the surprise ending once again comes off as unsatisfactory.
Now for the series of films that brought Nolan’s films to the masses and cemented him as one of Hollywood’s top directors, The Dark Knight Trilogy. I think the best way to describe my feels for The Dark Knight Trilogy is a great sandwich on stale bread. In the middle, we have the masterpiece “The Dark Knight”. I have very little to say about “The Dark Knight”, other than it’s probably the best superhero movie of all time, as well as one of the best sequels of all time. You can see the differences though from the two Nolan films we have already discussed, where a common theme was problems with the antagonist. The Dark Knight gives us one of the best antagonists of all time in Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Joker in “The Dark Knight” gives us a villain that pushes the character development of Batman and is why this film works so well. As for the other two movies in the franchise, they fall quite short, suffering from some of Nolan’s classic elements. Like both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises” have unnecessary “twists” to throw the audience off. In “Batman Begins” giving Liam Neeson’s, Ra’s al Ghul, a fake name to only revel later that he is the villainous Ra’s al Ghul is pointless misdirection. Nolan lazily does this same thing in “The Dark Knight Rises” with Miranda Tate, reveling that she is Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia al Ghul in the final act of the film. This isn’t even “The Dark Knight Rises” the worst example of Nolan’s need to add twists to films. For those you haven’t seen it the climax of “The Dark Knight Rises” includes Batman sacrificing his life to save Gotham, completing a perfect character arc that Batman has explored over the three films of the franchise. Nolan takes this all away when he revels in the final scene that Batman is actually alive and well living in Florence, Italy. How does this happen? Does it even matter? It doesn’t. It doesn’t further the story, it just adds another unneeded twist, that completely takes away from the climax of the story and the franchise.
Next is “Inception”, the movie that proves if you have a cool idea, does it really matter how the story plays out surrounding that cool idea. “Inception” follows dream extractors, that steal ideas from people’s subconscious while dreaming. Some many people love this movie because they think it’s cool, and yes the idea of secret dream agents traveling through dream levels stealing information, like a heist movie with thoughts, is a great idea. I can see why people love it, but behind the core concept and great visuals is a movie that goes nowhere and filled with empty characters. If you don’t think it’s filled with empty characters here is a list of high grade actors in “Inception”, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine. What were their characters doing throughout the movie? Do you remember? I don’t, because what they were doing didn’t matter. It didn’t further the story, they were just there to be there, like pawns. By far my biggest problem with “Inception” is the open ending. We are left to fill in the blanks on our own, it’s lazy storytelling. Throughout “Inception” we follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and he is a great main character, I’m rooting for him. I want to find out what happens to him, and to leave it in an open ending makes his story feel not complete to me. It makes me feel like Nolan didn’t have a twist for this script so he just decided not to finish it. Yes, it left me wanting more, but the story was over. There was nothing left to tell except for that last unfinished scene.
Finally Nolan’s latest release the space epic “Interstellar”. My opinion of “Interstellar” is different than the rest of Nolan’s movies, the story is pretty solid and most of the characters are fleshed out. My biggest complaint about “Interstellar” is that I find it extremely boring. There is so much science mumbo jumbo is this movie. I know that actually a lot of it is scientifically accurate, which I applaud Nolan for, but like most of the movie going public I know very little about wormholes in the first place. The casting of Matthew McConaughey is confusing to me if Nolan is going to accuracy and believability. He made it scientifically accurate to make the audience to believe as if it could really happen, and then I’m suppose to believe that Matthew McConaughey is an astronaut. I might be nitpicking here, but it seems a little far fetched to me.
Nolan has proved time and time again that he was some of the most unique ideas in Hollywood today. He also has been able to mix elements of independent filmmaking and has still be able to put up huge box office numbers. It’s just a shame he focuses more on surprise endings and complicated plots instead of characters development. Mixed with his visuals, all of Nolan’s movies had and still have the chance to be instant classics and with more complete characters Nolan will be able to achieve that. Let’s hope “Durkirk”, a film that looks like is more focused on visuals has some strong characters to get behind.