I’ve watched all of Chris Nolan’s films so far multiple times.
With repeat viewings, his earlier films stand up much better than his later films in terms of a coherent plot, internal structure, character motivation, story arc etc.
From the tight internal continuity of Memento or Insomnia to the laid back structure of the Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar (both full of glaring plot holes) it seems Nolan has moved further away from his roots and more into traditional blockbuster territory, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.
His first three flicks (Following, Memento, Insomnia) were never in a rush within the Hollyweird production line, nor did they have such high expectations as his later films. All of Nolan’s films all good films, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Whatever flaws any Nolan film has, they still serve the primary purpose of being entertaining.
But as Nolan’s career goes on, each film seems to have more and more giant plot holes and a looser continuity. The increasing amount of plot holes and logical inconsistencies doesn’t really make sense for someone as attentive to plot and character as Christopher Nolan.
He knows every frame of his films, and if there is a major plot hole, you can bet he is more than likely aware of it, but he is also aware that there are strict time frames for big studio pictures. That there are major plot holes is also in part because he aims high, and puts so many big ideas into a film that some of them are bound to clash, or not make sense when big idea (1) is juxtaposed with big idea (2).
Christopher Nolan’s recent movies have become less about tight internal story structure, and more about the performances, high concept ideas and spectacle. I’d argue that the flaws in his films come down to putting so much into big budget films, cramming them so full of ideas in a limited time frame, that there is just not the luxury of time to nit-pick and edit the hell out of EVERY flaw before the release window.
You get the well developed core ideas and narrative arc of the main characters, while the finer details are glossed over somewhat. I am fine with that kind of compromise, because of all Nolan’s films so far has some kind of emotional pay off or resolution for the main character that makes for satisfying viewing.
There are enough high concept ideas (intentionally left open to interpretation) thrown out there in say Inception or Interstellar that the viewer is rewarded for paying attention, and repeat viewings reveal new layers of depth and insight that just are not possible to pick up on the first viewing. At the end of the day, all films have micro-flaws in them due to shooting schedules, budget and time constraints etc.
I am perhaps more forgiving of Nolan’s films as a fan of his work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice the flaws, if anything it means I notice them more, as I don’t pay the same level of attention to minor details in other films. I also go back and read film spotter’s guides to every little thing that doesn’t add up in any given film.
In a way, spotting the flaws are a perverse joy, it adds another layer to the film, but some flaws are pure nonsense of course, and just make you angry that they were not fixed.
Not that there is anything wrong, with… that.
Working on a big budget studio picture is a little bit like working for NASA. There is a time frame, a window to launch that rocket, and if you miss that window, well that is NOT an option. You make sure all the essentials are covered, but if somebody forgets their favourite Rolling Stones big lips T-shirt or their toothbrush, then tough shit, they are not going to scrub the mission for some minor inconvenience.
And a studio is not going to bend over backwards for ANY director, unless they are guaranteed a LOT of money in return for their investment. Even then, no directer is God, any of them can be fired from a production if they piss off enough people, unless they have some of their own money in it, or have sought out independent financing and distribution.
Nolan still manages to make intelligent block busters that please a mainstream crowd and most of the nerds of the world. He throws out thrilling action sequences that recall the best of Bond, Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, while giving us intellectually stimulating ideas and characters exploring themes of identity and existential angst comparable to The Matrix, Donnie Darko, Solaris, Dark City, Blade Runner, John Carpenter’s The Thing or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal if you want to get fancy.
The most interesting comparison I read recently on Nolan’s ambitions as a director is that the author of The Prestige novel Christopher Priest says Nolan aims to be another Stanley Kubrick, but his strengths seem to to more in line with being an Alfred Hitchcock.
I don’t think that is an unfair comparison, and frankly I would rather see intelligent but understandable films in the Hitchcock style – than pretentious, sometimes incomprehensible (but no doubt still the work of a genius) films in the style of Kubrick. Film geeks love Kubrick’s films, but outside of a couple of his films – like The Shining or Full Metal Jacket mainstream audiences don’t really engage with his work.
What he’s trying to be is some kind of modern Kubrick And I think he’d be better off being a modern Hitchcock
Christopher Priest / author ‘The Prestige’
Of course, there are no limits to what cinematic legends Nolan can pilfer ideas from. All good artists have multiple influences, there is no need to be pigeon-holed into being one type of director. But I for one have no issue with Nolan being compared to Hitchcock in the sense that he makes intelligent thought provoking films that reach a mass audience. Film making is a business that exists to make profit like any other, and if you are not seen promoting or selling a film, then you are not really in the business.
Kubrick made clever and complex films that often required an educated audience to appreciate, while Hitchcock made basically the same movie over and over, but with enough variety and above average clever-ness that it usually felt fresh and exciting, rather than boring, while still engaging a mainstream audience.
Despite the topical contrast in Christopher Nolan’s films, he does makes the same basic films over and over. The core idea expressed throughout his films, more than any other is about identity. The ladies in his films don’t come off too well, most of them end up either killing themselves or being murdered, which leads to speculation by click baiting internet randoms that Nolan may be a woman hater.
Several of his female characters are man hating shrews who are out to kill the lead character.
My counter theory is that Christopher Nolan is more likely a film lover, particularly a lover of films by Alfred Hitchcock, who made no qualms about killing any character if it served the plot, or made for a dramatic moment. I do not feel that Nolan is a woman hater, chauvinist or anything like that, and comments that suggest it are really just looking to create sensationalism to get clicks on websites to tabloid style articles of little depth or meaning.
As clever as Hitchcock’s films are, (and he is in my all time top ten of great directors) he managed to walk a line between commercial interests and art, leaning more towards what was commercial and popular, rather than what was clever or arty for the sake of it. Hitchcock films put bums on seats, as do the best Nolan films.
If Nolan’s true strengths lie in being a modern day Hitchcock, mixed with some high concept intellectual ideas and deeper meanings in the style of Kubrick -well I hope that Nolan embraces that and that his next blockbuster will not only be intelligent, but will also put bums on seat without large amounts of plot holes. But I also hope that any film he makes is never dumbed down for an audience. Audiences are smarter than Hollywood thinks, dumbed down entertainment is just insulting.
The significant plot holes in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar make repeat viewings of those films a tedious exercise in trying to ignore those glaring flaws. I don’t mind a few mistakes here and there, but when there are too many it takes you out of the film. The clever thing about Inception was, any flaws were potentially part of a dream, or there on purpose to throw you off, but I don’t know if I can be as forgiving of his other films.
Ultimately motion pictures are a commercial medium, they always have been. Some people manage to make art within that medium, but to pretend is has not always been a commercial medium is to bury one’s head in the sand.
Christopher Nolan has managed to defy the odds by creating big budget blockbuster films that also have brains. He has his critics of course, and he is nowhere near perfect. But he creates consistently entertaining films, and what more can you ask of any director? Films are there primarily to entertain, any artistic expression or stimulating ideas or philosophy is a bonus feature, and a welcome one at that in the case of the Nolanverse.
Did you miss these other recent Chris Nolan Batman Trilogy Posts?