Inception marks the seventh time writer/director Christopher Nolan has brought a film to the big screen. Despite being on the scene for only a dozen years, Nolan is quickly becoming one of the most respected craftsmen in Hollywood. His cerebral approach to filmmaking has resulted in a series of original and beloved movies, and if early accounts are accurate, Inception will only add to his mystique.
A hallmark of Nolan’s brief career has been his ability to transcend our preconceived notions of how the world looks and feels. His is capable of constructing environments devoid of artifice, be it modern-day Los Angeles, remote Alaska, late 19th Century London or the dreamscape of the mind. He populates these constructs with conflicted, obsessed characters searching for answers to complex questions.
On their own, Nolan’s techniques and use of recurrent themes are nothing new. However, when combined together they form a genre of film wholly unique to him. In the same way legends like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick did before him, Christopher Nolan is beginning to define his own brand of filmmaking and storytelling that is impossible to duplicate.
Here are five common traits found in all seven of his films:
Whenever a screenwriter sways from a traditional linear narrative the finished product can be either amazing or disastrous. Nolan’s sophomore effort Memento was without question the former. The decision to divide the film into two separate threads — one in chronological order, the other in reverse chronological — was unlike anything seen in American cinema. The precision by which the story unfolds is a marvel to behold. Similar non-linear plots were used in his debut Following and subsequent films Batman Begins and The Prestige. By employing flashbacks and circular narratives, Nolan is able to suck audiences in and keep them intellectually invested. This mastery of timeline manipulation is also executed in a fresh and inventive way.
Nolan’s characters often tread the line between right and wrong. He presents them with a choice and guides them down a path based on their decisions. Rarely is this path a smooth one as characters are beset by pitfalls at every step. All of his films feature one or more principals who knowingly cross legal and moral lines in order to complete their individual missions: the Young Man in Following becomes a burglar; Leonard commits murder in Memento; Will Dormer plants evidence and covers up the murder of his partner in Insomnia; Bruce Wayne transforms himself into a masked vigilante; Harvey Dent flips a coin to decide fate in The Dark Knight; Angier and Borden lie, cheat, steal and defy the laws of nature to gain fame in The Prestige; Cobb invades people’s minds without permission in Inception. Choosing poorly, as so many of them often do, means facing severe repercussions for their actions.
The use of science and technology to better the human condition is another theme prevalent in the Nolan universe. Bruce Wayne’s fortune allows him to build a suit and arsenal of weapons/gadgets to elevate him from mere man to super-man. It’s not enough to fight crime as an average citizen. The Batman alter ego embodies the superhero archetype. Magician Robert Angier ignores Nikola Tesla’s warning and implements the teleportation machine into his act to achieve a new level of notoriety in The Prestige. Cobb practices the advanced art of mental extraction making him a human unlike any other in Inception.
Twins and hidden identities are rampant throughout Nolan’s work: the Young Man assuming a different persona in Following, the two Leonard Shelbys in Memento, Will Dormer’s good side and corrupt side in Insomnia, Bruce Wayne/Batman and the twin Borden brothers and multiple replications of Angier in The Prestige. This constant deception signals an innate unresolved insecurity within the characters. The Young Man’s banal existence leads to a more exciting life of crime. Leonard Shelby’s memory deficiencies prevent him from assuming a real identity. Will Dormer battles gnawing guilt. Bruce Wayne struggles every day to keep the Bat from consuming him entirely. Harvey Dent’s thirst for vengeance transforms him into Two-Face. The Borden brothers switch places in order to maintain their clever ruse, and Angier literally kills himself again and again to achieve fame and fortune.
From a guy who once made a short film called Larceny, it’s not surprising stealing is integral in all his movies. The Young Man steals privacy and personal effects in Following. Leonard Shelby’s memories are removed in Memento. Dormer falsifies evidence in Insomnia. Borden and Angier lift trade secrets in The Prestige. The Joker robs banks and strips Gotham of its security in The Dark Knight. Cobb and his team pillage the mind to extract secrets buried in the subconscious in Inception. Crime and all its consequences are crucial in Nolan’s narratives, as is the desire for redemption and/or punishment.
Very few filmmakers working today juggle recurrent themes the way Nolan does. His films are completely his own and each time out he continues to ramp up the complexity and ingenuity. Has he reached the level of his idols Hitchcock and Kubrick? Not yet, but he’s moving closer with every new offering.