Watch: How Christopher Nolan Bends Genre to His Cinematic Will
Christopher Nolan has made movies about magicians, amnesiacs, and now WWII, but they are each uniquely his.
There are, it has been said, two types of artists: in the first group we'd find Wes Anderson, whose films are all variations on each other, from camera angles to character types; in the second are the chameleons, like Christopher Nolan, who craft multiple projects that, seemingly, have nothing to do with each other. This second type is reminiscent of the journeyman directors of old, who could direct a film in any genre.
Nolan never vanishes in his films.
This essay from ScreenPrism makes the case that, over the course of his 11 wildly diverse films (granted, three are about a crime-fighting billionaire), Nolan never vanishes. Rather, he bends genre to his cinematic will. Here are three ways that, no matter the subject, a Christopher Nolan film is uniquely, well, Nolan-esque.
1. Non-Linear Storytelling
From his first two dark, modern noirs, Following and Memento, to later big-budget films like The Prestige and Inception, Nolan's narratives "disorient his audiences with puzzles that build suspense, and reward multiple viewings."
This is repeated, albeit in a new way, in Dunkirk, which tells the story of the pivotal moment in WWII from three perspectives (air, sea and land), relying on visual storytelling and sensory detail to craft a WWII movie that is, inimitably, also a Christopher Nolan movie. His story structures tend to be highly subjective, with the audience "often given only as much information as the characters get....with this information concealed from us, we're made into detectives."
2. Light, Shadow, and Fantastical Realism
Nolan's films often have a high contrast aesthetic, playing with light and shadow to construct universes where, "Light, darkness, and contrast convey, character growth, decay, and exploration" as can be seen (literally) in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne uses a flashlight to both discover the Batcave as well as confront his deepest fears.
Yet, despite the fantastical and dreamlike quality of many of his narratives, Nolan is also known for favoring practical effects over digital manipulation, from the use of real locations and natural light, for example in The Prestige, where the visuals prevent it from feeling "too much like a period piece," to the twisting hallways of Inception, and the spaceship of Interstellar, which were constructed not from a green-screen, but rather real world materials in which the actors moved. This approach, especially in the latter two examples, has the paradoxical effect of making his films less realistic, because their physical solidity seems more uncanny to us than obvious effects, which audiences are becoming numbed to. In the same vein, his (inevitable, obviously) VFX tend not to call attention to themselves.
3. Variations on a Theme(s)
The essay points out that Nolan's films are often concerned with "revenge anger, guilt, sacrifice, solitude, memory and obsession," themes which get ample airing in Dunkirk, given the weighty subject matter. The film comes at a hinge point in the second World War, the miraculous evacuation of "the root and core," in Winston Churchill's words, of the British Army—an event that kept Hitler from taking the continent of Europe and, almost as crucially, rallied the British people's morale to resist.
In the visuals, too, we can see that the film's location work, which made extensive use of IMAX lenses for night shooting, prizes realism and the visceral sense of being on the beaches, inside of the chaos of an event whose outcome, at the time, was very uncertain, to say the least. It's a cinematic way of dramatizing his themes by heightening emotion, as well as placing his audience in the boots of the characters, partly in order to capture the experience of battle, and partly, one imagines, to distract them from the fact that, well, it's pretty well known how WWII ended.
The essay covers several other elements of Nolan's filmmaking that make his films, diverse as they are, of a piece. It's worth a watch, if only because Nolan is so good at what he does that sometimes it can be easy to forget that he's so good at what he does. Which is deep, if you think about it, though probably not as deep as the cinematic universe of Christopher Nolan's many film worlds. Or is it? And that's what you call a prestige.