Christopher Nolan

Subject: Personal Experience
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 10
Word count: 2707
Topics: Personal Philosophy, Biography, Ethics, Film Review


Christopher Edward Nolan is one of the most influential people in visual arts, being a renowned film producer, director, and screenwriter. He is one of the most acclaimed 21st-century film makers and among the highest-grossing directors in history and was named among the 100 most influential people in the world by the Time Magazine in 2015. Together with his wife, Emma Thomas, he runs the production company Syncopy Inc. Some of his films have been co-written with his brother. He is arguably one of the most creative persons of the present time considering the requirement that movies be inventive and considering the facts that all his movies have been received well by movie critics and regular moviegoers, have been financially successful, have sustained a broad appeal, and have exceeded the rising expectations ingeniously. This paper will show how Nolan has utilized captivating motifs; significant ideas, subjects, and themes, as the foundation of all his films to creatively turn them into undeniable art masterpieces.

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Brief biography

The director made his debut in 1998 with the film Following, however; he drew significant attention with the second feature, Memento in 2000. For Memento, he was an Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay. The culminated acclaim from these two films then gave rise to the opportunity for him to make Insomnia (2002), a thriller whose shooting involved a huge budget. He also directed The Prestige (2006), a film that took on mystery and drama. More critical success and popularity was to be achieved after he directed The Dark Knight Trilogy which aired between 2005- 2012. His success as a film director is also highly owed to Inception (2010), which saw him get nominated for eight Academy Awards, most remarkably the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The other films that he worked on include Interstellar (2014) which has gained critical success and reverence. The latest film from the director is Dunkirk (2017). All the listed films, a total of ten, have had a total grossing of over US$4.7 billion throughout the world. Moreover, they have had seven Oscar wins among the twenty-six Oscar nominations. 

Creative attributes of Christopher Nolan’s films

Films as a puzzle

Christopher Nolan has managed to be one of the best movie directors of the modern day by being one of the most intriguing ones. His creativity is unmatched in creating stories that present themselves to the audience as puzzles within puzzles and exhibit lack of easy answers and escape routes. Unlike other movie makers whose central enigma is the narrative hook, he constructs films whose catch is a complex ambiguity that overshadows the twists seen earlier by the audience. He always has an underlying layer of meta-questioning that astounds the viewers deeply. 

Puzzles are a smart move considering the idea from Popp (2014) that all humans are creative creatures and have an affinity for getting involved in creative processes. A good example is the Prestige, a film in which the audience can see the narrative tricks but are quite oblivious of the illusion that is gradually presented in terms of cloning, magic, tragedy, and science. Inception is also a complex puzzle film, though the audience might find it easy to solve Cobb’s puzzle, they find themselves drawn into a dream whereby they cannot tell whose it really is. It’s a non-linear style that makes the audience focus on what they should not focus on only to become aware of the rude reality at some point in the film.

Modifying familiar genres

In his films, Nolan has revised the expectations of the audience by experimenting with popular genres. Most of his films are as a result of successfully challenging the conventions of familiar genres and their application in movies. This is responsible for his evolution from the director of low budget thrillers (Memento and Following), to a high grossing director. Through revising the ideas that people have about films, he instills new perceptions of what successful, popular, and high budget movies should be like. It gives him a competitive edge in securing his present audience for another film and grows it as their interest is captured. He has successfully done this by considering popular film genres such as war, superheroes, sci-fi, thrillers, and mysteries and reflecting on how they can be used for new creative agenda that make the cinematic experience more astounding and captivating for his audience.

This trick has pulled off a massive following in terms of popularity, critical success, and gross earning. Looking at his film directing trend, a shift to another popular genre has been met by a lot of excitement from movie goers and critics alike due to the unanticipated features. For instance, in Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), he weaves a detective story into a psychological drama. Also, in Interstellar (2014), the sci-fi genre is utilized to set a stage for quasi-post-apocalyptic family drama. Moreover, in The Dark Knight trilogy, he makes a genre derived from comic books morph into political commentaries. Therefore, unlike most directors, he alters and reconstructs popular genres for more intriguing and exciting stories. In his latest movie; Dunkirk, he uses the historic war genre to convey space and time in the storyline he carefully multi-threads to create a universal and distinguished cinematic experience. Conclusively, innovatively deviating from the norm is a distinguishing trait that has enabled him to please the crowd.

The application of time

Normally people are conditioned to think about time in terms of chronological order. This forms the main perception of the audience as they watch a movie. Every scene should be preceded by the earlier one and followed by the later one, in an orderly fashion. However, Nolan creatively tampers with the relative straightforward time progression that people are accustomed to in real life. Messing with the time conditioning that is the characteristic of reality enables him to thrill the audience with flashbacks that turn around assumptions and the audience knowledge at a certain point in the film.

As one of the apparatuses in his arsenal, Nolan has utilized time in his debut film, Following, Interstellar, Memento, and Inception. The breaking of the time rule in those films has enabled him to bend the plots unwinding to his will. For instance, the audience might think that an event occurred at a different time only to be proved wrong or have illogically placed scenes for a certain fraction of the movie before a surprising revelation. The trick is beneficial in making the audiences feel misplaced, a factor of thrill.

In Memento, the plot is unwounded in two analogous tracks running in different directions. The audience is left to decipher this trick on their own. It is intertwined such that the viewer and the filmmaker are in pursuit to find the protagonist’s significance. The puzzlement of the audience impersonates that of the protagonist thereby giving way to a baffling and intense viewing experience.  

He has effectively utilized this trick in his Dunkirk (2017) too, his latest film. The film is distinguished from other films in how it utilizes time to set the stage for its viewing experience. As the movie commences, it lays out that the story is set on three-time planes. One set of characters is observed for an hour, the other over a day, and the other over the course of a week. As the film is set for only two hours, it is evident that time moves at a higher rate for some characters. The use of time in this way is not the norm for historical war movies, hence is done purposefully. Through this, the director shows that war distorts time perceptions and memory, a message that may not be effectively conceived in a straightforward movie. The use of time, in this case, enables the audience to experience the events depicted the same way that people affected by war stress would have perceived them due to the dislocation imitation of scenes.

Time distortion in the movie also depicts chance as the factor governing loss or victory. Unlike other films whereby the eventual rescue is portrayed as inevitable, in Dunkirk, the characters have their different time planes converge just at the right time to ward off absolute tragedy. The time structure is therefore responsible for the film’s insight.

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The application of memory

Christopher Nolan has also been able to utilize interesting topics in various academic topics and instill them into his movies to boost their level of captivation. One of his mostly used concepts, found in psychology, is the memory. As a creative tool, he has utilized memory to show how it might direct or even generate reality. At other times, his films have portrayed how memory can get corrupted. The use of memory is related to the use of time. Just like time, humans are conditioned for the correct and in order memory. However, to mess with the audience, Nolan ensures that the memories in his films are faulty. They are characterized by characters having difficulties in recognizing how events fit into others. It is a scheme to convey a message to the audience such that they thoroughly examine facts before settling for what is real.

This is the case in Inception and Memento. For instance, in Memento (2000), Guy Pearce, the protagonist, is suffering from amnesia, a condition that renders him without short-term memory. Thereby, the perception of what is real in the protagonist and viewer’s perception is duly affected. The protagonist in Inception (2010) has the plot driven by the nature of memories that he tries to implant in someone’s subconscious.

There is an aspect of memory in almost all of Nolan’s films. For instance, in The Dark Knight Trilogy, Bruce Wayne has the memory of his parents’ death which constantly haunts him. It is also dramatically presented in Prestige, whereby the plot relies on the faulty memory of a character. The audience also has an out of order memory of the plot as they are hoodwinked to think that it was one magician doing the disappearing trick. The Interstellar also bears the theme, as it attempts to erase the memory that the Apollo missions did not happen.

The use of memory has offered an emotional narrative that represents the emotional world present in an individual’s world. This has been subtly expressed in the film, Dunkirk, whereby the memories are those of war experiences. Though it does not addresses memory directly as some of his other films have, it has reframed memories of the war to show how different types of heroism resulted in the evacuation, thereby offering a new perceptive into the historical event.

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Movies as a complex art form

Throughout his film history, Nolan has creatively driven the idea that movies should be viewed as complex art forms. Traditionally, audiences are subjected to the idea that movies are exclusively about stories. However, Nolan gives cues that this is not what he is interested in. He is engrossed in highlighting or distorting the most important bits of a film for the sake of art. His work has been greatly defined by structure, sound, and image. Rather than a story to be told that one can simply grasp by fast-forwarding through the film, Nolan’s movies have to be watched thoroughly as a work of art, otherwise, the intended meaning will be lost. This complexity has garnered his movies a lot of attention and evaluation thereby gaining popularity and critical consideration. This creativity’s experimentation is separated from the risk for failure by a blurry line as the broad audience can be sensitive to changes leading to losses. However, Nolan has pushed the boundaries carefully such that he has expounded on how films should work through providing extra aesthetics for his films.

For instance, The Interstellar was a loud film with big scores. Some of his movies have had loud explosions too that even make it hard for the audience to hear the dialogues. Nolan claims that the idea for a loud film was to make it adventurous and bold. This sets his bar higher in terms of lucidity since in his films, clarity is not achieved through dialogue only but also through emotional and story clarity. He has effectively achieved this by having his films use pictures and sound in a well-layered style. Through this, he has managed to use sound as a part of storytelling rather than simply using it to facilitate other means of story-telling hence widening his narration cues and complexity.

Moreover, the complexity of Dunkirk is attributed to factors such as being shot in multiple formats and messing with time and memory. This approach was responsible for the film’s success in gaining a hundred and twenty percent of the projected amount at the box office. The movie grounded the fact that Nolan’s creativity is responsible for entertainment and opening new grounds on what a film should be. Also, he has effectively used the sound technique in the film for complexity purposes. The dialogue in the film cannot be heard clearly due to the flying planes, firing guns, and explosions in the vicinity. Though not traditional, that is the way an actual battle ground is like, a stance that has not been experimented in many films but has proved to be fruitful in his expedition.

Ethics and philosophy

Nolan seems to have realized that ethics are a very sensitive topic of humanity and they are likely to draw debate universally. He has therefore creatively threaded his story lines with the consideration of morality. For instance, Memento is not just a story about a man suffering from amnesia but a depiction of revenge’s morality. Secondly, The Dark Knight does not simply depict Batman, the comic book villain, but tries to weigh the difference between vigilantism and random violence. Prestige (2006) is not only simply a tragedy of magicians but a film on class warfare between the two scientists, science vs. magic, obsession, and rivalry. Additionally, Dunkirk (2017) does not only portray war, it evaluates the cost of winning a war and the human stress that is associated with it.

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Conclusion (Personal reflection on Christopher Nolan’s work)

Christopher Nolan, through his creativity, has successfully created a unique and unmatched brand that has a cult following throughout the world characterized by high grossing movies. Christopher Nolan movies are puzzles that hope to be solved by the audience. Such is the collection that he has produced through his cinematic work from his first film to the last one. He has carefully utilized creative tools ranging from philosophy dilemmas such ethics and time, and reality perception in terms of psychological concepts such as memory. Additionally, he has been industriously improved his art through complexity induction, modification of popular and familiar genres, and utilization of hidden enigmas. More thought-provoking is the fact that he has been able to maintain these traits in almost all of his movies. Throughout his career, he has had his individual films gradually soar to the present level, by carefully and correctly utilizing these aspects. The director has remarkably managed to produce different movies that have similarities, consistencies, and shared themes and motifs. Though the difference between his earlier films and his recent one is very huge considering the allocated budgets, authorial reputation, and special effects, he has managed to maintain a popular brand with the similar attributes and aesthetics value. The audience is still bound and struck by the presence of his early visions, despite the long period between his debut and his latest film. Christopher Nolan has also been able to creatively maintain his characteristic logical rigor, sternly unbending method, narrative styles, and a dedication to solemn play as is evident throughout his films.

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  1. Edelstein, David. “‘Dunkirk’ Is A Harrowing War Movie, Muddled By A Convoluted Timeline.” NPR. July 21, 2017. 
  2. Furby, Jacqueline, and Stuart Joy, eds. The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible. Columbia University Press, 2015.
  3. Joy, S. Time, Memory & Identity: The Films of Christopher Nolan. GRIN Verlag, 2012.
  4. Lowenstein, A. Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media. Columbia University Press, 2015. 
  5. Popp, H. A. Discovering the creative impulse: a study in the interrelated arts. Bloomington: West Bow Press, 2014. 
  6. WBUR. “Dunkirk’ Is Christopher Nolan’s Most Impressive Film … .”. 
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