Analysis – Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk and prioritising puzzles over people

The following article contains spoilers for many of Christopher Nolan’s movies, including Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception and The Prestige.

Christopher Nolan is one of Britain's most celebrated filmmakers
Christopher Nolan is one of Britain’s most celebrated filmmakers (Photo: Ninha Morandini)

Christopher Nolan “seems rather uncomfortable with the vagaries of real human emotion”, according to Time Out. Meanwhile, What Culture says his films are “cold and clinical”. Esquire says Nolan’s filmography “reaffirms that success should be valued above all and that emotional attachment only ever gets in the way”. On this very site, in fact, we have described him as “a tin man without a heart”.

Whatever films Christopher Nolan has made, he is almost always criticised for being a filmmaker who lacks human connection and an ability to create emotion in his movies. He is seen as a filmmaker who is immensely proficient in the craft of making movies, but not one who understands how to convey humanity on the big screen. Nolan himself weighed into the debate in an interview with Playboy to promote this year’s wildly successful war blockbuster Dunkirk.

I try not to be obvious about it. That gives people a little more freedom to interpret the movies their way, bring what they want to it. I’ve had people write about my films as being emotionless, yet I have screened those same movies and people have been in floods of tears at the end. It’s an impossible contradiction for a filmmaker to resolve. In truth, it’s one of the things that is really exciting about filmmaking though. I seem to be making films that serve as Rorschach tests.

Nolan might not be very good at people, but he is good at puzzles. His movies beg the audience to think, to question and ultimately to solve. Memento is a whodunnit with a time-bending twist and The Prestige draws its audience in with a compelling central mystery. More recently, Inception and Interstellar are both films that operate across multiple frames of reality, while Dunkirk weaves together three separate timelines at once in an attempt to maximise the disorientating tension of a Second World War disaster. His films are less about the human experience and more about pushing the limits of big screen narrative.

But does that make his films better? Is Nolan missing a crucial ingredient of what makes cinema work?


Taking the people out of the war

Fionn Whitehead plays a soldier stranded on a French beach in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
Fionn Whitehead plays a soldier stranded on a French beach in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a hugely successful cinematic achievement that takes the horror of military conflict and thrusts the audience right into the heart of that madness. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are able to put enormous IMAX cameras where they have never been before, crafting a truly immense spectacle. The film is also structurally audacious, with the story unfolding over three different timeframes – a week for the soldiers stranded on the beaches, a day for civilian boats sailing across the Channel and an hour for fighter pilots engaged in an aerial dogfight.

The one thing notably absent from Dunkirk is characters. This is a film in which very few characters are named on screen, with almost all of the soldiers appearing as part of a nameless mass of humanity. This is an especially bizarre choice given the story’s inherent need to focus on the human aspect of the situation. With his non-linear approach to the material, however, Nolan gets in the way of his own emotion and makes it tougher to follow the character side of the story as it moves towards its climax. The film’s most nakedly emotional plot development – the death of teenage sailor George – is revealed in a throwaway line in the heart of a finale that rapidly cuts between its multiple timelines.

Even the arrival of the civilian boats in the final scenes of Dunkirk, which should be an enormous emotional climax, instead feels like something Nolan has no idea how to handle. For a film that is so assured and confident for more than an hour, there’s a real cheesiness to this moment. Like so many of the emotional missteps in Dunkirk, it falls to a hideously mistreated Kenneth Branagh to attempt to bring his Shakespearean gravitas to what should be a surging moment of cathartic joy, but instead feels like a pesky necessity for Nolan to get past before he can spin his camera around a Spitfire cockpit again.

As impressive as Dunkirk is on a technical level, it ultimately ends up feeling like a film about the idea of the Dunkirk evacuation rather than the reality of it. Like many of Nolan’s works, it’s more of an experiment with the cinematic medium than it is a human story.


People are a puzzle

Marion Cotillard and Leonardo DiCaprio played an estranged couple in Inception
Marion Cotillard and Leonardo DiCaprio played an estranged couple in Inception

Christopher Nolan’s movies have a deeply unusual relationship with emotion. A common theme, even in his most outwardly emotional movies, is the conversion of people themselves into puzzles for the film and its audience to solve. Nowhere is this more true than in the relationship between Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mal (Marion Cotillard) in Inception – perhaps Nolan’s most widely admired film. They are simultaneously the emotional ‘beating heart’ of the film and also the epicentre of its celebrated puzzle box structure.

We learn very little about Mal during the course of Inception. In many ways, she isn’t even a character, but actually the embodiment of the threat posed by repeated excursions into the world of dreams. We first meet Mal as an invasive projection in a dream scene and she very quickly becomes more puzzle than human being as she is defined by her belief that it’s reality that is in fact the dream, while DiCaprio fights to keep his beloved wife in the real world. Inception is a film where we learn very little about the actual characters. They simply exist as vessels and pieces to be moved around the board in order to satisfy Nolan’s mystery box approach to making movies.

The same is true of The Prestige, in which Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play characters driven entirely by their battle of magical one-upmanship. Their constant attempts to undermine, sabotage and best each other exist in parallel to their romantic and familial issues, though it’s clear which element of the story has Nolan’s interest. In this case, the emotion is a tool to expand and enrich the mystery.

Indeed, Bale’s tumultuous romantic relationships with his wife (Rebecca Hall) and mistress (Scarlett Johansson) are a crucial ingredient in the final reveal that Bale has a twin and that he has essentially been two people sharing a single life. Both of the female characters in this particular equation seem to exist almost entirely as puzzle pieces rather than fully-rounded human beings. We focus on the single-minded men and get a glimpse of their inner selves, but even they soon become enigmas of their own.

Christian Bale’s characters in this film are the perfect essence of the Nolan formula. Alfred Borden and his twin have entirely sacrificed the chance to live individual lives in pursuit of the best possible art. They are so devoted to the puzzle of their tricks that they’re prepared to move away from everything personal in their lives in order to fool everybody. In Nolan’s world, Borden is almost an ideal. He beats Angier and survives the movie’s finale because of his devotion to puzzles and illusions above all else. Angier’s solution – the best way to convince everyone of magic is by actually achieving magic – is the opposite of the smoke and mirrors that Nolan loves. Bale is willing to abandon humanity to become a puzzle. That’s a dream for Nolan.


An approximation of love

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey went in search of a new home in epic sci-fi Interstellar
Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey went in search of a new home in epic sci-fi Interstellar

In 2014, Nolan attempted Spielbergian, emotional sci-fi with Interstellar. The result is a film that many absolutely adored, but left me feeling cold, frustrated and resolutely unmoved. It’s a film that, on the face of it, appears to have love at its centre, but absolutely stumbles when that element is brought to the surface. In fact, the film just proves to be another example of how Nolan likes to treat human emotions as if they’re a puzzle to be solved.

The film’s plot is incredibly complex and utterly nonsensical, so I’m not even going to attempt to paraphrase here.* At the centre of it all, though, is the notion that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) initiated the whole film’s plot by virtue of dropping hints and sending messages from within a black hole at the end of the story.

Essentially, it was his love for his daughter that enabled him to send these crucial hints and, therefore, save the human race. It’s the sort of hogwash that would have be the resolution of a particularly crappy episode of Doctor Who and, once again, it sees emotion treated as a cog in the solution of a mystery, rather than as an essential ingredient of humanity.

For a film that is so nominally driven by questions around what love means, Interstellar is ham-fisted with its depictions of humanity. Characters talk about love in a way that no human being ever would. Take, for example, this speech from Anne Hathaway‘s character, who is aboard a spaceship with Cooper.

Maybe [love] means something more – something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.

This is a prime example of the Nolan problem manifesting itself. He wrote the script with his brother Jonathan and it often feels like the siblings are reaching for Spielbergian wonder and the kind of sentimentality that seems to come easily to the man behind E.T. They are, however, unable to prevent themselves writing the very notion of love into the puzzle box of the narrative. This isn’t love that exists as a natural part of humanity. It’s love as plot utility.


An automaton with no heart?

James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk
James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk

Interstellar is yet another example of Nolan’s central ethos. In order to understand the way emotion works, he transforms the idea into a puzzle to be solved. In films like The Prestige and Inception, this idea works and creates a compelling narrative, even if it is ultimately rather unsatisfying on an emotional level. The same is true of Dunkirk, which is so remarkable in its visual style and time-bending structure that it gets away with an almost complete lack of development in its characters.

Nolan is clearly a filmmaker for whom emotion doesn’t sit particularly well. However, when he is capable of technical mastery that is the envy of almost every other director Hollywood, it’s certainly not holding him back from success with the critics and at the box office. That said, though, there is a sense that his lack of connection with the emotion of his characters is preventing him from creating a genuine masterpiece that will go on to define his career.


What do you think about Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker? Is he capable of bringing emotion into his work and does it matter whether he can do so or not? Let me know in the comments section.

* There’s a comprehensive explanation of what the hell Interstellar is all about over at Empire.

One thought on “Analysis – Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk and prioritising puzzles over people

  • 10/09/2017 at 20:13

    Interstellar is the only film from the past ten years that has really brought me to tears. I think Nolan has a way of connecting to certain types of people. Those who do not feel emotion from his films are probably the ones lacking in emotion.


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