I just want to start by saying that writing this post was not my idea.
A couple of weeks ago I casually mentioned in an e-mail to my editor that yes, absolutely, they’re fine, but I’ve never really liked Christopher Nolan’s movies all that much. She was so pleased to have discovered that she had such an outlier on her staff that she insisted I write a post about it. Expressing, as it were, my feelings.
I explained that on the Internet writing such a post is referred to as “suicide.” By way of an incentive she aimed a rogue Soviet-era nuke at a basket of fluffy baby chinchillas and told me she wasn’t afraid to use it. And here we are. I’m doing it for the chinchillas.
But I want to be clear: this isn’t a troll. And I’m not saying Nolan’s movies are bad. I’m just going to explain why I, for whatever crazy reasons, don’t happen to enjoy them that much.
Though yeah, for a guy who claims not to like Nolan’s movies, I’ve seen a fair number of them. I’ve seen Memento. I skipped Insomnia and The Prestige but watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. (Caveat: I watched them on planes, so viewing conditions weren’t ideal.) I saw Inception.
Why did I watch them? I watched them because Nolan’s pictures look gorgeous. That cool blue-steel color palette. The iconically composed frames. The effortlessly integrated CGI. His soundtracks are great. His movies look and sound—from a distance—like exactly the kinds of movies I like. They practically smell good.
And also—obviously—he’s ridiculously smart. He has incredible ideas for movies. They are genuinely original and weird. As somebody who tinkers with plots in his spare time, I remember watching Inception with the certain knowledge that I would die without having come up with a premise anywhere near that good. If I had a lot of money and somebody came to me pitching those movies, I would say, yes, make those movies. Here, take my money. Take it all.
So what is my damn problem with Nolan’s movies?
First, and least important, is that I can’t watch his fight scenes. For such an unconventional thinker he has a weirdly ultra-conventional way of shooting them. As soon as the action starts he immediately moves his camera in slightly too close and starts jump-cutting every few seconds, as though to make absolutely sure you have no idea where anybody is in relation to anybody else, and how one move leads into the next, so there’s no possibility that you’ll become excited about what you’re watching. I just want to see people hitting each other! Is that so wrong? (There are exceptions—like a few bits of the justly famous zero-grav fight scene in Inception. Just not enough of them for me.)
Second, there’s something funny about how his movies are set up structurally that I can’t quite hang with. They always seem to have a few extra acts tacked on to them at the end. (Major spoilers for The Dark Knight and Inception follow.) Take the plot of The Dark Knight. I felt like it ended at least three times: after Dent becomes Two-Face; after the Joker gets arrested; and then again after Batman defeates Two-Face. Because I am old and have a short attention span, my mind was wandering by about the two-hour mark. Yes: Heath Ledger’s Joker is the best piece of character-acting of the decade. I’m completely there (though I wouldn’t compare him to Milton’s Satan). But for me there was just too much plot for one movie.
The third thing is the way Nolan puts his characters together, emotionally. His movies are incredibly sophisticated in almost every respect, but there’s something about the way he handles human psychology that feels a bit too simple or literal to me. It irks me. Irks I say.
For example: Batman has a bat-phobia because he fell down a well full of bats. Now I—like a lot of people—have a phobia, and in my (admittedly personal) experience that’s not how phobias work. You get scared, and then what scared you gets twisted around in your subconscious (where things that are too scary to face consciously go) and comes out as something so weird that even you aren’t sure where it comes from. The line between cause and effect isn’t that straight.
Likewise one of Nolan’s tics as a plotter is forcing people into making impossible decisions or shocking choices. Like in The Dark Knight, when Batman has to choose between saving Rachel or Dent, or the people on the ferries have to choose whether to blow each other up, or when Dent chooses to waive off the reconstructive surgery. Often this works well, but it’s a chancy game for a storyteller, because—as any psychotherapist will tell you—it’s actually pretty rare for life to boil down to just two options, and Nolan has to kind of play with reality a bit to make it look like it does. Like Dent refusing the surgery…I guess the reason is that he’s mad-I-tell-you-mad (but sane enough that he’s not declared incompetent). But would somebody really do that? And be allowed to? Likewise at the end Batman chooses to not reveal that Dent had turned into Two-Face, and we’re all whoa! He sacrificed himself. But why? Because the city would descend into chaos if we all found out that Dent was bad guy? Because everybody in the city is eight years old and can’t handle reality? It just didn’t ring true to me. Or true enough anyway.
Likewise in Inception Cobb’s wife Mal kills herself and frames her husband for her death to force him to kill himself, so they can be together, whereupon he flees the country, abandoning their children. It’s not that I don’t believe it could be done in real life. Mal sets it up very very neatly, with all the evidence and so on. It’s just that it’s the kind of thing people don’t tend to actually do in real life. They only do things like that in movies. It didn’t feel real to me, it’s just a little too neat and clever. And without that as the emotional engine driving the plot, the rest of the movie felt a bit lifeless to me. Gorgeous, but weightless and a bit unsatisfying. Like (ironically) somebody else’s dream.
(I haven’t given up on the possibility that the whole movie was dreamed by somebody apparently ancillary to the main plot, like maybe one of Cobb’s traumatized children.)
Even the way Nolan sets up the idea that Batman and the Joker are on some level fundamentally the same. I get it—but at the same time it feels just a little bit thin and abstract. Like you could write a philosophy paper about it, definitely, but as the moral crux of the film… I mean, they’re not that similar. The Joker is a nihilistic would-be mass-murderer. Batman is a vigilante who punches bad guys. I am not convinced that there is no distinction there. Or at least, there’s enough of a distinction there that I didn’t feel as agonized as I felt like I was supposed to feel.
I’ll stop, I’ll stop. I’m starting to sound like an asshole even to myself. I realize that these are movies, and that this is how movie-plots work. But the thing is: everything else about Nolan’s movies screams intelligence and sophistication. They are intelligent and sophisticated. There are so many perfect moments in his movies—the Joker’s bank heist in The Dark Knight; Mal’s first appearance in Inception—that I feel bummed out when things start to go thud. It’s like he’s so close, but something’s slightly off in that last decimal place…it’s frustrating.
To me anyway. YMMV.
Maybe I should’ve just let her take out those chinchillas after all.
COUNTERPOINT: Graeme McMillan is a Christopher Nolan fan