Beyond Batman: Christopher Nolan Really Is Hollywood’s Best New Talent

He makes smart, thought-provoking blockbusters — and he does it so well

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Director Christopher Nolan arrives at a Warner Bros. Pictures presentation to promote his upcoming movie, "The Dark Knight Rises" at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, April 24, 2012 in Las Vegas

What, exactly, do you want from a summer blockbuster? That’s the question that came to mind reading Lev Grossman’s commentary on Christopher Nolan’s movies, because I found myself agreeing with almost everything he says, and yet somehow, I fall on the opposite end of the like/dislike spectrum when it comes to the Dark Knight director.

I’d be the first to agree, for example, that Nolan’s movies seem overlong, especially The Dark Knight; anyone who knows me will be familiar with my twin theories that that particular movie is roughly two days long and is actually both the second and third parts of a trilogy that someone accidentally forgot to split in two before sending to theaters. (Part of the joy of that theory, for me, is imagining Nolan at the premiere, watching as Two-Face appears, realizing the mistake and thinking “Great, now I have to come up with another final chapter.”) Inception, too, seemed a particularly lengthy movie that lead to the continual expectation of “Okay, so this is the end, right? No, wait, this…” The repeated inability to actually end is, to me, the greatest flaw of Nolan’s work — that his ambition can sometimes overpower his narratives, forcing him to get tangled up in overly complicated explanations en route to whatever endpoint he’d originally planned to reach.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Dark Knight Rises: To the Depths, to the Heights)

I’d also admit that Nolan’s characters tend to have motivations that range from “unclear” to “downright ridiculous,” but part of me recoils from that as a reason to dislike the movies, as strange as that sounds. After all, the writing is consistently the weakest part of any Nolan production — not just motivations, but dialogue as well, or any scene that requires something other than pure plot manipulation — but I find myself thinking, who goes to see a Christopher Nolan movie for the story? every time I go near this particular criticism. In all of Nolan’s movies, the lure has never been the words, but his particular combination of words and ideas. Inception is a great movie, for example, but think about what people remember about it. It’s not the core narrative about Cobb recovering from the loss of his wife while self-sabotaging in a realm where that can literally be deadly, but the ideas and images that dress up that story: the ability to push lucid dreaming in other people’s dreams, the questioning of reality, the folding city and the spinning top.

The same emphasis on ideas and images over writing is true of The Dark Knight — although there, Heath Ledger’s performance really gives what should be terrible dialogue a wonderful edge — and arguably in Nolan’s other movies, each of which contains at least one sizable plot hole, but just as many moments of breathtaking imagery. (The one thing that everyone remembers from Memento, for example, is Guy Pierce’s annotated anatomy, rather than what the movie was ostensibly about.) What sticks with us are singular, amazing images and the concepts that shaped them. That’s what makes or breaks a Christopher Nolan movie, more than anything else.

(That said, Nolan has a tendency to get very watchable performances from the majority of actors he works with. He managed to make Leonardo DiCaprio watchable — I didn’t even want to make jokes about him looking like a brussel sprout with stubble, for the love of God. That takes some doing. With the possible exception of Christian Bale’s Batman — whose attempt at a threatening whisper remains a particularly amusing highpoint of superhero moviedom, if admittedly for the wrong reasons — Nolan consistently manages to bring a likable, charming, yet entirely professional presence to the men and women appearing in his films. So maybe I should add “he’s an actor’s director” to my list of his good points.)

(MORE: Is Hollywood Going to Kill Batman Next Week?)

For me, a lot of Nolan’s appeal rests in the fact that his movies are the summer blockbuster formula (i.e. name actors + eye candy + high concept = profit) done right. Or, perhaps, done differently enough from the norm that they’re compelling and interesting for that very reason, no matter what may be wrong within each one. Movie after movie, everything from Memento on, has managed to give the audience everything it demands from a summer blockbuster, but in a different way from which they’re used to receiving it; imagine the difference between a McDonalds burger and, I don’t know, a Zuni burger or something. Both do the same thing, but one just does it… I was going to write “better,” but I really just mean “differently.”

The McDonalds burger in this confused metaphor is Michael Bay, for his sins. For me, Bay’s Transformers: Dark of The Moon is some kind of magical manifestation of the perfected generic summer blockbuster. (Before you scoff, consider the visual bombast and sensory overload he brings to that movie, the familiar faces in background roles, simple plots that refuse to make any narrative sense beyond “and then this happened” and unspeakably banal rock songs playing over the end titles that makes you wonder whether or not you’ve accidentally slipped back to 1994.) Bay is the figurehead of a movie movement whose acolytes include Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon. There’s nothing wrong with this version of things at all — Who didn’t like Avengers, after all? — but it’s the same kind of thing that we get from countless movies, and it’s an easy option; you just sit there and get passively entertained by all the pretty colors, quips and obvious big moments. Sometimes, its nice to have something else.

(PHOTOSDark Knight Rides: The Complete History of the Batmobile)

This is where Nolan gets major points from me. It’s not just that his movies look amazing or have great performances or smart and/or interesting ideas behind them; I find the fact that he continually subverts the expectations of the summer blockbuster quasi-genre to be something worth not only pointing out, but applauding. It would be easy — and safe, which is something that shouldn’t be ignored when dealing with something as ridiculously expensive and risky as the Batman movie franchise or the $160,000,000 it took to make Inception — to follow the herd, but Nolan continually does his own thing, thankfully finding critical and financial success in the process. That’s kind of wonderful to me, and even if that’s all Nolan had going for him, that would earn him a pass for any flat action sequences that he’s produced. That he does that with movies that are smart, thought-provoking and repeatedly beautiful, earns him a lot more. Nolan’s movies aren’t perfect — Whose are? — but they consistently go outside of the norm in ways that are ambitious both for the director and the audience, and I will always appreciate them for that, and want to see what he’s going to so next.

Plus, seriously: How can you dislike the movies of a director who has seemingly made it his mission in life to keep Michael Caine in work? For shame, Lev.

COUNTERPOINT: Lev Grossman doesn’t really like Christopher Nolan’s movies all that much

13 comments
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JohnOBX
JohnOBX

Having finally seen the Dark Knight, I could not disagree more with the talent assessment.  You don't allow gaping plot holes to remain in your movie if you've got "talent". 

David Posner
David Posner

First: Nolan a "new talent?"  He has been making films for about twelve years now, hardly "new" at this game.

Second: To call Joss Whedon an "acolyte" of Michael Bay is going to be deeply offensive to pretty much every Whedon fan who have been following his career since he wrote "Toy Story"  (you do know he wrote the original Toy Story, don't you??)  and, of course, his creations of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly."  Whedon is first and foremost a writer, and most famous for the quality of his writing which have earned him Oscar and Emmy nominations, and a special Emmy award for his great web series "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

How many serious awards has Michael Bay ever been nominated for, much less won?

Wallace
Wallace

Holy backhanded compliment, Batman! Nolan is not a new talent.  Memento, which was a Big Breakout Movie even back then, is twelve years old. Batman Begins, which was a Bigger Breakout Movie, seven years. Nolan is so established they let him make Inception.

Also, Joss Whedon is a Michael Bay disciple now? First of all, Whedon is older than Bay, and Michael Bay's first Michael Bay movie, Armageddon, came out after Whedon made a name for himself in television. Second, the name Joss Whedon made for himself in the late nineties was specifically for what you credit Nolan with: subverting the expectations of genre (Whedon's Cabin in the Woods, which came out this year, is basically a dissertation on horror movies), while still telling entertaining stories. While the Avengers was a less subversive film than Cabin in the Woods, it had about as much as any Nolan film to say about contemporary totalitarian anxieties, it just did so more quietly and with fewer characters pondering totalitarianism in dark rooms. And the Avengers, as with most of Whedon's work, demonstrated an exponentially greater compassion for character than any of Michael Bay's Michael Bay movies, or any of Nolan's work except maybe Memento. Yikes.

raidz3ro
raidz3ro

I'm simply looking forward to this last instalment of the Dark Knight series.  The other two were great and I'm sure this one will be entertaining as well.  Have to remember to bring my movie catheter for this one though!

atlanta_guy_1
atlanta_guy_1

So this is TIME's version of a counterpoint to a writer who doesn't like Nolan movies? He's embarrassed to admit that there are aspects of his movie-making that he likes, but then he does!  Wow, what courage.  Nolan, is.. surprising, at least as far a blockbusters go.  Big praise there.   Oh, and he took apparently an odd-looking and B-rate actor, Decaprio, and made him 'watchable.'  I'm sold!   This is less an opinion article than an attempt to make a point to his friend Lev without upsetting him.  Too long for me!

WhatTheFlux
WhatTheFlux

"Inception" sucked, but DeCaprio is no B-rate actor. See "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" He may not be your cup of tea, but the man can act. 

And as for odd-l00king, there's no accounting for taste, but I think there's about a billion females in this world who would strongly disagree with your assessment.

Dan Trudeau
Dan Trudeau

I really go both ways on this topic.  Though I enjoyed Memento and Insomnia, I have serious issues with The Prestige and Inception (especially the latter).  I was happy with The Prestige until the end, where he "cheated" by introducing real magic to a movie about illusion.  And for a movie that was supposed to be so trippy, I found Inception downright predictable in its plot.  I knew the second he first explained the top what the last shot of the movie would be.  Also, it wasn't so much of a story as world-building.

Alas, I think these movies suffer from dialogue that is "on the nose", where people speak the themes out loud to each other instead of having dialogue that sounds like something in the neighborhood of real people speaking.

That said, none of these things seem to bother me in his Batman films.  It might be because no matter how real they are, we're talking about a world where characters wearing themes on their sleeves is a given (Batman has to overcome his fear so he dresses like the thing he's most scared of).  Accepting the reality of that world, the quirks that drive me nuts in his other films become tolerable, even enjoyable.  I think part of that is also because I think he's dead-on with what the themes of his Batman stories are and that makes all the difference.  Superheroes are walking metaphors and understanding what they represent is a huge part of getting them right.  It's a big part of where he's gone right and Bryan Singer went wrong.

Dan Trudeau
Dan Trudeau

I know the introduction of "real magic" was alluded to previously but it still feels like a wrong turn for me.  As it's a much-loved movie, it obviously didn't feel that way for others.  I think it's a case of different viewers wanting something different out of the experience.

In terms of Inception, I do think unpredictability has a place in thrillers like this.  Their enjoyment is supposed to be in not knowing what will happen next either from a plot or character perspective.  The movie left me very unsatisfied because I felt the film spent all of its energy on building a concept I didn't find as interesting as other people, leaving me with shallow characters and a plot I knew the beats of ahead of time.

That said, I'm actually still happy Inception was a success, as it proved there is an audience hungry for original, non-franchise genre movies.  Kudos to Nolan for using his Batman mojo to make this happen, even if I didn't love the end result.

David Posner
David Posner

It's hard to say he "cheated" by introducing real magic late in the film when in the second scene of the movie we are told by Michael Cain's character that the machine was real and made real "magic" (or is it technology) happen.  It's set up from the beginning, but you have to pay attention.

Also, even if it was a "cheat," it's hard to blame Nolan when you consider he was adapting Christopher Priest's novel which contained the magic as well.

msteel271
msteel271

I don't think Inception was meant to be unpredictable, necessarily. Great endings need to feel inevitable to be satisfying (even twist endings, which I agree this was not).  World-building more than story -- yeah, you're right about that.

Regarding The Prestige: I think it's my favorite of his movies. I've heard the complaint about introducing real magic into the story before, but it never bothered me.

For one thing, they introduced it well before the end of the film (and even alluded to it in the very first shot of the movie -- all the identical top hats lying on the ground).  So the ending wasn't "surprise -- magic is real!" at all.

In fact, the big twist of the ending (regarding Bale's character) had nothing to do with magic.  Magic was just an element of the Hugh Jackman storyline -- what happens when a magician desperate for a great trick stumbles upon the real thing?  I thought the whole movie was fascinating.

WhatTheFlux
WhatTheFlux

Fully half the dialogue in "Inception" was one character telling another character what was going on. That's bad movie-making. It should have been a novel. 

And don't get me started about an SUV full of assassins wielding assault rifles who can't hit the broad side of a van, while the van's nebbish driver is a sharpshooter with a handgun...

msteel271
msteel271

Movies that create a big world with complicated rules need a lot of exposition.  Nolan managed it better than most would have.  Now, you can make the argument that the film had no subtext...beyond the obvious "what is real" questions...but it was clearly more interested in constructing its fun house.

sean1966
sean1966

Umm...I liked this article, especially concerning Bay. I think God may have a special place lined up in Hell for bad filmmakers. Bay and his pal Ben Affleck will feel right at home.

But how is Chris Nolan Hollywood's best 'new' talent? Batman Begins - which I think put him on everyone's radar - is seven years old.

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