Definitive Works: Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk
Some 19 years ago, on the set of Insomnia, Al Pacino declared to one of the movie’s producers, Steven Soderbergh, “At some point in the very near future I’m going to be very proud to say I was in a Christopher Nolan movie.” Insomnia was, of course, only the director’s second feature film. In the waning days of 2019, on the eve of his eleventh set to be released next summer, “a Christopher Nolan movie” is, as Al predicted, an Event. But as franchise filmmaking dominates the mainstream theater-going experience, Nolan’s filmography isn’t just a treasure trove—it’s a blueprint.
At the tail end of the aughts, Christopher Nolan’s long con on the studio system was almost complete. He’d just released The Dark Knight, a new gold standard for the superhero genre; this decade would open with Inception, arguably his most popular non-Batman movie to date (and financially the most successful). At the time, Nolan was employing a one-for-them, one-for-me release strategy, alternating one original film (directed by him and typically co-written with brother Jonah) in between entries in his Bat-trilogy. When that concluded in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises, the Hollywood blockbuster machine was his oyster: Christian Bale recently revealed the studio did indeed solicit the duo on returning for a fourth Bat-film, before attempting to hand Nolan another beloved DC Comics property in Superman. (Nolan ultimately opted for producer and story credit on Man of Steel). Rumors of an appointment to the Bond franchise swirled, but nothing ever materialized. Instead, Christopher did what few in his position have the restraint and clarity of vision to do: gracefully bow out.
Of the franchise system, that is. Nolan took on Insomnia, the only feature of his that doesn’t bear his writing credit, to prove to a studio he could handle a big production and be trusted with, say, revitalizing a marquee comic book character. He took Batman to prove he could play in the big leagues, and be trusted with, say, riskier ideas like a heady yarn about dueling Victorian magicians or a high-concept dreamscape heist movie. And once Batman reached an organic conclusion, Chris took the clout he’d accrued through it and cashed it in. He hasn’t written or directed anything relating to a franchise or some pre-existing IP since. Why play in someone else’s sandbox with Bond when he can cast Leo as a man capable of mentally building his own, in a movie that boasts all the globe-trotting action hallmarks of a #007 adventure, but set within a universe free of franchise confines and fan expectations. Inception was a long-gestating script that toiled in his desk drawer for years; the 2014 Spielbergian space family drama Interstellar fulfilled some of his earliest childhood ambitions; 2017’s Dunkirk is an Englishman’s ode to a slice of WWII only his countryman previously gave due credit to. It was nominated for Best Picture. While vaults of intellectual property were plumbed and DC blew all of the goodwill he earned them in a silver screen arms race with Marvel that was dead on arrival, Christopher Nolan made passion project after passion project—each of them crossing half a billion or more worldwide.
At press time, under eight months away from release, his next film Tenet has no synopsis—it barely has a teaser trailer save a maddeningly opaque 40-second teaser that doesn’t exist online and only ran with IMAX screenings of Hobbs & Shaw or Joker. It is, at least, a top 10 anticipated release of the year. The auteur director still exists, sure, but they’re usually making indie and/or awards-bait fare. The blockbuster director still exists, but in majority service to Star Wars, the MCU, the DCEU, Bond, Mission: Impossible, etc. Christopher Nolan is, quite simply, the only director in his peer group whose name alone is putting asses in sold-out IMAX seats. He’s the compromise where Marvel stans and film bros meet, in the middle of the summer, to watch things explode beautifully and have something to analyze after. He is an anachronism, a creator who used established brands to make himself into one, a rare breed still eliciting trust and (hefty budgets) from a major studio to tell a brand new story. He’s Bruce Wayne in Italy, freed from the grind and living on his own terms.
As the franchise system continues to co-opt emerging, idiosyncratic talent in service of furthering the company vision, his is a path I hope others follow. I watch a film like Knives Out, which feels like a collective exhale from Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and his cast that includes an off-duty James Bond, retired Captain America and Michael Myers-less Laurie Strode and hope Nolan is something like a North Star for a way forward and out. Less Star Wars, more Loopers. Because for this decade and the foreseeable future, Chris Nolan has been living the dream—and the top is still spinning. —Frazier Tharpe