If you ask any cinema studies major about the greatest filmmakers of the past 20 years, you’d probably receive a laundry list of about 15 names: David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Darren Aronosfky, the Coen Brothers, Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson, the Dardenne Brothers, Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle—among others. One name, though, that no one can deny has had an omnipresent influence on film since 2000 (like it or not), is Christopher Nolan. The director of Memento, the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, and last month’s Dunkirk has enjoyed immense success and critical acclaim from the very start of his career. Many exalt him as the populist “great” director of the new millennium, and four of his movies are in IMDb’s top 50 films. How has Nolan managed to go from making small indie movies to some of the most expensive films of all time, become a critical darling, and churn out populist hit after populist hit? In short: what’s the hype?
Let’s start with his most recent work. Dunkirk, Nolan’s film about the eponymous World War II evacuation, was released in July to universal acclaim. This is definitely one of Nolan’s more restrained films (it clocks in at under two hours, a rarity for him), and one of his most straightforward. This is a huge departure from the complex puzzle–box–plot structures that Nolan usually employs; the enigmatic twists and esoteric elements present in many Nolan films are what keep them in the public conversation. People still talk about whether or not Leo was dreaming at the end of Inception, how plot points in Memento all come together, and what exactly was going on in The Prestige. Nolan’s labyrinthine films make casual moviegoers feel as if they’re uncovering a mystery, or tackling cinematic concepts that seem much more complex than they actually are. This explains the aforementioned adoration: his movies are the one’s that a group of stoner college guys will talk about for hours on end because the film is just “so deep.” In fact, the films aren’t deep—they’re rather shallow. Take a look at Interstellar, a film in which Nolan brushes off a variety of plot holes and has Anne Hathaway utter the inexcusably cheesy line, “Love is the one thing that transcends dimensions of time and space.” At their best, his films redefine genres; at their worst, they thrive on pseudo–intelligent premises and the idea that if he throws enough nonsensical plot elements at the audience, eventually they’ll go along with it.
Now, while it may seem apparent that I’m of the opinion that Nolan’s work is a tad overpraised, let’s shift over to the positives. Nolan has undoubtedly shaped popular filmmaking over the past decade. His dark, gritty take on the Batman franchise eschewed the genre’s conventional bright colors and campy tone, ushering in an age of dark, adult superhero movies that dominate the box office to this day. His marketing for Inception birthed that famous deep sonic boom that is omnipresent in today’s movie trailers. Despite my qualms with some of his films, his production design and cinematography is always top tier, and he creates visuals that we simply don’t see in other movies (a folding city block in Inception, a towering planet–wide tidal wave in Interstellar). He is perhaps the most adept modern director in regards to meeting at the crossroads between the intellectual and the commercial.
So where does this leave us? Though Nolan is certainly polarizing, one thing that everyone can agree on is that his films are events. And as film lovers, a director who forces his movies to the forefront of the pop culture mainstream is someone we should always root for. Whether his movies are successes or failures, he always GOES for it, and that’s something to respect.