Spoiler warning: This essay digs deeply into Christopher Nolan’s films, including end details for Interstellar, The Prestige, and others. Proceed with due caution.
Informed by Boswell that Bishop George Berkeley had proposed a theory stating that matter doesn’t actually exist—that so-called objects in the world, and indeed, “the world” itself, are merely ideas perceived by human minds—Samuel Johnson famously kicked a large stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!” While that isn’t a particularly cogent argument, it does have a gratifying no-bullshit directness. I like to imagine a formal debate in which Berkeley repeatedly waxes eloquent for several minutes, and Johnson replies every single time by just silently kicking another rock. “Rebuttal, Mr. Johnson?” THUNK.
In that limited sense, Christopher Nolan is the movies’ Samuel Johnson—cinema’s foremost rock-kicker. One of the criticisms that has dogged him throughout his career is that he lacks a sense of poetry, and there’s some truth to the charge. Nothing remotely ethereal or spiritual ever finds its way into his work. There’s a reason, though: Nolan is a die-hard materialist. Underlying nearly every film he’s ever made, no matter how fanciful, is his conviction that the universe can be explained entirely by physical processes. Any suggestion that our lives are shaped by forces we can’t understand makes him break out in hives.
In Nolan’s world, even when we don’t understand what’s going on, that’s always our own doing. His second feature, Memento (2000), is a masterful study in deliberate self-delusion, though that only becomes apparent in the film’s final moments. Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from anterograde amnesia—a real condition, significantly, albeit a fairly rare one—and spends most of the movie insisting that his inability to create new memories is irrelevant, because memory is inherently unreliable. Leonard doesn’t actually haul out studies demonstrating how badly people can fool themselves, and Memento isn’t even remotely a social-issue drama, but its skeptical take on the nature of memory reflects the work of groundbreaking researchers like Elizabeth Loftus concerning the ease with which we confabulate. In the real world, dozens of innocent, loving parents and teachers wound up in jail in the 1980s and ’90s because authorities took hazy recollection as gospel. In Memento, Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy is killed when Leonard intentionally misleads himself, planting a false clue while knowing he’ll almost immediately forget having done so. Memories can’t be touched, weighed, dissected, verified. For Nolan, therefore, they aren’t to be trusted.
After taking on a remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia—the only film he’s made to date from a screenplay he had no part in writing, which may be why it doesn’t really fit the mold—Nolan joined the Hollywood-franchise big league by rebooting Batman for the big screen, eight years after Joel Schumacher decisively turned the Caped Crusader into a laughingstock. Released in 2005, Batman Begins kicked off the truly unfortunate phenomenon in which insecure fanboys started attacking anyone online who dared to suggest that Nolan might not be The One for whom so many beleaguered generations had patiently waited. The release of The Dark Knight three years later only intensified this grotesque onslaught, and by the time The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012, Nolan’s critics (more numerous, in this particular case) practically had to hire little virtual bodyguards for protection. There was even a shooting spree at one screening in Aurora, Colorado, perpetrated by a man who identified himself to police, when arrested, as the Joker.
Nolan can’t be blamed for the misbehavior of his most rabid fans, and shouldn’t. To the best of my knowledge, he’s never made any public statement that would seem to condone the bullying that’s taken place—he comes across in interviews as thoughtful and humble, with a grounded self-image. What’s ironic about all the grandstanding on his behalf, however, is that he’s by no means the savior of comic-book movies that the blowhards assume. No doubt they’re wondering which superhero he’ll tackle next. My prediction: None of them. Nolan served as a producer on Man Of Steel, and will work in an “advisory capacity” on the forthcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but Batman is likely the only superhero of any interest for him, precisely because Batman has no superpowers. Nolan made three movies about an obsessive crime-fighter whose primary attribute is the fact that he has shitloads of money. The trilogy isn’t quite that cynical—Bruce Wayne’s iron will plays an equally important role—but the emphasis throughout on technology and human frailty suggests that Nolan won’t be signing on for an X-Men sequel any time soon. Batman appealed to him because Batman is entirely self-made. Unless there are similar candidates in the Marvel or DC annals (which may be so—I’m no expert), that’s probably all she wrote.
Inception might seem at first glance to be an exception to the rule. Technically, it’s science fiction, but there’s relatively little emphasis on science; unlike Interstellar, on which noted physicist Kip Thorne served as a key consultant, Inception isn’t based on any real-world model, apart from the actual phenomenon of lucid dreaming. What’s significant here is the way Nolan depicts dreams. He’s so staunch a rationalist that the absurdity of the dream state is something he can only vaguely suggest—Inception’s nested dreams bear little resemblance to the constantly mutating, logically inexplicable narratives that actually unspool in our brains as we sleep. He’ll have characters defy gravity or inhabit a ruined landscape of the mind, but always as part of a fully coherent episode. Even lucid dreams aren’t that conventional. (I speak from experience.) A different filmmaker might have explored the common phenomenon in which you know someone in your dream is “Mom” even though she looks and behaves nothing like your mom. Nolan would rather use dreaming as a metaphor for filmmaking, and that requires him to keep things realistic. The movie ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, but all the same, everything that happens makes sense.
Interstellar, by contrast, is “hard” science fiction, with all the wooden characterization and expository dialogue of its literary counterpart (at least during the genre’s heyday, from the late 1930s through the 1950s). Predictably, numerous articles have appeared elucidating what the film gets right/wrong about inspiring overly literal-minded criticism, but Nolan is on relatively (ha!) firm ground here. Slate’s Phil Plait (who hated the movie for reasons unrelated to any scientific errors), for example, has already retracted his assertion that no planet orbiting a black hole in a way that leads to such extreme time dilation could possibly exist. From Nolan’s materialist perspective, though, the movie’s worldview is reflected in the dual revelations of the fifth-dimensional climax. One of them isn’t hard to guess, at least if you’ve read a fair bit of science fiction: The alleged ghost that moved objects in Murph’s bedroom when she was a child isn’t paranormal at all, but her father, Coop, signaling her from a location to which she has no access. Even more notably, Coop suddenly realizes, as he communicates with her, that the beings facilitating this exchange are a distant-future incarnation of the human race. Not that aliens would qualify as anti-scientific—it’s entirely possible (some would say hugely probable) that we aren’t alone in the universe. At the moment, however, there’s zero evidence of any other life form out there, so Nolan concocts a temporal loop in which humanity manages to save itself, even though that almost inevitably results in the familiar “bootstrap paradox.”
There’s also zero concrete evidence that God exists, which is the carefully buried subject of Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige. Nolan and his brother Jonathan adapted the film from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, but the brothers took an unusual amount of creative license, radically restructuring and rewriting Priest’s story to serve their own crafty ends. The basic scenario remains the same: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are dueling magicians performing in the late 19th century, with Borden getting the upper hand when he debuts a stunning illusion called “The Transported Man,” in which he appears to cross an impossible distance (closing one door and opening another) in a split second. Angier becomes obsessed with learning how Borden does it, eventually asking real-life inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to fashion an alternative version of the trick, pushing the film into science fiction.
Early in The Prestige, when the two magicians are still friendly, there’s actually a moment that echoes Samuel Johnson’s famous statement. They’ve both gone to see an elderly Chinese magician whose amazing illusions, Borden points out, are the result of an insane degree of self-discipline. In a telling moment that’s easily overlooked, Borden notes that total devotion and self-sacrifice are “the only way to escape this,” and on the word “this,” he leans over and lightly punches a nearby wall. He means the solidity of the world. This notion crops up again and again, always without undue emphasis. Michael Caine, playing the man who helps devise Angier’s act, informs a judge that magicians are “men who live by dressing up plain and sometimes brutal truths.” And when Angier, unable to work out Borden’s method, has Tesla invent a machine that duplicates him in another location, the first impresario to see it demonstrated is oddly shaken. “You’ll have to dress it up a little,” he tells Angier. “Disguise it. Give them reason to doubt it.”
The nature of “The Transported Man,” in its various renditions, is at the heart of the picture. Cutter, Caine’s character, maintains that Borden uses a double, which turns out to be the truth—he has an identical twin, who eventually goes so far as to mutilate himself to sustain the fiction that they’re only one person. Angier insists that the illusion is too “complex” to admit to such a simple solution. “You only say that because you don’t know the method,” Cutter insists. Later, after Angier gets hold of Borden’s secret and asks Cutter to read it first, Cutter says again “I already know how he does it, Robert. The same way he always does; the same way that we do.” (This is prior to Tesla’s contraption, when Angier is using a drunken lookalike.) “It’s just that… you want something more.” This conversation deliberately echoes the debate between proponents of Intelligent Design, who insist that aspects of nature are too complex to admit a purely naturalistic explanation, and the evolutionary establishment, which can often only reply to specific attacks, pending further research, with some variation on “You only say that because you don’t know the method.” People who refuse to believe in evolution desperately want there to be something more. The Prestige, even as it turns Tesla into a sci-fi wizard, is firmly resolute that there is not.
One more relevant snippet of dialogue, spoken by Angier to Borden in the final scene:
“You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. And miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second… then you can make them wonder.”
That’s an incredibly bleak worldview, and materialists are frequently asked how they can be happy believing that life has no higher meaning or purpose. (Again, I speak from experience.) The answer is that it’s entirely possible to find wonder in the natural world, and that’s what Nolan has dedicated himself to exploring. Even his preference for 35mm film suggests a man who doesn’t fully trust what he can’t hold in his hands and examine. Whether any given Nolan movie succeeds in walking that tricky line between the wholly rational and the unexpectedly “magical” (scare quotes very much necessary) is a matter of individual interpretation and taste. There’s no point in decrying his lack of mystery, though. Denying that the universe is mysterious—as distinct from “largely still unknown”—is what Nolan is all about. Each film is a new and increasingly bigger rock for him to kick, even if he occasionally stubs his toe in the process.