From the luxury of total indulgence to some of the most forgiving and reasonable fans, why Christopher Nolan has it made as a director…
He’s one of the best directors of his generation. He leads the way in some ground-breaking technology, whilst being a staunch supporter of old fashioned ways (whether that is shooting on film, using practical FX over CG, or in championing the cinema experience over a growing shift to home market). A skim through his IMDB ratings (and indeed critical responses) would suggest a perpetual deliverer of masterpieces. The Dark Knight is the fourth best film ever according to IMDB, Inception #13, Interstellar #29, The Prestige #47, Memento #55, and so on. Two more Batman films reign high too. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t without its detractors though, and there are definitely clunky moments throughout a film which repeats too much from the previous. Still, to some fans, they’re mere oversights and it’s still high in the top 250. With Nolan now parting ways with Warner Bros., he takes with him a great reputation and a level of reverence among cinema goers, few directors can match but is he somewhat fortunate?
I’m a Nolan fan. He’s a great director when his overriding vision has enough objective distance to consider what might be confusing to an audience or turn a film convoluted. He’s distinctly focused on plot and concept over character, a criticism often associated with his films. The complexity of these films often comes with an engaging gimmick. That might be ‘magic,’ ‘dream infiltration’ or playing his film in reverse order. These contain enough engagement that audiences, even when left scratching their head, will come back to watch the film again and again. Tenet, his latest release had an atypically high concept, but one, perhaps for the first time, which divided his willing public. Even staunch fans found the whole notion of ‘inversion’ crossing with the time travel plot-line less enigmatic and more frustrating. Many still sat and enjoyed the spectacle but couldn’t hook into the plot.
Tenet marks a low for critical response. You might argue the timing of the release could have added to greater expectation (this was after all, supposed to ‘save’ cinema) and contributed to a below par rating (70% on Rotten Tomatoes as one marker). My view is, that given Nolan’s film was the big name, and perhaps only tentpole we saw over the summer, that luxury of seeing a big film meant more critics were perhaps willing to overlook drab characters, a frustratingly inaccessible plot (through convoluted writing more than intentional/welcome enigma). I watched Tenet and didn’t feel compelled to go back, because honestly, I don’t think there’s much more to it to find on any intellectual, scientific or philosophical level. It’s confusing, just because it’s unnecessarily complex and Nolan writes himself into an over indulged cul-de-sac.
Almost every character in Tenet is a personification of Nolan’s public persona. A little serious, dour, and never one to give over to flights of emotion whilst explaining weighty ideas. He’s undoubtedly of course far different in private to those closest (to the surprise of many he revealed himself as a fan of the Fast franchise, distinctly opposite in tone and intellect to the atypical Nolan blockbuster). An aspect I didn’t like in Tenet, above all, is that the lure of espionage, of Nolan doing as close to a spy film as we might get, was thoroughly underwhelming. Despite scene after scene of exposition in the opening hour, which is laid out with the groundwork of an espionage film, we don’t learn that much, and not much that’s engaging. Again, dour characters and intentionally cold performances, don’t help in making it engaging.
To cut a long story short, once we get well into the meat and bones of inversion, the time travel and the ultimate save the world goal, certain things are clearer but no more interesting (for me anyway). That aside, the set pieces were somewhat lacklustre by Nolan’s standards. The whole forward/backward thing looked more awkward than impressive, the music grated and oddly the cinematography felt a little plain. Unusually for Nolan as well as cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, this felt lacking in a visual personality. Hoytema’s spy film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, conversely, or vampire classic, Let The Right One In had a gritty reality, but with a distinct visual style too. Tenet was every Nolan foible, cranked to 11, without many of his strengths beyond a 7.
I struggle to comprehend whether people could possibly ‘feel’ this film. I mean many might argue that of many Nolan blockbusters. I think Chris’s films always tended to have more dramatic weight and ‘character’ when they were more stripped back. Insomnia as an example, is vastly underrated. Memento has an interest character at its heart because of how unreliable he is as a narrator. Dunkirk likewise worked very well as Nolan reverted to a show don’t tell base. Gone were lengthy exposition scenes, thrusting characters into a recognisably grim scenario, and having them reacting to the immediacy and threat of war. It worked. Leonardo DiCaprio essentially plays the same character in Nolan’s Inception and Scorsese’s Shutter Island. The latter has more feeling. You may disagree with that. Of course Shutter Island isn’t pure spectacle or quite as spectacular (and Inception is still incredible to look at), but as a drama at heart, it’s more honed and effective. On the flip side, something like Interstellar wasn’t so much cold in drama, but perhaps leaned too far over into melodrama. As spectacular as it looked, the drama felt a little off to me.
In the world of Nolan critiques, many of which come from his own fans, I’m saying nothing new here. Throw in the overly lengthy run-times (again, often bogged down by lengthy exposition) and one thing becomes clear; Nolan has a forgiving set of fans. Perhaps as forgiving, if not more, than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is of course a genius capable of cinematic perfection, but since the turn of the century, his films have often been overly long and inconsistent. Inglorious Basterds might reach cinematic perfection with many sequences, but it also has scenes that feel distinctly filler (Mike Myers being one). Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was also weighty and bloated, flitting between great and not so great (okay, the balance always leans further in great).
Nolan fans will give themselves over for two and a half hours. They’ll respond more to the most complex of concept, whilst Dunkirk and Insomnia for example (two of my favourites) are slightly overlooked. I may feel those two are more human tales than some of the high concept stuff, but I guess not as uniquely interesting. In screenwriting it’s pounded into you from day one not to pump out lengthy scenes of exposition heavy dialogue. It’s a cardinal sin and Nolan continually breaks the rule (rule breaking is great in the right circumstances). He’s afforded that power though, particularly as he gets carte-blanche in every film now. That may mean there’s no objective voice to tell him that Elliot Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt exist in Inception purely for exposition, but he has that luxury.
Perhaps the biggest Nolan foible of the last decade has been sound design. In his constant push for creating revolutionary soundscapes, he’s often been accused (probably since Inception) of drowning out said exposition with a grating sound mix (or the music). This issue came to a particular and consistent head with Tenet. It was a particular issue of ire for many, even among those who enjoyed the film. What I’ve found remarkable through seeing countless comments, is just how many fans will quite happily accept a need to watch the film with subtitles. Some on their second visit have actively opted to do that. To watch a film, in their own language, with the subtitles switched on, and it’s not even a film with Tom Hardy mumbling his dialogue either. How many filmmakers would be given that kind of unquestioning respect? There aren’t many and you have to tip your cap to Nolan, and the amount of credit he has in the bank with fans.
Will he always maintain that luxury? Who knows. For myself, as a fan, I’d like to see him pull things back to smaller scale. I’d like him to be less side-tracked by Imax cameras and his soundscapes, and go back to doing a more character focused thriller. Nolan is made for the espionage world (Inception showed this quite well, Tenet less so). He won’t be doing a Bond film. That seems a given sadly, but he’s still capable of original concepts (one of the few directors offered the benefit of that) and it would be great to see him visit a world of spies and subterfuge with the mentality we saw in Memento, in Insomnia and even in his engaging debut, Following. It’ s an unlikely avenue in his post Warner career, but I’d love to see Nolan do something with A24 in line with their ethos and budget level, even if the likelihood is going to be another major tentpole studio. We can perhaps also write off the possibility he’ll contradict his staunch cinema over streaming stance and make his bed with Netflix for example (even though as a studio they’re beginning to offer carte blanche to high profile directors). Whatever comes next will undoubtedly be interesting. We’ll see just whether it divides quite like Tenet. The cracks in the fandom are beginning to show after a film that was perhaps given too much pressure in the wake of Covid hit cinema, but Nolan still has plenty of adoration in his corner.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/