A friend walks up to you in the hall. “Quick!” they yell. “Which film director has had the most impact on popular culture in the twenty-first century?”
A weird situation, sure, but think a moment: how do you answer?
Whether you’re an avid filmgoer or a casual cinephile, an action buff or rom-com lover, chances are you’ll say Christopher Nolan. Maybe you can make the case for Judd Apatow, Peter Jackson, even (shudder) Michael Bay, but Nolan has not only achieved everything they have (helming a multi-billion franchise, transforming himself into a brand name, elevating niche film genres to blockbuster epics) but also successfully defined the post-9/11 mindset, the fracture between rigid, white-collar work ethics and a distant family life, cold business versus emotional relationships.
The more I think about it, the more Nolan’s success defies explanation. It takes more than defining a generation to churn out hit after hit, and Nolan approaches filmmaking with an eye for typically self-destructive choices. He shuns inexpensive CGI in favor of pricey, hyperrealistic stunt work, writes screenplays with the conventional structure of a Möbius strip and frequently incorporates into his scripts elements of film noir and heist flicks, genres nearly sixty years out of date. Even his work on Batman wasn’t a guaranteed moneymaker. Ang Lee tried to make a grim, brooding superhero movie with “Hulk” two years before “Batman Begins” and it bombed spectacularly.
Perhaps the raw, nihilistic crunch of noir grew more relevant in recent years. Maybe audiences connected with the immediacy of Nolan’s stunts: the freight train barreling down a city street in “Inception,” the car-motorcycle-truck chase in “The Dark Knight” … Whatever the case, Nolan found an audience waiting for him.
His career began in 1998 with “Following,” about a writer who shadows pedestrians until he ends up embroiled in a criminal conspiracy. All the trademarks were in place by then: the coolheaded professional, the aloof female who spells doom for her male acquaintances, the nonchronological plot. For a movie made with friends and family on a shoestring budget, “Following” showed burgeoning talent in its direction and tone. It had its flaws, of course—its experimental narrative contributed little to an otherwise pedestrian story that resolved with a contrived plot twist—and seems a quaint thing compared to what would follow, but with it Nolan caught the eye of studios and cemented his future reputation. Indeed, he appreciated this fact enough to name DiCaprio’s character in “Inception” Cobb, after the thief, the antagonist of the “Following.”
From there his career rose and never stopped. Christopher Nolan began honing the art of complex, yet accessible storytelling. He conveyed the pain and drive of Leo, an amnesiac seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, in “Memento,” a movie shown in reverse order. By the time he directed “The Prestige,” a period drama presented through flashbacks, flashforwards, diary entries, and multiple perspectives, Nolan had mastered his craft. The script from “Inception” must have been a piece of cake when he got around to it. Just another day at the office.
Sometimes Nolan’s technical genius gets the best of him—“Following,” the ending of “The Prestige”—but he’s mostly able to support his structural innovations with meaningful themes and strong, substantive characters. He paints images of crippled masculinity, men fooled into thinking professionalism can replace emotion. His villains draw attention to the protagonists’ posturing and inadequacies. The women they love prove elusive, even lethal, and the more men ignore them the harder they inevitably fall. Nolan reveals the great modern paradox where the workplace has pushed aside peoples’ home life without fully supplanting it. These themes resides beneath the superhero trappings of “The Dark Knight,” contributing to its success along with the brilliant acting, mood, stunts, directing, script … the list goes on.
What’s next for Nolan? The third and final entry in the Batman series, “The Dark Knight Rises,” for starters, followed by a stint as producer on Snyder’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.” He will accompany this with another original film, undoubtedly, cementing his reputation further—or shattering it to pieces. My biggest hope? That whatever happens, he inspires a new slew of filmmakers to rise alongside him and create the new century’s classic film canon.