The Films of Christopher Nolan
Following (January 3/01)
Before there was Memento, there was Following. Filmed on a shoe-string budget in and around England, Following contains many of the same themes writer/director Christopher Nolan would go on to explore in Memento - identity, deception, and unrequited love. But, most notably, Following is similar to Memento in that it toys with the viewer by shifting the timeline away from the linear, a technique which is at first confusing but eventually incredibly satisfying. The storyline of Following is almost impossible to discuss without giving some pivotal plot point away, but here's a truncated synopsis: An aimless (and nameless) young man (Jeremy Theobald) spends his days pursuing random strangers, just to see what they'll do with their day. Theobald's character eventually finds himself following one particular man, until said man confronts him. It turns out that he's a thief, and isn't terribly upset by the fact that he's been stalked for the last couple of weeks. He offers the young man the chance to accompany him on a few jobs. To say any more would be unfair and downright cruel. Nolan's first feature has obviously been shot on a minuscule budget - the film's in grainy black and white, there are no recognizable actors, etc. - but the movie manages to be just as fascinating and compelling as Memento was (if not quite as polished). The first half hour seems to be a simple story of a guy with way too much free time on his hands, but as we soon discover, there's a lot more going on than is initially revealed. Nolan takes his time peeling back the layers (and plays around with our notions of what's in the present and what isn't in a big way), but when everything is laid out, it's a stunner. And it makes sense, too. Unlike some other flicks that have had this sort of labyrinthine structure, Nolan's made sure that everything works (same as he did with Memento). It's the sort of film (again, like Memento) that demands a second viewing, just so you can see what sort of hints Nolan has dropped along the way.
Batman Begins (June 14/05)
Batman returns in this film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, and while there's no denying that the movie is far more effective than either of Joel Schumacher's installments (Batman Forever and Batman and Robin), Tim Burton's Batman still remains the most intriguing and entertaining of the Dark Knight's adventures. Part of the problem this time around involves sheer overlength; at a running time of 141 minutes, the film goes on much longer than it needs to (in fact, there's a point where the movie could naturally end, though the thing keeps chugging along for another half hour or so). And yet, Nolan (along with star Christian Bale) deserves kudos for successfully reinvigorating the franchise, which is really no small feat when you consider the tatters that Schumacher left it in. Batman Begins essentially acts as a prequel to the first four movies, as it spends a good chunk of time exploring Bruce Wayne's transformation into the titular superhero. The story kicks off in a Chinese prison, where Wayne (Bale) meets an enigmatic figure known only as Ducard (Liam Neeson). Ducard is the right-hand man of Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of a shadowy cult devoted to righting the perceived wrongs of a culture. It's there that Wayne picks up his fighting abilities, but it's not until he returns to Gotham that he begins to develop the idea of an alter-ego. Interestingly, the most compelling sequences in Batman Begins have nothing to do with the Caped Crusader - which makes sense, given that roughly half of the film revolves around Bruce Wayne sans the bat costume. Contributing to this feeling are the film's drab and occasionally incoherent action sequences; Nolan's seemingly taken a page from Paul Greengrass' Bourne Supremacy rulebook and imbued the more violent sequences with choppy editing and shaky camerawork. Then again, such antics do fit in with the gritty, almost realistic world envisioned by Nolan; it's clear that the filmmaker is trying to get away from Burton and Schumacher's ultra-stylized adaptations, and on that level, he undoubtedly succeeds. Yet with actors such as Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson in the film's cast, it's hard not to wish more time had been spent with Bale out of the batsuit. Nolan (who co-wrote the film with David Goyer) spends a lot of time developing these various characters, something that's assisted by the presence of the performers (Wilkinson, in particular, does a wonderful job of stepping into the shoes of a sleazy crime boss). But all their work is generally ignored as the film barrels towards its increasingly frenetic conclusion, which is overblown and far more action-packed than one would like (add in some garish colors and you've got the latest Schumacher Bat-flick). Having said that, Batman Begins is generally an extremely entertaining, exceedingly well-acted summer movie. Unfortunately, that's all it is.
The Dark Knight
An obvious improvement over its immediate predecessor, The Dark Knight is a sprawling epic that admittedly does suffer from some of the same problems as Batman Begins (ie overlength) yet there's little doubt that the movie manages to hold the viewer in rapt attention from start to finish. Director Christopher Nolan - working from a screenplay co-written with Jonathan Nolan - emphasizes an unexpectedly grim sensibility that pervades virtually every aspect of the proceedings (ie Wally Pfister's stark cinematography, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's moody score, etc), which certainly assures the film's place as one of the most adult and flat-out uncompromising comic-book adaptations in cinematic history. The storyline - which essentially follows Christian Bale's Batman as he tangles with a fierce villain called the Joker (Heath Ledger) - has been augmented with a whole host of subplots and subcharacters, as Nolan's efforts to replicate the style and tone of such gritty forebearers as Michael Mann's Heat and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy ensure that's there's a lot going on within the final product's 152-minute running time. And to a certain extent, it's hard to argue that he hasn't succeeded; though the screen is consistently dominated by larger-than-life figures, there's simply no denying that the whole thing remains strangely plausible throughout (ie take away the masks and costumes and you've got an above-average contemporary crime thriller). The filmmaker's refreshingly adult modus operandi is primarily reflected in the acting, as - in addition to the expected superb work from Bale, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman - the movie boasts an absolutely spellbinding performance from the late Heath Ledger. The degree to which he disappears into (and thoroughly reinvents) the Joker is nothing short of staggering, and it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility that his take on the iconic character will find a permanent place within the canon of legendary film villains. Even the film's action sequences - which were utterly lackluster in Batman Begins - have been improved upon substantially here, and it consequently goes without saying that The Dark Knight ultimately manages to overtake Tim Burton's Batman as the Caped Crusader's most enthralling big-screen adventure.
The Dark Knight Rises (July 29/12)
Christopher Nolan's Batman saga comes to an end with this engrossing and absolutely spellbinding installment, with the dense narrative following Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne as he's forced to come out of retirement after a fearsome new villain (Tom Hardy's terrifying and instantly iconic Bane) arrives on the scene. As expected, Nolan has suffused The Dark Knight Rises with a larger-than-life, intensely cinematic vibe that's perpetuated by such elements as Wally Pfister's striking visuals and Hans Zimmer's grandiose score - with the movie's pervasively epic atmosphere ultimately compensating for an undeniable case of overlength. (Though never dull, the film contains a number of less-than-enthralling subplots, eg an attempted takeover of Wayne Enterprises, that kick the running time up to an almost unwieldy 164 minutes.) It goes without saying, of course, that The Dark Knight Rises is at its best in its action-oriented sequences, as Nolan employs an astonishingly propulsive feel that's nothing short of electrifying - with the visceral impact of such moments heightened by the film's jaw-dropping use of IMAX cinematography. The movie's periodic atmosphere of pure spectacle, impressive as it may be, is effectively counterbalanced by a number of smaller, quieter character-based interludes, as Nolan elicits expectedly superb work from his impressive roster of performers - with Bale's stirring turn as the title character matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes, among others, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine. (There's little doubt that Caine's gripping work as Bruce's loyal butler remains an emotional highlight within the series.) The note-perfect conclusion, which follows an almost overwhelmingly action-packed third act, cements The Dark Knight Rises' place as a perfect capper to an incongruously above-average trilogy of summer blockbusters, and it is, as such, impossible to meet Nolan's proclamation that he's firmly done with the series with anything less than extreme melancholy.
Dunkirk (July 20/17)
Extremely ambitious yet rarely effective, Dunkirk transpires across three separate timelines during the Second World War and follows an assortment of one-dimensional figures as they attempt to make their way to safety during the infamous Dunkirk evacuation – with the movie detailing the exploits of, among others, an on-the-ground British soldier (Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy), a tenacious fighter pilot (Tom Hardy’s Farrier), and a brave civilian (Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson). The problem is, however, that writer/director Christopher Nolan launches directly into the action without offering any context or, eventually, character development, and although Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema deliver expectedly eye-popping visuals (especially when viewed in the IMAX format), Dunkirk’s inability to wholeheartedly grab the viewer’s attention ensures that its positive attributes grow more and more irrelevant as time progresses – which, in essence, paves the way for a midsection that’s rife with impressively conceived and executed set pieces that nevertheless come off as meaningless noise (ie the equivalent would be a version of Saving Private Ryan entirely about the opening beach landing). It’s interesting to note, at least, that the movie is consistent in its mediocrity, as none of the narrative’s three threads manage to make any kind of memorable, entertaining impact – with the least effective subplot, surprisingly enough, involving Hardy’s cipher of a character. (And it doesn’t help, certainly, that the actor delivers his few lines of dialogue from behind a thick mask, thus rendering his speech unintelligible.) There’s little doubt, then, that sequences meant to generate suspense and tension fall almost uniformly flat, as the viewer’s inability to form a rooting interest in the various characters makes it impossible to sympathize with their ongoing exploits – which is disappointing, to say the least, given the plethora of near-death moments sprinkled throughout the briskly-paced proceedings. By the time the three storylines converge in the frenetic yet uninvolving third act, Dunkirk has certainly confirmed its place as an atypical misfire from an otherwise rock-solid filmmaker and one can't, in the end, help but wonder what Nolan originally set out to accomplish with this half-baked production.