There are few directors who have reached household name status in the past few decades, and fewer still who can get an original big-budget blockbuster greenlit on the strength of their name alone. In fact, Steven Spielberg aside, Christopher Nolan might be the most well-known film director of the 21st century among the general public, in addition to being the most powerful.
So what’s the secret to Nolan’s popularity? It’s not just that he’s talented—plenty of directors are, of course. In my estimation, it’s Nolan’s meta-cinematic approach and postmodern filmmaking style that makes him so appealing to 21st century filmgoers. Nolan’s interest in deconstructing and reconstructing the basic building blocks of storytelling is catnip to modern audiences, because his movies are all, in one way or another, about the movies. What better subject could there be for eager cinephiles to explain narrative complexities, share subtextual interpretations, or debate plot holes?
Postmodern filmmaking tends to focus on subversion of traditional narrative structures and genre conventions. This can sometimes take the shape of an autofiction—e.g., Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz—where the audience’s knowledge of the director’s other work and his personal life is key to unlocking the film’s meaning. Other times it takes the form of satire, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Lego Movie, which directly comments on the genre that it’s subverting with a winking self-awareness. The poster child for contemporary postmodernism in film is probably Quentin Tarantino, whose entire filmography is defined by his willingness to abandon linear narratives, warp audiences’ genre expectations, and, of course, his obsession with metatextual references to the films that influenced and inspired him. On the surface, Nolan and Tarantino might seem worlds apart, but if you dig deeper, Nolan is just as post-modern and metatextual a filmmaker as Tarantino. Nolan’s focus, however, isn’t on taking and remixing genres; it’s a more elemental deconstruction of the very building blocks of the cinematic medium.
Take Inception as a case study. On the surface, it’s about a dream heist: an attempt at corporate brain espionage and a chance for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb to return to his children. That premise and the execution of it alone make for a good movie, but for the observant audience member, there are multiple layers of subtext and narrative complexity that enhance the experience of watching it and generate fodder for discussion. The first is the most obvious—Inception’s very narrative structure is a series of nested narratives (or, dreams within dreams) all taking place simultaneously and running at different speeds. To be able to follow the film’s action at all, a viewer needs to be aware of and understand the basic elements of filmmaking. Lee Smith’s masterful editing makes that a fairly simple task, but it rewards the viewer with a sense of accomplishment for solving the logistical puzzle unfolding before their eyes.
Once the audience sorts out the (literal) sequence of events taking place, they come to the next question: interpreting the film’s famous cliffhanger ending. The debate over whether Cobb’s journey ended in reality or in just another dream is only possible by parsing through the narrative and visual choices that Nolan makes in Inception and interpreting them in light of what we know about cinematic storytelling. Whether you believe the top kept spinning or not doesn’t really matter to me; it’s the communal experience of seeing Inception and sharing conflicting interpretations is one of the great joys of cinema.
And it’s probably what Nolan cares most about, too. After all, as many others have written, Inception itself functions as a metaphor for the filmmaking process and moviegoing experience. Cobb (DiCaprio), the mission leader, is the director, leading a crew and shaping the world to his vision. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the screenwriter and production designer, who designs and structures the world to the director’s specifications using her own craft—aided by the chemist Yusuf’s (Dileep Rao) special effects. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a producer; he handles the logistics and keeps the production moving, while Saito (Ken Watanabe), as the studio, finances the whole endeavor. Eames (Tom Hardy) is an actor, playing a role within the fictional environment to make it more believable. Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the director’s own insecurity and self doubt, haunting him throughout the production and threatening to derail the whole thing (or, she’s the narrative crutch that the director can’t shake, a literal manifestation of Nolan’s own favorite dead wife trope—I haven’t decided yet). And Robert Frobisher (Cillian Murphy), the target of the Inception, is you. Just as Cobb and his team manufacture an immersive artificial experience to evoke an emotional reaction in Frobisher, so does Nolan for us as the audience. It doesn’t matter to Frobisher that the circumstances around him are not real, because they’re real to him—and so is the catharsis that he experiences. It’s really a quite elegant representation of the experience of watching a film; you know that you’re watching a fictional narrative, but there’s nothing artificial about the emotions you feel while watching.
Inception isn’t the only time that Nolan has played with audience expectations about narrative filmmaking. In The Prestige, Nolan employs a similar balancing act of creating a narrative that is as compelling in its substance as its execution. The tale of duelling magicians battling for supremacy in 19th century London is gripping on its own, so much so that a first-time viewer wouldn’t notice the magic trick taking place right before their eyes—even as Nolan tells them in the opening minutes of the film what it is. There’s no guessing game with The Prestige; Nolan calls his shot and then delivers. He immediately tells the viewer about the misdirection he’s going to perform, step-by-step, and then just does it. And that’s what filmmaking is: drawing your viewers’ eyes toward what you want them to see and away from what you don’t, and invoking wonder and excitement in the process. Likewise, Nolan returns to the narrative shuffle of Inception with Dunkirk, making the differential passage of time across overlapping plotlines the central focus of that film, with arguably even greater success. And is there any better representation of the emotional power of movies than Interstellar? After all, what is cinema if not sound, color and light beamed across space, taking us to an emotional catharsis we didn’t think possible? When we watch Matthew McConaughey watching transmissions from his family broadcast through time and space, we’re really watching ourselves, equally moved by the photons and soundwaves entering our consciousness.
And that’s what makes Christopher Nolan’s movies endlessly watchable. They’re made to be digested, analyzed, and—yes—debated, because they’re about the movies themselves. And for a cinephile like me, that makes them double the reward.