1.There is an elaborate, flashback-heavy narrative structure.
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film was Memento, a neo-noirish revenge tale with a plot that freely crisscrossed time. Nolan had already experimented with a time-jumping structure in his first feature film, Following. (Like Memento, Following helps you keep track of time by noting differences in the protagonist’s haircut and clothing.) Insomnia, Batman Begins, and Inception all dovetail on flashbacks to bad memories from their protagonists’ pasts, but Nolan’s narrative gamesmanship reached its apex with The Prestige. The 2006 tale of the duel between two magicians is constructed along two separate flashback narratives: Christian Bale reads Hugh Jackman’s journal and in Hugh Jackman’s journal he talks about reading Christian Bale’s journal, and there are journals within journals and dreams within dreams. Interstellar pushes beyond flashbacks into a whole new definition of chronology, adding in a race of mysterious fifth-dimensional beings with a…let’s say unique perspective on the passage of time. Plot complexity: Accomplished!
2. The protagonist is troubled by the memory of his angelic dead wife/love interest.
In Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is emotionally tormented by the memory of his dead wife (played by a pre-CSI Jorja Fox). Ten years later, Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream thief Dom Cobb is literally tormented by the memory of his own dead wife: Marion Cotillard’s Mal keeps on appearing in the middle of Cobb’s heists, turning his own subconscious into a haunted house. When Nolan and his brother Jonathan adapted Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, they specifically added in two dead wives. And whereas Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is mostly focused on his dead parents, The Dark Knight grandfathers in the previously alive Rachel Dawes as a dead love interest for both Batman and Harvey Dent. In an intriguing twist, Interstellar‘s Cooper has a dead wife, but he’s more haunted by the memory of his daughter, who’s still alive—but on the far side of the universe.
3. The protagonist is also troubled by the actions of a duplicitous not-dead love interest.
Memento‘s Natalie is undoubtedly the ur-Female of the Nolanverse. As played by a never-better Carrie-Anne Moss, she initially seems like a grieving damsel in distress desperate for a knight in shining armor. But then things get complicated — you could argue that she’s the main villain of the movie. (Admittedly, she might also be the hero.) Natalie is the spiritual sister of Lucy Russell’s blonde temptress in Following and the progenitor of Scarlett Johansson’s Annie in The Prestige, who loves and betrays (and is loved/betrayed by) both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. In an impressive bit of narrative weight lifting, Marion Cotillard played both the angelic dead wife and the duplicitous femme fatale in Inception. And in Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway is introduced as a shy waitress at Wayne Manor. That whole ”shy” thing doesn’t last too long, as anyone who pays attention to casting reports well knows.
4. Hans Zimmer wrote the score. (Unless it was David Julyan.)
Nolan used to work exclusively with composer David Julyan, whose scores for Following, Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige consist mainly of moody electronica-and-strings undertones. (Julyan even worked on Nolan’s 1997 short film Doodlebug.) Lately, though, Nolan seems to prefer the swooping orchestral symphonies of Hans Zimmer. Zimmer collaborated with fellow composer James Newton Howard on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and also crafted the Inception score, which garnered an Oscar nomination and launched a million imitation foghorns. He’s now riding solo on The Dark Knight Rises and will write the score for the Nolan-produced Superman movie Man of Steel, and brought his church organs to Interstellar.
5. There is a Mr. Miyagi figure, and he probably can't be trusted.
Batman Begins kicks off with an extended origin prologue featuring Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, a man who teaches Bruce Wayne how to fight, how to use theatrics to his advantage, and how to become ”a legend” — basically, he teaches Bruce how to transform himself into Batman. This Mr. Miyagi-esque training montage is echoed in the earlier Following, where a character named Cobb teaches the protagonist how to be a dapper burglar, and Inception, where a character named Cobb teaches Ellen Page’s Ariadne how to be a dream thief. In most cases, these teachers usually have shady motivations.
6. The film grapples with the complex relationship between order and chaos.
Christopher Nolan’s protagonists tend to be obsessed with maintaining order in their lives. Leonard Shelby reduces his memory-free life into an instinctive existence devoted to a few key phrases tattooed on his body. Batman tried to rid Gotham of criminality and violence. Both men ultimately face the same revelation — that their supposed ”order” is mostly an illusion — and both men ultimately choose to maintain the illusion of order. The same thing happens in Inception, if you think the spinning top doesn’t fall down.
Even though he’s not the hero of The Dark Knight, you could argue that Harvey Dent is actually a helpful demonstration of the plight of the Nolan protagonist. He begins the movie as a shining knight devoted to cleaning up the streets of Gotham using the law. But after the loss of Rachel Dawes — angelic dead love interest alert! — he becomes obsessed with upending the natural order, setting aside his old ethics for the raw duality of his iconic flipped coin. In a weird way, Dent is both an agent of chaos and of order, chaos within order, flashbacks within flashbacks, dream within a dream….
7. The inquisition into the complex relationship between order and chaos is ameliorated for mass consumption by the soothing presence of Michael Caine.
By the mid-2000s, it looked like the career of British screen legend Michael Caine was pretty much over. (Caine genially admitted as much in his 2010 memoir.) Then along came the British-born Nolan, who cast Caine as Batman’s eternal butler Alfred in Batman Begins. Caine’s been Nolan’s good-luck charm ever since, with supporting old-sage roles in The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar.
8. Everyone has infinite resources.
Bruce Wayne is a trillionaire who faces off against villains who might as well be omniscient: Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows is a centuries-old conspiracy that supposedly sacked Rome; The Joker is a terrorist with a limitless amount of explosives scattered throughout Gotham; Bane leads a massive revolutionary force of faux-Sandinistas. The director focuses on heroes and villains that occupy a stratosphere where all their material desires are accommodated. Robin Williams is a wealthy author in Insomnia; Hugh Jackman’s magician finances Nikola Tesla in The Prestige; even the amnesiac star of Memento seems to have a bottomless fund for cheap motels. Christopher Nolan is the P.G. Wodehouse of action movies.
9. ''We're not so different, you and I.''
Part of the thrilling tension of Nolan’s movies derives from how similar the protagonists are to the antagonists. This link is usually made explicit by the antagonists, who are prone to soliloquies that demolish the protagonists’ noble illusions. Who can forget the Joker’s ”Freak like me” line from The Dark Knight? Or the climactic moment in Memento when one character tells Lenny: ”So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that! We all do it!” The most literal face-off occurs in Nolan’s underrated Insomnia, where Al Pacino plays a cop trying to track down Robin Williams’ killer. There’s just one big problem: Pacino accidentally shot his partner…and Williams knows that. (And it might not have been an accident.)
Side note: Nolan offers an intriguing corollary to this ”two sides of the same coin,” good-bad dichotomy in The Prestige and Inception, where none of the characters are actually very good at all. The Inceptioneers are crooks invading a rich dude’s mind. The magicians in The Prestige despise each other and are both pretty despicable.
10. The climax of the movie is both a handy demonstration and a cynical deconstruction of catharsis.
With a final global gross of $825 million, Inception is without a doubt the most popular meta-movie ever made. The film is about a group of technicians and artists seeking to create a vivid emotional response deep in the subconscious mind of their target. It’s a film about filmmaking, really. And it’s a rather cynical film, at that. (Spoilers from here for some Nolan movies.)
Consider: The whole ”heist” of the movie builds to the moment when Cillian Murphy’s billionaire heir Robert Fischer meets his father in the depths of his dream. Father and son Fischer have the kind of deathbed conversation every son yearns for: Robert says, ”You were disappointed I couldn’t be you.” His father explains: ”No, no. I was disappointed that you tried.” Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack cues up; Fischer opens up his father’s safe and discovers a pinwheel from his youth, apparent concrete evidence of his father’s love for him.
It’s a lovely moment. It’s also a complete lie, constructed with the specific intention of inspiring a positive emotional reaction — as Cobb says earlier in the movie, ”We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis.” Since Cobb later experiences ”catharsis” in the movie, theories abound that the whole film is really a double-blind Inception job on Cobb himself.
And it’s not the first time that Nolan has played with the audience’s expectations for narrative climaxes. Memento concludes with the revelation that Lennie has purposefully guided himself into the whole mystery plot of the movie. After what feels like the climactic battle in Dark Knight, the Joker taunts Batman: ”You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you?” And The Prestige ends with a lengthy description of the structure of a magic trick that suddenly turns into a pointed analysis of the audience: The film ends with Nolan surrogate Michael Caine saying, ”You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” Like a talented magician, Nolan keeps on showing us his tricks…and we keep coming back for more.