Christopher Nolan: Time Traveler

While Christopher Nolan’s newest film Tenet appears to revolve around some sort of time travel, we take a look at how Nolan himself has often circumvented the normal passage of time as both a director and a writer.

Christopher Nolan’s films are known for not always being the easiest films to follow. Even as he has become a more commercial director, his films still tend to tell complicated stories. What’s more is the fact that these complicated stories are often told in a complicated fashion. Nolan’s film’s don’t just begin and end. They zig and zag back and forth, make ample use of flashbacks, and tend to lodge themselves in the minds of his characters. While some of this complexity can seem unnecessary and take away from the entertainment value of his films, it is ultimately the foundation upon which Nolan’s film making perspective is built.

The most important aspect of Nolan’s atypical storytelling techniques, is his perspectives on the passage of time. Through his films, Nolan manipulates time. By moving outside of the limitations drawn by the normal passage of time, Nolan has more freedom in the types of stories he can tell onscreen and the way he tells those stories. He can skip forward or backwards to allow the audience to gather important details which otherwise would not have been easy to explain in a standard linear plot line. His techniques also allow for a different perspective on events compared to if they had occurred normally. All of this allows Nolan more control over the ideas and themes he is able to show his audience, and in turn enhances their interaction with his films.  

Warning: There are some spoilers of Nolan’s Pre-Tenet films in the following discussion. 

Non-Linear Narrative

The first and most obvious way that Nolan manipulates time in his film is his use of non-linear narratives. While the progress of his plots is generally in the direction from beginning to end, he rarely tells the story in one direction. Instead, he often uses flashbacks to provide time-sensitive information to the audience about a plot detail or character. Flashbacks allow for the transmission of this information in a way that could otherwise compromise an important twist, while still moving the plot forward. Nolan’s films maintain their audience involvement by essentially withholding information. Nolan then gives out clues to help the audience understand the overarching mystery. We’re not just watching to see what is going to happen, we are watching to figure out what has already happened. 

In The Dark Knight Rises, for example, when Bruce is captured by Bane he is banished to a nearly inescapable prison. Here, through use of a flashback, Bruce learns about how Ra’s al Ghul’s child was the only person to ever escape. This information is very important to be revealed in this moment, rather than earlier when it actually happened. The reason is first the fact that the audience would not understand the significance of the prison if Bruce was not trapped there himself. Second, it propagates the belief that Bane is Ra’s al Ghul’s child. This strengthens the position of this antagonist, but also provides a connection to Batman Begins. In doing so, it gives Bruce motivation to continue when he is in his worst position. Finally, by revealing this information through a flashback, Nolan is able to maintain the mystery of the story. If the escape happened when the child was fully grown, it would have been obvious to see that the child was not Bane afterall. 

Nolan uses his non-linear storytelling to force a particular perspective on the audience. This attribute is present in all of his films to some degree, but is most obvious in The Prestige and in Memento. In both of these films, Nolan makes liberal use of flashbacks, to the point where we have a secondary plot proceeding through the flashbacks, building up to the beginning of the main plotline. By piecemealing details about his characters through these flashbacks, Nolan avoids giving his audience a complete picture until the very end of the film. In doing so, the audience is forced to make their connections with the main characters using what is essentially inaccurate information. Nolan hides the truth from the audience to make his characters seem justified in their actions, only to reveal the full picture at the end to throw this observation into doubt. 

Transporting the Viewer Through Time

While Nolan makes liberal use of flashbacks in his storytelling, he uses different tricks to key the audience into the passage of time. Otherwise, the quick back and forth methods of storytelling he utilizes may be overwhelming and difficult to follow. In this way, Nolan becomes the audience’s guide to the passage of time. In Memento, he uses black and white to distinguish one storyline (the ‘present’ timeline) from the secondary (flashback timeline). In Insomnia, Nolan utilizes bright lights and low contrast to mimic the fogginess of memory when you wake up. This helps to key the audience into the idea that time has passed, but because the main character is unable to sleep, it is almost like a waking dream because he is not entirely coherent. 

In films like Interstellar, Nolan uses changes in his characters and settings to make the passage of time clear. The main character’s daughter, Murphy, is a little girl for part of the film, fully grown as the plot progresses, and elderly at the very end. The same happens with her brother. Likewise, the environment they live in changes over time. From lush and green at first, to becoming more worn and dusty as the climate changes. In Inception, for each infiltration deeper into a subject’s subconscious, time moves quicker. Nolan demonstrates the difference not only in the appearance of the characters, but also the amount of physical time the film spends on each “level”. Likewise, he finds ways to create reminders of the happenings in higher levels while characters are in the lower levels. The zero-G hallway fight scene is the best example. As the van in the first level flips over, this action is felt in the lower level, but experienced in a slower manner. 

Nolan also helps make his intentions plain to the audience by starting most of his films with a flashback or flash forward. Batman Begins starts with Bruce finding the batcave at Wayne Manor, and the death of his parents. The Dark Knight starts with a robbery by the Joker, which was referenced in the previous film. Inception begins with a flash forward, showing the end of Cobb’s mission. Likewise, the first shot The Prestige is the collection of hats created by Tesla’s machine, and the third scene in the film is Angier performing his teleportation trick with that machine, which he spends the rest of the movie trying to develop and perfect. 

In the instances where Nolan begins with a flashback, that opportunity is utilized to create a baseline for an important character, and will be referenced later on. By placing this scene at the very beginning of the film, Nolan wants the audience to use that depiction in order to define the character. This gives him the flexibility to contrast a character’s actions later on, showing growth, or reaffirm it as a core trait. In the instances when Nolan begins with a flashforward, he indicates an endgame for the film and then goes on to fill in the details on how it had come to that. By placing this scene at the very beginning of the film, Nolan is offering an important clue. The audience may not be able to understand it, but as time goes on we fill in all of the details and eventually will see how that moment is a defining moment in the message and intent of the film. In this manner, it is often repeated, not only emphasizing its importance, but allowing the audience to better remember every detail. 

Wayward Depictions of Time Passage

Ultimately, Nolan’s goal as a filmmaker is to tell a story. But, using the methods described above, we come to realize he is also commenting on the passage of time itself. By warping the passage of time in his films, and providing many reminders to his audience of this occurrence, Nolan is showing how the normal passage of time can actually be a detriment to our ability to understand more complex ideas. Similarly, he demonstrates how our own experiences of the passage of time can weaken our ability to comprehend the world around us. Specifically, Nolan realizes how our memories can create false realities, and what we think we know may not be as true as we think it is. 

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as Cobb in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film “INCEPTION,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

As I’ve indicated above, Nolan uses the frailty of memory to twist the truth in films like Memento, Insomnia, Inception, and The Prestige. In those films, Nolan takes the time to show the audience how their assumptions end up to be incorrect. However, in all of those cases, our incorrect assumptions are caused directly by Nolan himself. By picking and choosing the details he shows us, he creates a narrative that is quite different from the truth. It is a demonstration on the frailty of our own consciousness. And while all of those films are impressive in their storytelling in their own ways, Dunkirk may be Nolan’s best example of how he uses the manipulation of time to enhance the impact of a story. 

Dunkirk of course tells the story of a desperate attempt to save allied troops marooned on the shores of France and surrounded by approaching Nazis. Contrasted against all of Nolan’s other stories, this is one that actually takes place in real life. It has been previously filmed, and the details are (mostly) well known. So how can Nolan use time to manipulate a story which has not only already happened, but its impact is already known? Nolan’s approach isn’t to add fictionalized elements or simplify/relax his approach. Instead, he cuts up the timeline of this historic event and reassembles it in a manner that is more appropriate for a blockbuster movie experience. 

To start with, he divides the important occurrences at Dunkirk into three categories – land, sea, and air. In order to provide his audience with the most realistic experience of what happened at Dunkirk, he knew he could not just focus on a singular perspective. So instead, we have a multi-faceted approach, but this brings up additional complications. The main problem is that the events which happen at land, at sea, and in the air are occurring not only at different times during the evacuation, but at different scales. An airplane involved in combat will only be present for a few hours. Meanwhile, the merchant boats setting off from England to rescue troops are slow-moving, and take days to reach Dunkirk and return. The whole time this is happening, the troops themselves are stranded on the beach. 

In just a few hours, Dunkirk depicts events which took place over the course of a number of days. Because he only has so much time to work with, Nolan can’t scale his focus on land/air/sea according to what happened in real life. The film would end up being mostly about the sea, and the impact of the air force on the event would seem minimal. Furthermore, Nolan set out to make an objective film. He didn’t want to just focus on the soldiers on the beach or the merchants, because he felt it would give the story too subjective (emotional) of a perspective. As a result, his characters are nobodies. 

We get no back stories, no traditional character development. Dunkirk is simply a depiction of a historic event (of course rendered with high cinematic values). Nolan’s approach is to divide these struggles in the three areas more equally in run-time. This choice does result in some areas being covered in more specific detail than others. But it does allow the audience to see both the small picture (individual experience) and the big picture (understand the implications of this battle) simultaneously. Nolan’s film depicts a historic event as accurately as possible, but also skews it in such a way to make it more entertaining as a feature film. 

This is also the most direct example of Nolan controlling time in order to demonstrate different perspectives of the same course of events. Major events depicted in one scene are referenced in another, but from a different perspective. Nolan rearranges the timeline of events such that often the audience often knows what is going to happen before the characters do because we’ve seen what has happened from a different perspective. We know what caused a plane to crash, and saw the events leading up to it from the pilot’s perspective. The reason for this is to provide insight and details on the experience of the war separate from the influences of an individual eye. It also equalizes the importance of everyone involved. Without traditionally defined characters, the pilot in that crashing plane is no more or less important in terms of the narrative than the soldier watching from a sinking ship. 

All of this amounts to a war film that is unlike one we’ve seen before. Nolan’s approach is to surprise the audience, even if they know what is going to happen. He didn’t want to just retell a story from the past, he wanted to make it new, and exciting, and interesting. His manipulation of time is what allows the film to accomplish those goals. Instead of having flashbacks, he rearranges scenes in the film out of chronological order. But by referencing between them, the overarching storyline is not lost on the audience. We see how watching an event, and understanding why it took place, are two different things. There’s also more at stake when we see the horrors of war from different perspectives. It provides a more complete picture, which isn’t being influenced to yield a particular emotional response. Nolan’s goal was to tell a story some audience members already knew. He found a way to do it not by necessarily changing the events, but by changing the pattern of their occurrence.  

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