- Spoiler alert: this post contains spoilers for every Christopher Nolan movie.
- Christopher Nolan’s new movie, “Tenet,” looks like it could be his most complex and confusing film yet as it flirts with the idea of time travel and time moving backwards.
- Nolan’s films frequently deal with high concept ideas and are huge, sprawling blockbusters with brains as big as their budget.
- In his films, Nolan has explored ideas such as dreams (and dreams within dreams), the tangibility of memory, and how black holes can affect time and space.
- This means that sometimes his movies are a little confusing on the first watch – or even on the second or third.
- We’ve gone through every single Christopher Nolan movie to date and explained each film in turn – from “Following” to “Inception” to “Interstellar.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
‘Following’ (1998) is about a man who stalks people for inspiration.
Nolan’s directorial debut follows a Young Man who, while stalking people for inspiration for his novel, gets caught up in robberies when he stalks a burglar named Cobb.
Cobb, a name that was later reused for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Inception,” charms the Young Man with the help of a Blonde Woman. It transpires that Cobb was just using the Young Man as a pawn, teaching him to commit burglaries in the same fashion he does to throw the police off his scent (so that more people are using his MO).
However, there’s a second twist as Cobb reveals he was actually working for The Bald Guy, the man that the Young Man robbed. Cobb was hired to kill the Blonde Woman in a way that couldn’t be traced back to the Bald Guy. In the end, the Young Man turns himself in to the police, and is framed for the Blonde Woman’s murder while Cobb disappears into a crowd.
‘Memento’ (2000) follows a man with short term memory, using a complex narrative structure.
This movie follows two timelines: one moves forward in time while the other moves backwards, so the scene at the beginning of the film is actually the last scene in the film chronologically.
Guy Pearce plays Leonard, the man with short term memory loss, who must use notes, polaroids, and tattoos to try and remember various things as he tries to figure out who raped and killed his wife.
During the movie, Leonard investigates a man called Sammy Jankis, who has the same condition as him and killed his wife via an overdose of insulin. Leonard eventually finds a man named Teddy, who he thinks is the murderer.
However, it turns out that Leonard is Sammy Jankis. Leonard’s wife was raped by someone, but Leonard killed her via an insulin overdose, and created the whole story of Jankis as a way to deal with his guilt.
Meanwhile, Teddy, who Leonard earlier killed, was never the attacker. Instead, he was an undercover cop, who helped Leonard find and kill the real attacker over a year ago, but since Leonard forgot that memory, Teddy has been convincing Leonard that other various criminals are the attacker. Teddy gets Leonard to kill them, and then continues that cycle.
Teddy’s confession of this to Leonard leads to Leonard writing “do not trust Teddy” on his polaroid. This, once he’s lost the memory, leads to Leonard killing Teddy in the last scene in the film’s chronological timeline, but was the first scene shown in the movie.
‘Insomnia’ follows Al Pacino as a detective with a secret in a town where the sun doesn’t set.
This movie follows Detective Dormer (Pacino) who is sent to investigate a murder with his partner Eckhart in a town where the sun doesn’t set as a favour to the police chief.
Eckhart reveals that he is set to give testimony against Dormer in exchange for immunity (he and Dormer had previously used questionable evidence to get criminals convicted). Dormer later accidentally kills Eckhart in a chase through the fog when they spot the murderer.
Dormer decides to cover it up, and does so successfully, until the murderer, Walter (Williams), calls him and tells him he knows what he did.
Dormer and the murderer, Walter Finch (Williams) then agree to a symbiotic relationship wherein Dormer helps Finch frame someone else for the murder and Finch keeps quiet about Dormer killing Eckhart. However, Swank’s rookie detective Ellie Burr pieces things together.
After a tense finale, Dormer and Burr manage to kill Finch after Burr has learnt the truth, but Dormer is gravely injured in the process. Burr promises Dormer she will keep his secret a secret, too, so as not to destroy his reputation. But, with his last breath, Dormer tells her not to, that she should tell the truth and keep her integrity.
2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ is the origin story of Bruce Wayne AKA Batman.
After his parents are killed, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) spends years exploring the world’s criminal underworld, and is eventually recruited by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to join the League of Shadows, a group of mercenaries led by R’as al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). After learning about their plan to destroy Gotham, however, Wayne burns down the temple, saves an unconscious Ducard, and heads back to Gotham.
There, he takes on the mantle of Batman. But Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) hatches a plan to place his fear-inducing drug into the city’s water supply, which he claims he has done on behalf of Ghul.
Then comes the twist: Ducard is still alive and reveals himself to be the real al Ghul at Wayne’s birthday party. He destroys Wayne manor and steals a device that will vaporise the drugged water supply, meaning the toxin will become airborne.
Batman and Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman) work together to wreck al Ghul’s plan, and manage to do so eventually, destroying the device. Gordon is then promoted to Lieutenant and has the bat-signal installed. Batman is born.
‘The Prestige’ (2006) tells the deadly tale of two competing magicians trying to one-up each other.
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play Borden and Angier, two competing magicians who fall out after Angier’s wife dies in an attempted magic trick involving a water tank. Throughout the film, the two constantly try to outdo each other with magic tricks, but it grows darker and more dangerous with each one.
Eventually, Angier comes up with his final trick, The Transported Man, which involves Angier disappearing from a tank of water. Borden can’t work out how Angier is pulling the trick off, so sneaks backstage one night to try to find out.
But Angier ends up trapped in the tank of water and drowns, just as his wife did. Angier framed Borden for his death, so is sent to prison and due to hang for murder.
While there, a man named Caldlow arrives with Borden’s daughter but to Borden’s shock, Caldlow turns out to be an alive and well Angier.
Angier returns to his theatre, the basement of which is full of water tanks. Somehow, Borden then shows up and shoots Angier. Borden is actually an identical twin, which is how the two of them pulled off the original Transported Man trick. Borden’s brother was indeed hung, but his twin lived on.
As Angier dies, he lights up the theatre and the water tanks are revealed to all have dead clones of Angier in them. Angier had been waiting each night for Borden to sneak into his theatre to inspect his trick, and so each night he had cloned himself (using a machine he got from Nikola Tesla) and killed the clone in the water tank. It was only when he was able to frame Borden that he stopped.
2008’s ‘The Dark Knight’ had Batman face off against Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker.
In one of the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) more elaborate plans, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her fiancé DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are trapped in separate abandoned buildings rigged to explode. Batman goes after Rachel, while now-Commissioner Gordon goes after Dent. But the Joker mixed up the locations on purpose, so Batman arrives just in time to save Dent while Rachel is blown up and killed.
Dent suffers horrific burns to one side of his body, and is turned into a villain.
Dent escapes the hospital and kidnaps Gordon’s son. Dent holds Batman, Gordon, and himself responsible for Rachel’s death, and resorts to flipping a coin to decide the fate of each of them. Batman gets shot, but is protected by his suit. Dent then turns the gun on Gordon, but Batman intervenes just in time and Dent is killed in the furore.
In the movie’s closing scenes, after the Joker has been captured, Batman and Gordon agree to blame Batman for the death of Dent, and maintain the story that Dent is the real hero of Gotham in order to preserve his heroic image for the sake of the city.
‘Inception’ (2010) follows Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief infiltrating people’s dreams in order to plant an idea in their subconscious.
Dream thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) steals information and ideas from people’s minds by infiltrating their dreams. However, he is tasked by Ken Watanabe’s Saito to commit Inception – planting an idea into somebody’s subconscious mind through a dream.
To do this, Cobb assembles a team of dream thiefs, starting with dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page). A dream architect’s job is to create the world of the dream itself – the subject (in this case, Fischer) is then brought into the dream and they fill the world with their subconscious.
So Ariadne creates the world of the dreams, while Cobb’s team use dream-sharing technology so all of them can share the same dream at the same time. They do this by using a machine, as well as special medication.
Once they have achieved this, they hatch a dream-within-a-dream plan involving three layers of dreams.
Note: they use things called “totems” to determine if they are in a dream or in reality. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top, which will keep spinning if he is in a dream but will stop spinning if he is in reality.
With the mission a success, Cobb is allowed back into the US, free of his criminal status. He visits his young children for the first time in years, and spins his spinning top totem to see if he is actually dreaming it.
But Cobb doesn’t stay to see if the top falls or not, but instead joins his children. The final shot of the movie is of the spinning top spinning and possibly wobbling.
However, whenever Cobb is in a dream throughout the film he is seen wearing a wedding ring. When, in reality, he isn’t. In this final scene, he is ringless, suggesting that the happy ending is real.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) closed out Nolan’s Batman trilogy with Tom Hardy as his most brutal villain yet, Bane.
A crippled Bruce Wayne is forced out of retirement when Bane emerges as a deadly foe.
However, he is defeated by Bane. His back broken, he is shipped off to an underground prison, while Bane turns Gotham into an almost apocalyptic ruin of a city. He makes a bomb, planning to destroy Gotham.
Batman gets back to Gotham, and manages to overcome Bane in their second fight, but it is revealed that Wayne Enterprises CEO Miranda Tate is actually R’as al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson in “Batman Begins”) daughter and Bane’s accomplice. She plans to execute her father’s plan to destroy Gotham.
She is stopped, eventually, by Batman, Gordon, and Kyle, and Batman flies the bomb out to sea in the Batwing, its autopilot too damaged to fly alone.
Batman, and therefore Wayne, appears to have sacrificed himself for Gotham, and is honoured as a hero at last by Gotham.
However, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) finds out that the autopilot was fixed, and Alfred (Michael Caine) sees Wayne at dinner, living happily, as Alfred always wanted.
‘Interstellar’ (2014) plays with time and spaces in an epic quest where a team of astronauts head through a wormhole in space.
Murph, the daughter of former engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), sees dust patterns appear on her bedroom floor, which are later revealed to be influenced by Cooper, and books randomly fly out of her shelf. She attributes these to a ghost, but the dust patterns are actually binary code for geographic coordinates, and lead Cooper to a NASA facility where he is recruited to pilot the spaceship the Endurance. Following?
The Endurance’s mission is to find habitable planets as Earth is on the brink of collapse. Cooper and crew, including Brand (Anne Hathaway), head to one of the planets, but due to the proximity of Gargantua, time works very differently and in the hour spent on the planet, 23 years have passed on Earth.
Cooper and Brand use a slingshot manoeuvre that sends them so close to Gargantua that it adds another 51 years to their journey while they remain the same age. Cooper jettisons himself and robot assistant TARS to shed weight and ensure that the Endurance reaches the planet.
Cooper and TARS slip through Gargantua’s event horizon, which is the boundary that defines the region of space around a black hole, and end up in a tesseract created by future humans. While in this strange zone, Cooper can see different time periods, and sees his daughter’s bedroom.
Cooper realises he can interact with her, and manipulates the wristwatch he gave her, transmitting the quantum data that TARS has collected from the black hole’s singularity via morse code. Murph uses the data to harness gravity and help humans leave earth en masse – thus saving mankind.
2017’s ‘Dunkirk’ cleverly interweaves three different perspectives that are set in different time-lengths: an hour, a day, and a week.
The three narratives are:
Land – One week of action:
This tells the story of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), who attempt to escape the Dunkirk beach by boarding various boats or escaping using any means necessary.
Sea – One day of action
This story follows Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their hand George (Barry Keoghan) on a civilian sailboat heading to Dunkirk as part of an evacuation fleet.
Air – One hour of action
Tom Hardy plays Farrier, a Spitfire pilot trying to fend off German aeroplanes to ensure the evacuation of Dunkirk beach is successful.
All three of these narratives are intertwined throughout the film to masterful effect, and are presented as one seamless story despite three individual narratives spanning three different time lengths.
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