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Dare to dream of a better Christopher Nolan

Ninha Morandini/Flickr

This is a multilayered dreamscape, and you are at its core. You are finished dreaming and would like to regain your consciousness. And in order to ascend, you must get a “kick” to wake up in the next level of the dream world. Under normal circumstances, one can achieve this kick by “dying” – by being killed, or by killing yourself. But this is a multilayered dream, and it is therefore different. Killing yourself here will only drop you further into your own subconscious.

It gets worse. If you’re not careful, your descent may eventually land you in the dreaded realm of Limbo. According to rumor, Limbo is an inescapable maze of thoughts and emotion. It must be avoided at all costs.

But wait, that’s not true. Limbo is actually very escapable. It is nothing more than another simple layer of the dream world. It is so ordinary, in fact, that killing yourself in Limbo will wake you right back up in the real world.

Does this make any sense to you, Mr. Nolan? Because I’m lost.

I’m lost because the plot makes no sense, not because it is over-complicated. I’m lost because I have no idea how you actually spent 10 years writing the mess that became “Inception.” And I’m lost because I have no idea what happened to the promising filmmaker we all eagerly watched blossom in the late 1990s.

The image of Christopher Nolan was that of a burgeoning auteur. Opening his career with “Following,” Nolan wet his beak in the deep pools of film noir. In the early days of the genre, noirs were B-movies, made with low budgets that meant shoddy sets and equipment that had to be hidden in the shadows. This is what gave noir its now-iconic aesthetic. Made for just $6,000, even the budget of “Following” hearkened back to the origins of the form.

And importantly, every part of “Following” was the product of Nolan’s sweat and passion for the medium; Nolan personally wrote, produced, shot, directed and edited the film. There is perhaps something to be said for having such a personal investment in a movie. Although he has retained some creative control, Nolan hasn’t had an opportunity like that since moving to major studio filmmaking.

After his debut feature, Nolan really turned heads with “Memento.” A complex puzzle of a film with an intriguing premise and a smart central mystery, it was an instant hit. More than just a great movie, “Memento” showed that Christopher Nolan was here to stay: his style recognizable, his talent apparent.

Then everything changed. A few very clever film executives saw Nolan’s proficiency with mystery and suspense, and asked that he work on a full reboot of Batman. On paper, this made sense but “Batman Begins,” despite being a critical success, was not the Batman film people were expecting. While it certainly had technical merit, it lacked any meaningful detective work and certainly did not paint the Dark Knight as a bastion of human intelligence.

Why didn’t Nolan simply build on the intellectually satisfying foundation he established in both “Following” and “Memento”? In many ways, those movies are better Batman films than any of the entries in The Dark Knight Trilogy. As any comic book fan will tell you, Batman is the Dark Knight, yes – but he is also the World’s Greatest Detective. While some of his arch enemies are physical matches for him, most seek to challenge his problem-solving skills and moral fortitude. This is a key trait that is mystifyingly absent from Nolan’s take on the character, especially given the director’s previous efforts.

Nolan’s descent continued with “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequels to “Batman Begins.” Forget about making a good Batman film – these movies lacked the personal touches that made “Memento,” “Following” and even “Batman Begins” such daring creations. Then, after a refreshing but brief return to his roots with the quiet “The Prestige” in 2006, Nolan finally announced his big non-Batman project: a sci-fi film called “Inception.”

It promised to be incredible. Some suggested that it would be the worthy sequel to “The Matrix” that we never got. Its cast and crew seemed like a dream team of filmmaking talent. But then “Inception” hit theaters and it simply wasn’t what it set out to be. Its story was muddled and inconsistent, spending time on world-building only to negate its own exposition moments later. Its visuals were disappointingly unimaginative. And troublingly, its premise seemed to be lifted wholesale from Satoshi Kon’s seminal animated masterpiece, “Paprika.”

Nolan has a new sci-fi film coming out in 2014. It’s called “Interstellar.” It’s got a huge budget and features a killer cast – Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine and more are all set to star. And I really wish I could get excited for it, because Nolan should be able to handle the complex storytelling required of science fiction films. But all recent evidence seems to be to the contrary.

Mr. Nolan, I am asking you as an old fan. Remember where you came from. Remember what it was like to make a movie for just a few thousand bucks. Remember what it was like to craft a beautiful story with nothing but your mind, sans the backing of a Hollywood studio. Because I remember when that was your mission, Mr. Nolan, and I miss it.

Søren Hough can be reached at shhough@umass.edu.

Comments
7 Responses to “Dare to dream of a better Christopher Nolan”
  1. Earl Theatre says:

    Nolan’s batman was based on Frank Miller’s dark knight who did a lot of fighting not so much detective work. I personally like everything Nolan has made to date.

  2. Bob says:

    Whats hard to Understand about Inception? Because u dont understand its a bad movie? I have seen all his Movies. Inception is his 2nd best film behind Memento.

    They went to Limbo because they were to heavily sedated. And in limbo u have to wait till the sedation wares off. Must of been about 50 (Dream) years looking at the asian guy. But i real time it was 10 hours because Dream time is longer than real life. (5 min =1 hour in a dream)

    Re watch the movie please. And dont call it a mess. Top 50 highest grossing movies of all time. (Even without 3D) critically loved. And has a high rating on every fan movie site or app. 8.8/10 on IMDB from 800,000 votes.

  3. Trey says:

    Sounds like you don’t realize they are heavily sedated on the plane. A compound that will make them sleep for 10 hours. If u die in a normal dream you wake up. They are basically drugged for 10 hours. So they cant wakeup till time is up. Or they do the simultaneous kick on all 3 levels.
    Watch the movie before you complain. Nolan gets better each movie. Cant wait for Interstellar!!!

  4. Johnny says:

    The Dark Knight is without doubt the greatest movie I have seen. I don’t see what problem you have with it. I accept inception is a bit inconsistent especially about the whole limbo idea and the way totems work and how Leo and his team are able to remember what happened after the dream but fisher doesnt. But in the beginning Saito seemed to remember the dream.

  5. Johnny says:

    Im still excited as hell for interstellar.

  6. Brandon Sides says:

    Søren, I think Nolan’s career has been strong and will continue to be strong. He hasn’t lost it.
    .
    Sure, the Batman series and Inception lacked the feel of his original films. They relied on more special effects and simplification. The Batman series was pretty washed down. But that’s not entirely Nolan’s fault, really. Think about the studio constraints he has because he’s now working with such colossal budgets.
    .
    Inception demonstrated that he’s managed to keep his signature touch despite working with such constraints. Just as he did in the Batman series, Nolan added his own spin within a traditional domain. In Inception he built upon tired film traditions such as the femme fatale, blockbuster special effects, and violence galore. And I think that’s why Inception turned out to be such a powerful film. It’s a summer blockbuster designed to appeal even to your grandparents, who exclusively go out to see action & adventure blockbusters. Nolan’s spin is valuable given that broad audience.
    .
    Nolan understands just how ridiculous that film feels, and he even uses a character to acknowledge that fact. At one point Mal remarks to Cobb about how unusual and unrealistic it is for enemies to be chasing him and for wild action to be exploding all around him. That scene in many ways demonstrates the Nolan brothers’ acknowledgement of the movie’s ridiculousness. At this point in the game, the Nolan brothers are so valuable that they need to channel their style within the context of Hollywood. Nolan’s past his indie days, and I don’t blame him — it’d be pretty awesome to create a vision you’ve had since your college days with bundles of dollars for special effects. Along with those bundles, of course, comes the studio’s need for guaranteed fiscal success. So his story can’t be too complicated, too out there, because Nolan’s Inception audience was, again, your action & adventure grandparents. (Apologies for the ageism.) Part of its weakness was probably just due to Nolan, though, as you point out.
    .
    It is a shame that his films aren’t pure Nolan anymore, but it’s easy to escape that depressing mindset when you view his more recent films as merely standard blockbusters, because that’s what they are. So I suggest going into next year’s “Interstellar” with that low standard. To judge his new films by his earlier style isn’t appropriate now because he’s playing a different game. What’s happened to Nolan isn’t entirely his fault; it points more to what happens when these really talented creators get picked up and thrown a lot of money with certain constraining strings attached.

  7. N. says:

    so what you’re saying is, christopher nolan has made exactly two good movies? why is he even worth writing about then? did he die or something? (or only in a dream?) speaking of which, in contrast to his batman movies – which still could bear a little more discussion for various reasons – inception was at least fun and kind of interesting. i can’t imagine what the point was in starting your article with a three-paragraph rehash of a movie we all saw three years ago…also, have you actually seen paprika? aside from the dream-invading, which is actually a much older trope, it’s really not that similar.

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