Christopher Nolan movies are the rare marriage of big budget blockbusters with high critical acclaim. The secret to how he does this is probably worth billions. On some magical level his films consistently manage to balance crowd-friendly thrills and huge action set pieces with underlying motifs and cathartically resonance. He creates a spectacle that does more than tickle the senses, venturing into deep waters that no Michael Baysian explosion or J.J. Abram’s plot twist would dare attempt.
Throughout his films, Nolan’s protagonists each must deal with not only their overall goal (stop the Joker, achieve Inception, become the greatest magician), they must also resolve their primary character flaw. Usually this flaw ties into the film’s overall theme, a theme that can be expressed in one word and is reflected in the other characters and sub-plots. The tighter this character-theme relationship is, the stronger the film becomes.
On occasion Nolan himself has admitted these one-word themes (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises I believe) so it’s not too much of a stretch to go search for them. Are his films perfectly reducible to one word? Of course not. They all have a multitude of thematic statements of varying significance reverberating throughout every scene. But do they each have an overarching idea that drives the narrative forward? I think so.
Let’s examine his most recent films one-by-one in chronological order and evaluate these themes. Spoilers abound for all movies ahead.
FEAR – Batman Begins
Perhaps no where is the one-word theme more obvious than in Nolan’s mainstream debut. A complex look at the man behind the mask and his motivations for creating his terrifying symbol of justice, Begins explores the innate power of fear. It is not criminals and violence that Bruce Wayne must overcome to save his city: it is fear. Carrying the scars of a childhood trauma, Bruce is fearful of the world’s inherent danger so aptly embodied in the sinster wings of bats. Trained by the League of Shadows he learns to embrace his fear and channel it into a form of strength. Finally understanding his own fear allows him to manipulate fear in others.
The film’s secondary villain is Jonathan Crane, a user of potent toxins that amplify fear to lethal levels. Tellingly Scarecrow draws upon the exact same psychological weapons as Batman. And behind Crane, working in the shadows, is the mastermind of Gotham’s destruction, Ra’s al Ghul who seeks to topple the city by hypnotizing the populace into a terrified psychosis.
Violence, danger, vengeance, loss. All these weave together to form a gripping story about fear and a man who used it against those who would impose their fear on others. Beyond a costumed vigilante, Bruce becomes the fear of retribution personified.
AMBITION – The Prestige
A story of two rival magicians competing to become the world’s greatest magician, The Prestige unfolds non-linearly and only makes sense once each magician’s secret is revealed. A slavish devotion to achieving greatness leads both Robert Angier and Alfred Borden to lose themselves and destroy those around them.
It begins when two magician’s assistants, Angier and Borden, see a frail Chinese magician perform a trick where he pulls a fishbowl out of thin air. The pair speculate that the man lives his whole life, both on and off stage, pretending to be old and limp in order to pull off this trick. This example of total commitment to one’s craft convinces both Angier and Borden that only great sacrifice will fuel their dreams of becoming the greatest magician.
Borden accomplishes this by literally splitting his life with his twin brother. Alternating between playing the magician and his associate “Fallon”, Borden is actually two people sharing one public identity for the sole purpose of performing the Transporting Man trick. The two brothers refuse even to tell their wife Sarah. Their secret routine soon results in the death of Angier’s wife Julia when one of the brothers unknowingly ties the wrong knot. Despite this outcome, they do not stop. They are fully committed regardless of the price. Next they both lose two fingers. Ultimately, their deceitful lifestyle leads to Sarah committing suicide and the death of one of the brothers.
Angier’s ambition drives him into darkness as well. Always outmatched by Borden, Angier finally comes across a trick even better than his: Tesla’s mysterious teleportation machine. So twisted in his pursuit of fame, Angier unhesitating kills his own duplicate and begins using the machine every night to perform the Transporting Man. Every night Angier performs the trick not knowing whether he will drown to death in the water tank or appear high above on the platform. He is now the best, greater than even Borden, but at the cost of very soul. He kills himself every night to the sound of thunderous applause.
These two characters are so fueled by ambition that they divide their own personhood to the point of self-destruction. Ambition consumes them and the ones they love.
CHAOS – The Dark Knight
Batman can stop criminals because they have methods and motives, hopes and fears, a human element to their actions. But chaos has no such weakness. It is entirely random, the unstoppable pull of entropy. In the Joker, Batman finds his true nemesis. The Joker has no goal except to prove that civilized order is an illusion, a tidy house of cards ready to collapse. From the opening heist that leaves his own co-conspirators dead, it is clear the Joker has no rhyme or reason. Most criminals want money, but he burns it with glee.
The Joker sets his sights on Harvey Dent, a force of law and order and a beacon of justice in an unjust city. By killing Rachel and disfiguring Harvey’s face, he knocks the district attorney out of balance, sucking him into the Joker’s chaotic moral universe. Harvey enacts harsh punishment upon the city’s criminals, yet leaves their fate up to chance in a simple coin toss. He is an unwitting ally of the Joker’s chaotic nature, a casualty of a reckless madman.
Batman must master this chaos in order to defeat it. To fight entropy requires sacrifice. Private cellphones are commandeered with Wayne technology and turned into a tool for Batman’s vigilante justice. Joker must be spared as not to increase the already senseless body count. Finally the symbol of Batman must be sacrificed so that Harvey’s memory and legacy will stand. The chaos swirls but at last it is painfully kept at bay.
REGRET – Inception
Cobb is a man haunted by a dark secret. He unintentionally made his wife Mal throw herself off a ledge and found himself wanted for murder and separated from his children. In the dream world his regret chases him in the form of a murderous Mal, making him unable to safely inhabit shared consciousness. However Saito offers him the chance to live without this regret and return to his children. All Cobb must do is perform inception.
But what we don’t know is that Cobb and Mal have lived a full life together, lost in the seeming eternity of limbo. Letting go of his regret and embracing this truth, Cobb finds a way to confront his sorrow, achieve inception, and finally forge new life. While so many enter dreams to escape reality, Cobb uses his encounter with Mal to return to it.
Other characters also reflect the state of regret. Ariadne leaves the team because she knows it is unsafe but returns knowing that she will forever regret the chance to build in the dream world. Saito, trapped in limbo, emerges at the end of the film having lived a lifetime in his own dream. He remembers his promise to Cobb and the life he once had as a young man without regret. Robert Fischer, heir to his father’s empire, only takes to the idea implanted by Cobb’s team regretting that he could never please his father. The dream world becomes a place not just of creation and action but as a place for dealing with the things we cannot change.
PAIN – The Dark Knight Rises
Bruce Wayne begins the film as a crippled shell, a failure in both business and personal relationships. Hobbling around his mansion he is still dealing with the physical pain of his injuries and psychological pain over losing Rachel. As it becomes evident that Bane is threatening the city, the weakened Batman returns to stop this evil from rising from the sewers.
Bane however is accustomed to pain, his face disfigured by violence. His sheer physicality overshadows anything that an out-of-practice Bruce Wayne can offer. The breathing mask obstructing Bane’s face keeps away the pain. He will shatter Bruce and claim Gotham for his violent purposes. Hurting people is his speciality, whether through force or through manipulation.
Bruce finds an unlikely ally in Miranda Tate, a likeminded entrepreneur. She wins his heart only to rip it out again when the time is ripe. More hurt, more pain. Overcoming his broken body, his shattered soul, Bruce learns to rise against it.
ISOLATION – Man of Steel
Although Zach Snyder directed and provided the vision for the film, Nolan both produced and provided story input while his Dark Knight collaborator David Goyer wrote the screenplay, making it Nolanesque enough to discuss. Man of Steel is story of isolation. Clark Kent is orphan and alien, losing both his father figures and physically different from his peers. He cannot be hurt, sees and hears far more than he can control, and fire lasers from his eyes. This sets him apart, separating him from his adopted people.
General Zod, cast out for his attempted takeover, is also set apart. Banished for their crimes, Zod and his crew wake up to find their civilization erased. Committed to rebuilding the Kryptonian race, Zod is willing to raze the earth to restore his people. This endeavor alienates him from the very Krypton he is fighting to save and he knows this. Thwarted by Kal-El, the last of his people are pulled into the Phantom Zone. Zod is utterly alone, everything he stands for decisively stripped away, leaving him in a state of nihilist rage.
Here are two men, each separated from the people and home they value most, yet with vastly different coping strategies. Zod clings to what was lost, forfeiting his ethics in the process. Kal-El forged ahead, wisely heeding Jor-El’s advice and becoming a bridge between two worlds and a moral example to his adopted home world. Each man is the product of a deep and profound aloneness.