Hollywood is a hard nut to crack. It’s the only industry in which success does not beget more success. Just ask Patty Jenkins, who inexplicably hadn’t directed a single feature film since her 2003 Oscar-winning debut Monster until this summer’s Wonder Woman. It’s hard to get studios and audiences on your side.
Unless, of course, you’re Christopher Nolan. The 46-year-old British filmmaker is arguably the best and most popular working director at the moment and his reputation will only be bolstered by this week’s release of the buzzed-about Dunkirk. Nolan’s work has earned critical acclaim and massive box office dollars over the years. But how exactly did he do it and why do audiences love him so much?
To answer those questions, let’s look at Nolan’s biggest strengths.
One of Nolan’s strongest attributes behind the camera is his ability to effectively tell non-linear narratives. Rather than lay out his stories A-Z, Nolan prefers to hop around to different points in time and layer his films with concurrently overlapping points of view. Think about how much fun it was trying to solve Memento‘s puzzle box mystery in reverse order or how The Prestige‘s escape room structure gets better with multiple viewings. What about the far reach of Interstellar‘s decades-spanning tale or the audaciousness of Inception‘s dream-within-a-dream foundation?
Not only does this approach actively engage audiences, it also spices up what could otherwise be a standard crime drama or love story. It’s a clever gimmick that works every time Nolan employs it.
Big Blockbuster Ideas
At this point, drawing a comparison from Nolan to Steven Spielberg is played out and lazy. But there’s no denying a specific similarity between the two. One of Spielberg’s most attractive qualities is his ability to synthesize big ideas normally reserved for Oscar bait and seamlessly infuse them into blockbuster fare. Nolan does this too.
Feelings of loss, guilt and rage result in a cracked psyche and a lifelong pursuit to fill an internal emptiness and blaze an uncompromisingly moral path for others. Does that description sound more like the protagonist of an independent drama or Batman? Because it’s Batman. Nolan grounded his Dark Knight trilogy—which is still the best superhero franchise of all time—in relatable emotion as he does with many of his mainstream blockbusters.
Overall, audiences love Nolan because he blends tentpole action entertainment with a focus on the human condition all while delivering it in slick, attention piquing ways.
Now I’m going to go re-watch The Dark Knight for the 117th time.