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By David Young · January 17, 2023
There’s a time and a place in every story, but sometimes filmmakers push the envelope a bit more than that. In Christopher Nolan films, that’s almost always the case.
His action thrillers and dramas test the boundaries of time especially, making sure that his story lives up to the Greek epic tradition of starting a story in medias res, or in the middle of things.
Nolan’s writing is usually a clear example of nonlinear storytelling, whether it’s throughout the story or just built on top of the main narrative. There’s always another goal to this as well, whether it’s the establishment of chaos and confusion or the fulfillment of subjectivity. Those goals come to fruition thanks to Nolan’s willingness to play with the direction of time itself.
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Ready to circumnavigate cinematic time (and space)? Then let’s check out some of the best Christopher Nolan films in the list below!
If we’re talking nonlinear stories, Memento most definitely must come first. As one of Nolan’s earliest creations, this film satisfied the mystery-thriller quota that seemed to exist in the early 2000s by using memory as a story device. The main character struggles to remember what happened even in the short term, so his ability to find his wife’s murderer is hindered by that.
Nolan reflects the division of this movie’s timelines stylistically using color as well as direction, with key, missing events moving backward as they become a suspenseful telltale of what’s to come during Leonard’s black-and-white stream of consciousness. Being a subject of memory itself, this film’s use of nonlinear storytelling is perhaps easy to recognize, but all the while still enticing — especially when reading or watching this film for the second time around to catch what was missed the first time.
Yet another story that inherently warrants the nonlinear approach, Interstellar allows time dilation and the warping of time-space to become the vehicle for more than one protagonist’s story progression. In most respects, each story moves forward from beginning to end, but there is a hint here and there of the influence that Cooper finds himself having when interacting with materials technically “outside his time.”
This science fiction film powerfully incorporates “while on Earth” scenes to pace out the other main narrative in a way that feels real enough to believe on screen and on the page.
Christopher Nolan’s approach to The Dark Knight might beg a few questions for those familiar with his postmodern style. Yes, the urban setting and the dark, muted look still strike the audience. However, the sequel follows suit with his usual style, much like his first film about the nocturnal vigilante, Batman Begins.
The Dark Knight Rises features various flashbacks serving the purpose of a clearer and more complex picture each time, all the while adding to multiple storylines in the usual Nolan action-thriller fashion.
The film proves once again the effect of dark and disturbing supervillain actions when paired with the unsettling loss of linear time — something Nolan’s first Batman film cemented in place for fans as well.
While many stories of Nolan’s might use the nonlinear narrative as a proving ground for complexity and multiple storylines, Inception uses it as a recurring feature of the main story. After all, it’s a story about dreams and the question of reality.
So, while the majority of the film follows a prevalent singular narrative, the beginning and climax are notably nonlinear in both reality and presentation. The progressive actions of this unique heist film occur side-by-side as dual narratives as well, making for a script that should be reread more than once to deliver its full impact.
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Dunkirk is a Christopher Nolan film that features, true to form, three separate narratives that help to reflect and explore the subjective experience of those struggling to survive this historical battle.
However, these three narratives receive staggering differences in length, lending to the urgency of their situations as well as the suspense and realism that would have been eliminated with a traditionally linear storyline — which is one great way of circumventing the issues that come from retelling real-life occurrences on screen.
Ah, time. It’s a finicky thing, of course, but writers like Christopher Nolan sure do love that trait. While Dunkirk is a movie focused on the past events that occurred in World War II, Tenet focuses everything in the story around “the 14th,” a fateful date that seems to be the mark of disaster for a future world at war.
That said, Nolan finds his workaround by creating a chronological complexity that moves backward and forwards in time while the action from the Protagonist’s point of view actually occurs in a surprisingly straight line.
The ability to emphasize multiple perspectives and subjectivity, in general, is a great result of nonlinear storytelling as it’s performed in The Prestige. Based on a novel that accomplishes an illusion-like effect in its suspenseful progression, this script develops new twists and turns at several corners. Each of these is by necessity punctuated with another jump in time and perspective.
This powerful positioning of timelines creates a very palpable rivalry that adds to the narrative with all-too-relatable competitive obsession mixed with dark, unwanted outcomes for both parties.
It’s important to learn what a stylistic choice really accomplishes. You might establish a trend or tradition in your writing, but what it does for your audience has to be the most important thing. For Christopher Nolan, the scripts he writes deliver an intentional exploration of inner conflict, multiple perspectives, and even the concepts of time and space themselves. His fascination with these ideas results in the process that he’s now well-known for: the process of eliminating, disregarding, or warping a story’s traditional chronology.
While you may not always see each of his films delivering the iconic multidimensional approach of Memento, you can always count on him to use the script and the editing room to bring a vision to life in multiple living pieces!
If you look forward to doing the same, have a look at his scripts for yourself!