A Criticism of Christopher Nolan: Characterless Character

December 2, 2016 / Jongjin Park

Christopher Nolan is a genius in a very literal sense: “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative.” That statement isn’t my thesis statement or what I’m trying to argue against, but it is a statement that needs to be acknowledged for the sake of the following discussion.

These days, every filmmaker is trying to elevate cinema with the thinking that advancing the medium of films is using advanced technology. George Lucas, someone who was helmed as a creative, innovative genius of his time, was harshly criticized for using green screens in subsequent Star Wars movies. James Cameron, the filmmaker known for classics such as Aliens, Terminator, Terminator 2, and Titanic, was criticized for his most recent film, Avatar, for relying on a gimmick of 3-D for more monetary gain. Guillermo del Toro, director that’s known for amazing practical costumes and realistic horror, used much CGI in one of his latest films, Pacific Rim. And in the midst of Star Wars and Avatar and Pacific Rim, we have an outlier: Christopher Nolan. He believes the same thing all these filmmakers believed in: the medium of movies should be elevated and advanced. But he doesn’t believe relying on new technology is the answer.

In all of his movies, Christopher Nolan refuses to use green screen for his special effects-filled scenes and he uses film, instead of digital to shoot his films. But what makes him an outlier is not this; directors such as J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino, also consistently stick to old shooting methods. What makes Christopher Nolan an outlier is that he tries to push the boundaries of what old cinema techniques can do. It would be an understatement to say his movies had an impactful influence in pop culture from the music in Inception, Joker’s lines in the Dark Knight, or the visual mastery of Interstellar because of this very thing.

Consistently, he has been praised for being outwardly creative and for expanding on ideas and themes in ways that makes the audience think, whether it’s about dreams, memories, illusions, space, corruption, or war.

With all of this said, Nolan’s stories consistently lose sight of what they're supposed to be about. If I were to write this before 2012, no one would agree with me, but it seems most moviegoers are starting to see a problem with all of his movies. When I say his stories loses sight of what they're supposed to be about, I am meaning to say he overly focuses on themes and ideas in exchange for characters and plot; let me explain.

One of his most prestigious movies, Inception, is, in one word, about dreams. When the movie ends on a interpretative twist, it successfully makes the audience think about what the ending means. Questions like, “Does it matter if reality is quote-unquote ‘real’ or not?” There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, this brings out the genius that’s in Nolan’s mind. The problem comes when you start to think what the movie is really about. Not just one word answers, but what you, as the audience, are supposed to follow. The story is actually about a man named Cobb who lost a wife, blamed for the murder of his wife, unhappily taken away from his children, and falls into a situation, in which, he is forced to rob an idea from someone via dreams. However, little time is actually spent on the relationship between Cobb and his children, little time is spent on how he was blamed for his wife’s murder, and suddenly an emotional connection is lost. Cobb suddenly becomes, not a protagonist you want to follow along, but rather a plot device that helps convey the idea Nolan wants to implant in your brain.

This isn’t just seen in Inception. Interstellar is about a father named Cooper who is taken away from his daughter for multiple years, and is obliged to save the world via space. By the end, the message it conveys is that love is powerful and unquantifiable, but it doesn’t do this well because it’s too busy focused on the mechanics of interstellar travel, rather than Cooper’s relationship with his daughter.

The Dark Knight is about Batman being conflicted with retiring, wanting to be with someone he loves, dealing with corruption, and defeating the antagonist, but falls flat because it focuses on the methods of Batman defeating the Joker, rather than his romantic relationship or the guilt he carries along with the job.

I can go on, but the problem is clear: Christopher Nolan doesn’t care about characters. Most of the time, his characters are dry, dull, or cold. You don’t outright realize this because he casts A-list Oscar winners in his cast. Remember when I said Nolan exceptionally expands on ideas such as dreams, memories, illusions, space, corruption, and war? When he does this, he ends up sacrificing character relationships, character development, and character motivations. In every movie, Nolan hopes his ideas will become bigger than the stories, not realizing characters are the story.

Now, it may seem that I hate Nolan and his work, but that’s quite to the contrary. Hollywood, right now, needs more people like him who are willing to expand on original ideas. But he’s been able to tell airtight stories before in a manner that doesn’t devalue the characters. Memento, for example, was one of his earliest movies and thereby had very minimal budget. But with this budget, the movie not only talks about people’s excessive tendencies to want to rewrite past memories, but also goes through character’s struggles of his wife’s death and a longing for a time that didn’t exist. Batman Begins, outright doesn’t expand on any long-winded ideas, but rather tells a three-act story in a very straightforward manner: (1) Bruce’s parents die, (2) Bruce trains to become Batman, (3) Bruce as Batman fights the antagonist.

As time passes and Nolan becomes more of a superstar-director, he’s also gaining more and more money and luxuries to be careless about his characters. The stories, we as an audience, are interested in are the stories of the individuals we are being forced to follow. Christopher Nolan isn’t alone. There are more and more filmmakers who want to avoid the path of telling a straightforward story in an attempt to be treated as high-level, complex art. Recently, Black Mirror: Season 3 has been released in Netflix with each episode trying to criticize modern technology, but ends up not being near as impactful as 1984 or Gulliver’s Travels because you don’t care about the characters. This is something, we as the audience, also must be wary about. It’s easy to be carried away and be mind-blown about the multi-dimensional complexities Nolan wants to reveal to you. But movies aren’t a magic show. They are a journey that, at the very least, should ask the audience to follow along in. Stories without characters aren’t stories.

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