Memento. Insomnia. The Prestige. The Dark Knight Trilogy. Inception. Interstellar. The films of Christopher Nolan are proof that Hollywood filmmakers don’t have to sacrifice great storytelling to create a commercially successful blockbuster. And with the announcement of Nolan’s next upcoming epic, Dunkirk, inspired by the evacuation of that French coastal city in World War II, revisiting his films reveals a single, surprising focus: time travel.
None of Christopher Nolan’s movies feature DeLoreans, phone booths or hot tubs, but they do all revolve around this one simple idea.
Something has gone wrong in the past. But through memories, magic, dreams or science, Nolan’s characters have the ability to go back in time, fix what happened, and return to a better present. As Nolan continues to create hugely successful films, producers continue to allow him greater leeway to essentially do whatever the hell he wants on screen, which he then uses to expand the role of time travel in each of his films. And as his career goes on, all of his characters develop a greater and greater capacity to change their past and save the future.
Here’s how his singular take on time travel has evolved over the course of eight major films. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.
Nolan’s Hollywood career begins with Memento, a psychological thriller about a man looking for his wife’s killers. If the film followed events as they actually occurred, it’d be a straightforward story. But the guy suffers from a rare form of amnesia that forces him to use Polaroid photos, notes and tattoos to help keep him on track with his search. In order for the audience to understand Leonard Shelby’s perception of his failing memory and the passage of time, the film itself is told out of chronological order, creating a nonlinear narrative which is the hallmark of the film: black-and-white sequences are happening normally; everything in color is shown in reverse order. Upon its release, critics (and medical experts too, strangely enough) hailed Memento’s innovative back-and-forth structure. In this early Nolan film, Shelby cannot go back in time to save his wife—but he can avenge her death.
The situation improves slightly in Insomnia, which follows a Los Angeles detective investigating a murder in Alaska and plagued by insomnia due to the season’s perpetual daylight. The case goes awry after the detective accidentally shoots his partner while chasing the murder suspect, and his attempts to cover up the killing crumble partly due to guilt and his inability to sleep. He tries to plant evidence and fake forensics, but he can’t stay far enough ahead of the investigation, let alone stay awake. Has it been four hours since he went to sleep or eight? Has it been a day? The detective deteriorates as he loses track of time and the case spins out of control. But we’ve improved slightly from Memento, because although solving the murder in Insomnia can’t prevent the corruption that plagues Al Pacino’s character, it can set a fellow rookie cop on the right path for the years ahead.
THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2006–2012)
Jumping through time provides a kind of setting in Memento and Insomnia, just as distinctive as Los Angeles or Alaska. But by the time we get to The Dark Knight Trilogy, time has been promoted to part of the plot. Nolan spends three films getting Bruce Wayne to return to a single moment in his life: falling down the well as a boy. Watching his parents get murdered simply gave him an enemy to direct his anger, at crime in Gotham. But for all the colorful opponents that he goes up against, Bruce Wayne is never able to defeat his own demons. He’s never pulled himself out of the well. He couldn’t—until he finds himself back there again, at the bottom of another well, decades later.
THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Two rival magicians go head-to-head in The Prestige, squaring off in dangerous illusions where time is the biggest factor: Take too long performing a stunt and you drown. Another story that heavily employs the use of flashbacks, the film’s big reveal features multiple magicians (in every sense of the word), which allow both men to essentially be present in two places at once. The fact that there isn’t enough time to escape a trick and make it across the room forces them to employ doubles and duplication. As we learn in the film’s final moments, the results are tragic and deeply disturbing.
In the dream worlds of Inception, time slows as con artists infiltrate the sleeping minds of high-ranking business executives and trick them into revealing their secrets. The trademark talent of expert Dominic Cobb is his ability to create dreams within dreams, a deeper level where time moves at a crawl. After an experiment to explore the dream world lands Cobb and his wife in limbo, the deepest possible dream state where time virtually stands still, “something like 50 years” pass before they’re able to escape and get back to reality. Or do they? The events of Inception set Cobb on a new mission to invade someone else’s psyche but really, he’s determined to get back to his own; to find solace and catharsis in the past, back to his wife suspended in limbo.
Finally, the characters of Interstellar actually age at different speeds as gravitational forces cause severe time dilation while they proceed on a voyage across galaxies in order to find a habitable substitute for Earth. Here, Nolan has elevated time to its biggest role yet, as the film’s primary antagonist. Because when an hour spent on the surface of an unknown planet means seven years pass on Earth, no one in the movie knows if their mission can be completed before all life back home dies out. Let alone the idea of ever seeing their loved ones again. And despite this, time travel becomes the solution: interdimensional life forms (who may or may not be human beings from the distant future) intervene to allow Matthew McConaughey’s character to communicate to his daughter across the galaxy by peeking through her bedroom bookshelf in the past. Yikes. When it comes to stories about navigating space and time, this is about as far out there as it gets, save for the presence of giant black monoliths or blue British police boxes.
Which brings us back to the future with the upcoming Dunkirk. As a historical film, Nolan’s characters won’t be traveling to the past, but he is—back to 1941, after the Battle of Dunkirk during WWII, where British forces were stranded along the French coast against the approaching German army. Miraculously, more than 300,000 British troops were able to be successfully evacuated to safety, in a maneuver considered to be a turning point in the war. All this over the course of just one week.
Dunkirk seems primed to be Nolan’s first without some element of time travel. But it’s asking the same question that all of his films do: How should we spend our time?
Because whether it’s 1890s London, 1940s France or 21st-century Gotham, when you have the ability to jump between the future and the past (in one form or another) to face your problems, where do you go and why? Do you accept the reality of your present situation or are you willing to make the jump to a time and place where you can change your life?
This is the question that Christopher Nolan asks of his characters—and his viewers.