A down-and-out writer. An amnesiac sleuth. An insomniac cop. A brooding superhero. A pair of 19th Century magicians. A troubled dream thief. A desperate astronaut. And the Allied soldiers stranded on the shores of Dunkirk. Ostensibly, these are people with little in common; what unites them is one man, director Christopher Nolan, and his enduring fascination with time, both conceptually and as a cinematic storytelling device.
It’s not something you might have spotted until now, but take a closer look at this acclaimed auteur’s body of work and you’ll soon realise that Nolan is a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about, well…time. And that’s without even taking Tenet into account.
Originally scheduled to hit cinemas this month, Tenet – which revolves around a time-travel-in-reverse sci-fi mechanic called “inversion” – looks set to serve as Nolan’s most explicit and exhaustive time-based meditation yet. But with the film’s release date pushed back until 12 August 2020, we’ll have to wait a little longer to see what else Nolan has left to say on the subject.
So, until then, let’s look back at how the award-winning director has incorporated time into his movies to date, and try to tease out what we can expect from Tenet when it finally arrives.
Time always matters in a Christopher Nolan movie (even when it doesn’t)
It’s true that not all of Christopher Nolan’s films are as infused with his preoccupation with time as obvious candidates like Memento, Inception, Interstellar or Dunkirk – movies which, to differing degrees, reflect their maker’s fixation on the relative and subjective nature of time on both a structural and thematic level.
But simply because Following, Insomnia and The Dark Knight Trilogy deal with time in a more superficial sense than those movies, it doesn’t mean they aren’t just as important when it comes to exploring the persistent presence of time as a significant artistic concern within Nolan’s oeuvre.
Right from the get-go, Nolan’s ultra-low budget neo noir debut Following established he was a filmmaker not afraid to experiment with non-linear narrative techniques, something that would soon become regarded as one of his hallmarks.
In fact, Following – which relies on chronological chicanery to create a paranoid atmosphere where the audience is left perpetually off-balance – is essentially a feature-length experiment by a precocious young director coming to grips with the creative possibilities that emerge when a story’s timeline is re-ordered with sufficient skill.
Like a child disassembling their favourite toy to see how it works, Nolan pulls apart Following’s plot in search of greater meaning. Unlike said destructive tyke, however, he’s able to put these deconstructed narrative elements back together again in a totally different configuration in a way that somehow makes the overall story even better.
It’s an approach to story structure that Nolan has carried across to his big budget fare, with both Batman Begins and The Prestige owing much of their effectiveness to their non-linear narrative structures.
If we consider time as it’s deployed in Batman Begins, Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer’s decision to intercut Bruce Wayne’s ninja training with his traumatic formative years results in the most three-dimensional portrait of Batman ever seen on screen.
What’s more, by exploring past and present simultaneously, Nolan manages to intellectually and emotionally rationalise Wayne’s decision to dress as an overgrown bat and fight crime more fully than any director before or since.
Turning to The Prestige, Nolan uses nested narratives – flashbacks within flashbacks – as part of a concerted effort to constantly wrongfoot the audience long enough to deliver a series of devastating plot twists.
This isn’t a mere stunt, though; Nolan and his co-writer (and sibling) Jonathan designed their adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel to structurally mirror the three stages of a magic trick – and what would a magic trick be without a healthy dose of misdirection?
And of course, it’s hardly a coincidence that The Prestige’s two protagonists, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, are (like Bruce Wayne) men haunted by events they cannot change, either; honestly, it doesn’t take a film scholar to see a pattern emerging here…
There’s no escaping time for Christopher Nolan – or his characters
Then there’s Nolan’s more linear outings like Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Rises, which largely eschew the use of chronological cross-cutting prelevant in the director’s wider canon, but which still have the concept (and consequences) of time encoded in their thematic DNA.
In all three films, the immutability of the characters’ pasts colours everything; the idea that the passage of time has brought with it pain, hurt, and loss which cannot be undone.
Take Insomnia. Here, Al Pacino’s Detective Will Dormer has spent years doing the wrong thing for the right reason – planting evidence to secure the convictions of criminals he knew to be guilty – to the point where his inability to sleep is as much a metaphor for his uneasy conscience as it is the fault of Alaska’s perpetual daylight.
Crucially, the fulfilment of Dormer’s redemptive arc in Insomnia, which sees him prevent rookie cop Ellie Burr from committing a similar crime to his own, is about achieving atonement by protecting someone else’s future, not by correcting his own past mistakes.
In the world according to Nolan, the past – which is to say, time that has already elapsed – is something that we can learn from, but never truly erase. As you’d expect, this pragmatic perspective on time informs Nolan’s Batman Begins sequels, too.
The Dark Knight sees Batman’s unquenchable thirst for justice in the wake of his parents’ murders at odds with his desire for a normal life. Fast forward to The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s the Caped Crusader’s heartbreak over love interest Rachael’s death and his self-destructive survivor’s guilt that define him in a distinctly elegiac tale which notably takes place eight years after its predecessor.
Remarkably, The Dark Knight Rises does ultimately allow Bruce Wayne to overcome the decades of trauma that have shaped his life in order to build a new life, yet this requires nothing short of his symbolic death and rebirth to achieve.
It’s as if Nolan is saying that resurrection (even on a purely figurative level) is the only way to fully heal the wounds time inflicts on one’s soul – something out of reach for most people, not least of all The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises’s main villains, who (with the exception of Catwoman) are all the products of physically and psychologically violent episodes that have marked them as irredeemable.
Relativity is key to understanding Nolan’s obsession with time
At this point, we’ve only touched on Christopher Nolan’s films which aren’t directly time-related, only to find that they’re still pretty reliant on the concept. So, what about those that are tangled up in time?
Let’s start with Memento. Nolan’s most flamboyant exercise in time-tinkering, this neo-noir thriller famously plays out across two timelines – one that progresses chronologically and one that unfolds in reverse – that ultimately converge during the finale.
It would be easy to dismiss Memento’s structure as purely a gimmick. However, in Nolan’s hands, it becomes a masterful recreation of protagonist Leonard Shelby’s anterograde amnesia, inviting audiences to experience the same sense of perpetual disorientation as Leonard himself.
Nolan’s preoccupation with time is apparent in more than Memento’s structure, though. As with most of the director’s work, old injuries of the body, soul and mind take centre stage here. Leonard is a man tormented as much by what he can remember (his late wife’s brutal sexual assault) as what he can’t (his subsequent amnesia-addled efforts to track down her attacker).
For Leonard, how time flows is truly subjective; it’s measured entirely via the knowledge of previous events that he can retain or reconstruct. It also serves as the basis for his equally subjective reality, since he uses this knowledge to construct both the world around him and his place within it – even going so far as to tamper with the information at his disposal to ensure he maintains his sense of purpose.
Nolan’s fascination with the brain’s ability to both distort time and erect alternate realities is something that manifests itself in Inception, as well. In this sci-fi heist flick, Nolan’s interest in the relative nature of time (and again, by extension, reality) is most obviously expressed through the film’s multi-tiered, Russian Doll-like narrative, but as with Memento, it runs much deeper than mere structural execution.
Once more, we’re presented with a lead character, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, who is weighed down by grief, regret, and an inability to let go of (and make up for) the sins of his past: yet another victim of the ravages of time. True to form, Inception’s closing moments are ambiguous as to whether Cobb has truly defeated his demons and found his way back to his family in the waking world. But what is clear is that Cobb no longer cares – he’s chosen the present and place, the subjective time and space, that he wants to inhabit, regardless of whether it is or isn’t objectively “real”.
Fittingly, time and space are also both very much at the forefront of Nolan’s sci-fi drama Interstellar – or to be more accurate, time as space. Sure, Nolan has plenty of fun with real-world physics mindbenders like time dilation; however, Interstellar’s most important time-related plot element (as noted by The Hollywood Reporter’s Kyle Kizu) is its depiction of time as a physical dimension which can be traversed and altered by means of paradox.
And that’s exactly what protagonist Cooper does while adrift in a fifth dimensional tesseract which connects him to his daughter Murphy, decades earlier and entire galaxies away: he sends messages to her from her future, to ensure she averts humanity’s extinction in his past.
This makes Coop – who, true to form for Nolan, is plagued with doubt over his decision to leave his children on Earth while he travels across the universe in search of a new home for humanity – the only character in the Nolan canon to have successfully exerted control over the past, which has up till now been strictly immutable.
Yet even here, Nolan (ever the rationalist) sidesteps time travel in the traditional sense and ensures that Coop doesn’t technically rewrite history. Instead, Coop’s unique dimensional vantagepoint means he was always present at that moment, and his actions in the present had simultaneously already occurred in the past. Time may be relative, but Nolan’s thoughts on the concept as it applies to people remain unwavering.
Which doesn’t mean Nolan is entirely immune to more romantic conceptualisations of time. On the contrary, in Interstellar, the director – often criticised for imbuing his films with the same emotional detachment associated with the oeuvre of his hero, Stanley Kubrick – uses a discussion of time and space as a springboard for an impassioned sermon on love’s ability to transcend both, a disarmingly sentimental notion that ties into (and somewhat rationalises) Coop’s subsequent activity in the tesseract.
Such sentimentality is nowhere to be found in Dunkirk, however. Arguably Nolan’s most formalist feature, time permeates every frame of this remarkably un-jingoistic WWII epic: not only does it chart three intertwined yet distinct chronologies – the Dunkirk evacuation effort as it happened on land, sea, and air, over the course of a week, day, and hour, respectively – but Hans Zimmer’s score even incorporates the ticking of Nolan’s own pocket watch!
The result is a supremely effective evocation of how time flows differently for different people in different high-pressure scenarios; how a dogfight that lasts barely 60 minutes can feel as long as a seven-day retreat (and vice versa). It also establishes time (and not the unseen Axis soldiers) as the true enemy the Allied forces must contend with, shifting the thematic emphasis away from “good versus evil” typical of WWII films, and lending it a noticeably Nolanesque slant.
That Nolan is still able to tell an emotionally engaging story even with his attention so obviously focused on craft aspects like structure and rhythm suggests that Dunkirk may very well be the director’s most accomplished experiment with non-linear structure yet.
Sure, its intentionally streamlined characters and themes – which are crucial to its success – prevent it from reaching the same thematic heights as his earlier work. Nevertheless, by the time all three timelines converge with immaculate precision to deliver a suitably rousing conclusion, it’s a decidedly harsh critic who would take Nolan to task for treating with time on a largely technical basis on this occasion.
So, what does all this mean for Tenet?
All of which brings us, at long last, to Tenet. What exactly should we expect from this science fiction-tinged spy movie, based off the latest trailer and our own understanding of Nolan’s previous 10 films and their conceptual connection with time?
Well, for starters, it seems inevitable that Tenet’s time inversion mechanic will allow Nolan dive headfirst into the kind of trippy, time paradox-based mindfuckery that characterised the end of Interstellar. No doubt, this will be liberally sprinkled with the non-linear narrative tricks he’s been perfecting since Memento, with at least some of the misdirection seen in The Prestige thrown in for good measure.
But more than that, expect The Protagonist (seriously: that’s the lead character’s actual name, apparently!) to be a man carrying the burden of a past he cannot change – or perhaps he can, thanks to time inversion? Either way, The Protagonist’s supposed goal of preventing the outbreak of World War III in Tenet seems likely to play second fiddle to his attempts to reconcile with (or even flat-out reverse) the painful backstory that Nolan has almost assuredly saddled him with.
Other than that, though, it really is a mystery as to what Christopher Nolan has in store for us with Tenet. Not to worry, though: we’ll find out soon enough – it’s only a matter of time.