Christopher Nolan is competing with himself, but cinema is the winner

Christopher Nolan is continually trying to outdo himself when it comes to the scale of his movies, which is great news for fans of the cinematic experience

Christopher Nolan and Kenneth Branagh behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Very few could deny Christopher Nolan the title of the greatest modern filmmaker working today, but that doesn’t stop the director from continually pushing boundaries. Despite making some of the best movies of all time, though, it seems Nolan is never content and refuses to rest on his laurels.

Nolan has always been an ambitious creative. You only have to look at the short films that helped launch his career to see that he had big ideas and, more importantly, the talent to bring them to life. He’s already achieved filmmaking feats that others can only dream of, so why is he so intent on outdoing himself with each new project?

Not content with breaking our brains time and time again with twisted thriller movies, redefining the superhero movie genre, or even transporting us to the darkest depths of our universe, Nolan is always looking for the next big stunt he can pull, and he never seems to fail – which is great news for anyone who believes in the magic of cinema.

His feature-length directorial debut, Following, was a fairly modest independent film. Set very much in a grounded, real world with a simple premise, the ‘90s movie was enough to get Nolan’s foot in the door in Hollywood. It was his big breakthrough with the mind-bending Memento that would really set the stall out for what Christopher Nolan movies could entail.

If you’ve seen the video of Nolan explaining the structure of Memento, you’ll quickly realise that no one else could have envisioned and crafted that story with the attention to detail he did. As far as sophomore films go, Memento was an incredible statement from Nolan that his work would always be elaborate, original, and challenging.

Guy Pearce as Leonard in Memento

Nolan was soon given the keys to one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, and his trilogy of Batman movies is considered among the finest works of comic book adaptations of all time. Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of the greatest films of all time, but I believe that achievement to be one of the reasons Nolan is so determined to continually go bigger.

He will always be remembered as the guy who made the best Batman film ever, and I would describe The Dark Knight as a perfect movie. It’s rightly heralded as a pinnacle of filmmaking, and is arguably Nolan’s crowning achievement. But what does that mean for a man who clearly cares so much about his craft and who wants to push himself time and time again?

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight

By no means do I think Nolan has a problem with his legacy being the ‘Batman guy’, more he is wrestling with the idea that if he peaked at film six, where does his career go from there?

The playground of Gotham City allowed Nolan’s penchant for practical effects to really flourish, and he was able to carry this approach through into his 2010 science fiction movie Inception. There has been a tendency in recent years to describe Inception as something of a ‘film bro’ movie, but let’s not forget this film was pioneering in many ways.

Nolan had initially envisioned this story as a horror movie about dream stealers way back in 2002, but decided he needed to gain more experience before tackling something of this magnitude. Over the years that followed, he not only refined his process but reworked the story into something more nuanced and provocative.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in Inception

Recognising the immense scale of the human mind and imagination, Nolan realised he needed to create something to match that, and he duly delivered with an array of distorted dream worlds. The resulting visuals and technical elements are truly mind-blowing and offer the kind of cinematic experience that big screens were made for.

It wasn’t enough to dive into our subconscious, though, and once Nolan was done with Batman, he decided to explore the universe with Interstellar. The movie is a filmmaking marvel in many ways, but what’s most impressive is that Nolan actually imagined what a black hole looks like with an uncanny degree of accuracy a whole five years before NASA managed to capture a photo of one.

Interstellar saw Nolan use more IMAX cameras than any of his previous productions, with one of the cameras even repurposed to become hand-held as opposed to the standard mounted approach. Practical sets were built to reduce the use of CGI, ensuring authenticity at every turn for this trip to the far reaches of space. For the crop storm sequence, Nolan even planted 500 acres of corn in the name of cinematic realism.

Jessica Chastain in Interstellar

Nolan’s incredible attention to detail would serve him well when taking us back to 1940 for his war movie Dunkirk. This intense and immersive movie based on a true story is arguably one of Nolan’s least flashy and extravagant pictures, and it would be easy to regard Dunkirk as a signal of the director scaling back after his time in space, but the technical achievements of this film cannot be overlooked.

While the story is far less complicated than most of Nolan’s other projects – the script was just 76 pages long, almost half the size of Nolan’s standard screenplay – the structure of three converging timelines still required the utmost care. So too, did historical accuracy, with Nolan insisting on using the actual location of Dunkirk despite logistical issues, a direct replica of the mole stone structure being built from original blueprints, and special oil and tar was made to remain consistent with the environment.

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Nolan clearly has a fascination with the notion of conflict and warfare, and he took this to the extreme with his time travel movie Tenet. Released during the Covid-19 pandemic, Tenet was arguably the first film to really remind us why the sanctity of the cinematic experience is something we should protect. In a similar vein to Inception, Nolan’s wild ambition led him to create the kind of film we have rarely, if ever, seen before.

While its scale may be akin to Inception, Tenet’s concept is something of a sibling to Nolan’s earlier work with Memento; a sprawling epic involving complex timelines and a web of mystery waiting to be unfurled. The execution of the temporal pincer movement not only saved the world from the threat of terrorism, it also sparked the kind of theorising and discussion among film fans that would last for months.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

Admittedly, Tenet is far from perfect, suffering from a weak screenplay, sub-par sound design, and Nolan’s all-too-frequent mishandling of female characters. But, when it succeeds – in its stylish choreography and grandiose action set-pieces – Tenet is emblematic of Nolan’s desire to reach for the stars.

He pushed himself, and his crew, further than ever before with Tenet. The production of the action movie even involved literally crashing an actual 747 plane for the sake of authenticity, with Nolan insisting “the audience is always aware on some level of the difference between things that are animated and things that have been photographed.”

It should come as no surprise then, that for his next project, Oppenheimer, Nolan took things even further. Telling the story of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was always going to be a challenge, but it’s one that Nolan has embraced wholeheartedly. His reluctance to rely on CGI has led the filmmaker to recreate the Trinity Test, effectively detonating a nuclear weapon.

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That may sound scary, but we’re all still here so it’s safe to assume everything went according to plan. We’re not quite sure when Nolan will stop with these extreme methods, or if there even is a line he wouldn’t cross.

Nevertheless, it’s this commitment to the theatrical experience and the audience that makes Nolan the most exciting and accomplished auteur working today. He may never be completely content with his achievements, but as long as he continues to compete with himself, the magic of cinema will win every time.

For more on incredible filmmakers, check out our feature on how Stanley Kubrick completed the art of filmmaking. Or, dive into our list of the best Steven Spielberg movies.