Why Is It So Hard to Hate Christopher Nolan's Work?
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is one of the season’s best films. It grossed over $200 million worldwide, was well-received by critics, and is a serious contender for the awards season—that much is difficult to argue with.
Does everyone have to like it, though? While the words “innovative,” “visceral” and “epic” describe the film well, so do “confusing,” “emotionless,” and “tiring.” While Dunkirk is a great film and certainly more mature than the director’s previous works, it is, like any other movie, not without its flaws. But regardless, and unsurprisingly, Christopher Nolan—just by virtue of the fact that he is Christopher Nolan—managed to get butts into seats.
Many equally talented filmmakers don’t have the same hold on the public that Nolan does. None of his films have ever lost money, so he is afforded a rare level of carte blanche to be a traditionalist, refusing green screen and insisting on shooting in film. Since Batman Begins propelled him to astronomical levels of fame, he’s used his clout to get his high-budget visions into theaters.
But that fame might have exaggerated him over the years. To a certain extent, Nolan has been deified, and is seen as visionary genius who can do no wrong. And for some reason, Nolan fans have become a particularly defensive bunch, formed in the comments sections of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB forums.
In their world, when someone isn’t particularly fond of a Nolan film, it isn’t Nolan’s fault—it’s your fault for not getting it. Also, at least according to these rabid fans, you have no appreciation of cinema, and you’re ugly, fat, and stupid. Ever since Batman Begins, and especially with The Dark Knight, critics who’ve responded to Nolan’s films negatively have been subject to intense harassment, to the extent of having their websites shut down—even receiving death threats. Whether he intended to or not, Christopher Nolan is now responsible for the personal feelings of droves of fans all over the globe.
And while this sort of reception isn’t limited to his Batman movies, there seems to be something about Nolan’s rendition of the caped crusader that incites overzealous loyalty. It would be unfair to dismiss his pre-Batman work, as Memento and Insomnia are two of his best films in terms of how they show his arthouse sensibilities without compromising box office sales. But it wasn’t until Batman that the English-American filmmaker earned his reputation as a big budget Hollywood director, whereafter the scale of his projects and the reach of his work went up.
But is the comic book character truly the cause for this cultish devotion? But then, why haven’t Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher’s detractors suffered the same fate as Nolan’s? How did this guy climb up to a pedestal that the public is far too willing keep him on?
It may be because of the nature of the stories that Christopher Nolan tells, and of the characters in them. Batman has always been a character that fit snugly into Nolan’s oeuvre: the misunderstood loner who draws his power from deep-seated pain. All of Nolan’s protagonists have that in common as well—laser-focused in their determination, choosing to isolate themselves in the name of a higher purpose. Batman completely isolates himself from the world, building a shield around a scared little boy. The same can be reasoned for Cooper in Interstellar. In Nolan’s stories, emotions are either a hindrance to the accomplishment of a greater task, or so powerful that they put someone on a path that they are required to go down alone. He reaffirms that success should be valued above all and that emotional attachment only ever gets in the way. It’s a modern fantasy that’s emerged from this generation’s focus on achievement.
For many millennials, Nolan is our first brush with the work of a powerful, zeitgeist-changing filmmaker—and one whose characters speak so strongly to our worldview. That makes it easy for us to relate to Nolan’s work and latch on to him at a particularly angsty moment of cultural puberty. And because we relate to his films, we tend to attach quite a bit of emotional baggage to his work and his reputation.
Consequently, his success becomes a validation of our own experience, too, and any criticism against Nolan’s work tends to be seen as an insult to our generation’s ideals. On top of that, millennials are the first generation to truly get a hold of the internet as we know it today, so we’ve learned to link up with those who share our interests and experiences, and can easily mobilize against critics, grouping together to form a cultural hivemind with singular tastes in film.
Another reason why Nolan is so popular and so fiercely defended may have to do with the realism of his films and the sociopolitical landscape that his they exist in. Consider that his career took off in a post-9/11 atmosphere. That has been conducive to the themes of his films, which are always set in a realistic world that allows him to tap into modern fears and anxieties. Inception suggests that not even our own thoughts are safe from external influence. In his Batman trilogy, Nolan shows how modern institutions plant the seeds of terror through the corruption and radicalized attacks of Gotham City. Interstellar imagines an Earth dying slowly at the hands of humanity.
This realism and accuracy extends to the aesthetics of his films, too. The worlds in Nolan’s work often resemble our own very closely. By consulting astrophysicists for Interstellar, he made it one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi films ever. By stitching together footage from London, Chicago, and New York, he brought a realistic Gotham City to the big screen. His depiction of the Joker as a domestic terrorist was particularly resonant with audiences, because it showed one of the modern world’s deepest fears, and also modern man’s desire for anarchy. Nolan doesn’t ask us to suspend our disbelief. In fact, his films make it so we don’t have to. Instead of painting us a portrait, Nolan instead provides us with a photo of ourselves.
Which brings us back to Dunkirk. Instead of reimagining a world that mirrors ours, he decided to make a historical, true-to-life film. For Nolan’s fans, Dunkirk’s critical success is his validation as a serious filmmaker, ditching sci-fi and comic book movies for something of greater artistic value. And his fans crave this success, because they see him as one of them—and his validation is theirs too. Which is contradictory given that Nolan’s films focus on someone rising above everyone to do something special, but that’s what his films do: they make everyone feel like they’re one in a million—that they can be a “chosen one.”
In that sense, Dunkirk runs parallel to this struggle and relationship with the public. As usual, the film features a wordless loner who toils to save the world, but in a turn, he isn’t the center of the film anymore. The film is suddenly about the soldiers—the hordes of young men putting themselves on the line for something they believe in while facing a hellish reality. Our world is a dark one, and Nolan knows that. He knows that every day the world wake up to news that even his boundless imagination could never dream up. Which is why he uses that imagination not to scare, but to inspire.
The film makes clear that Nolan has always been making films about films. He doesn’t posit that it’s these wordless loners saving the world, but rather what they create and offer to us. The spectacle of the dogfights in Dunkirk, the magic of The Prestige, the galaxy traversing of Interstellar, the legend of Batman; all of these represent spectacle and the power of cinema. Nolan glorifies his wordless loners because that’s how he sees himself: an incredibly focused human looking to bring hope to the world, and it’s this vulnerability that viewers respond to and so fiercely defend. Through his films, Nolan puts full faith in the power and guidance of cinema to inspire an entire generation to feel like they’re one in a million.