Monday, 21 April 2014

Is Christopher Nolan overrated? ***SPOILERS***

I have just read an article on Ain't It Cool News about Christopher Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige. While the article itself is the usual fluff piece to introduce a behind-the-scenes photograph, it offers the readership a chance to start waxing about their love for this film and Nolan.

This annoyed me, because it seems to me that the online fan community are oblivious to Nolan's principal failing. Every film Nolan has made since Insomnia (which, crucially, was not his script) has hinged on some Unique Selling Point (USP). This USP exists at the expense of some fundamental imperative of storytelling meaning that for me, Nolan's films fall frustratingly short of their promise.

To wit, The Prestige is 95% of a brilliant film, but the final 5% completely undermines all the good work up to that point. The Nolans (being Christopher and his brother Jonathan) wrote a carefully structured and delicate script, setting up a very clear USP, which was exploited to the fullest in the marketing campaign for the film. The film sets itself up as a magic trick (The Pledge, if you will), and leads the audience to expect the rug to be pulled from under them with some fantastic sleight-of-hand in the third act.

However, the film also goes to great pains to illustrate that the very best magic tricks require a level of commitment to deceit which would overwhelm ordinary people. Perhaps unfortunately, I have worked with Christian Bale and recognised him under the top hat and false beard within the first half hour of the film, so The Turn was rather ruined for me.

So I thought the real Turn, the moment that made me scratch my head, was Jackman apparently coming back from the dead. I was expecting the silk handkerchief to be pulled off the deceit and something devastatingly simple, but perfectly formed to explain what we as audience members had not spotted, something which, on second viewing, we could spot each hint of in the first two acts.

However, that is not what we were given. As my wonderful scientist girlfriend pointed out, the reason why she hated Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but loved John Carter, is that while ROTPOTA sets itself up in the real world, and then mucks about with science and how scientific research is conducted, John Carter sets out an entirely fabricated story universe, but gives it concrete boundaries, and always works within these.

In the case of The Prestige, the rug of realism, of deceit by commitment and hard work was pulled from underneath us, when Nolan introduced fantasy into what he had set up as real world in the final act. Like some of the feedback posters on the Ain't It Cool News article, I had assumed that the "top hats in the forest" scene would prove to be a red herring smelly enough to throw us off the real scent. But no, as it turned out, that was the real scent, and it was fishy indeed.

So, example one is Nolan shooting himself in the storytelling foot by allowing the hook ("It's a clever illusion!") to be more important than the prime storytelling directive (set up a defined environment and work within it).

Example two would be the Batman films. I group these together because I think they both suffer from the same problem, and although it is a different problem to The Prestige's, it again arises from Nolan's commitment to the real world.

I find the dialogue in the Batman films to be unutterably bad. The climax of the film, the moment at which  Batman ideologically defeats the Joker, is when the occupants of the two ferries opt not to destroy each other. And what is the first thing Batman says after this crucial moment?

"What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone's as ugly as you?"

Jesus wept. It reads like a line from a bad high school movie. It is certainly not what I would expect to hear from a darkly camouflaged, masked anti-hero who relies as much on his intelligence as his brawn and gadgets. In fact, it's hard to find a key scene in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight which doesn't suffer from horrible dialogue.

Take, for example, the coda to The Dark Knight, in which Harvey "Two Face" Dent means to wreak revenge on Commissioner Gordon by killing one of his family in front of him:

Gordon: "I was trying to fight the mob!"

Dent: "You wouldn't dare try to justify yourself if you knew what I'd lost!"

I cringe, I really do.

Consider also the climactic scene of Batman Begins, aboard the monorail, when Ra's al Ghul taunts Batman as they fight:
Ra's al Ghul: "Familiar, don't you have anything new?"

Batman: "How about this?" (snaps Ra's al Ghul's sword at the hilt)

Ra's al Ghul overpowers Batman and pins him to the floor.

Ra's al Ghul: "Don't be afraid, Bruce. You are just an ordinary man in a cape.
That's why you couldn't fight injustice and that's why you can't stop this train."

Believe it or not, this sounds even worse when coming from the mouth of a strokey-moustached bad guy sporting a suit and a samurai sword.

However, these are just illustrations of a broader issue I have with Nolan's Batman films. He is so committed to the "real-world" set-up of Gotham City and her inhabitants, that he feels the need to justify every beat of the extraordinary characters with some pitiful verbalisation of their motivation or thought processes. He couldn't leave their behaviour well alone, and ultimately gives the impression that he doesn't believe in his characters enough to let their actions do the talking.

So, Nolan's second unforgivable miscalculation is unnecessarily setting his USP ("Real world superheroes and supervillains!") in conflict with his characterisation.

And then there is Inception.

Ah, Inception. The film that everyone's favourite ranty Trotskyite, Mark Kermode, holds up as a beacon for intelligent blockbusters. Except, it's not.

For one, the complex plot isn't that complex. The fact that Nolan had to draw a diagram to explain it to thickos doesn't alter the fact that basically we are witnessing dreams within dreams, which is not that innovative. John Landis brilliantly employed a dream within a dream thirty years previously in An American Werewolf In London, and that was just for a scare and a throwaway joke. Individually, each of these dreams are pretty simple:

  • In the real world, there's a bit of preamble with a few training dreams (introducing the audience as much as Ellen Page to the rules of this world, some backstory and a couple of subplots), in preparation for a plane trip on which DiCaprio drugs Cillian Murphy's character, and they have the duration of the flight to perform the titular inception and implant the seed of an idea in his head.
  • There is a dream in which our protagonists kidnap Murphy and escape through a city in a white van, during which they jack in again, into:
  • A hotel, where they convince Murphy that his father's right hand man is plotting against him. From here they jack into:
  • A snowscape fortress, representing Murphy's own mind, in which they hope to force Murphy to encounter and accept a father's love and dying wish for his son. A dying wish which they have made up for Ken Watanabe's gain. They then are forced to go into:
  • A crumbling cityscape in which DiCaprio finally addresses the dead wife subplot and recovers Watanabe from apparently fatal wounds.
Despite the pseudo-metaplot aspirations of Nolan's script, everything moves forward in parallel, linear fashion as the diagram describes. Essentially, Nolan is using layers of dreams to the same effect as other sprawling action films might use different locations, with different battles happening simultaneously at the climax (see Return of the Jedi, for example).

So, the unique selling point, that the film is really brainy, just isn't so. Feel free to debate the final shot all you like, but ultimately it doesn't matter - have you been able to follow the principal dramatic conflicts? Yes. Have these conflicts reached a satisfactory resolution? Yes. Is this clever? No. Whether Leonardo is back in the real world or not is a disposable coda, redundant against whether or not he cares. It's pretty clear he decides not to care, so why should we?

If Inception's plotting isn't that intelligent, then I should consider the themes, which are where I believe an action film really shows its mental muscle. The nature of dreams and reality? Well, okay, but not a particularly insightful or clear exploration, if you ask me. If anyone can tell me what Inception is trying to say beyond "dreams can be better than reality, but they're not real", then drop me a postcard, as I would love to know.

Inception is a great action film, no doubt, and perhaps a notch or two more intelligent than most contemporary actioners. But it is nowhere near the heights of Collateral, or The Matrix, or District 9, or The Bourne Identity, or Heat... the list goes on. These films make us ask questions about ourselves, about what it means to be human, the limits of morality, how we form identities, what it means to commit to an idea or a person, etc. Inception asks none of these things.

It does have an immense score though. So thanks for that, I suppose.


  1. Great Article. I do disagree with some of the points but overall its very well written and was a great read.

    I do have a few comments regarding some of your problems with his films. Please don't think of me as a Nolan fanboy, I just have a few points Id like to share.

    In the prestige there is a scene early on where Michael Caine's character is talking to the judge. The judge is examining several of Angiers items that he uses in his magic tricks. He's doing it to determine Borden's fate. The judge looks at the box with the pieces to make the "cloning device" and Michael Caine tell him that its not a trick and that the magic behind it is real.

    At that point in the film, that kinda made me think there might be a supernatural element to it. It just stuck in the back of my head and when they reveal it I remembered the scene and it kinda came back to me.

    Regarding the dialogue in the batman films.
    You're right. Reading them back now, it does sound pretty bad. Although, at the time while watching the film I didn't feel the same way. Im not sure how you felt while watching the film. Is it something you observed later when going back and watching it again or did it strike you as bad the first time? Maybe I was just entranced by the performances or the action that the dialogue didn't come across as bad to me.

    Still, thats no excuse.

    My main counter point is that while a lot of the dialogue may be bad, a lot of it is also REALLY good. Take the scene from Begins where Bruce Wayne returns after what happens between him and the league of shadows and him and Alfred are in the plane talking. Thats one of my favourite scenes in the film because he so clearly outlines where he stands on justice and why he is going to do what he's going to do and why he wants to become batman. And its done in such a believable and realistic way.

    "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I'm flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting"

    Theres more to it but you get the picture. You can look it up online as well.

    Now, by no means is this genius level writing but it really gets across why Bruce Wayne wants to become Batman. Its not just "Im going to fight crime because crime is bad" and "I will wear a batman cowl and cape because that is scary and it scares me and it will scare criminals".

    Having said all that, your point still stands and I will not disagree with you on that.

    And what you said about Inception?

    Is it a clever film?
    Is it smarter than the average action film?

    Is it one of the most complicated films ever made. Hell no. I have seen HUNDREDS of websites who claim that it is one of the most complex films they've ever seen and that pisses me off to no end.

    All I say to them "Primer".

    All in all, while I don't think Christopher Nolan is the flawless god that a lot of people make him out to be, I do think he is a very talented film-maker and possibly even one of the best working in hollywood today.

    I think that about sums it up.
    Thanks for the great read.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the response. I'm glad to hear it gave you a little food for thought, and that you enjoyed it. Excuse me if I get a little fanboyish myself over the next few paragraphs.

      Re. the Prestige - I have a faint recollection of the first time I saw the judge scene you mention, and when Caine said "it actually does what magicians pretend to do" or whatever the line was, I thought it was simply him continuing the commitment, the bond, the oath of silence about the truth behind his magic tricks.

      If my mind did register, momentarily, "oh, there's going to be a supernatural element" then it expelled the thought pretty quickly, because (a) it's a cop out, and (b) it's not as cool as a really clever illusion.

      Re. the Batman dialogue - it struck me as dubious the very first time I saw Batman Begins, and painful the first time I saw The Dark Knight. It actually seriously prevented me enjoying the film. I had to go back and watch it again a couple of times before I could overlook the dialogue enough to enjoy the performances from Ledger and my other two personal faves from that film, Bill Fichtner and Michael Jai White (who in a tiny role built a surprising amount of character, I thought).

      The scene on the plane, where he lays out his plan to become the Batman, works as a stream of consciousness, which was an excellent choice by Christian Bale, or directorial note. In any other context, i.e. if Wayne had already decided to do this, and was simply telling Alfred his plans, again, it just rings false to me. Too earnest. Which is the problem with most of the dialogue, in fact.

      And I absolutely agree about Primer. What I love most about it is that the time travel noodle-baker element eventually gives way to a much larger moral and philosophical debate. Kind of what The Butterfly Effect was trying to do, just not utter garbage.

      It's a shame that it looks as though Shane Carruth's time travel advisory role on Looper has been reduced to focus on the character and action elements.

  2. Yeah this is why you barely get any views in your site. Hating on one person just because it's mainstream and "overated" will get you nowhere. Nolan might no be the best director ever and not a genius, but he's got vision, a thing Joss Whedon certainly don't have. Inception is a masterpiece. The plot is deep, and the resolution of the story is breathtaking. It's hard to follow because Nolan is giving a lot of information and he doesnt have that much time, so the film certainly feels rushed, fast paced and if you lose concentration you'll miss valuable information. That's why is a clever film.

    Anyway, keep on hating the mainstream thinking that will make you look cool and different. It doesnt.

    1. To paraphrase Colin Farrell:

      Roger, I grew up watching Mann, McTiernan and Morricone. I love Carpenter, Lean, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hill. If I grew up watching Michael Bay, and was retarded, Nolan might impress me.

      But I didn't, so he doesn't.

      ... that's unfair - I just wanted to throw an In Bruges joke out there.

      I actully like Nolan. I own all of his films except Following. He's 98% of the way to being the best action filmmaker since John McTiernan in the 1980's. He just frustrates me because he's his own worst enemy.

      I would be rather more inclined to rise to your bait if there were any evidence in your post that you had actually read my piece, however. In future, Roger, please give me something to debate. Otherwise it's just boring.

      And for the record - you're my first troll! Hooray!

    2. i personally think that mr nolan likes to see himself as a cross between phillip k dick and richard donner . well he has nothing on phillip k dick .just another english director out to prove how smart he can be with plots within a plot within a plot . ever seen the james bond film the living daylights . enough said . roy marzano sydney australia

  3. I completely agree with the dialogue. Even in The Dark Knight Rises (which I just saw) the dialogue is terrible at some points. Often times Bane or Selina would throw the ally-oop pass for an amazing quote...then the Batman fails to dunk it. Even most of the other major characters had embarrassing lines, such as Luscious Fox's "Nothing like a little air superiority!" Then the worst was when Batman confronts Bane in front of the court house and Bane says "I see you have returned to save Gotham!" (Something along those lines, I don't think that is it though) and then Batman just says "No! I came to kill YOU!" Or something. I had to drop my head into my hands and wipe my tears it hurt it was so uncreative.

    And then the angry Batman voice is just awful "SWEAR TO ME!!!!!" "TELL ME WHERE THE TRIGGER IS!!!", except it's barely audible and sounds like he is just spitting.

    They are excellent films, no doubt, but overrated.

    1. Ben, I know this reply is almost a year late, but having watched Man of Steel twice this weekend, I think the Nolan Dialogue Curse has infected the blue tights too.

      "My soul. That is what you have taken from me."


  4. First of all my english is not the best because i'm from México but i hope it can be understood.
    Liked the article agree with it, also i like Nolan but is highly overrated in my opinion, i find the dialogue in the batman movies(and other nolan work too) to be a lazy-cheesy way to explain the plot and expose characters motivations and convictions when actions should do that, actually i hardly find well developed characters in nolan's films and i think that's what brings his work down a lot.
    I didn't liked inception at all, i believe it's his worst film, Nolan just took a interesting notion(getting inside someone's dreams-head to implant an idea) to make 2 and a half hours of nothingness, things just happens, people fly and shoot, they go from dream to dream within dream whatever, crazy visual effects and shots, but so what? that interesting notion shown at the beginning of the film just turns into an inconsequent and irrelevant madness, all the dream universe becomes meaningless. I think the guy gets the job done ok but is very far from being remarkable, like you said Nolan's films promise to be something more than what they really are. In my opinion it's highly overrated, it is not groundbreaking at all (like a lot of people think) he just throw us some good ideas but he fail to put everything together in a completely solid movie, and it ends being kind of frustrating. Again, liked the article. Greetings from México.

  5. Disregard that comment from the person who was talking about your views.One hasn't got to do with the other.I for one agree with most if not all of your article.You exactly worded what is my biggest gripe with Nolan.He sets up rules in his movies,repeats them ad nauseam and then when you finally know them breaks them like it is nothing.The first time he did it in Memento was acceptable.But to do it again and again and then getting branded to be brilliant is hard to stomach.Any one can think of a solution not available within the rules.That is not brilliant,that is a cop out pure and simple.

  6. Nolan is a great story teller. Just wish the stories were much better. Great story concepts, great storytelling techniques, great characters concepts but it always seems that somethings missing with the story. I think it might be the dialogues between the characters. Too many clever one liners ? Dunno. Wish Nolan would do a dark comedy about life , without any plots or heists or plans involved.