In honor of this week’s release of “Interstellar,” Variety critics Justin Chang and Andrew Barker trade in-depth notes on Nolan’s filmography and personally rank all nine of his features to date, from worst to best. Anyone with even the slightest aversion to spoilers should probably stop reading here. To skip the discussion and see the unannotated lists, scroll down to the bottom of the page.
9. “INSOMNIA” (Chang) / “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (Barker)
CHANG: It feels ungenerous to put down what is, at the very least, a solid piece of Hollywood craftsmanship, but that should provide some sense of the curve we’re grading this guy on. I know I’m not alone in feeling that “Insomnia” is the one Nolan movie that could vanish into the ether and leave me none the sadder, even though it is a key transitional work — it’s the picture that marked his crossover from indie-mindfuck maven to major studio auteur, and it showed that he could juggle the demands of a larger canvas and an A-list cast with ease. It’s also his one film that, for all its skill and polish, feels like the work of a journeyman. I’m not surprised that, after getting “Insomnia” out of his system, Nolan never bothered with another remake, and never again worked from a script that he didn’t have a hand in writing. Say what you will about some of his more brazen disappointments, but you can’t accuse any of them of excessive caution.
It pains me to speak even remotely ill of Robin Williams, but I’m not a fan of his creepily emasculated psycho-killer act, which arrived the same year as his similarly against-type performance in “One Hour Photo” and seemed by far the less effective of the two. And coming on the heels of “Memento,” in which Nolan so innovatively mapped out his hero’s psychic landscape, ”Insomnia” couldn’t help but seem pedestrian by comparison, with its linear structure, rotely inserted flashbacks and closeups of an increasingly sleep-deprived Al Pacino. Imagine if Alain Resnais had followed “Last Year at Marienbad” with an episode of “Law & Order: Alaskan Victims Unit,” and you’ll have a ridiculously exaggerated idea of my disappointment at the time.
BARKER: Speaking of crushing disappointments, I’m not sure I can think of an appropriate nouvelle vague equivalent for Nolan’s progression from “The Dark Knight” to “The Dark Knight Rises.” The quality gulf between parts two and three of “The Godfather” comes readily to mind, but perhaps Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” would be a more apt comparison. In both cases, you have a superbly accomplished director, armed with seemingly limitless resources, pushing his particular pet obsessions to the very precipice of self-parody. Considering it follows what I consider the greatest comicbook movie of all time, I tried my best to give it the benefit of the doubt, but “Rises” remains the only Nolan film I actively dislike. At times it almost seems to be courting that animosity: It’s a nearly three-hour film without a single moment of respite, a summer blockbuster whose only remotely fun character (Anne Hathaway’s far-better-than-expected Selina Kyle) is hardly given anything to do.
Yet the film’s biggest sin is its relentless bombast — like a simple folk melody gussied up in the trappings of a Strauss opera, the scale of the production is thoroughly out of sync with its underlying ideas. There’s also something deeply perverse about Nolan’s decision to make his most loquacious character (Tom Hardy’s Bane) borderline inaudible, his garbled bromides against the ruling class frequently lost in the thunder of Hans Zimmer’s score. (At times it’s like listening to a nitrous-addled philosophy major lecture you from the front row of a Sunn O))) concert.) There’s no disputing the audacity of some of the film’s best setpieces, and Nolan’s commitment to testing the limits of PG-13 superhero violence is philosophically admirable. But like almost everything in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it’s taken several steps further than it needs to go.
8. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (Chang) / “INSOMNIA” (Barker)
CHANG: I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment of “The Dark Knight Rises,” a big, lumbering beast of a movie that I admired when I reviewed it two years ago, though even then it was clearly a letdown after its predecessor. Watching it a mere two years later, I have to concede that it holds up only fitfully at best. The scope and seriousness of Nolan’s ambitions are beyond dispute; no other director would have the chutzpah to place an entire city under siege and force us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the guilty and the innocent alike. But while his epic vision of urban chaos may put Hollywood’s small-minded blockbusters to shame, it’s also top-heavy with its own self-importance, gesturing toward hot-button issues like class disparity and economic collapse without really dramatizing or even deeply examining them.
I don’t much mind that Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost sidelined here to make room for some superb supporting players, who include not only Anne Hathaway but also those excellent newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard, plus the ever-reliable Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. There’s something rather moving about the film’s acknowledgment that true heroism is often a collaborative effort. What bothers me is that as Nolan’s canvases get bigger, his audacity tends to overwhelm his rigor. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a labyrinth with too many chambers that don’t connect, too many dead ends and false turns, and far too much hallway chatter — it’s not just Bane who won’t shut up and stop explaining things to the audience. My favorite moment is the one where we see an army of weary but determined police officers standing guard in the light of a winter dawn, grimly awaiting their confrontation with Bane and his men. It’s a moment of tragic inevitability (many of these cops will die) and unshakable heroism (but that will not stop them). And best of all, it is quiet.
BARKER: As you say, Williams’ turn in “Insomnia” was probably the lesser of his two sallies into the dark side that year, but to these eyes that didn’t make it any less effective in what was a minor yet clearly constructive first studio outing for Nolan. Though it was technically his third feature, Nolan was facing the threat of the sophomore slump here after the runaway success of “Memento,” and his decision to take baby steps toward the mainstream was probably a smart one.
Nolan has endured comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock – some favorable, some less so – for most of his career, yet “Insomnia” sees him pull off his first sequence that I would describe as properly Hitchcockian: Al Pacino’s struggle to stay awake while racing through the lonely Alaskan backroads can’t help but recall Cary Grant’s drunken car-chase in “North by Northwest.” Nolan has a knack for steering perilously close to homage or cliche only to find some clever twist to make the scene his own.
7. “FOLLOWING” (Chang) / “THE PRESTIGE” (Barker)
BARKER: Of all the linguistic tics most beloved by film critics, the knee-jerk impulse to label a complicated work “uneven” may be the one I loathe the most. (Browsing through some of my older reviews, I will concede that there’s a certain amount of self-loathing at play here.) Some of the greatest films ever made — “Apocalypse Now,” “The Searchers,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” — could accurately be described as uneven, without it mattering one whit in the long run. Some great films are uneven by design, stirring disappointment and confusion in the viewer as a means to an aesthetic end. But the unevenness of “The Prestige” matters more than most.
On the whole, “The Prestige” is a wonderfully entertaining film. Its turn-of-the-century ambiance manages to suggest a steel-edged fairy tale without giving in to Steampunk indulgences. Its yin-yang protagonists are brought to vivid life by two of modern cinema’s most magnetic leading men. It has David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, which is fantasy stunt casting of the highest order. But it stumbles badly in the end, and that’s all the more important when you consider its title. As Michael Caine’s Cutter tells us in an opening voiceover, like a film, every magic trick consists of three acts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. There’s no use in making something disappear if you can’t bring it back, he tells us, and yet what Nolan reveals in the third act would hardly pass muster in Vegas. Offering two late twists, Nolan gives us one that’s prosaic and predictable, and one that’s more philosophically stirring, yet violates the essential rules of the game. Nolan’s critics have accused him of chronically promising more than he can deliver, and never has that failing been more apparent than in this otherwise razor-sharp piece of historical fiction.
CHANG: Andrew, it’s bad enough that you’ve just dissed one of Nolan’s most dazzling achievements, but did you just go and call “Meet Me in St. Louis” uneven? In the words of Bane: You have my permission to die. We can have a more extended, dueling-magicians-style pissing match over “The Prestige” later on, but for now, I’ll just say that “Following,” the next movie down my list, is by any measure a fine debut — a movie that cost Nolan all of £3,000 to make and yet, for all its modesty, seemed to herald the emergence of a filmmaker fully formed. (And in his 20s, no less.) It’s remarkable to watch the result 16 years later and find all his signature obsessions present and accounted for: the gift for fractured storytelling and narrative misdirection; the fascination with memory and the subconscious; the generally suspicious attitude toward women (sorry, but it’s true); and the delight in laying down a clear set of rules that exist, of course, to be bent and broken.
I’m not convinced that “Following’s” time-shuffling, zig-zagging approach is entirely successful. Some have described it as a clever analog for the way the mind works, a reflection of the instinctual connections we forge between random details as we synthesize memories into stories. But Nolan’s arrangement of details here strikes me as both painstakingly overdetermined (something that can be said of nearly all his work) and weirdly arbitrary; it keeps you off balance, but I’m not sure to what ultimate end. Still, even as it anticipates the richer gamesmanship and ideas of “Memento,” “Following” is pretty fun to play along with. (Random trivia: One of the three excellent lead actors, the icily charismatic Alex Haw, is now an award-winning artist and architect, whose dizzying, M.C. Escher-style creations are basically to classical design what Nolan’s movies are to conventional narrative.)
6. “BATMAN BEGINS” (Chang) / “FOLLOWING” (Barker)
BARKER: Wow. I offer a moderate, respectful critique of one of your favorite movies, and you respond by sending me death threats over the Internet. You really are a Nolan fanboy, aren’t you?
Your troll tactics notwithstanding, I do concede your point about “Following’s” self-consciously knotted structure, but I’m inclined to let Nolan off the hook here just because it’s such a gas to follow his neurotically assembled paces to their typically confounding conclusion. Watching “Following” today, I’m tickled by its suggestion that even if Nolan had never become a household name, flush with the sort of auteurial autonomy and resources that are almost unheard of in modern day Hollywood, he’d still be making the same sorts of films, tackling the same sorts of quandaries.
In 1962, when an interviewer pressed Vladimir Nabokov — another finicky, slippery puzzlemaker — to defend his rationale for writing “Lolita,” he responded thusly: “I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit. I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.” I don’t for a second believe Nolan would dismiss his moral messages nearly so flippantly, but this still might be the best frame of mind with which to approach “Following” (or “Inception,” for that matter). The game may be fundamentally rigged, but as long as the solution is as elegant as this, what’s the harm?
CHANG: I share your admiration for Nolan the showman, the intricate yarn-spinner who delights in yanking the rug out from under us. But there’s also Nolan the deconstructionist, the guy who loves to pull back the curtain and show us precisely how the nuts and bolts of a story actually work; at its best, this Chris-explains-it-all approach doesn’t drain the movie of its magic so much as enhance it. Arguably the most meticulously detailed origin story ever made, “Batman Begins” is a sterling example of what might be termed superhero neorealism, set in an anti-escapist vision of Gotham City where everyday crime is a threat with genuinely felt consequences. The Batmobile is a tank-like behemoth, the unsexiest ride you’ve ever seen. Bruce Wayne’s decision to put on cape and cowl isn’t some throwaway “Eureka!” moment, but rather the product of years of intense mental and physical training, plus a deep moral consideration of the potential of violence as a redemptive force. (And, of course, a hell of a lot of money and untreated guilt/abandonment issues.)
This Batman doesn’t come to us fully formed; we get to see him assemble his outfit, his identity and his circle of allies, piece by piece, and that patient, methodical process becomes the whole purpose and pleasure of the movie. And the payoff is killer: There are few more thrilling moments in Nolan’s filmography than the one in which Bruce, confronting his childhood fears, clambers into an underground cave and is immediately swarmed by bats — and rather than hiding or fleeing, he lets them envelop him, even as we’re enveloped by the full orchestral swell of Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme. For all the superhero movies that have come and gone since, “Batman Begins” remains one of the few to pull off something genuinely remarkable: a comicbook conceit made flesh.
5. “INTERSTELLAR” (Chang) / “BATMAN BEGINS” (Barker)
BARKER: “Superhero neorealism” just about covers it. I’ve seen Thomas and Martha Wayne murdered so many times in so many different media that their deaths had begun to lose all meaning, but in “Batman Begins” we see it as a real crime, with real consequences, rather than just one more station of the cross in our hero’s origin story. What makes this film so successful is Nolan’s refusal to treat Bruce Wayne’s evolution into a caped crusader as a foregone conclusion. Throughout the first two acts, Wayne seems just as likely to clumsily slip off a ledge and fall to his death, or give up on the whole crime-fighting thing and start a Wayne Manor reality show, as he does to emerge a fully formed superhero. In Tim Burton’s “Batman,” we were content to be dazzled with all the character’s “wonderful toys” — here, we see in sometimes exhausting detail just how difficult they were to acquire.
As impressive as the movie is, it does sag a bit when Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes enters the frame, and her relationship with Wayne never quite attains the tragic heft that it needs going into “The Dark Knight.” Fortunately, Maggie Gyllenhaal would replace her for the next film, representing the biggest immediate step up in actorly quality since this scene in “Wayne’s World 2.”
CHANG: How a propos, Andrew, since “The Dark Knight” is basically “Bruce Wayne’s World 2.” I have to say that, having had only one viewing of “Interstellar,” I feel none too certain about burying it right in the middle of my list, so consider this a provisional ranking at best. But for now, I feel obliged to note that the film had my jaw on the floor pretty much from start to finish — and despite the nearly three-hour running time, the journey from start to finish has rarely felt so swift. It’s as if Nolan discovered a time-collapsing wormhole in the very fabric of his celluloid, zipping the viewer from one end of his vast cinematic cosmos to the other in record time; I could have watched another two or three hours, quite easily. (For those who haven’t seen the film yet, beware: spoilers ahead.)
As striking in its blend of Kubrickian detachment and Spielbergian sentimentality as “A.I.,” “Interstellar” is predicated on the idea that love transcends time and space, science and logic — a deeply challenging thesis for this most cerebral of filmmakers. Some have already attacked the film for the way its awe-stirring vision of the unknown suddenly retreats — or advances? — into the more prosaic, concrete realm of parent-child relationships, like the sci-fi movie equivalent of those street paintings where Albert Einstein holds up a sign that says “Love is the answer.” Yet I’d argue that it’s the very tension between Nolan’s rationalist bent and the emotional thrust of his material that makes “Interstellar” so fascinating, truly a mindbender and a heartbreaker rolled into one. It’s also a much more mysterious, tough-minded picture than some are giving it credit for.
Nolan harbors no illusions that the threat of mass extinction will bring out the best in humanity; he’s well aware that, in the final days, our knack for self-preservation will lead many of us to commit acts of treachery and sabotage. Yet that very instinct is precisely what might save us in the end, the suggestion being that love, far from being purely altruistic in nature, might instead be a highly evolved survival mechanism. “Interstellar” offers a decidedly secular view of man’s potential to determine his own destiny, but it’s also a transcendent and magisterial viewing experience, whose most compelling sequences — I’m thinking of the ship-docking scene, backed by a “Koyaanisqatsi”-saluting score that strikes notes of near-celestial rapture — leave the realm of logic and order satisfyingly behind.
CHANG: Agreement at last, Andrew. I watched “Inception” for the fourth or fifth time recently and found it an almost indecently entertaining experience, a whirligig farce that may well be the most purely “fun” movie in Nolan’s oeuvre. I’m well aware of the general rap against it — namely, that it’s a clunky and unimaginative series of fight scenes, jammed together with too much eye-rolling exposition and no real feel for the illogical landscape of dreams. True, Nolan isn’t a surrealist poet on par with Bunuel and Dali, which bothers me about as much as the fact that David Lynch will never be Leonhard Euler. We know the human subconscious is a strange, disorderly and profoundly irrational place — but doesn’t that make a highly mathematical, architecturally sound approach all the more fascinating? Is it any surprise that a world as minutely imagined as this one should demand continual explication on the part of the characters? Why are so many critics so eager to confess their laziness when it comes to following the plot, as if exposition were the dirtiest word in cinema?
Almost every Nolan film can be boiled down to an elegy for lost love, the story of one man’s desperate, futile and often self-destructive efforts to reclaim the woman of his dreams, and “Inception” is the ultimate iteration of this faintly necrophilic premise. This is Nolan’s “Vertigo” — you see it in the recurring images of people falling through space, and you hear it in Zimmer’s score, which (that much-mocked “Brahhhhhhhhhm!” aside) is nothing less than a swooningly romantic homage to Bernard Herrmann. (As you might guess by now, I think there’s an entire essay to be written on Nolan and Zimmer’s collaboration alone.) And above all, you feel it — I certainly do — in the film’s haunting vision of love as an eternally closed loop of regret, where we pull our memories of our dear ones ever closer even as we yearn to leave them behind.
BARKER: “Closed loop” is an appropriate term. Nolan is obsessed with loops, circuits, cycles, eternal returns, self-regulating systems. You see this especially in his completely original work (spoilers ahead): “Memento” progresses backward in time, and ends by revealing that the hero’s journey we’ve witnessed is but one cycle in an endlessly repeatable system our protagonist has set up for himself. The first stirrings of plot in “Interstellar” are set in motion by actions which occur in its finale. And “Inception,” which tellingly hinges on the image of a ceaselessly spinning top, leaves us to imagine our hero confined in an inescapable series of loops — dreams within dreams, systems within systems.
Nolan, then, is an artist attracted to order, to complexity, to ever-branching logical tributaries. Only twice has he allowed any sort of overriding passion to take up permanent residence in his films’ well-manicured lawns: in “Interstellar” it was filial love; and in “The Dark Knight,” ungovernable, irrational nihilism. But “Inception” gives us a purer distillation of Nolan’s essence, in which he allows himself to make up worlds completely from scratch, and it’s no surprise that he seems happiest when he’s laying out the ground rules.
The dreamworlds of “Inception” resemble no dreams I’ve ever experienced, and some cynics have used this as a cudgel with which to bash the film. But then again, the dreams described by Sigmund Freud in his case studies don’t resemble any of my dreams, either, and I don’t use that as an excuse to discredit his theories. There’s something intensely charming about Nolan’s compulsion to take his most unmoored flights of fantasy and make sure they’re all properly explained, like a Peter Pan who stops to describe the precise molecular makeup of fairy dust as he whisks Wendy away to Neverland. “Inception” may be a movie about dreams filtered through the mind of a mathematician, but … well, do mathematicians dream of parabolic sheep?
3. “THE PRESTIGE” (Chang) / “INTERSTELLAR” (Barker)
CHANG: Andrew, you’re hardly the first one to take issue with the way Nolan seems to break his own rules in “The Prestige,” though I’d argue that it’s less an instance of “real magic” than an ingenious sci-fi fillip — one that requires a moderate suspension of disbelief, perhaps, but no more so than any of the story’s other diabolically clever bits of business. Nolan recognizes, as any sensible rationalist must, that there will always be mysteries that elude our comprehension yet await our discovery, and to these eyes, “The Prestige” doesn’t undermine the logic of its own universe so much as it hints that said universe may, in fact, have fewer known boundaries than we realize.
Nolan’s fourth feature may well be the most audacious demonstration of his gears-and-pulleys approach to filmmaking. Even as these 19th-century prestidigitators are busy showing off their wirework and debunking every trick we see, the movie casts a spell and effortlessly pulls us under; rarely has Nolan’s manipulation of time frames been this deft, his connections between past and present so intuitive. But “The Prestige” transcends mere trickery in order to propound a brilliant dialectic about the nature and purpose of art. Those two Nolans I mentioned earlier, the showman and the deconstructionist, are mirrored in the dueling characters of Angier and Borden: one a consummate entertainer, willing to spend a fortune and literally reinvent himself in order to achieve his astounding effects; the other an uncompromising artist, devoted to his craft and refusing to cater to anyone’s expectations but his own. It’s Nolan’s particular genius that he has been able to reconcile these two sides of himself more successfully than just about any other filmmaker of equivalent stature. (He also has a brother with whom he collaborates very closely, but I’ll leave that one for another discussion.)
BARKER: For all our talk of Nolan the showman, we’ve yet to address a key attribute of his particular brand of showmanship. While other directors are busy Instagramming daily snapshots of their sets and slates, Nolan’s works-in-progress continue to enjoy League of Shadows-level secrecy. Production notes for his films are treated like the Pentagon Papers in certain quarters, and one imagines early drafts of his screenplays carried around in briefcases handcuffed to heavily armed couriers. This makes his films goldmines for pre-release speculation and post-release nitpicking, and I imagine “Interstellar” will set new standards in that regard. We’re probably mere days away from the first “What ‘Interstellar’ Gets Wrong About Wormhole-Powered Transportation” piece, and the film hasn’t even opened yet.
Nolan’s paranoia can get a bit silly, but watching “Interstellar” for the first time without having the slightest idea where any of it was going, I was all the more impressed by its central secret: For all its invocations of general relativity and quantum mechanics, “Interstellar” may be the most narratively straightforward film Nolan has ever made. A number of people have compared the movie to “2001,” but methinks they’re looking at the wrong “Odyssey.” “Interstellar” is thoroughly Homeric at heart: Set in the aftermath of a great war, a vessel is blown far out into the unknown by a powerful yet perilous force, and its pilot must draw on all his cunning to return back to hearth and home, knowing all the while that the passage of time may render it unrecognizable by the time he gets there. Drawing on the most ancient of models, Nolan has crafted his most deeply humanist film yet — a gorgeously crafted, hugely ambitious hi-fi head trip that is nonetheless underpinned by the most primal of human connections.
2. “THE DARK KNIGHT”
BARKER: Justin, when we first started this list — five or six years years ago, it feels like — I referred to “The Dark Knight” as the greatest comicbook movie ever made, and I suppose I should elaborate on that a bit. I don’t believe I’m alone in that opinion, and champions of the film have alternately praised it for elevating the comicbook narrative to the level of serious art, or for being the rare comicbook film to take comics seriously. Both schools of thought seem a little wrongheaded to me. Comicbooks are one of the defining American artforms of the past century, and thus always worth taking seriously. And what’s more, plenty of prior filmmakers have attempted to imbue superhero movies with a degree of seriousness and moral inquiry. What Nolan did better than anyone before or since, however, was to find the perfect cinematic correlative for classic comics’ particular brand of pop mythology, embracing the source material’s pulpiness and its profundity in equal measure.
“The Dark Knight” was also a resonant product of its time and place, and a fitting elegy for the George W. Bush era, when half a decade of war, terrorism, domestic surveillance and an overall air of moral relativism had made the ethical certainties of so many earlier superhero pics look hopelessly naive. (The secret of “The Dark Knight” is that its protagonist isn’t really Batman, it’s Harvey Dent, the once noble justice-seeker turned avenging monster.) It’s hard to imagine a film this pitilessly dark grossing more than a billion dollars in any previous decade, and for better or for worse, this is the film that has shaped the timbre of blockbuster action filmmaking ever since. Sometimes this feels like a strike against it, as even the once squeaky-clean Superman and Spider-Man films are now expected to dwell on the jagged edges, murky motivations, dark moods. One could blame Nolan for that, but to do so would be no fairer than blaming the Pixies for every loudQUIETloud indie band that flourished in the 1990s, or blaming Quentin Tarantino for the generation of grindhouse crate-diggers that followed in “Pulp Fiction’s” wake. If you nail something as perfectly as Nolan did with “The Dark Knight,” imitators are to be expected.
CHANG: Why mince words at this point? “The Dark Knight” is the greatest comicbook movie ever made, one of the finest sequels Hollywood ever produced, and the rare picture that meaningfully evokes the terror and trauma of 9/11 without tilting into exploitation (I’m lookin’ at you, “Man of Steel”). And for all the film’s self-evident moral complexity and seriousness of purpose, what’s stayed with me most is the sheer energy and momentum that Nolan achieves over the course of two-and-a-half hours; he directs this thing like a man possessed, fully in control even when he seems to be running off the rails, flicking at our nerves a little harder with every scene. Coming on the heels of “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” wasn’t just a continuation but a furious acceleration of the narrative, plunging us from the relative calm of Bruce Wayne’s origin story into what felt like a Gotham City of perpetual night — a realm where, to quote the talking fox in “Antichrist,” chaos reigns.
Andrew, you nailed this earlier when you mentioned the film’s “ungovernable, irrational nihilism,” which pretty much sums up the ethos of the Joker, played by the late, great Heath Ledger in a performance that has rightly entered the kingdom of movie myth. The malevolent genius of “The Dark Knight” is that it seems to embody that ethos even when Ledger is offscreen, which is a surprising majority of the time (a reminder that even the best effects should be judiciously used). With its jackknife twists that seem to assault you from behind, its startling eruptions of violence and horror, the movie feels like something sculpted in the Joker’s demonic image — it’s as if Nolan had succeeded in bottling the very essence of criminal anarchy in narrative form. It’s understandable why he felt compelled to usher Batman out of the shadows with “The Dark Knight Rises,” and to bring back some of the lightness and levity we typically associate with comicbooks. But there’s a reason this picture remains the trilogy’s high point, and I think it’s because, on some level, Nolan dared himself to look evil in the face and make it not just scary, but exhilarating. He likes the darkness, and so do we.
CHANG: I must confess to a long-standing weakness for puzzle movies — I count Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and “Rebecca,” Clouzot’s “Diabolique” and George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” (the good one) among my formative viewing experiences. So it’s not particularly surprising that I swooned as hard as I did for “Memento” when I reviewed it for my college newspaper back in 2001. Here was a darkly fatalistic neo-noir as meticulously plotted as a novel by John Dickson Carr, a work of fiendish ingenuity and astonishing lucidity: Utterly gripping from start to finish (or finish to start), Nolan’s movie made more sense running backward than most movies did running forward. Watching it again all these years later, I couldn’t help but wonder what a present-day, up-to-the-minute version of the film would look like. Would Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce in a superb, overlooked performance) still bother with the elaborate tattoos and Post-It notes? In lieu of Polaroids, would his quest for revenge incorporate Instagram and Snapchat? (Given Nolan’s reverence for old-school technologies, I’m guessing no.)
What remains clearer than ever, 13 years later, is that “Memento” is far more than the gimmicky diversion that many perceived it to be at the time. For sheer unity of form, content, structure and theme, Nolan has never topped it: Every scene beautifully clarifies where we’ve been, yet leaves us all the more uncertain about where we’re going; the more we understand, the more the ground shifts beneath our feet. For those who insist on seeing Nolan as some sort of soulless watchmaker with no interest in actual, lived-in human experience, I can only note that the more I watch “Memento,” the bleaker and more hauntingly sad it becomes. Who am I? Why am I here? What have I done? What do I do next? Our superior memory banks and attention spans may allow us to answer those questions more satisfactorily than Leonard can, but his “condition” still holds up a profound and troubling mirror to our own.
BARKER: “Memento” updated for the smartphone age is an interesting idea. If anything, I imagine poor Leonard would be even more confused. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re winding down a long session online, pick any random tab on your Internet browser and try reversing all the way back to where you started, then try to figure out what part of which earlier tab inspired you to open that new one, and how you ended up there in the first place. Even without a specific “condition,” I doubt you could make it very far, and you certainly couldn’t re-create the sequence of impulsively clicked hyperlinks and free-associative mental tangents to end up back at your original starting point. Compared with the forked streams of information in which we immerse ourselves daily, Leonard’s “system” of Polaroids and tattoos is a marvel of efficiency. It’s almost enviable.
As you say, Nolan’s breakthrough film is a tight, taut masterpiece of extremely careful plotting and genius editing, both his wildest narrative experiment and his most intuitive. But what’s perhaps most haunting about “Memento” is just how relatable Leonard’s absurd dilemma becomes. When I wake up in the morning, there will always be a millisecond in which I don’t know where I am, and don’t know what I’m doing there. I look around the room for the signposts I’ve left for myself the previous night: my wallet on the dresser, my clothes in the closet, the clock on the table telling me to get up. What is it that spurs me out of bed, into the shower, into my car and off to face the freeways? Well, I have a job, I have tasks, I have things to do. But where did these obligations come from? Where are they leading me? If I had to stop and honestly ask myself these questions every morning, how much sense would my daily routine make? How much must we continually forget to keep ourselves going?
“Memento” was based on a short story written by Christopher Nolan’s younger brother Jonathan, who has collaborated with him on a number of his best films, co-scripting “The Dark Knight” and “Interstellar,” among others. The title of the original story was “Memento Mori,” which of course is Latin for “remember that you will die.” I’m glad that Nolan chose to trim the title for his movie, because otherwise what we’re left with is less a brilliant genre exercise than a terrifying metaphor for life itself. Somewhere deep inside, Leonard knows his revenge quest is pointless, and knows that bloody satisfaction will be forever out of reach. But without that mission, what else is there to force him out of bed in the morning? He can focus his attention on finding the next John G., or he can face the fact that beyond this vicious cycle lies nothing but the void, a cruel, manipulative world that he will never fully master or understand. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, what we call the beginning is often the end. Leonard must not cease in pursuing John G., and the end of all his pursuits will be to arrive where he started and know the place for the first time.
2. “The Dark Knight”
5. “Batman Begins”
7. “The Prestige”
9. “The Dark Knight Rises”
2. “The Dark Knight”
3. “The Prestige”
6. “Batman Begins”
8. “The Dark Knight Rises”