Analyzing Time and Dreams: A Genomic Look at the Films of Christopher Nolan

Kristy Strouse
August 24, 2023
Photo-Illustration: Katch; Photos: Paramount Pictures, Newmarket Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan. The name has garnered fame well beyond even the standard cinephile. Over the past 27 years, Nolan has been at the forefront of some of the most visually stunning experiences cinema has to offer.

His twelve-movie filmography is one of intrigue and wonder that speaks to a wide range of narratives. From a retelling of Batman to a magician’s obsession to a tour of someone else’s dreams, Nolan has consistently pushed the limits of what movies can do.

With his newest film, Oppenheimer, Nolan tackles new and challenging ground as he attempts to capture the man and his history in thrilling fashion.

His style is pronounced and his talent formidable, but what is it about his films that grabs the attention of audiences worldwide? What is it about this director that is so immediately recognizable?

When taking a genomic approach, certain key characteristics rise to the surface, providing further proof of Nolan’s distinctive place within movie history.  What is a “genomic approach”? In short, a genomic analysis involves a detailed and granular accounting of each element or genomic category of a film — Context, Characters, Plot, Cinematography, Music, Mood, Aesthetics, etc. Each category is divided into subcategories, then sub-subcategories, and finally individual genes (over 2500), each of which is individually coded on a 10-point scale by a trained analyst — and then aggregated via a rule-based system into “genomic traits”. The summary here highlights the key genomic finds, principally through genomic traits, of Nolan’s films.

Wherever Nolan films, there we are.

While enrichments arrive with aesthetic flair, the Context (setting, chronology, milieu) of his films often take on a life of their own. His films are generally set in the US or the UK, with dips into other countries, such as seen in Inception as the film whisks us away to France or Japan, or to a thrilling marketplace chase in Kenya. As presented, these settings become valued members of his repertoire, important to the narrative itself. Moreover, Nolan often explores the colorful economic intersection of wealthy (like the life of Bruce Wayne in the Dark Knight Trilogy) and middle class characters (the police officers in Insomnia) as a source of narrative interest.

As witnessed in one of his first hits, Memento, Christoper Nolan loves a contextually-grounded narrative flourish; for example, he incorporates multiple flashbacks throughout the film, and begins it from the midst of the story. Indeed, this contextual use of the “in medias res” technique is a bit of a signature of Nolan films. From the opening scene of Inception or The Prestige, he intrigues with just a piece of the ultimate puzzle. It allows the audience to anticipate the coming thrills and the culmination of his intent. When done well, this is an alluring choice, and Nolan masters the technique.

A film is nothing without its Characters — a pivotal genomic category. Nolan brings color to his often neutrally-hued plots by populating them with captivating roles: a sympathetic character willing to sacrifice time with his family for the sake of humanity, in Interstellar; a whole host of selfless characters in the harrowing Dunkirk: a lovable lead willing to do anything, including risking being stuck in a dream forever, to get back to his family, in Inception. In Memento, there’s a flawed hero in Leonard. In the Dark Knight trilogy, it can be a question of save yourself or save Gotham? These characters are often courageous and heroic, even beyond their overt superhero portrayals. In fact, everyday heroes are commonly found throughout the majority of the stories he directs.

There’s a gentle nuance to the coordination of characters that makes up Nolan’s collection of leading roles. With a mix of brilliant (Oppenheimer, Interstellar), psychologically unstable (Memento, Insomnia, Following, The Dark Knight) and powerful leaders (Tenet, Inception) there are some genomic character traits that are staples of his directorial output. Each film is distinguished by a set of character traits that translate into fascinating narrative studies.

The director then engineers a successful product by casting these colorful roles with genomically-aligned actors who elevate the material. Indeed, Nolan’s films are celebrated for the many  virtuosic performances that dazzle on the screen, culminating in the creation of “iconic” roles: Heath Ledger as Joker; Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer; Jessica Chastain as Murph; Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb; etc.

The many genomically-defined relationship dynamics, rivalries, selfless sacrifices, and battles of good vs evil (including a war with one’s self) found in Nolan’s films make for personalities with varied impetus and marked distinction. They inevitably ask provocative questions: What would you do to win? What would you do for your family?

A visionary of the highest caliber, Nolan weaves together Plot Narratives — the most surface, but commonly oversimplified genomic category — that are intellectually provocative and that examine morality and ethics through a sober lens. While often having the semblance of the Crime or Science Fiction genres, Adventure  is also a common parallel stylistic mode for the director. A squad is commonly assembled for a challenging task, one that has them fighting for survival while continually overcoming significant obstacles. Nolan’s interests often speak to the technical nuances of science or technology — whether man-made elements of destruction (Oppenheimer) or theoretical endeavors we’ll likely never experience (time-traveling in Tenet, wormholes in Interstellar).

The Cherry atop the Celluloid

While a compelling definition of Context, Character, and Plot is notable, it is only by virtue of their cinematic execution  or Realization (script, cinematography, editing, music, etc.) that a director truly displays his or her talents.

For example, a little Cinematographic sparkle can endow a picture with that extra something that makes it stand out. With Nolan, that “little sparkle” isn’t small at all, but rather involves examples of groundbreaking elaborate FX, sophisticated stunts and immersive camera work that makes you part of the show. To experience his films is to go to space, travel through time, or escape to a comic book come to life. Inception builds entire worlds that look and feel real, inspired by our own dreams of endless creation.  In Tenet and Dunkirk, one built from fiction and the other inspired by real events, we are cinematically transported.  

Through his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, Nolan compliments the visuals of his films with  a dramatic, often triumphant-sounding Score – that in itself brings forth  a world of images and emotions. Together with their impactful sound effects, the sophisticated and distinctive musical scores in Nolan's films bring us soaring into space or racing down a street in a Batmobile, keeping us invested, and activating all of our senses at once for an experience deserving of an IMAX theater near you.

There’s a distinct language that all renowned directors speak. It’s a hypnotic siren’s call, and if you’re lucky, it’s pure imagination and creativity come to life. Nolan’s films are direction- and character-driven, but what is even rarer, they are musical and cinematographic statements.

And finally:

A recipe can be simple enough to follow to make a delicious, winning dessert, but if you miss one key ingredient it can all come to a crumble. Among the main genomic realms that keeps these individual parts to cohesion is the Emotion or Mood that is both displayed and perceptible throughout a film. Nolan balances a dark and gloomy affect along with an active and energetic mood that is tense and surprising when necessary, without losing that rare but welcome feeling  of wonder.

Movie Magic, right?

For any film, each genomic element is crucial, and Christopher Nolan's films are no exception. From their lush settings and compelling characters, leading imaginative stories magnified by special effects and sophisticated scores, to their breathtaking cinematography that showcases wondrous worlds, it is no mystery why this man and his unique vision bring us back to the theater every time. From that vision, he has found a balance of genomic traits that have proven to be not only successful, but also inherently and uniquely him.

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