Newsmaker: Christopher Nolan is a different kind of storyteller
A young Superman is wracked by self-doubt. His special powers scare him and his father fears his abilities will incur hostility rather than wonder. Can he really be the man who was sent to change the world?
It's classic comic book stuff, and the kind of territory the English filmmaker Christopher Nolan has made his own. The 42-year-old, who co-wrote and produced Man of Steel - the Superman reboot that opens in cinemas this week - refashioned another iconic superhero, Batman, into a vulnerable, paranoid but believable caped crusader. In the process, Nolan made one of the highest grossing superhero movies of all time, but crucially, Batman was a blockbuster trilogy that imposed emotional rigour alongside the explosions and set pieces expected of an entertaining film. It asked its audience to think about its anti-hero's motivations rather than simply admire his powers.
Nolan's template for the superhero movie has been so influential that the genre has arguably swung too far in the opposite direction: towards dour explorations of neurotic obsessives with personal problems - folks who find it just a little irritating that their lot is to save the world. Such, unfortunately, is the case with Man of Steel, which The Associated Press called "joyless" this week. How much Nolan had to do with this Superman reboot is a moot point, but the comparison with Batman was clear. The director Zack Snyder, the reviewer wrote, "doesn't have the material or the inclination to make Man of Steel as thought-provoking as Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy".
And those thought-provoking, complex narratives - populated by elliptical characters who never quite conform to traditional expectations of heroism - have not only become Nolan's stock in trade, they've also made him one of the most commercially successful directors of all time.
Certainly few could have predicted Nolan would become one of Hollywood's biggest directors when his breakthrough movie Memento was released in 2000. After all, it was an adaptation of his brother's unpublished short story about an amnesiac trying to find his wife's killer, told both chronologically and in reverse order. Even Nolan once admitted in Empire magazine that its radical structure had "all kinds of significant issues", but it was nominated for two Oscars, and enjoys praise to this day for its innovative take on the thriller-noir genre.
Nolan made another telling remark at the time of Memento. He said he believed filmmakers should be able to act like writers and experiment with narrative without alienating their audience. It's become a mantra of sorts, and right from Nolan's very first film, his commitment to complexity has been intriguing rather than impenetrable, marking him out from his peers at an early age.
The notion that Nolan stands somewhat apart from the mainstream began with his nascent career, when he shunned film school to read English Literature at University College London, where he first came across the noir thrillers of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler that would provide such an influence for his later work. This was also where he joined the UCL Film Society, meeting and making short films in the 1990s with fellow students who would become some of his most trusted lieutenants in the years to come.
Emma Thomas has not only produced every single one of Nolan's films, but she's also his wife. David Julyan wrote the scores for all Nolan's pre-Batman movies. His brother, Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the Memento short story, would later work on the screenplay for The Prestige, two of the Batman films and the forthcoming Interstellar. Christopher Nolan, then, is a man who likes - and keeps close - people who buy into his vision for cinema as literate entertainment. Interstellar, for example, will be Nolan's first film since Memento in which the cinematographer Wally Pfister is not director of photography - and that's only because he's working on his directorial debut. "I've never met another director who cares so deeply about the moving image," Pfister said in 2009.
And that's because Nolan has come to know how crucial it is to the stories he wants to tell. Nolan has a writing credit on each one of his films, although the follow-up to Memento, Insomnia, was a remake of a Norwegian thriller. Just like Memento, it was a nightmare about loss of control framed within the boundaries of a crime drama, except Nolan was turning convention on its head again. There is no steady accumulation of clues until the murderer is discovered: Dormer quite obviously kills his partner in the fog early in proceedings. The film is less a whodunnit than a character study of a hugely troubled man - more evidence of Nolan's interest in flawed central protagonists that began with Leonard Shelby in Memento, would continue in Insomnia and found its apogee in Batman Begins.
Insomnia is probably Nolan's most straightforward, least experimental film, and proved that Nolan had the confidence not just to handle big talents such as Al Pacino and Robin Williams, but also to coax formidable performances out of them. Memento had given Nolan currency, as Pacino admitted. "I wasn't looking to make another movie," he said. "Then I saw Memento and I went: 'Oh yeah, I gotta work with that guy.'"
Memento cost US$9 million (Dh33m) to make. Insomnia had a budget of $46m. Batman, however, came with the expectation that at least $150m would have to be clawed back at the box office. Nolan has always maintained that rapidly increasing budgets don't necessarily have to mean bloated films that spiral out of all control, and again his tight hold over the creative process proved to be the basis for a massively successful movie franchise. This version of Batman was essentially his vision, an "origins" story successfully pitched to DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Nolan was never signing on to somebody else's green-lit script.
What that meant, as the noted film critic Mark Kermode once said, is that Nolan could "take the discipline and ethics of art-house independent moviemaking and apply them to Hollywood blockbusters. He's living proof that you don't have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be profitable".
It's easy to forget that Batman Begins was a huge success at a time when superhero franchises were not the all-conquering behemoth they are today. The breath of fresh air was staggering - this wasn't escapist fun with men in Lycra costumes, but an outlandish story about a man with no obvious superhero attributes, set in a recognisable and troubled world.
Nolan's own politics remain hidden, but he plays out interesting questions in three Batman films, questions that previously had no place in superhero movies. In Batman Begins, for example, the baddie Ra's Al Ghul wants to destroy Gotham, but there is a certain logic in his belief in keeping order and justice in a world that has become decadent and corrupt. In The Dark Knight Rises, the notion that the banks might well go bust and the stock market become worthless is a fascinating comment on our times.
Playing with these fears is what Nolan calls the "theatricality" of opera, the "ability to blow things up into very large emotions that are accessible to a universal audience". And the audience is universal, essentially. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises each took more than $1 billion at the box office. True, the final part of the Batman trilogy had its critics - and there was the nagging sense that Nolan was getting a bit too obsessed with portentous operatics - but overwhelmingly there was the feeling of a job well done.
In the meantime, of course, Nolan exceeded expectations once again, confounding and delighting in equal measure with Inception. A psychological espionage drama set in the dreams of its protagonists sounded like a recipe for disaster, but Nolan trusted in his audience's intelligence, interest and willingness to be entertained. It was one of the most labyrinthine yet fascinating blockbusters of recent years.
All of which makes Man of Steel and the rumours of a Justice League superhero ensemble film something of a disappointment. Nolan has done the comic book caper now, and proved with Inception that his interest in the mechanics of the psyche formed in his early career is not extinguished quite yet. And he can take these obsessions in much more interesting directions than with yet another franchise.
In the meantime, however, the good news for fans of mainstream moviemaking is that there doesn't appear to be the darkness to Christopher Nolan that inhabits so many of his characters. "I have faith in pure cinema," he said late last year. If only more blockbuster directors thought the same.
Updated: June 14, 2013 04:00 AM