With Tenet finally hitting the big screen after more than five years in development, Christopher Nolan is once again set to dominate the movie headlines. In what has been a miserable year for movie making for obvious reasons, his latest creation is likely to be the big story of 2020, with a plot that takes in time travel, international espionage and alternative histories.
Initial reaction from preview screenings in the UK has been positive. The comparisons with the likes of Inception and Interstellar will be inevitable, and these are tough acts to follow. So where will Tenet ultimately stand in Nolan’s remarkable canon of work over the past two decades? Let’s take a look at some of the titles it has the unenviable task of following.
This ambitious project was Nolan’s first full-length feature as director, and it set the stage for many of the off-beat styles and techniques he would use in later titles. It starred Guy Pearce as a man who is unable to form new memories due to an accident and whose short-term memories last only 15 minutes.
We accompany Pearce’s character into a surreal, fractured world as he uses polaroid photographs and his own tattoos as clues to help him hunt down the people who murdered his wife. Timelines are blurred and Nolan makes clever use of color and black and white to create two parallel narratives.
The movie was initially released in only 11 theaters, but it proved such a success that it was quickly rolled out to 500 more, placing Christopher Nolan firmly on the map and leaving viewers impatient to see his next creation.
The wait lasted two years, and for Insomnia, Nolan had big Hollywood guns on board in the shape of Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hillary Swank and others. What starts off as a routine tale involving detectives investigating a murder soon descends into confusion and a sense of unreality, as Pacino’s character is plunged into despair after a shoot-out in the fog goes horribly wrong.
It’s a case of actor and director in perfect harmony, as we are dragged into the heart of Pacino’s psychological tempest. Here’s a man with whom we can all identify. He’s no Jack Baur or Ethan Hunt, he’s just a flawed human like the rest of us, trying to do a tough job, plagued with self-doubt. And he’s tired, so very, very tired.
Nolan received praise for the direction and cinematography, but also for the genius decision to cast Robin Williams against type as a criminal character. Insomnia is a revelation on so many levels, and is a movie that gets better with every repeated viewing.
Nolan spent the latter part of the decade working on Batman titles – of which we will speak more in a moment. But in 2010, he returned to the theme of blending science and psychology with Inception. The ensemble cast reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who. Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, the list goes on and on.
The plot revolves around a professional memory thief who can enter the subconscious of his targets to steal, or plant, information. It was based on an idea Nolan had following the release of Insomnia on the subject of lucid dreaming. By the time work started on it, Nolan also had Batman Begins and The Dark Knight under his belt, so Warner Bros had no qualms about stumping up the $160 million budget.
It was, of course, a shrewd call on their part, with the film achieving just shy of $830 million at the box office worldwide. The top reviewers in publications such as Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Post could not get enough of it, with some even drawing comparisons with Stanley Kubrick.
The Dark Knight Rises (2014)
Despite all these amazing titles, most movie-goer’s minds will automatically go to one place when Christopher Nolan’s name is mentioned, and that’s Gotham City. His Dark Knight series will go down in history alongside The Godfather, The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings as one of the must-see movie trilogies.
Any or all of these could have made our list, but if we can only pick one, then surely Nolan saved the best till last with The Dark Knight Rises. It has everything, an intelligent storyline, characters you actually care about, and Gary Oldman giving the performance of his life.
You can always learn plenty about a movie by its spin-offs and merchandising. Batman has never been shy to cash in where this is concerned, a trend going all the way back to the 1960s. But The Dark Knight Rises is one of only a handful of movies that have their own slot game, so this one has taken its place in history among gamers as well as movie fans.
As the years go by, we see Christopher Nolan becoming increasingly comfortable and confident in his craft, and that’s good news for the viewing public. The blank canvas of outer space could be a daunting proposition for a director like Nolan, yet he still manages to convey that sense of what can almost be called claustrophobia, even into infinite space.
Some have drawn comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, although that might be taking things a little far. But Interstellar is certainly an incredibly accomplished movie in which Nolan’s use of techniques that avoided the dreaded green screen resulted in wholly believable performances from yet another stellar cast. It’s one of those movies that succeeds in keeping you thinking hours and even days after the credits have rolled, and that is no mean feat in the 21st century.
Will Tenet top them all?
If we run a similar article in five years time, will Tenet be next on the list? Nolan’s habit of just getting better and better in combination with the positive noises coming from those early showings in Europe certainly suggest so.