Perhaps I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that general movie audiences typically don’t care who directed the movies they see but are drawn to the theater by a particular actor instead. In the current movie landscape, Christopher Nolan is one of the few exceptions to this rule. During a movie trailer, all the producers have to do is pair Nolan’s name with Inception and The Dark Knight, and they’ve likely got a hit on their hands. Nolan himself and the irrefutable success of his past films combine to make a simple, fool-proof marketing strategy.
Owing to his films’ ratings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb, the most reliable and popular website for measuring the public’s sentiment about films), Nolan has made some of the most seen and some of the most beloved films ever, especially within the sci-fi genre. (He’s directed three of the IMDb’s top seven highest-rated sci-fi movies—The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar.) Of his eight major motion pictures, six are in the IMDb’s top 63 rated movies of all time. In addition, he’s helmed seven of the IMDb’s top 26 most rated movies.
So what, in particular, makes his work so attractive and accessible? Jeff Bock argues that Nolan’s success stems from his ability to combine “cinephiles’ intelligence with a blockbuster mentality.” He’s not afraid to confront vast, complicated, yet relatable epistemological questions, such as the nature of love, time, and space. In Memento, perhaps Nolan’s most inventive (and one of his least seen) movies to date, he employs a “puzzle-piece” style of editing that places the viewer in the same frenzied state of mind as the protagonist. This revolutionary scene structure was the most notable shakeup to a movie’s chronology since Pulp Fiction’s non-linear formula six years prior. In fact, Memento’s complex narrative is so riveting that people are debating it to this day. I can honestly say that Nolan’s last four original projects have “blown my mind,” stretching my conception of what movies could achieve. Like me, many people watch movies to be both visually entertained and mentally stimulated, and Nolan strikes the balance with aplomb.
In addition, with the exception of his Batman trilogy, the second of which many argue is the greatest superhero film ever made, Nolan has worked almost exclusively with original ideas, written by himself, often in tandem with his brother. Arguably, it’s his own writing that strengthens his directorial efforts. If the IMDb ratings are any indication, Insomnia, his only “miss,” and the only one of his films that I haven’t immensely enjoyed, is also the only film that he’s directed without having also written.
With his sci-fi and superhero background in mind, I’m interested to see what he does with Dunkirk, his first film based on real events. If he can extend his creative, ambitious filmmaking formula into a historical context, it’s going to be something to behold.
Further reading about Nolan’s exploration of love in Interstellar: Why Do We Reject Love as a Powerful Force in Interstellar?