After the success of Batman Begins, his biggest movie to date both in terms of budget and scope, Christopher Nolan didn’t rest for long. In 2006, he released The Prestige, a complex and intricate period piece which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. He also brought along two of his Batman actors, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, the first two luckily enough to be added to Nolan’s stable of “go to” actors. The film traces the rivalry of two master magicians (Bale and Hugh Jackman) whose quest for revenge threatens to destroy both their lives. The script of The Prestige is an example of a near-perfect screenplay and in Nolan’s hands, the film succeeds as both entertainment for mass audiences and an exercise in cinematic sleight-of-hand.
Soon after The Prestige was released, Nolan confirmed that he would indeed be directing a sequel to Batman Begins. The speculation and rumors started flying immediately, but no one was prepared for the two enormous surprises Nolan had in store. First, it was announced that the title of the next film would be The Dark Knight, a reference to one of Batman’s many monikers. It would be the first time the word “Batman” would not appear in the title of a Batman movie. The even bigger, and initially more controversial surprise, was the announcement that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, the main villain of The Dark Knight. Ledger had recently been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Brokeback Mountain, but to date had not taken on any roles that would indicate he could step up to the task of capturing The Joker’s colorful and maniacal personality.
Ledger’s detractors couldn’t have been more wrong. Leading up to the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, the overwhelming majority of coverage about the film surrounded Ledger’s transformation into one of the most disturbing characters in cinema history. Ledger’s work in the movie was not a disappointment. Tragically, Ledger died before the release of The Dark Knight, but earned a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The Dark Knight went on to become the third highest grossing movie of all time.
Nolan’s most impressive feat with The Dark Knight was his use of IMAX cameras, shooting over 30 minutes of footage using the much larger film format. The result was a larger than life spectacle that was much more immersive than anything audiences had seen before. Though it featured more daytime scenes than Batman Begins (which was set almost entirely at night), The Dark Knight was a much darker film in tone and subject matter. The Joker’s desire to unleash anarchy on Gotham mixed with the political undertones of government intrusion into private life made The Dark Knight more than just a movie; it was a conversation starter about the limits of government control.
At the time it was hard to imagine Nolan doing anything that would top The Dark Knight in terms of filmmaking brilliance, but he did just that in 2010 with Inception. Nolan admitted that the concept for Inception had been floating around in his head for roughly 10 years before the film actually began shooting. What is most interesting is that, while Nolan has worked on the screenplays for each of his films, Inception was the first movie since Following for which he was the sole screenwriter credited. His other films had been adaptations from previously published material. Inception would show any critics that he was truly a gifted filmmaker in every sense of the word.
Since secrecy about the film’s plot was paramount, leading up to the film’s release Nolan would only say that the movie dealt with “the architecture of the mind.” This vague description was enough to make fans crave just the smallest amount of information or set photos until they were able to see the film for themselves. When the trailer for Inception was released early in 2010, it was clear Nolan had made a masterpiece. The images in the trailer were stunning and the anticipation for the film grew exponentially.
The film deals with a thief named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is able to access others’ minds through their dreams. (Wait, a thief named Cobb? That sounds like another Nolan film. Maybe his other original work, Following, perhaps?) Cobb has been on the run for years because the police believe he killed his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), though he maintains his innocence. When he is given the chance to buy his freedom, Cobb takes on one last job to clear his name.
To this day, there are still arguments about how much, if any, of Inception is real and how much is a dream. Nolan crafted the film to leave it open to a variety of interpretations. What isn’t ambiguous, though, is Nolan’s impressive work as the architect of Inception. Continuing his preference for practical effects over CGI, Nolan’s team created some of the most startling images audiences have ever seen. The soon-to-be-iconic hallway fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a thug will continue to impress viewers for years to come.
There is no question that Christopher Nolan is an unequivocal genius when it comes to filmmaking. With The Dark Knight Rises, he is retiring from the Batman mythology. While it’s not yet known what his next project will be, what is clear is that Nolan will continue to make incredible films that will challenge audience expectations for what a Hollywood blockbuster can really be.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”