2017’s Dunkirk is something of a departure for director Christopher Nolan. His previous movies have all had mainly been set in cityscapes and focused upon technology, both real and imaginary. Dunkirk is a sparse, experimental movie set in elemental spaces: on a beach, on the water, and in the air. However, other than metropolises and theoretical devices, Nolan’s movies have another recurring motif, which is his fascination with and manipulation of time. Looking at his filmography it’s clear that Nolan is enamoured with time and how bendy it is, how intangible, and the ways in which it can be reined in and tamed to tell a story on film. This manipulation and depiction of time is something that Nolan may have finally perfected with Dunkirk, his most mature and assured movie so far. And this level of surety and confidence can only come with practice and experience honed over twenty years of directing movies in which time is a major factor in how he depicts characters, setting, and story.
Long after the superhero film trend subsides, Nolan may be best remembered as the director who brought a new sense of realism to film adaptations of comics. With his Batman trilogy, which was grounded in at least a version of reality, Nolan never forgot their source material, meaning that both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises involve that most pulpy of comic book tropes, the ticking time bomb. However, Nolan subverts it in both movies by having the bomb in The Dark Knight be a prop for a psychological experiment and the bomb in The Dark Knight Rises have a timer that isn’t set for ten seconds or an hour, but for five months. Both make quite a big departure from the usual ticking time bomb, which is simply hidden in an important building or has a timer for a few minutes which the hero stops at the last second. His use of time in Batman, while it subverts tropes, is still quite traditional by Nolan’s standards. In his Batman movies, time is still related to a physical prop—in these cases timers upon bombs—while in his other movies, Nolan treats time as something he can direct and influence as though it is one of his actors or characters.
Insomnia, a movie about a detective kept awake both by guilt and perpetual sunlight, constantly reminds us how long Will Dormer has been awake and how, with each passing day without sleep, his behaviour becomes more and more erratic. Throughout we are shown Will’s attempts at sleep and the goading he receives from the movie’s villain, who keeps reminding Will exactly how many days he has been awake and how that can be affecting his judgement. In Insomnia, passing time is an influencer of character but only in the short term. This isn’t a story in which we see the years affect a character but only the nights, and only a week of them. Compare it with Nolan’s The Prestige, a movie about the steady, incremental escalation of a feud, until one of the parties involved is willing to engage in a mass-murder/pseudo-suicide in order to see his enemy dead.
Time weighs heavily on both of these narratives but it is not as front and centre as in a lot of Nolan’s other works. With Insomnia and The Prestige, we only really see the role time plays in retrospect when Nolan’s filmography is put together. In terms of Nolan’s time experiments those two of his movies are more subtle while in the cases of Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, time is something that can be distrusted, played with, and slip through out fingers much faster than usual. In those movies time is not something happening incidentally, time is practically a character on the screen.
Memento, Nolan’s first major success, is centered around a neat narrative trick: events happen in reverse without the main character’s recognition of that fact. Each scene asks a question that the next scene answers. It is like Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a novel about a man’s life happening in reverse that constantly presents us with the effect long before we see the cause. We spend the entire story at a loss because a basic tenet of existence, the idea that time moves in one direction and one direction only, is upended and subverted.
Nolan’s three most recent non-Batman movies have all relied heavily on a view that time is something malleable that should be played with and re-examined.
The plot of Inception is that technology has been invented that allowed people to travel into dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is a thief who is given the task of infiltrating the dreams of a businessman in order to seed an idea in the man’s head about his company. To perform this inception requires a team of other thieves and a plan that involves dreams within dreams within dreams. As the team go to each layer of the dream, they leave someone behind and a quirk of this layered dreaming is that closer to the bottom of the dream pile, time moves at different speeds. This time manipulation leads to two iconic scenes. In the first, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is on the second layer of the dream, fights a nameless thug in a hallway. On the first layer of the dream, his body is asleep in a truck that is run off the road. As the truck rolls down the hill in slow motion, the hallway in which the fight is taking place begins to slowly roll too, making the fight go from something straightforward to delightfully confusing and satisfying. The second element is the now famous Inception music: a low percussive roar that, after Inception, appeared in the trailer for every summer blockbuster. That booming bwarm! noise is actually a slowed down version of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” which is played at the normal paced layer of the dream and then diluted down through the levels, becoming slower and slower until the opening horns become a huge, ominous noise to the characters in the slower parts of the dream.
The divisive Interstellar bases its time distortion on hard science. It is the story of a group of astronauts travelling into space to find a new planet for the human race. The planets they go looking at are all in the vicinity of a huge black hole, the presence of which causes time to move at different speeds depending upon a person’s proximity to it. This means that while Matthew McConaughey’s age maintains a steady 40-something years throughout, his family on Earth grow from children to adulthood while he is away. This distortion leads to one of the most exciting moments of the movie when McConaughey and his team land on a planet that is composed of water and huge waves. Because of the planet’s proximity to the black hole, the trip to the surface that will only take hours will mean they lose years at home. Once they land on the planet their ship is damaged and the few hours it takes them to perform repairs means that 23 years have passed on Earth. In Interstellar, time is more costly than usual and also something we can influence backwards if we fly into a black hole and float around a magic bookcase, which is a part of the movie I would prefer not to discuss here/watch again.
Nolan’s most recent work might be both his best movie and his best experiment with time so far. Dunkirk shows us three narratives, with one each set on land, at sea, and in the air. However, for the characters, the stories are all happening at different paces. The soldiers were stuck on the beach for a week, the sailors who sailed from England to rescue them only spent a day on the water, and the planes flying overhead only had an hour of fuel. Rather than having the movie take place chronologically, with the elements adding up as they join the story or ignoring the history and just putting all the events together as though they happened that way in real life, Nolan opens the movie with a brief introduction to each part of the narrative with a simple title card that tells us how long the story takes whether it’s one week, one day, or one hour. This way an attentive audience can work out what is happening and Nolan can build to a crescendo with the final sequence taking place when all three narratives converge on each on each other and the one hour is happening during the one day that is happening during the one week.
Outside of a few missteps, Nolan has shown himself to be adept at presenting confusing concepts to audiences in a way that they can clearly understand. And in this regard, he has come a long way from Inception, which restates the rules of the movie over and over, to Dunkirk which gives you some text on the screen and then trusts the audiences to know when events are happening.
A downside to all of this is that it can lead to movies that can come across as mechanical and cold, as more is put towards the nuts and bolts of the process and the presentation than to the characters and emotions at the forefront. Nolan has yet to really make something that marries the two with perfection but as his confidence and success builds, it feels like he’s edging closer with each attempt and, considering he’s only 47, there’s still lots of time.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.