1. Inception (2010)

Themes: A grand-heist film that takes places inside levels of dreams, at its heart Inception is about a man’s journey to return to his children. The children themselves are not important, they are MacGuffins. Rather the children are used to give a physical power to Cobb’s obsession with returning home. Cobb’s journey home is a journey towards control. His wife Mal’s death was out of his control because the idea that he planted in her brain, that their world was not real, grew beyond his ability to handle. Similar to The Prestige, Inception deals with a science that can’t be fully understood, and yet is sought to be fully grasped regardless. While the film deals with dreams and takes place with dreams, it is about ideas, which are more concrete and thus more controlled. The dreams themselves even take the form of ideas as they are constructed by architects instead of existing as raw dream space. And ideas, which the film claims are like a virus, give validation to obsession’s power to destroy (the spread of ideas and their influence are seen across all of Nolan’s films). In the film we see that ideas can not only destroy lives but destroy cities and a world. While it’s far less allegorical than The Dark Knight Trilogy, its themes still harken back to benefits and dangers of technology and human ingenuity in the 21st century.

“You bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious,” Cobb says. In this film, dreams act as the “box” in which the character’s essence exists. The essence of Mal (her dissatisfaction with reality) and Fisher’s (his relationship with his father) are both kept inside of physical boxes, safes, in the form of a spinning top and a pinwheel. These objects, called totems, allow for the owner to determine whether or not they are dreaming (though the pinwheel is never revealed as a totem it has the same effect in that it is attached to reality.) These totems can be looked at as mementos, reminders for these characters to remember their own mortality by coming back to the real-world. But these essences, being subconscious are not controlled in the same way we see the boxes in the apartments in Following. Because of this, Inception is the sole case of Finch’s words from Insomnia ringing true. As we see with Fisher, inception prevents the incepted from picking when they tell the truth, a truth they may not even be aware of.

Like a number of Nolan’s other entries, in the end Inception is about building and controlling a world you can live with (depending on how you take the ending) For me, the top has always kept spinning because it fits in with Nolan’s previous characters ignoring evidence in order to construct their own reality. I believe that like Lenny, Cobb no longer cares what is real or what is not (this may be his subconscious essence). But while Lenny needs the journey to continue, Cobb needs the sense of completion.

Impact: Inception proved Nolan’s box-office draw beyond the Batman films and displayed how far he could take his imagination with the right resources. His work with an A-list cast also made him one of the biggest draws for Hollywood talent. Inception also has the infamy of giving us the “BRAAAM” sound during summer movie trailers.


  1. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Themes: In the finale of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan explores Dickensian social unrest and uprisings brought about by mistrust of the government. The themes in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight naturally build towards this. We see a revival and escalation of Ra’s al Ghul’s goals and we see the chaos and moral degeneration that results when people discover the truth that their leaders cannot be trusted. The divide between classes (mirroring Occupy Wall Street) creates the perfect environment and distraction for the destruction of Gotham. Wayne, a member of the 1%, attempted to solve Gotham’s problems with his wealth and failed. His rise can only be achieved by his being stripped of his comfort and brought down to the level of the common people. Selina Kyle claims that no one gets a fresh start, but this is exactly what The Dark Knight Rises displays, fresh starts without the total annihilation that al Ghul believed was necessary. The Pit (a figurative version of the comics’ Lazarus Pit) allows for Wayne’s rebirth by reminding him of his own mortality and that Batman is bigger than one man. So while Wayne’s fall and rise is a necessary character journey, Batman must remain an undefeatable force (like Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins he disappears for a while, but returns). Batman is beyond Wayne’s obsession and humanity; it’s a legacy.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

“No one cared who I was ‘til I put on the mask,” Bane says, and while it is a theme that stretches across the entire Batman trilogy, it is also true of Nolan’s career in some ways. What The Dark Knight Rises truly explores is the nature of immortality. Pop-culture icons are already awarded a certain level of immortality, and Batman and his supporting characters have endured through numerous reinventions since 1939. There’s a running joke in comics concerning the idea of the Bat-God (the notion that Batman is entirely undefeatable and far too prepared for every contingency for a mere human being). The film tackles the idea of Batman as deity by exposing Batman not as something made of flesh and blood, but an idea. And similar to Inception, this idea has the power to destroy lives, cities, and ultimately enact change. We see a return of the mentor-apprentice relationship with Batman and John Blake (Selina as well, to some extent), and we see the continuation of Ra’s through Talia and Bane in which ideas are passed down. While much has been made about Wayne quitting the suit in the end, Batman did not truly triumph and become the legend he set out to be until the end The Dark Knight Rises. If nothing tells the truth quite like death, then by letting go of his ego, his obsession, and choosing not to die as Batman, Wayne ensured that the truth behind Batman would not be revealed and end as the efforts of a man, but rather the undefeatable power of a legend.

Impact: While it lacked the same water-shed moment as The Dark Knight, the film proved equally successful if not as culturally memorable. By taking our knowledge of pop culture, Nolan allows audiences to re-examine the immortal nature of conflicts beyond the simple boundaries of good and evil. After all, the complex nature of world politics cannot be divided amongst these lines so why should our pop-cultural reflections? The Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole is Nolan’s way of asking audiences to not only ask for more in their entertainment but to think more as well.

With Interstellar opening this week, it will no doubt be interesting see which of these themes carry over and how Nolan will alter them within the space of a much grander tapestry in order to tell the story he wants to tell, a story of what people are willing to do for their obsessions and beliefs. We can look at Nolan’s filmography as a box, one that attempts to capture the essence of not only himself but also aspects of humanity. Inside is a mixture of truth and lies, an exploration into the known and unknown. To borrow from Angier’s final lines in The Prestige, what is central to Nolan’s box is the powerful idea that “if you can fool them, even for a second… then you can make them wonder. And you get to see something very special.”