Non-linear Nolan

How Christopher Nolan’s time-game movies disrupt our expectations of chronology.

Memento (2000)

It feels as if time has been ticking away at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s films from the very beginning. As with any low-budget indie, time was largely against him on Following (1998), his 70-minute noir debut, shot over weekends with limited reels of film stock available each day. But since then, he’s explored the possibilities of the concept – structurally, emotionally, theoretically – in many of his most potent films.

Arguably, the most poignant of these is Memento (2000), the nimbly constructed vengeance tale that in terms of chronology moves both backwards (in colour), to put viewers in the amnesiac mind of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), and forwards (in black and white), in a series of motel-room scenes, before the two strands ultimately converge. Unable to form new memories after a blow to the head, Shelby is incapable of grieving the loss of his murdered wife; if time is the great healer, he’s forever left with a gaping wound. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t… feel time?” he asks.

Al Pacino in Insomnia (2002)

At certain stages in a Nolan movie, time can stretch endlessly. The perpetual daylight of his Alaskan-set Insomnia (2003) suggests a permanent sleepless hell that remorseful Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is forever trapped in. At other times, it crystallises moments of regret and reflection on a lifetime wasted in obsession and rivalry, as seen in his elaborate movie of misdirection and sleight of hand, The Prestige (2006).

In Inception (2010), time is tied to dream logic. As the team led by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) penetrate the mind of their target, each dream-layer sees time move at a different rate. These distortions are memorably counted down via a van falling off a bridge – a matter of seconds on one plane becomes endless slow-mo on another. This functions like a metronome for the film’s climax, when several levels of action coalesce, and remains one of Nolan’s most visceral uses of time distortion.

Interstellar (2014)

By Interstellar (2014), the inexorable passing of time – and what it means to our lives – had become central to Nolan’s thinking. “I’m not afraid of death,” remarks Professor Brand (Michael Caine). “I’m an old physicist. I’m afraid of time.” Drawing on the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, Nolan began to explore time on an academic as well as emotional level. When the crew of the Endurance head into space, the appearance of a black hole leads to time dilation; a few hours spent on a planet equate to 23 years on board the ship.

Eventually, astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) will communicate with his – now grown-up – daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) via the wristwatch he gave her as a child. Entering the so-called Tesseract, a futuristic space in which time becomes both a physical and navigable dimension, he learns to tap out Morse code via the perpetually twitching hand of the now-broken watch. It’s here that love – an enduring emotional force – and time intersect.

Dunkirk (2017)

In World War II tale Dunkirk (2017), three distinct narratives are characterised by distinct timeframes. ‘One week’ sees British soldiers on the beaches of the French town, nervously waiting for a saviour on the waters. ‘One day’ follows one of “the little ships” crossing the Channel. And ‘One hour’ sees Spitfire dogfights in the air. When these converge, cut to Hans Zimmer’s tick-tock score, Nolan is exploring the very notion of survival – how split seconds can be the difference between life and death.

Inspired in particular by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), the clockwork nature of the thriller genre also becomes vital to Dunkirk’s mechanics. Editor Lee Smith, who won an Oscar for his work, called the whole film “a gigantic ticking clock”, requiring an expertise he’d expressly honed in his work on Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, 2005; The Dark Knight, 2008; The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), each part of which operates with propulsive forward motion.

Christopher Nolan explains “temporal pincer movements” to Tenet’s John David Washington

In Tenet, time is reframed as a commodity. “Time runs out,” says the tagline, and the image of mankind facing extinction, desperate for more time, dominates. ‘Time inversion’, the entropy-reversing process, is a particular Nolan-ism, enabling him to have his temporal cake and eat it. Like the palindromes buried in the film, time can be ‘read’ forwards and backwards simultaneously (visualised, at one point, by a character setting two digital watches, one counting up, one counting down).

Yet for all its tricksy qualities, at the heart of Tenet is a desire to live. “How would you like to die?” remarks Kenneth Branagh’s Sator. “Old” replies John David Washington’s Protagonist.