“What the hell just happened?”
I remember seeing Memento in the movie theater when it arrived in 2000. I was taking a break from the intensity of business school, and after the lights came up my friend and I sat there as though a bomb had gone off.
The only other time a filmmaker did that to me was Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction (1994)—incidentally the first movie I ever owned on DVD. That film had the entire audience gasping in surprise as the timeline of the film turned on itself in the final diner scene. But this... well, this was a different kind of surprise.
“What the hell just happened?” That’s what it felt like to discover Christopher Nolan the first time. Winston Churchill used this phrase to describe Communist Russia, and I feel it applies to Christopher Nolan, too: “...a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” To me, the key to understanding Christopher Nolan films is understanding neuroscience—how our brains work and how it affects our perception.
When Nolan’s next film came out in 2002, Insomnia, I raced to the theater to see the great Al Pacino in the lead. Nolan once again played with the impact of memory, of perception, of time, and the mind. I could see a theme emerging in his work: “What do we know and how do we know it? And how does that impact the choices we make in life?” As an adult who has suffered from ADHD my entire life, I’m fascinated by neuroscience, and Nolan’s explorations of the brain appeal to so many parts of my personal experience: time, memory, perception, emotion, logic, and decision-making.
Of course, with Nolan’s first true commercial success, The Dark Knight (2008), everyone found him, and combined with Heath Ledger’s performance and unfortunate death, Nolan breathed new life into a jokey old series. (I was recently watching the 1989 Batman, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and these two Batmans couldn’t be any more different from each other. They’re worth watching back-to-back.) Nolan was also influenced by one of my favorite movies of this time period, called Dark City (1998), with Kiefer Sutherland. If you love Christopher Nolan, you owe it to yourself to check this film out!
But then... there was Inception. I compared the Blu-ray version to the standard DVD and the streaming version last year on this blog. This movie is in my top ten all-time list. It’s a film that rewards its viewers with repeated versions. The commercial success of The Dark Knight gave Nolan a $160M budget to make a movie that matched his enormous ambition—with glorious settings, detailed and nuanced imagery, A-list actors, and a long running time with which to explore all the possibilities of such a complex premise. Nolan himself knew in 2002 when he presented the idea that it wasn’t quite ready, and he patiently worked on other projects for almost a decade while nurturing Inception to glorious fruition.
As the 4th highest grossing film in 2010, it’s no surprise Inception was the most rented DVD of 2010. My guess is that even moviegoers like me were eager to explore the film’s mysteries again and again. Nolan’s decision to eschew digital filmmaking for high speed film pays off greatly when you see Inception in theaters or on Blu-ray. The film might have had more success with 3D, but Nolan wanted to shoot with a precise lens that couldn’t be used for 3D. And that is what I love and respect about him as a filmmaker. Endless attention to detail, a clear vision for the expression of his story, and at its heart, stories with puzzles based on the intricacies and mysteries of the human mind.
His films are based in science, too. Wired had a fascinating article on “The Neuroscience of Inception,” making the argument that Inception is itself a metaphor for filmmaking and that attending a movie is an exercise in shared dreaming. And Memento was applauded by neuroscientists for its accuracy in portraying a particular form of amnesia. There’s nothing like a movie that makes us think, makes us feel something together, and encourages us to debate its meaning into the wee small hours of the morning.
For what it’s worth, I believe that the ending of Inception with its famous spinning top means this: Cobb has decided to enjoy his children and leave his work behind forever. He doesn’t care if he is in “reality” or not—what matters most is his family.
What do you think of the ending? Would Nolan have ended the film this way 10 years earlier? How do you think being a parent himself affects his choices in this film, if at all?