Time is of The Essence Through Christopher Nolan’s Lens

Over the past decade, Christopher Nolan has made an everlasting impact on cinema, having undeniably secured his place among today’s most successful directors. His collaborations with the finest composers such as Hans Zimmer, and cinematographers the likes of Hoyte van Hoytema and Wally Pfister, have helped bring his visions to life. But Nolan’s skillful film making isn’t all smoke and mirrors; his movies are the kind you’ll never stop rediscovering and that get better with every viewing. His works explore recurring and layered themes of loss and sacrifice, but there is one theme that Nolan can bend to his will like no other: time.

His newest and most mysterious brainchild, Tenet, will hopefully be hitting theaters in the near future with the promise of another exhilarating experience, so this is the perfect occasion to look back at his previous releases and their relation to time.

Time as an obstacle in Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan gesturing and directing Guy Pearse on the set of Memento
Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Leonard (Guy Pearse) is on a manhunt for his wife’s murderer and rapist, the elusive John G. His quest is complex because ever since losing the woman he loved, Lenny suffers from a form of trauma-based anterograde, short-term memory disorder, meaning he can remember information from his past, but anything happening after his wife’s death is impossible for him to recall for more than a few minutes. His life is one of perpetual forgetfulness and uncertainty, in which he could be sitting at a table talking to you, and all of a sudden forget who you are or why he is there in the first place. In order for him to remember key information, Lenny carries around polaroid pictures of people’s faces, of the place he currently lives in, of his car and his general knowledge of his surroundings, so that the moment his memory starts to fade away, he can reach into his jacket pocket for the photographs and recollect some of his whereabouts. He also makes a habit of tattooing any clue that is essential to the case all over his body, leaving an indelible trace of the puzzle pieces he has gathered.

Christopher Nolan doesn’t simply make us a spectator of the hardships Lenny’s mind puts him through, but rather propels us alongside the main character in an intricate, non-linear arrangement of scenes. Half of the movie goes forward, and the other half goes backwards, so that both the beginning and the end of the story line meet in the middle of the movie. Any given scene begins without context, and the following one ends at the beginning of the previous scene (give it a minute). We are presented with moments we know nothing about, and are just as confused as the lead character, who is only ever half-conscious of the situation he is in, highly dependent on his photographs and the claims of other people. Time becomes an enemy of its own in Memento, and materializes as the obstacle standing in the way of the truth. Lenny gets incredibly close to figuring it all out when the scenes switch, and he is left in the dark again. Gathering information is a complicated task of what feels like clutching at straws, every person he meets is a stranger, and the lines between speculations and facts are blurred.

A developing polaroid that Lenny is holding, under which he has written ‘don’t believe his lies
Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Lenny’s condition makes him quite the unreliable narrator, his tunnel vision perception of the world prevents him from piecing clues together, and his past memories are tainted by the tragedy he went through. Thus, his version of the truth is rarely the most accurate. Christopher Nolan’s directorial work is absolutely brilliant in the sense that, while viewing his film, keeping track of events is just as hard for us as it is for Lenny. You become part of the investigation, part of the mystery, as well as a part of the internal conflict the character undergoes.

Time as a trap in Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan directing and talking with Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the set of Inception
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Christopher Nolan sends in the big guns in this visionary, highly inventive and breathtaking opus. Our main character, Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is one amongst a low profile, inconspicuous circle of dream-workers whose job is to build up adamant walls inside people’s minds as well as extract information from their psyche or implement an idea there by means of deception and illusions. We follow along as Dom is accorded the mission of dissuading one famous businessman, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), from taking after his dying father’s multimillionaire company. In order to do so, Dom sets up an ambitious prototype that will enable him to enter Robert’s head, get to the bottom of his relationship to his father, and convince him to start anew.

Dom brings together an oddly assorted group of people from different backgrounds and with different skill sets to join forces and perpetrate his mission. Motives and agendas mingle as its members come up with a rather complex scheme. They build a system of inter-located dreams, each one existing inside the other.

Nolan presents us with a world that pushes boundaries and deceives any expectation one might have about the lengths the human brain can go to. A dream takes place in someone’s subconscious, and anything remotely conceivable takes on a reality of its own. That prospect makes the experience an appealing one, and it leads many people, including Dom, to indulge in this self-induced way of dreaming to escape reality and exist for a while in an alternate version of one’s own. It is addictive, and the drive to explore more of it is irresistible. The real world has less and less to offer every time you come back from dreaming. Dom highlights the ease with which one can “lose your grip on what’s real and what’s a dream.” As you go deeper and deeper into levels of dream, time stretches on; five minutes in the real world equating to an hour of dreaming in the first level. Keeping a solid sense of the actual world is a complicated feat, especially when one reaches limbo. That space is described by Dom as a place of “raw, infinite subconscious,” a dream realm shared by anyone who enters, and from which there is no escape.

Signature shot from Inception, where Ellen Page playing Ariadne and Dom are dreaming, sitting at a cafe terrace, when everything around them starts blowing apart
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Once again, our characters’ minds represent a challenge when they are faced with manifestations of their internal demons, coming straight from the depths of their subconscious. Dom, who had lost his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) many years before, is blaming himself for her demise and is desperately keeping her alive in his dreams, replicating memories of their time together, places they’ve been, moments they’ve shared, and eventually trapping her fading essence into a hollow shell of their past life. This aspect of his psyche becomes a real threat to the team’s mission when Mal, along with other key memories linked to her death start showing up in unexpected places and hijack their plans.

A special and honorary mention must go out to Hans Zimmer and his astonishing work on the soundtrack, especially the movie’s signature track named “Time,” an emotional crescendo of building tension tinted with sorrow and the inevitable prospect of letting go of what one has lost

Dom’s spinning top, a token that helps him differentiate dreaming from reality
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The concept of Inception is a carefully calculated one, the movie is an inception in itself; a technical marvel on the surface, concealing layers upon layers of emotional baggage, the likes of grief, guilt and the complicated ties between a son and his father. Although time is detrimental to the team’s mission and what they will get out of achieving it successfully, the highest stakes lie elsewhere, and hit a bit closer to home.

By revisiting the withering shreds of his life with Mal, Dom is hopelessly trying to escape time, its inevitability, and its finality. He will never be able to take back what he has done, Mal is gone forever, and dreaming is the only way for him to cheat death and play along with their memories over and over again like a broken record that will eventually have to stop spinning. He is willing to relinquish his reality in order to exist in the remnants of the one he shared with his wife, and therein lies the trap.

Time as a resource in Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan directing Matthew McConaughey on the set of Interstellar, in the spacecraft
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Nolan sets his 2014 release in a world not too unfamiliar from ours, where our beloved Earth has turned its back on us; after wars, drought and famine, humanity has settled for a life in the dust.
The life of former engineer now farmer, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is interrupted when, following a series of mysterious circumstances, he stumbles into the hidden headquarters of NASA and is asked to naviguate among the stars in search of a new habitable planet. The mission is imminent, considering that resources are thinning and the weather is making it impossible to survive any longer. Cooper is motivated by the belief that “mankind was born on Earth” but “never meant to die [there],” and by the inherent need to protect his children, especially after being assured by Brandt (Michael Caine), NASA’s lead professor and the instigator of the mission, that his young daughter Murphy’s (Mackenzie Foy) generation will be the last to survive on Earth. Cooper agrees to the mission and is therefore forced to leave his family behind, in what must be one of the most heartbreaking scenes to date (I might be biased, considering my unending love for this movie, but still, it is pretty heart-wrenching).

Cooper and his fellow astronauts face time as a resource of its own, just like the food and oxygen that have been provided for them aboard the Endurance spacecraft.
In the best-case scenario, they are able to find a suitable environment, onto which they can transport people that are still on Earth, thanks to an equation on gravity that Professor Brandt is still working on and is very close to finishing. The alternative is an embryo farm that will be set on the chosen planet, meaning a whole new beginning for the human race and, unfortunately, the end of what remains of it back on Earth.

The Endurance space craft, composed of a station at the center surrounded by twelve stations in a circle like the twelve items of a clock. A corridor is connecting the center to one of the twelve stations like the hand of a clock. The Endurance spins, representing time going by.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

To the ticking beat of Hans Zimmer’s “No Time for Caution” and “Mountains,” we watch as our characters try to wrap their heads around the difficulties of relativity and the challenges of time when it is limited and irreversible. Because of the pull caused by the gaping black hole that lies in the middle of their newfound galaxy, all elements shift and time stretches on. On the edge of the black hole where the team lands, an hour equals to 7 years on Earth. Conflicts of interest erupt when Cooper has to come to peace with the fact that he might never see his children again, and that every moment spent in space is one he will never get to share with them.

This pull that links Cooper back to his family is what makes Interstellar such an emotional movie. Love is at the very center of it. In a monologue, Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway) stresses the importance of love, explaining that it is what shapes our cultures and the way we operate as human beings, no matter how futile and subjective it may seem next to the notions of physics such as gravity and time. Cooper’s love for his children is what drew him to space in the first place, and it is at times what is holding him back from doing what he must, afraid of not going back home in time.

Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space

Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway)

The context of looming danger and urgency in the face of the only world we’ve ever known slowly crashing down, makes the experience all the more relatable, and it is easy for us to sympathize with what the characters go through. Every decision made is tinted with the knowledge that time is running out, and Nolan puts it at the forefront of the film, in metaphors and symbolism, as well as in the soundtrack that plays out.

In the end, the answers the characters need reside on the watch Cooper gave to his daughter before he left, a physical proof of time passing differently for both of them, a promise materialized, a testament to his determination to return in spite of any element that might stand in his way, including time.

Cooper’s watch is on his wrist, he has just given the other one to Murph, they are comparing them
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Time as a device in Tenet (2020)

At the dawn of an inevitably approaching nuclear war, the characters of Tenet appear to have found a way to manipulate time and reverse it as they wish. This new project has been as secretive and puzzling as they get, but the few clips we’ve been given have generated an incredible amount of excitement from the audience, as well as some troubling theories about the plot. The only thing left to do now is bide our time before we are given the chance to venture into this new movie, which is assured to leave us mystified.

Actors John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a car, a snapshot from Tenet’s trailer
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures