Will Christopher Nolan be cinema's knight in shining armour? His new $225m thriller Tenet is released here next Wednesday, giving moribund multiplexes a welcome shot in the arm. Pre-sales have been good, and other studios will be watching keenly to see whether Tenet achieves any box-office momentum.
Nolan, meanwhile, and Warner Brothers are to be congratulated for sticking to their 2020 cinema release plans, and opening in Europe and elsewhere a week before America. Nolan has stubbornly resisted any suggestion of a streamed release: he shot his film mainly on 70mm stock, and Tenet's booming score and large-scale action sequences cry out for the biggest stage. All the same, a cinema release is a brave move, because social distancing and public wariness are going to make turning a profit difficult.
The film itself? It's typical Nolan fare: a sprawling, high-octane thriller full of big ideas, jaw-dropping set-pieces and baffling scientific undercurrents. John David Washington stars as a spy of sorts who ends up infiltrating the inner circle of a Russian criminal (Kenneth Branagh) honing a weapon that may destroy all humanity.
As ever, the director mixes blockbuster spectacle with wordy metaphysical chin-stroking, and Tenet boasts genuinely breathtaking moments. Whether it's a broad enough crowd-pleaser to single-handedly resurrect the culture of cinema-going is doubtful, however, because Tenet is no Die Hard; it's laden down with science, paradox and endless tricksy plot twists. But then that's what Nolan uniquely does: use the canvas of mainstream action cinema to create auteurish, ambitious, deeply personal films.
He has often been compared to Stanley Kubrick, but Nolan's career arc could also be likened to Alfred Hitchcock's. Like Hitch, he learnt about film from the ground up, working as a script reader and cameraman before graduating to commercial directing. In other words, he understands the film-making process from start to finish, and has used his mastery of it to create extraordinary movies. Hitchcock used genre pictures to explore dark psychological themes, and Nolan has been similarly successful in creating hit commercial films with high artistic merit. His instinct for visual storytelling seems innate.
He was just seven years old when he began shooting short films with his action figures on his father's Super 8. Growing up, he was entranced by the films of Ridley Scott, by Star Wars and Kubrick's 2001, and he and his younger brother and future scriptwriter Jonathan created stop-motion sci-fi animations using sets made from clay and toilet rolls. Young Christopher had a vision but, in 1990s England, he struggled to make a breakthrough.
After studying English at University College London, Nolan spent a couple of years making corporate videos and industrial films. He began shooting his own short films, and in the mid-90s tried to get a feature called Larry Mahoney off the ground. He failed, and would later complain about the UK being "a very clubby kind of place - [I] never had any support whatsoever from the British film industry".
Maybe so, but he didn't need it. After winning praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his debut feature Following, a dark tale of unhealthy obsession, Nolan moved to California and caused a bigger splash with Memento (2000). The recurring themes of time, grief and regret were present in an accomplished thriller that unsettled its audience by tinkering with chronology. Guy Pearce played Leonard Shelby, a man whose crippling amnesia hampers his search for the man who killed his wife.
Among Memento's many fans was Steven Soderbergh, who convinced Warner Brothers to recruit the untried Englishman to direct Insomnia, an icky big-budget thriller starring Al Pacino as an LA cop sent to Alaska to investigate a murder. A remake of a Norwegian thriller, Insomnia was for many critics an improvement on the original. It made money too, and Nolan now had a rising reputation and an in with Warners.
They were wary when he approached them with an idea for rebooting the Batman franchise, which had been left in tatters at the end of the 1990s by Joel Schumacher and co. Instead of giving us another version of the fully formed Batman, Nolan proposed an origins story along the lines of Richard Donner's Superman. But his palate would me much darker, with dread rather than humour the prevailing emotion. He ended up making a trilogy that would challenge the long-standing notion that superhero films had to be dumb. Batman Begins (2005) set the scene magnificently, casting Christian Bale as the young and impetuous Gotham billionaire Bruce Wayne, who must learn to channel his anger over his parents' murder as he confronts those responsible. Nolan's decision to shoot on location and avoid CGI effects gave the film an appealing grittiness, grounding a well-worn story and making it believable.
Better things would come with Dark Knight (2008), an astonishingly adept and ambitious epic that fused the dark designs of Frank Miller's graphic novels and the bravura action sequences of Michael Mann's Heat to create one of the best films of that decade. One could certainly argue that had it not been a superhero movie, it might have won Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards instead of Slumdog Millionaire, which has not dated quite as well. The Dark Knight was pure cinema, from Christian Bale's skyscraper-haunting Batman to Heath Ledger's terrifyingly vacuous Joker, who at one point leaned his head from of a fast-moving car and stuck his tongue out, like a sated dog. This was no mere comic strip, and the society violently imploding at the heart of Nolan's film was unmistakably America.
Though full of arresting moments, The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was not as good. It would be forever associated with a mass shooting during a screening in Colorado: life meeting art in the most unpleasant way.
Thereafter, Nolan withdrew from the Batman franchise to concentrate on more personal projects. For all their bravura images and effects, I'm not a fan of Nolan's more metaphysical works, like Inception and Interstellar.
In the former film, released in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio played a futuristic thief who enters people's dreams to steal valuable information but is himself haunted by dreams of his dead wife. And in the latter, which went heavy on the astrophysics, Matthew McConaughey was shot through a wormhole in a desperate attempt to find a new home for humanity.
For all their pyrotechnical brilliance, these movies have too much intellectual buttressing, too little in the way of actual human drama, to remain upright. Like that magnificent sequence in Inception where a Parisian street slowly implodes, these films collapse under the weight of their own theorising; they are visually arresting, but the centre cannot hold.
My favourite Nolan film of all is Dunkirk, his 2017 epic in which he used real boats, planes, sea and beaches to tell the story of the miracle rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France. Filmed in glorious 70mm, his near wordless film was a gripping, brilliantly edited white-knuckle ride which placed you on that beach and made you duck in your cinema seat every time a Messerschmitt dived. Dunkirk was pure cinema, and evoked as well as any film has the meaningless horror of war.
Nolan had dreamt up the idea many years before, while on a ferry crossing to France. As he watched the passing waves, he thought about the ragtag flotilla that had forded the channel in 1940 and wondered how best their story might be cinematically told. CGI would not do, and the event would only be done justice by actual boats and planes, real locations, everything done in camera. But he was only 21, with just a string of shorts to his credit: in order to shoot Dunkirk he would have to learn how to make movies first. He seems to have figured that out.