Chris Nolan’s Time

1998 Following
2000 Memento
2002 Insomnia
2006 The Prestige
2010 Inception
2014 Interstellar
2017 Dunkirk

(No spoilers)

Chris Nolan has one of the most respected bodies of work in recent cinema history. At the most visible level, his movies are psychological thrillers, about a diverse range of subjects like revenge (Memento), magic (The Prestige), space travel (Interstellar), war  (Dunkirk), dreams (Inception). These movies contain gripping stories, tight story-telling and amazing visuals, not to mention remarkable soundtracks.

If we peel off the visible layer, at the next level we see a consistent theme of troubled individuals (always men; women often die in Nolan flicks!). These troubled men are captives of  their obsessions (The Prestige, Following) or of their pasts (Inception, Insomnia). The outer, visible setting is hence a backdrop for their struggles with themselves, and sometimes with the ones they love. (This troubled-man angle also applies to the way Nolan constructed the Batman trilogy that I’ve omitted from his filmography above, as this trilogy not directly relevant to the central thesis of this article – but the “trilogy” does relate to another of Nolan’s preoccupations, with the number “3”).

The central thesis of this article is that, at their very core, Nolan’s movies exhibit his obsession with Time. No, not the magazine. Time in its bare, fluid, myriad, impossible-to-understand forms. The play on/with Time is a consistent thread that runs through his movies.

More specifically, Nolan’s fascination is with the subjectivity of Time. He demonstrates this by exploring different aspects of Time, and there are examples right from the start:

  1. The triple-tiered, flashback structure of Following
  2. Memento, a movie with parts that have a time-reversed narrative
  3. Al Pacino’s struggle with no visible flow of time, due to the perpetual daylight in Alaska, in Insomnia
  4. The twisty-&-turny, non-linear narrative of The Prestige – which itself beautifully mimics the three-part sequence of a magic trick
  5. The different relative “speeds” of time as one goes into deeper dream layers in Inception
  6. Relativistic time dilation effects in Interstellar, caused by flying too close to a black hole
  7. Dunkirk, 3 stories narrated simultaneously at 3 different time scales, converging to a single moment

Nolan uses this subjectivity towards Time at two levels: on his characters, and with his audience.

In some movies, Nolan uses the flow of Time to affect his characters in different ways. Probably the most obvious demonstration of this is in Interstellar, where he uses time dilation effects caused by intense gravitational forces near a black hole to age different characters at different rates. This time-dilation effect was first explained by Einstein in his Theories of Relativity (1905 & 1915), and Nolan uses it to good effect through this movie.

Subjectivity from an audience standpoint is the impact on us as we watch these movies. This seems to be case in almost all his works. Sometimes, one can even get a little confused in the back-and-forth cuts between different sequences, which may also have different time aspects. In my view, the movie was most innovative in its play with Time as a narrative tool was Memento, it has a mind-boggling impact on the audience.

So, sometimes Nolan makes playing with Time an integral element of the way he’s narrating the story.  Dunkirk, Following and Memento are examples. Other times, the narrative timeline is simpler, but Time impacts the characters in the movie, as in Interstellar, Insomnia and Inception. And, of course, this play on/with Time always has a subliminal effect on the audience, we often don’t even realize it.

If you haven’t seen any of these movies, you must. And if this article has provided a new perspective on Time in Nolan’s movies, you may want to watch them again. I, for one, can’t wait for his next one.


August 2020: Nolan’s next is “Tenet”, to be released shortly. It reportedly features a Protagonist (!) who can manipulate time. I rest my case 😀.

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