To See the Wonder in their Eyes

I have seen six movies created by Christopher Nolan: Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, and The Prestige.

My reaction at the end of Inception was “YES!” nearly shouted from my voice, albeit still with a sense of confusion.

My reaction at the end of The Dark Knight trilogy was, “well, okay, that was interesting.”

My reaction at the end of Interstellar was… Well, to be honest, tears and disappointment. But that tale is for another day.

And finally, my reaction at the end of The Prestige was, in a nutshell: “Wait, WHAT?”

I was going to make this post primarily discussing this latter movie, but I find that most of my thoughts concern the characteristics of Nolan’s movies as a whole, though granted I have not seen them all.

First off, Nolan’s movies require a much larger amount of attention than most other movies. Never does Nolan ever tell the audience what’s really going on. He gives us clues and we’re left to sort them out while he, I would expect, observes from the shadows with his own bag of popcorn and an amused smile on his face. If you want to know exactly what’s going on in his movies, you have to dedicate more than just two and a half hours of your time and a quarter of your brain cells. The movie must be rewatched, sometimes researched, and a knowledge of the personal character of the mastermind behind it learned, in order to even formulate a theory of what the true meaning is.

Second, his movies aren’t always clear-cut: both The Prestige and Inception have an odd sequencing of events, the former more than the latter. Inception starts off with a scene at the end of the movie, and then suddenly transitions to… The present? The past?.. And then continues the first scene at the near conclusion. Now having seen The Prestige only once, and that was just a few minutes ago (thus the inspiration for this post), I can’t explain what scenes were the past and which were the present, only that it’s more confusing than Inception was, in my eyes.

But a common theme in all of Nolan’s movies I’ve seen, is that each story is far bigger than the movie itself. The movie is a multi-faceted glimpse into the story in question, and from there even more multi-faceted glimpses can be caught of the world around the story. What I particularly liked about Inception and The Prestige was that they were sci-fi movies that really didn’t revolve around the actual technology. The focus was on the use of it, rather than the invention of the technology itself.
In Inception, the PASIV device which enables people to share dreams (the name of which I only discovered on the Inception Wikipedia), is the thing that enables the entire story to take place. And although it is crucial, it is hardly mentioned, explained almost as if it is of no consequence, and never even named.
The Prestige portrayed the technology similarly; Nikola Tesla managed to create a machine that literally creates a clone of the user. What a breakthrough! And yet, it is only used by a stage magician who is trying to one-up his rival. It isn’t about the machine, or even about Tesla, it’s about the people using it. Nevermind the plethora of implications this twist gives rise to.
And so it is with the other movies as well; there are stories alluded to that only make brief appearances and are left unfinished, but leave the focus of the movie feeling richer and deeper than it otherwise might be. Despite how much is included in the movies, not a single scene is wasted on anything not truly relevant or supportive to the main plot. Everything serves to add greater depth to the story. There is never only one protagonist, one antagonist, one story. Interstellar was very nearly three hours long, and yet the details of the story portrayed still could not be explained completely. Not a second was thrown away, and yet it never gave all the answers either.
Nolan’s movies make you think, make you pay attention, heck, even inspire existential crisis, rather than just serve to entertain and replace your own imagination for you. His movies are at once an enjoyment and a torment; if you finish one without both the pain of intense thinking and an overwhelming feeling of fascination, you probably slept through it.

And perhaps one of my favorite characteristics of his movies; the suspense and the thrill they inspire. I am more likely to label any Nolan movie as of the thriller or horror genres than any movie actually published under those categories. Perhaps that is unique to me; if I know it is supposed to be a horror movie, I will automatically be mostly immune to it’s effects, knowing that the story is built off of horror and not vice versa.
Inception had its share of jump scares, of suspense, of thrill. So did Interstellar. The Dark Knight trilogy could be included there as well, and even The Prestige made me gasp in surprise or even awed fear, while I leaned at the edge of my seat and glued my eyes wide to the screen.
But they aren’t horror movies. And this, exactly, is why they worked so well at producing that very same effect, even to exceed the power of your typical horror movie. That is how it should be. The focus, was, as always, on the story, and everything else, including the jump scares and the fear and the suspense, were just happenstance products of that story. They weren’t put there just to make you jump. They served a higher purpose. And that is what I prefer. That is what it takes to actually move me to react.

The final thing that comes to mind when I think of Nolan’s movies, is the endings. It’s never a nice, neat wrap up. There’s no sudden outpouring of explanation. There is some of that, but quite a lot is left up to the imagination, the discretion, or the detective-esque abilities of the viewer.
Inception left you wondering if Cobb really was awake. The Dark Knight left you wondering if Batman was really alive. Interstellar left you wondering where, exactly, our protagonist was going. And finally, The Prestige left you wondering what to believe about the circumstances at all.
And to find out, one must be willing to do some research. This is, in my opinion, not the product of poor writing, or of slapped-together editing, but of a careful stitching together of many ideas into one. To understand the movie, you must understand the story. And to understand the story, you must dig around a little. Whether this is via Wikipedia, discussion boards, or through quotes from Nolan himself, it is an exciting and adventurous treasure hunt to discover.

Much discussion is made about the themes in Nolan’s movies, some holding the opinion that there are too many. But I personally love the poetic quality of a movie that says a thousand things at once, some contradictory, a movie that can mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another, with both individuals having an equal understanding of the movie in question. They contain morals, fairy tales, warnings, and beautiful descriptions of existence that you find rarely in other movies.

There is one more thing I’ve noticed about Christopher Nolan’s movies; and that is just how quiet the dialogue is in comparison to the music and sound effects. This can be frustrating at times, hard to understand or to hear, but even so, I think it adds a realism to the story that wouldn’t otherwise be there. It seems more like you’re experiencing the story, rather than watching a movie about the story. And if that idea isn’t enough, than perhaps it is satisfactory to theorize that if it is a consistent theme in every movie Nolan makes, and if the other aspects of his movies are highly intelligent, there must be a highly intelligent reason behind the quiet dialogue.
At least, that’s how I see it.

I fully intend to watch what Nolan movies I haven’t yet seen, and look forward to what masterpieces he creates in the future. The world needs more artists like him.
This post was originally meant to be solely about The Prestige, thus the title “To See the Wonder in their Eyes,” a powerful quote from the movie. I’ve decided to keep it, as what better guess can be made as to the motivation of the mysterious Christopher Nolan?