Christopher Nolan has returned with his newest film Dunkirk, and the director continues to manipulate time to turn the story into the kind of puzzle he’s known for.
In an interview several months before Dunkirk hit theaters, Christopher Nolan stated that his new film would tell the story of the evacuation of Allied troops from France during World War II using three locations – land, sea, and air.
He explained that each of these locations would have a different timeline; the land would take place over a week, the sea a day, and the air just a single hour. This choice is not particularly surprising, given Nolan’s history of manipulating time. This trend stretches as far back as Nolan’s 2000 film Memento, in which he uses two different sequences of scenes, one that plays chronologically while another plays in reverse order.
In two of his later films, Interstellar and Inception, Nolan continues to use the manipulation of time as a framing device for the film’s narrative. With Dunkirk, he’s done it again. For a director that has such a clear fixation with manipulating time, a device that has helped his films earn a cult status and made him one of the most well-known directors working today, it’s worth investigating just how successful this method of storytelling is and what it reveals about Nolan as a storyteller.
Nolan’s 2010 film Inception uses time as a tool for giving the plot more time to play out, while also functioning as an antagonist to the character’s objectives. The movie follows a group of individuals as they enter the subconscious of the heir to a massive corporation. Their aim is to plant an idea in his subconscious so that he believes it to be his own. Nolan spreads his characters out among several layers of the heir’s subconscious.
Since the speed at which time passes is different at each layer, Nolan gives himself more time to tell the increasingly complicated story. Conversely, the characters within each layer of the subconscious are given less time to achieve their own objectives. What appears to be a complicated concept is actually a relatively basic technique; Nolan manipulates time so he can extend the film’s climax to the length of nearly 45 minutes.
Some audiences no doubt found this thrilling, but it’s a strategy that’s more exhausting than ingenious. The story itself is not compelling and the characters are shallow, so Nolan reverts to convoluted technique to bring life to the story.
For a film that spends a lot of time explaining itself, it has remarkably little to say. The manipulation of time is nothing more than a loophole to extend the length of the narrative to make room for a convoluted and fragile plot.
In 2014, Nolan released his sci-fi epic Interstellar. The film doubles-down on Inception’s convoluted premise, combining climate disasters, black holes, and space and time travel into a single narrative.
Whereas Inception manipulates time to allow for several stories to occur simultaneously within a short period of time, Interstellar derives drama from the uncontrollable passage of time; when the characters return to their ship after a short visit to a planet to test its tenability for human existence, they find that 23 years have elapsed on earth.
This places a strain on both the character’s mission and their relationships to those that remain on earth. While the use of time in Interstellar is different from Inception, the desired effect is still similar: it is meant to inspire awe from the audience on account of how it dramatically reshapes the narrative.
As the story reaches its climax, Nolan continues to manipulate the film’s relationship with time; his protagonist enters an alternate dimension that allows him to travel back and forth in time and space in order to bring resolution to the story. The way Nolan tampers with the audience’s expectations feels like little more than a cheap trick to reach an obligatory resolution.
Interstellar reveals Nolan’s penchant for casting aside meaningful narrative development in favor of unearned moments of surprise. The manipulation of time in Interstellar accomplishes little else than complicating the story for the audience in a way that weakens, rather than enhances the story and the emotional experiences of the characters.
This is especially frustrating in a film that leans so heavily on the characters’ relationships to one another. In the end, Nolan convolutes the story in a way that distracts from the characters, leaving the film feeling muddled and misdirected.
Nolan’s newest project, Dunkirk, is a remarkably pared-back version of what audiences are accustomed to seeing from him. Unlike both Inception and Interstellar, films that have run-times of 148 and 169 minutes respectively, Dunkirk is only 106 minutes long.
The most marked difference between Dunkirk and Nolan’s other films is the lack of plot. Nolan’s films are known for their excessive use of exposition, but Dunkirk has almost no dialogue. That said, Nolan still finds a way to manipulate the passage of time in the movie.
Unlike his previous films where Nolan unnaturally controls time to create plot twists, Dunkirk manipulates three stories that occur at different speeds (a week, a day, and an hour) so the audience feels as though they are occurring simultaneously.
In this way, it’s clear how Nolan is essentially re-purposing the storytelling format of Inception for a new story. The intention is to enhance the cinematic experience, but the result is both manipulative and dishonest. By editing the three narratives to appear as though they are happening at the same time, Nolan reduces their magnitude for the sake of dramatic tension. The format forces him to cut back and forth constantly between the stories, defeating any tension that they might have developed.
A more successful strategy might have been to add the stories to the film in their consecutive order, building the tension and drama along the way. But Nolan has made it clear — particularly in his previous films — that he’s more interested in cheap storytelling gimmicks rather than working to develop genuine dramatic tension and emotional arcs.
As Nolan demonstrated in his film Memento, he loves puzzles; he seems to believe there is something of value to derive from complicating a narrative in a way that forces the audience to piece it together. But applying this technique to Dunkirk is pointless; the audience knows how this story ends. It makes redundant the pieces of story that otherwise could and should have been compelling.
Nolan’s technique of manipulating time should be viewed critically given the subject matter. The alterations he makes to this story are unnecessary and gives the audience a false sense of history. At least Nolan is up front about it, using title cards to indicate the different lengths of each story. However, it’s still an all together frustrating experience as a viewer.
Nolan seeks to achieve a film that functions entirely as a climax, an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that leaves the audience in awe. However, the film is reductive toward the true scope and severity of Dunkirk itself, lacks the dimensional characters, and relies on Hans Zimmer’s score to derive any sort of emotional response from the audience.
Christopher Nolan has cemented himself as one of the most popular directors working today. That success is in large part due to his unique storytelling technique, one that frequently employs gimmicks that manipulate time as a way of complicating a story that would otherwise be straightforward.
This method, however, does not hold up under much critical examination. These gimmicks often convolute the story unnecessarily or, like Dunkirk, reduce the scope of the event to a more manageable size.
There is an argument to be made that Nolan’s manipulation of time is simply an exercise intended to evoke a response from the audience. After all, as a medium, this is the intention of movies.
However, the complete lack of well-defined characters or emotional stakes in these films make Nolan’s interest in manipulating time feel like little more than a gimmick to shore up a response from the audience that he cannot organically obtain.