On the surface, Christopher Nolan’s love for rules, systems, and puzzles paints his medium of choice as counterintuitive. While film is excellent at illuminating relationships between well understood principles, it is a less elegant fit for stories that introduce their own. Nolan is among alternate reality’s most frequent visitors, and whether he deconstructs dreams, the mind, or the space-time continuum, he welcomes audiences to his worlds by borrowing techniques from a neighboring creative process: game design.
The rules of Nolan’s worlds rarely inherit from our own — therefore, like a game designer, he implores tutorial-like teaching devices to bring his audience up to speed. Tutorials generally come in two forms: explicit tutorials, which tell the audience exactly how a rule functions using language and iconography, and implicit tutorials, which require the audience to infer rules through observation and repetition.
“Interstellar’s” pivotal time-bending scenes build on an explicitly taught foundation; so explicit in fact, that the tutorials themselves are reflected on whiteboards and other commonplace teaching instruments. Early in the film, the protagonist sets long distance space travel as a goal, with a wormhole as the mechanic, or means — what follows is a short explanation of wormhole travel, and Nolan tests his audience’s newfound understanding shortly thereafter with a visually spectacular depiction of the event. The teach-and-test structure is a game design staple that is repeated later in the film to illustrate planetary time shifts, the spaceship docking process, and exploration across dimensions.
Nolan is hardly a stranger to explicit tutorials. He also uses them in “Inception,” which is necessary given the film’s intricate ruleset. Ellen Page’s Ariadne serves as the player, the audience’s proxy, absorbing the protagonist Cobb’s lessons as he explains step by step how to construct dreams. Without the ability to directly test his audience’s understanding, Nolan spends ample screen time reinforcing his myriad of mechanics, from the “kick” that brings a dreamer back to reality to the assurance of the iconic spinning top. The learnings are finally tested in five interconnected levels that require an actively engaged audience to fully comprehend, the filmic parallel to a challenging game’s final stages.
“Memento,” which came much earlier in Nolan’s career, reduces its explicit tutorials to one line, “I have this condition.” The remainder of its rules are taught implicitly through repeated imagery and motifs. Color implies chronological order, but until that rule is understood, the film feels as bewildering as the anterograde amnesia that afflicts protagonist Leonard Shelby.
“You really need a system if you’re gonna make it work,” Shelby explains, to himself and the audience alike. Nolan readily answers. Polaroid pictures capture notable people and places. Body tattoos record ideals and missions. Shelby becomes a walking version of a video game journal, a constant record of missions and accomplishments meant to be checked as regularly as a calendar.
Unlike Nolan’s later films, his teaching style in “Memento” assumes the audience comes equipped with a great deal of film literacy. Implicit tutorials work best under that assumption. While they are naturally more elegant than their generally obtuse counterparts, they remain tricky to design for mass consumption.
Fortunately, Nolan strives for elegance even when speaking to a wide audience. The opening of “The Prestige” juxtaposes Michael Caine’s precise explanation of a magic trick’s structure with two distinct examples of tricks in motion, and immediately seizes our attention with a broken rule: “Making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back.”
Cutter, Michael Caine’s character, releases a bird that had previously vanished. The first example comfortably embodies the rule’s description. “That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call, The Prestige.” When a man drowns violently in a tank behind the scenes at a magic show, Nolan introduces the film’s first dramatic tension with a quick and clever rule violation.
“The Prestige,” like “Interstellar,” reveals rules before test cases, but an inverse structure is also surprisingly common. The video games “Metroid Prime” and “God of War II” let players sample a full suite of abilities at the onset, only to take them away until each is appropriately taught. Nolan uses a similar trick in “Inception’s” opening scene, a thrilling infiltration sequence that uses all of the film’s rules before the audience understands how each one works.
The scene rouses both the characters and the audience from their repose, laying out boxes of questions for rules to fill. A truck-sized box labeled “dream mechanics” casts a magnificent shadow, enveloping a few small shoeboxes set aside for character motivations. The visual splendor that follows masks a frantic, exhilarating packing process. “Memento” begins in similar fashion, handing the audience two large boxes before loading them onto trucks heading in opposite directions.
All of Nolan’s boxes are designed to be emptied and filled repeatedly, until no puzzle piece is forgotten. Sometimes he organizes the pieces in containers, while occasionally he dumps them out right away. Now and then he includes the manual, but at times, just a picture. Regardless of the style he chooses, his movies always begin with the same question, “Do you want another puzzle to solve?”
The response divides audiences. Those accustomed to highly cognitive entertainment usually answer “yes.” Video game players and postmodern film lovers understand and find delight in conjoining rules and narrative, while the uninitiated prefer purer filmic structures. Nolan is for better or worse the postmodern poster boy, never afraid to cram complex rules, meta-narratives, family drama, and existential crises into a single film.
Even with a generous runtime, Nolan often struggles to find room for delicate character development within his grandiose labyrinths, but it would be a disservice to judge his work on that scale alone. Year after year, he performs a miraculous bit of inception by planting ideas with fresh, unconventional narrative frameworks into the minds of audiences, creating worlds they might sink into with the same intensity of playing a great video game.
“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate,” Cobb says at the beginning of “Inception.” When Christopher Nolan spins a new film to life, one team cheers, admiring its original shape, while another waits for it to spin out of control. Despite asymmetrical goals, both adhere to the same rule. A spinning top is impossible to ignore.