Christopher Nolan’s Possible Signature

Just like everyone else in the world, I just got done watching Inception and loved it. So far it’s my favorite movie of the year. My Tweet sized review of it is: Imagine if The Matrix starred someone who could act.

I know I am being glib and reductive, but the film is terrific (that sequence with Joseph Gordon Levitt in the hallway is a stunner). I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, and the WorldWide Interwebs will be abuzz with analysis of the film for a while. So I won’t bother to review it here.

However, I would like to make a case for what I feel has turned into one of Christopher Nolan’s visual signatures. Some of the great directors have a certain stylistic move that they repeatedly use. It’s like a cue or flair to let us know that we are in their world.

One of the greatest and most noticeable examples of this is Scorsese’s use of the Steadicam shot. Think of the famous single shot following Ray Liotta into the nightclub in Goodfellas. Or the shot of Harvey Keitel floating through a nightspot in Mean Streets. Or the opening shot in Gangs of New York.

John Woo has his doves. Steven Spielberg has a small figure in the foreground being overshadowed by a gigantic figure in the background (Indian Jones and the boulder, a character almost run over by a tank in Saving Private Ryan, Elliot flying in front of the moon in E.T., Hayley Joel Osment and the teddy bear in front of the moon in A.I., Sam Neil facing off with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, and there are more). Robert Altman has his busy crowd scenes with overlapping dialogue.

There are a ton more examples of this, but the point is that there are cues that are oftentimes overt that these filmmakers use to make their experience unique. While watching Inception, I’m starting to think that Christopher Nolan’s signature is a large field of individual light sources. In this movie, it comes up right at the beginning. In that room with the dining table that Leonardo Dicaprio and Ken Watanabe are having a conference, the room is illuminated by hundreds of individual chandalier lights. Very visually arresting.

There are similar light in his other films. Batman Begins has the temple training room with hundreds of candles. The Prestige has rooms with lots of very lonely hanging light bulbs. Insomnia has the blares of light coming through the windows in Al Pacino’s room which reflect his increased sleeplessness. I would argue that in The Dark Knight, the scene with all of the images from the individual cellphone cameras would qualify.

Why is this important? It seems that a trademark look like this may thrust Nolan into the realm of Auteur. That is a happy surprise. While watching a thought provoking big budget action film, we may have stumbled upon a major Director as well.


I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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