5 Major Defining Tropes of Christopher Nolan’s Films

Warning: Spoilers for Nolan’s films ahead! The best directors deliver an experience that goes beyond the product being sold to…

Brandon Jacobs


Warning: Spoilers for Nolan’s films ahead!

The best directors deliver an experience that goes beyond the product being sold to you. They dedicate themselves to their craft, and in doing so put their own personal stamp on it. This infuses their films with their personal sensibilities; delivering to the audience a work that is easily identified as theirs. Over time, as a director’s body of work grows, keen audiences can identify certain themes, tropes, and character motivations common to that director’s style. Such directors include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott, to name but a random few. Now, with seven full films under his belt, it is safe to say that Christopher Nolan falls into this category as well.

Christopher Nolan came into the scene with his first feature film, Following, which tells the story of a writer who gets in over his head when he starts to follow random strangers for inspiration. Filmed with his friends on weekends over a time span of a year, the film debuted to considerable critical acclaim, especially considering its low-budget effort. However, it was his follow up Memento that truly demonstrated the Nolan was a filmmaker to be watched. Starring Guy Pierce, the film is about Leonard Shelby, a sufferer of severe short-term memory loss obsessed with finding his wife’s killer. Known for its inventive use of nonlinear storytelling, Memento continues to be considered by many to be Nolan’s best film. After this, Warner Brothers took notice of his talent and gave him his first big studio backed film, Insomnia, a remake of the Norwegian film of the same name starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

Aware that WB was still considering a means of rebooting the Batman franchise, Nolan came to them with his idea of grounded, more contemporary Batman story. Despite no experience helming a big budget franchise film, WB took the risk and hired Nolan to direct the next Batman movie, titled Batman Begins. Written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, the film gave audiences the untold origins of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman. With an all-star cast of Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holms, and Cillian Murphy, the film was a hit with critics and audiences while pulling a modest box office intake. Following this, Nolan went smaller scale again with The Prestige, about two opposing magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman) whose obsessions with topping one another turn deadly.

You most likely know the rest. Nolan returned to Gotham with The Dark Knight, which wowed audiences with its scope, ambition, and Oscar caliber performances. Heath Ledger’s magnetic turn as the Joker continues to be regarded as one of cinema’s greatest villains, and the film raked in over a billion dollars worldwide. Over night Nolan became one of Hollywood’s golden boys. While talk instantly turned towards the inevitable sequel, Nolan once again stepped away from Batman to write and direct what is perhaps his most personal film: Inception. Delving into the nature of dreams, ideas, and memories, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a thief of the mind who assembles a team of master dreamers in order to incept an idea into someone’s mind and get back to his family. Despite being an original film with an abstract sounding name, the film was a huge critical and box office hit, cementing Nolan as the maker of brainy blockbusters.

After Inception, the inevitable sequel to The Dark Knight was announced. Titled The Dark Knight Rises, the film would be Nolan’s final dip into the world of Batman. Increasing the scope even more while bringing in fan favorites Catwoman and Bane, The Dark Knight Rises concluded Nolan’s Batman trilogy in a satisfying, if somewhat controversial, way.

Nolan’s filmography, despite each film differing in terms of plots, characters, and settings, are unified in their common tropes. Watching his films, it is clear that there are certain filmatic devices that appeal to him, as he relies on a select few quite frequently. His films are without a doubt his as a result. Like with our greatest directors, you get a sense that you are getting a tiny peak into his mind when watching his films. Some, such as myself, are drawn to his style, while others either don’t see what the big deal is or just outright hate it. Such is the case with all great directors. However you feel about Christopher Nolan, there is no denying that his films are connected by a certain group of tropes that frequent nearly all of them.

With that exhaustive introduction out of the way, I present to you the 5 major tropes of Christopher Nolan.