In his latest film, Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan obsesses over time and constantly suggests that it may run out for his heroes. Nolan places the idea of time at the forefront of Dunkirk with three intertwining narratives told over three separate time frames. Hans Zimmer’s fantastically effective score incorporates the oppressive sound of a ticking clock to further immerse the viewers in the director’s time-paranoia. What struck me after watching Dunkirk was that Nolan’s obsession with time is endemic in his filmography. He often places his characters in situations where time is their insistent and sometimes mutable enemy.
Memento (2000), Nolan’s second full length film, features a main character who suffers short-term memory loss. The film is told backwards, each scene lasting the length of Leonard’s memory until he forgets what he is doing. As such, he is constantly aware that time is running out before he’ll be vulnerable and confused again. This conceit makes Memento a nerve-shredding watch as both the viewer and Leonard know that the countdown is always nearly over. Nolan returns to the idea of the countdown in both The Prestige (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008), where dangerous magic tricks in the former and the Joker’s schemes in the latter have deadly time limits. However, it is in the next phase of Nolan’s career that his preoccupation with time becomes central to his films.
Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) both revolve around the mutability of time in other-worldly dimensions. Inception takes place largely in the dreams of the main characters where time moves faster than in the real world and is progressively sped up by entering ‘dreams within dreams’. It gets to the point where the characters are in danger of being trapped for a lifetime within their own dreams while, in the real world, very little time has actually passed. This idea of being doomed to rot in the subconscious is chilling, and interestingly inverts the countdown fear in Nolan’s previous film into a fear of endless time.
The dynamic is shifted again in Interstellar, where the various planets visited by Cooper and his crew all have different time relativity compared to Earth. The crew accidentally lose 23 Earth years whilst stuck for a couple of hours on another planet, endangering both their lives and the mission. Cooper becomes so far behind Earth’s time over the course of the film that, when he finally returns, his daughter is now over twice his age and near death. He has become a victim to Nolan’s fascination for the mutability of time.
Dunkirk is a return to the relentless countdown structure of Memento and, although not as theoretically complex as Inception or Interstellar, maintains the Nolan’s current obsession with the mutable dangers and pressures of time. The success of these later films proves the audiences are just as fascinated as he is.