Christopher Nolan is currently hard at work on his next film, a biopic of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer dramatizing his work on the Manhattan Project, set for release in summer 2023. As with all of Nolan’s films, this complex science thriller from World War II will not allow the public to turn off their brains.
Every Nolan movie is complicated enough that the narrative twists eventually go over the heads of some inattentive viewers. But some of his films, like Insomnia and batman beginsare easier to follow than others, like Creation and Principle.
Nolan’s easiest movie to follow is his only remake – and also one of his only directing jobs for hire – Insomniaadapted from the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Insomnia is a straightforward crime thriller about a cop who chases a killer.
As with any effective crime thriller, there are some surprising twists along the way, but those twists don’t involve reversing the protagonist’s timeline or plunging into multiple dreamy levels, so the plot is fairly painless according to Nolan’s standards.
Nolan’s first micro-budget feature, Next, is a soft noir that revolves around a writer who starts following strangers to inspire his work and ends up getting embroiled in a criminal conspiracy. For the most part, this simplistic story is self-explanatory.
Some audience engagement is needed for the final twist, as the writer is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, but it’s nowhere near as disconcerting as some of Nolan’s later twist endings. .
Batman Begins (2005)
Nolan explored the Dark Knight’s origin story in greater depth than ever before in batman begins. Not only did it show the murder of the Waynes that would inspire Bruce’s career as a vigilante later in life; it showed how Bruce developed a fear of bats and where he trained so well to fight.
The most confusing part of batman begins is its non-linear structure, jumping between Bruce’s childhood and his training with the League of Shadows, but it’s a relatively standard comic book movie – albeit with a game-changing gritty tone – compared to its suites.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The grand finale of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The dark knight rises, is a grand-scale epic that expands its reach in a vain attempt to outdo its predecessor. The film is presented as a comic book riff on A tale of two cities which depicts the French Revolution in the streets of Gotham.
The narrative is conveyed in broad, easy-to-follow strokes, like Bane blowing up every bridge in and out of town and the entire police force stuck in tunnels under the city.
Nolan’s dramatization of the Dunkirk evacuation, aptly titled Dunkirk, is one of his most intense creations and a worthy addition to the canon of masterfully crafted World War II films. The movie’s depiction of the escape is pretty straightforward, but as always, Nolan manipulates time.
Dunkirk follows three simultaneous scenarios taking place in very different time frames. An hour in the air, a day at sea and a week at the beach are all intersected in the film’s razor-sharp editing.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The second chapter of Nolan’s Batman triptych, The black Knight, has by far the most complex plot of the trilogy. Inspired by Michael Mann Heat, The black Knight is a sprawling crime epic about a terrorist destabilizing an American city; the terrorist happens to be the Joker and the city happens to be Gotham.
The black Knight has multiple concurrent story threads to follow, but the IMAX action sequences ensure the film is entertaining even for viewers who can’t follow the plot.
With his 2014 epic Interstellar, Nolan approached the cold emptiness of space with the same visual flair and social commentary as Stanley Kubrick. In a near future where Earth’s natural resources are rapidly running out, a team of astronauts travels the universe to find humanity a new, sustainable home.
This film jumps all over the place, with the astronauts in space aging much more slowly than the family they left behind on Earth, but the symbolism is pretty approachable.
Perhaps Nolan’s most popular and acclaimed non-Batman film, Creation is a heist film set in the dreamscape. The thieves in this heist story aren’t trying to steal money or jewelry; they try to steal an idea from their target’s mind by infiltrating their dreams.
When characters are spread across multiple dream levels, all moving at different speeds, Creation gets quite convoluted. But thanks to Nolan’s firm direction and Lee Smith’s meticulous editing, attentive viewers can easily follow the plot.
The Prestige (2006)
Between his first and second Batman films, Nolan directed Prestige, a twisty thriller about the feud between two rival magicians in 19th century London. At the beginning of the film, Nolan establishes the three stages of a successful magic trick: the pledge, the trick and the prestige.
The director structured the film itself like a magic trick. The first act is full of setups, the second act is full of twists and turns, and the third act is full of wins and resolutions.
The psychological thriller that put Nolan on Hollywood’s radar, Memento, about an amnesiac man’s quest to find his wife’s killer, is divided into two parts. The black and white scenes take place in chronological order, while the color sequences tell the story backwards.
By the end of the film, these two timelines finally intersect and provide answers for the audience, but that audience has to be very careful to make it happen.
Nolan’s latest directing effort, Principle, is by far his most disconcerting work to date. The time-traveling spy epic sees a secret agent James Bondian, known only as “The Protagonist”, recruited by a mysterious organization that manipulates the flow of time while carrying out his missions.
The movie gets plenty of visually stunning action beats from reversing shots of shootings and car crashes, but the mythology that explains time travel is so unnecessarily convoluted it takes a few viewings to even understand it – and when the twist finally makes it make sense, it’s not worth the mental gymnastics.
NEXT: Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked By Rewatchability