The following article contains spoilers for Interstellar, The Prestige, and Memento:
A goal is what drives every film.
Every character wants something. The lengths to which a character will go to achieve that goal is what makes us relate to them or pity them. Christopher Nolan’s films are full of characters that work towards the things that matter most to them or fail to recognize what they are. Despite being so widely accessible, Nolan’s movies are interesting character studies where the plot can take a back seat to the characters. The payoff he gives his audience is always an internal one that was merely driven by the complex plot he’s crafted.
Despite being so widely accessible, Nolan’s movies are interesting character studies where the plot can take a back seat to the characters
There are many motivations that drive Nolan’s characters, and they’re all unique. We watch as his characters are broken down to nothing because of their unflinching desire to accomplish what they think will make them happy — what they think will give their life purpose. When his films come to an end, the thoughts left in the audiences’ minds are that of self-reflection. With this in mind, one thing becomes clear: Christopher Nolan makes films that explore the things that really matter.
The Burdens of Responsibility
In Interstellar, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is called on to lead an expedition to find a habitable planet for the human race. However, the task is a hefty one, and it requires the utmost commitment from him. Despite having two children who need him, he decides that his responsibility is what gives his life purpose, and it’s what’s needed to guarantee that his family, along with everyone else, will be safe. As he carries out his mission, his decision begins weighing on him; he begins to realize what he’s given up and the life he’s forced his children into. All of this guilt is constantly built up and culminates in the Tesseract scene, in which Coop’s future self futilely begs his daughter to stop him from leaving. Desperately crying out, Coop is forced to relive the moment in which he chose what mattered to him at the time, and he would give anything to make a different decision.
At the end of the film, it is revealed that Coop has outlived his children due to the time dilation during his expedition. At this point, there’s nothing he can do to show his family that they’re what matters to him — that he wishes he spent whatever time he had with them. Not only did his family need him, but he also needed them. As he’s given it up, all he can do now is honor their sacrifice and carry out the mission.
The film is chilling in the way it portrays the ramifications of Cooper’s decision and the way in which it affects him and his children. He wishes that he had known what really mattered to him but, alas, the only way he could learn was to give it up. In the end, he realizes that his family was just as much of his responsibility as the expedition, and audiences can rest assured that whatever he does after the movie is done with them in mind.
The Look on Their Faces
Everything in The Prestige is a mystery — everything except our characters’ motivations. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) both want to be the greatest magicians of their time. To do this, they need to constantly one-up each other, introducing new and reimagined tricks that the world couldn’t even fathom. To be the greatest is their goal, and it’s a goal that consumes every aspect of their lives. Whereas Interstellar’s Cooper regretted the sacrifice he made, Borden and Angier are more than glad to do whatever it takes to accomplish the one thing that they think matters most. Throughout the film, as their competition with one another becomes increasingly violent, they let go of the things they once cared about. Borden allows himself to become detached from his wife, while Angier disregards the memory of his. In the end, we realize that we’ve been following two Bordens the entire time: a pair of twins. Meanwhile, Angier has been using a cloning machine to successfully perform his Disappearing Man act. As one of the Borden twins is hanged for his suspected murder of Angier, the other goes to truly kill Angier. In their ambitious crusades, Borden gives up his brother, and Angier gives up his identity.
It was all for a trick — and, to them, it was more than worth it.
To be the greatest is their goal, and it’s a goal that consumes every aspect of their lives.
As Angier draws on his dying breaths, he mutters how everything he did was for the looks on his audiences’ faces. As viewers, we may not be capable of understanding why someone would give up so much for a performance. We may even feel pity for the two. Ambition controlled Borden and Angier, all in an effort to see that “look on their faces”. It’s not worth it to us, but it allows them to meet their ends proudly. It goes to show how our individuality forms different wants from one another. What is incomprehensible to us is the reason for someone else’s existence, and vice versa.
“We both had half of a full life, which was somehow enough for us but not for them.”
— Alfred Borden, The Prestige
Lying to Ourselves
Continuing on, what happens when we don’t even know what we truly want? Living without motivation is to live without purpose, and someone can only do that for so long while still staying sane. In Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers from short-term amnesia. The only thing he can remember is that his wife was murdered during the incident that caused his memory problem. At first, Lenny’s motivation is fairly simple and a common one in film. He needs to find the man that killed his wife and kill him in return. However, the film’s plot twist turns this on our head. We go from viewing Lenny as an honorable man on an equally honorable mission to someone grasping at straws, hoping to find a reason to live. We discover that Lenny has already killed the man he’s looking for and has trapped himself in a recursive loop of killing people with the man’s initials. He does this in an effort to have his own motivation because, without it, he believes he has no reason to exist.
“So, you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that; we all do it.”
— Teddy Gammell, Memento
This is what makes Memento unique from other Nolan movies. Our perception of Lenny shifts and contorts itself as the film goes on. He constantly indulges himself in this fantasy he’s created, and the longer we watch, the less actually makes sense. When we discover the lengths Lenny has gone through to give his life meaning, Nolan is able to communicate the importance of having a motivation that drives us.
Lenny’s motivation is to have a motivation; he’s lost without one, just like we are.
Filmmaking, at the end of the day, is an exploration character. It requires directors, writers, actors, and everyone else to pour everything they have into the characters that they craft. When Christopher Nolan creates a character, he is most interested in exploring why they do what they do. He not only shows us why it’s important to choose what we care about, but why it is important to care about something in the first place.
Filmmaking, at the end of the day, is an exploration character.
As the credits roll on Nolan’s films, his characters receive some semblance of clarity on what their lives amount to. Whether they’re happy with it or not, it raises some questions for us, as the audience. What are our goals? How far are we willing to go to accomplish those goals?
What are the things that really matter?