Bloomsbury Academic chooses for the most recent entry to its Philosophical Filmmakers series, the British/American writer, producer, director, Christopher Nolan. In an age where blockbuster cinema has been wrestled back into the hands of the major studios – Disney and its Marvel and Lucasfilm1 subdivisions is the most prominent example – Nolan remains a resolute auteur of the blockbuster. Shunning digital in favour of shooting on film, and with green screen kept to a minimum, his films still come in on budget, ahead of time, and have grossed more than US$5 billion. Nolan’s films, as Robbie B. H. Goh puts it, are replete with his “submerged personality” (p. 14), and his entry into the series puts him into the exalted company of, amongst others, Eric Rohmer, Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick.2

Goh introduces Nolan as an epistemic filmmaker, interested in the limits of human knowledge and how this affects major moral decisions. Despite his films gathering in thematic momentum as the budgets have grown, they can all be distilled down to one central theme: “the condition of the individual in a post-modern market society” (p. 5). Morality, its meaning, and the inner struggle with it, are central to Goh’s analysis. However, because Nolan mixes the search for morality with the “courage of ordinary individuals against overwhelming odds” (p. 10), his films are perfect for the big screen and the blockbuster audience, when their narrative complexities could have worked against them. 


Chapter one discusses how Nolan’s films are almost exclusively focused on one (male) protagonist, who faces a life-changing moral decision, often with a zero-sum (or lose/lose) outcome, yet his films also employ multiple narratives and are structurally complex. His breakthrough film Memento (2000) caught the eye of the cinephile audience because of the two narratives, one of which runs forwards in time whilst the other runs concurrently backwards. Bigger budgets have never dampened Nolan’s penchant for narrative complexity, notably The Prestige (2006), in which the film delves into a backstory during a backstory, and Inception (2010), where the layers of dreams within dreams run deeper and deeper, but the sense of morality has shifted from the murky, morally corrupt noir of his earlier films, toward a clearer delineation, more befitting the blockbuster audience. Although the central characters in Inception, Interstellar (2014) and Tenet (2020) are still morally tested, and their decisions ride close to the indistinct line between right and wrong.

After the introduction, Goh’s book is structured both chronologically and thematically. The second chapter looks at Nolan’s early films: Following (1998), Memento, Insomnia (2002) and The Prestige. The third chapter focuses on the two sci-fi films Inception and Interstellar; and the fourth covers The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), approaching it as one film, and Dunkirk (2015) and Tenet; the final chapter draws together Goh’s conclusions. It is a logical and engaging approach that is perhaps weighted against the thematically lighter third chapter, in favour of chapters two and four. 


Despite using many film noir tropes throughout his career, stylistically, Goh positions Nolan as a postmodern filmmaker first, and Memento as a noir pastiche, in which no one is more surprised than the protagonist himself on discovering he is the killer for whom he has been searching. The post-modern techniques of non-sequential storytelling and unreliable narrators, defining characteristics of Nolan’s films, “create a world of fundamental uncertainty” (p. 26). In his first, self-funded, feature, Following, Nolan “uses noir plot… to question the nature of reality and experience” (p. 26). The Young Man’s easy manipulation by the villain Cobb (the name he later recycles for the protagonist of Inception) coolly predicts the theme of thought manipulation in Inception, questioning the very nature of free will. This thematic approach is continued into Memento, a film about the fragile state of memory, that “reinforces the idea that one’s actions are not truly one’s own and belong as much to suggestions and influences from the outside” (p. 44). The reverse plot of Memento does not simply complicate the film, but rather echoes protagonist Leonard’s problematic memory and how he uses it to justify his actions. In fact, “actions seem to precede causal explanations” (p. 48), a device Nolan will call on again in his most recent film, Tenet, in 2020. 

Insomnia could be positioned as the outlier in Nolan’s back catalogue – it is the only one of his films for which he did not write the script and was hired to direct by the studio. Goh though places the Nolanesque themes as dominating the remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 Norwegian original, and notes how he explores the familiar themes of unreliable images, deception and self-deception, as well as Nolan’s growing tendency to position his films’ protagonists and antagonists as doubles. Dormer, the morally ambiguous cop, and Finch, the callous murderer, share many similar traits, including the insomnia of the title which manifests their feelings of guilt. The double of course is key to Nolan’s next film, skipping over Batman Begins, The Prestige, which mixes the complicated narrative technique of Following and Memento, with the “theme of psychological descent and the symbolism of the double seen in Insomnia” (p. 63), exploring “human obsession and the porousness of the self” (p. 63). Nolan’s most overtly gothic film, the genre in which the theme of “the double” originated, explores its most acute modern example. Not only do the Borden twins allow the wife that one of them loves to die by suicide rather than reveal the truth behind what is ostensibly a parlour trick, but Angier’s obsession with beating his rival leads him to murder a copy of himself every night, the original Angier unsure whether it will be him or the double that survives.

The Prestige

Produced as his profile soared with the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan’s two most overtly sci-fi films, Inception and Interstellar, are both interested in the exploration of time and space. Inception, as Goh explains, is Nolan’s most discussed film, its “dream-within-dream” (p. 78) theme making the film ripe for deeper interpretation. Written much earlier than it was made, the film fits into Nolan’s early “exploration of notions of the self” (p. 79), more potent because of the “moral slipperiness” (p. 79) that defines Cobb and his team in the film. Morally, Cobb is just like Dormer, Leonard, Angier and Borden, in this context, willing to commit corporate espionage for his own ends. The layers of dreams invite audiences to question whether the film is in fact one whole dream (or variations on this), and the members of Cobb’s team are positioned as individual aspects of his personality, giving weight to the film being one big moral lesson for Cobb. Goh is careful to point out that a film as complexly constructed as Inception will invariably be prone to errors, which are either deliberately made by the writer, the characters, or are inadvertently done by either, or both. Cobb’s totem is perhaps the best example. The audience is explicitly told that the totem needs to be specific to an individual, known and touched only by them, yet Cobb’s totem was originally his wife Mal’s, and both she and Saito handle it, so how can it really be trusted, particularly in the film’s famous final sequence?

Goh’s discussion of the film’s relationship with free will exposes how the self is implicit in the inception of ideas by others. Dreams, after all, are the “expression of unconscious desires and hidden aspects of the self” (p. 87), and the film’s key moments of resolution, Fischer realising his father did love him and wanted him to be his own man, and Cobb letting go of his guilt over Mal’s death, help both characters resolve their unfinished business, positioning the film as something of an elaborate therapy session. Mal’s continued hostility to Cobb’s dream business though suggests the negative impact of the work on his psyche, and like Nolan’s other films, the characters are ultimately “complicit in their own moral decline” (p. 91).

The opposing sides of morality are much more pronounced in Interstellar, and the central moral test is the zero-sum choice protagonist Cooper is faced with, to either lose his family or his whole species. The film follows Nolan’s latter-day thematic focus of “the problems of the few vs. the problems of the many” (p. 98), also key in Dunkirk. As Goh explains, Nolan draws on the work of the moral philosophers Adam Smith and John Stuart Mills, and his approach is described as Utilitarian morality, or the happiness of the most. Self-sacrifice is of vital importance within the film but follows an inverse trend. Antagonist Mann dies because he is unwilling to sacrifice himself, whilst Cooper tries self-sacrifice but ends up saving himself and humanity, and the film’s theme of love is exposed in the process. 

Chapter four begins with a discussion on the importance of love in Nolan’s films. Not romantic love, which invariably leads to unhappiness and death, as in the cases of Sarah and Olivia in The Prestige, and Mal in Inception (all the women characters), but the purity of the love for one’s children, which drives Borden in The Prestige, Cobb in Inception and Cooper in Interstellar.

The Dark Knight Rises

It is though with the character of Batman that Nolan is most prominently associated. His back-to-basics reinvention of the Caped Crusader in 2005’s Batman Begins resurrected the character after Tim Burton’s 1989 sinister comic creation descended into Joel Schumacher’s camp offering in 1997’s Batman and Robin. The popularity of Nolan’s approach to Batman led not only to origin stories for other DC characters, notably Superman, in Zak Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013),3 but to a grittier reset for James Bond in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). There is a solid argument to be made that the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight in 2008 led to the proliferation of superhero movies since, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man (Jon Favreau).

Goh positions Nolan as using Gotham City “to create a dystopian society, populated by dysfunctional selves… [and with] the (im)possibility of moral choice” (p. 116). Familiar themes of the “unstable self” and “epistemic uncertainties” (p. 116) come to the fore in the trilogy, and Nolan manages to overlay his “world view and philosophical questions” (p. 116) onto one of the most well-known characters in comic, film and TV history. A key theme is the failure of authority: corrupt businessmen, shadowy mob bosses, conniving medical professionals, and even the Police, who throughout the trilogy are seen as either duplicitous or incompetent (Gordon being the one exception) and ultimately give credence to Batman’s intervention as a vigilante. Key to the films is Nolan’s exploration beyond the world of the main characters, widening his thematic study. In The Dark Knight, for example, the Joker sets a trap that forces a group of civilians and a group of convicts on different ferries to decide whether to blow each other up or be themselves blown up. The sequence ultimately ends with the Joker beaten not just by Batman, but by Gotham itself, when neither boat is blown up. Goh though places the sequence in a much darker light than its result suggests. The democratic civilians vote to blow the convicts up but cannot go through with it because no one wants to sully themselves by pressing the button, whilst the lack of intervention by authority figures leads the convict boat to become a dictatorship, ruled over by the toughest prisoner and whatever arbitrary decision he decides to make.

The shift from the moral choices of the individual to those of wider society made Nolan’s step to the historical epic Dunkirk much cleaner. Goh describes the film as showing “society at its most fragile and fragmented” (p. 147), and Dunkirk is rife with examples of “moral mitigation” (p. 140), or self-sacrifice, pitted against those highlighting innate selfishness. The Spitfire pilot Farrier sacrifices himself to keep the skies clear during the evacuation, whilst the English squaddies on the beach exclude the French soldier from their lifeboat, through panicked fear of not being saved themselves. As a result, Nolan tells the human story of a shocking defeat that was transformed into one of the defining moments of heroism in modern British history.


Drawing the book full circle, Tenet brings “together many of the features of Nolan’s other films” (p. 157), its key theme that there are “no simple moral decisions” (p. 158). The film plays out on a global scale a version of Leonard’s amnesia in Memento. Goh suggests, that if “conventional causality is challenged, then so too is conventional morality, which relies on strict cause-effect relationship” (p. 157) which does not exist in Tenet. The shadowy organisations that Nolan suggests society be wary of are borrowed from Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and neither the audience nor The Protagonist are ever told who he is working for, or what the endgame is after foiling Sator’s plan to destroy the world.

In the conclusion Goh finally addresses the “unmistakeable gender differentiation” (p. 164) in Nolan’s films, and how the women characters in the earlier films are noirish femme fatales, whilst the latter ones almost exclusively escape the moral tests afforded the men, thus marking them as inferior – Murphy in Interstellar is perhaps the exception, although her storyline is still subservient to her father Cooper’s. “Nolan displays almost a Victorian gender sensibility” (p. 165), Goh says, before he rests his study on the conclusion that Nolan’s work portrays society and the individual as “co-causal… the individual is shaped by social forces, even as his [and it’s nearly always ‘his’] actions impact those in society” (p. 166). Ultimately, this suggests Nolan is revealing that because the individual is unknowable even to himself, so too is the true face of society. A philosophical note to end a book about a philosophical filmmaker.

In positioning Nolan as a philosophical filmmaker, Goh adds an entry to Bloomsbury Academic’s 11 strong series, that fits comfortably into the company of Terrence Malick, Eric Rohmer and Werner Herzog, although Nolan drags it more toward the mainstream than some may be comfortable with, sitting alongside a close influential touchpoint, Alfred Hitchcock. Since Batman Begins, Nolan’s films have mostly gained attention for their spectacle, the action, the adventure, and the exploding buildings pitting him against the latter work of Stephen Spielberg and Ridley Scott, but Goh’s deep dive into the philosophy of his films gives credence to the impressive nature of Nolan’s thematic approach to his work. After the release of the final Dark Knight film in 2012, it became clear just how sophisticated big budget blockbusters could be, and Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus also released in 2012, felt flimsy in comparison to The Dark Knight Rises. In Nolan’s wake, blockbuster audiences have grown to expect more from their big screen experiences than they were aware they needed. Enter Denis Villeneuve and the remake of Dune (2021).

The focused academic tone of the series means that nothing extraneous to Nolan’s thematic approach is discussed or referenced in anyway. This book is definitely not a straight biography. Yet, to understand the world around the filmmaker is to allow a fuller understanding of the films. Nolan’s coolness: including his machine-like proficiency to deliver his films on time and on budget, his reputation for always keeping his head on set, and his penchant for wearing three-piece suits with a cup of Earl Grey tea omnipresent in his hand whilst he shoots a Zero-G fight sequence, all challenge the image of the typically temperamental auteur genius. The director who forces his crew into hour upon hour of overtime, or drives his cast to exhaustion through endless takes, Nolan is not. Inevitably his character will impact upon his work, and Nolan’s strengths as a writer lie in structure and high concept, not in character or dialogue. Inception’s clunky over-expository script in particular misses the hand of David S. Goyer, employed for his snappy one-liners in the Dark Knight Trilogy (“Why so serious?”). This could leave Nolan’s films open to the criticism that they lack a sense of humanity, but like Kubrick before him, this is simply not the case, and the theme of love in Interstellar, for example, trumps the science in its impact on the film’s outcome, as Goh discusses through the theme of selflessness. Regarding that film, Nolan is often criticised, as he is by Goh, for his lack of rounded female characters, which is true, but in positioning a father/daughter at the forefront of Interstellar, he is focusing on a relationship woefully underexplored in cinema, and the film is perhaps a love letter to Nolan’s own daughter Flora, who makes a cameo in the film. This in turn exposes more about the type of person and filmmaker he really is.

Like most auteurs, Nolan uses the same actors in his films, and the likes of Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, and his lucky talisman Michael Caine, are often headed up by the star draw power of a Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception), or a Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), or for just his third film, Al Pacino. As discussed above, Insomnia is an outlier in Nolan’s back catalogue, but Goh makes no reference to this, when it surely adds an important dimension to his argument. As ostensibly a director for hire for Warner Bros, the confidence and strength he displayed in exerting his own identity onto the film, which is a remake, with a script he had no hand in writing, and starring one of the world’s most famous actors, signalled the type of filmmaker that he was becoming. And Nolan, who was only 32 when he made Insomnia, made no bones in exerting his authority on the film, and twenty years later a writer like Goh feels no need to reference its separation from his other films. 

Sadly, Nolan also has a lot to answer for. The intention behind Man of Steel was no doubt honourable, and the film mostly did for Superman what Batman Begins did for its eponymous hero, but a lot of what happened in its wake cannot be what he intended: Batman vs. Superman, Justice League, and then Justice League in black and white and in 4:3 ratio for some reason, Batfleck. All of these things may not be relevant to Nolan’s own career, but no filmmaker exists in a silo, and the environment they grow from feeds into their proclivities as filmmakers. Goh’s book is a tour de force, but to omit anything surrounding the life of the filmmaker himself, feels somewhat onerous. Philosophy in filmmaking though, just like in real life, is mostly down to the interpretation of the viewer, and the weight of Goh’s argument about Nolan’s fascination with “the condition of the individual in a post-modern market society”, makes this book an invaluable exploration of one of the most important filmmakers of the modern age.

Robbie B. H. Goh, Christopher Nolan: Filmmaker and Philosopher (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).


  1. The subject of the most recent entry to the Philosophical Filmmakers series.
  2. Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, and Jane Campion, are soon to be added to at least partly address the gender imbalance.
  3. Which Nolan produced and wrote the script.

About The Author

Tom Boniface-Webb is an MA by Thesis student in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. Originally from the UK, where he worked at the British Film Institute, he now lives in New Zealand. He has worked in film production and written reviews for Media International Australia and Sight and Sound.

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