Christopher Nolan is a fantastic director, and I’m very excited for the upcoming “Tenet.” You can watch the trailer here.
With all the buzz about the film going around, I decided to revisit Nolan’s filmography. It’s excellent, of course, but I am struck by Christopher Nolan’s ability to use storytelling as a way for philosophical discussion.
As a fan of philosophy myself (I love studying St. Thomas Aquinas, Artistotle, etc) this fascinates me. So in this article about the philosophy of Christopher Nolan, I will highlight the five key fields of philosophy, and how Nolan fits into them. Not only that, but I’ll indicate the relevant Christopher Nolan films, so you have an excuse to rewatch them!
The five fields of philosophy are:
So, let’s begin!
Ethics = The Dark Knight Trilogy
Moral, political, legal and social philosophy. Concerned with decisions made that are traditionally measured on an ethical or moral scale. For example, the ‘hard choices we make in life’ tend to deal with ethics and moral philosophy. A vast majority of our decisions dwelve into ethics.
This is because we are faced daily with moral dilemnas. But when it comes to ethics, it is never easy to understand.
How The Dark Knight Trilogy Embodies It:
There’s a fantastic scene in Batman Begins where Bruce is pressured to pass judgement on a criminal. Ultimately, Bruce makes a moral and ethical decision to not go through with the act. This is fascinating from an ethical perspective. Did the criminal deserve to die? Does Bruce, or any human, have the right to end someones life? Would it be an act of mercy to kill the man?
The Dark Knight trilogy is great, because it features characters making hard choices. The moral philosophy of Christopher Nolan is in full force here. A very interesting example is in The Dark Knight. We have three crucial characters: Bruce Wayne, The Joker and Harvey Dent. Each are marked by a distinct approach to ethics. Particularly profound with The Joker, who says:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
As we can see, the Joker represents ‘chaos’ to Batman’s ‘order.’ Harvey Dent is also fascinating. He highlights the ‘choice’ people make. So although Two-Face lets a coin flip decide the fate of people, he is ultimately making a ‘moral choice’ by leaving it up to chance.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we have Bane. Not only does he represent the politically charged imagery of a terrorist, but something else as well. Rather, Bane is a prime example of individuals and collectives who fight for Gotham’s soul.
What Christopher Nolan argues is that the ‘soul’ of Gotham is determined by morality and attitudes. That’s why Nolan has a scene where the Joker forces two ships to play a sick game. Of course, the ‘winners’ of said game have to kill the other ship. Ultimately, Nolan has a prisoner, who is low in social ranking, make a moral decision to throw the controlling function away.
However, Nolan does not paint an optimistic view of Gotham. In the conclusion of The Dark Knight, Gordon agrees to defame Batman so people can believe a ‘legend’ of reality. It seems, that although the people of Gotham ultimately deserve to be saved, they are still deeply flawed and capable of hurting others.
All of this is brilliant. There are countless examples in The Dark Knight trilogy where characters wrestle over ethical choices and decisions. Because of that, Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy is a perfect example of ethics.
Aesthetics = The Prestige
Aesthetics: In vague terms, the philosophy and perception of art. This includes film, theatre, literature, etc. Aesthetics is also concerned with beauty, bias and nature.
How The Prestige Embodies Aesthetics: Not only is Nolan’s The Prestige a visual and clever delight, but it also acts as commentary on aesthetics. After all, The Prestige is a film about artists (the magicians). By premise alone, The Prestige is the obvious choice for aesthetics.
Nolan’s film is essentially psychological fiction, as he plays numerous mind tricks and plays on the audiences expectations. Or a better word to use would be ‘perceptions.’
Christopher Nolan takes full advantage of the audience’s own subjective biases. We see that in the ending, where Tesla’s machine reproduces the dead ‘bodies’ of Angier, and the twist of the identical twins. This works because it is unexpected. Nolan even engages in such meta-commentary.
The character Cutter sums up ‘aesthetics’ quite well.
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course…it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.A great quote in an incredible movie.
In the end, we are the audience of aesthetics, or The Prestige. Captivated by art, as it has the ability to both horrify and bewitch us.
As a writer myself, I believe there is plenty to learn from magicians. Often, when I write a story, I feel like I’m being ‘deceptive.’ That I’m provoking emotions and thoughts that wouldn’t exist if my art wasn’t real. Or worse, I’m twisting the readers on a long-winded game. I know I’m not the only artist that struggles with that.
So that’s what I love about The Prestige. The complicated, messy and nuanced depiction of aesthetics. The question is: Do we ‘want to be fooled’ by our perceptions? The Prestige asks that question, but withholds the answer.
Epistomology = Memento
I think, therefore I am.Descartes, complicating everything with simplicity
Epistomology: The theory of knowledge. This includes the relationship between justified belief and opinion.
How Memento Emboides Epistomology: The main character in Nolan’s masterpiece, Memento, is a curious case. Leonard Shelby, our protagonist, is ‘denied’ knowledge. As he suffers from amnesia, and tries to make sense of the past, Nolan emphasizes the need for knowledge.
Epistomology, and knowledge, are the keys to understanding our identities, our past actions and our future. This is particularly potent, as Leonard tries to do that with what little evidence he has. Whether it is tattoos or polariods, Leonard must decide whether he ‘trusts’ the knowledge he gains.
What Leonard Shelby has in common with epistomologists is that both are trying to solve a puzzle. But herein lies the problem. Knowledge has its limits. We have more questions than answers. Just as Leonard comes to accept the lies he tells himself, epistomologists, too, must accept their own limitations.
“Now … where was I?”Leonard, the ultimate Nolan epistomologist.
Christopher Nolan also leaves ‘clues’ for the viewer to discover. Epistomologists are also detectives: they too, look for evidence. Although the answers remain unanswered and unclear, we can trust that people will always be hungry for knowledge.
Logic = Inception
Logic: The systematic and deliberate study of inference, and what we accept. Why do we think the way we do? Are there any fallacies that drive us? Formal logic, in particular, is crucial to understanding critical thinking.
How Inception Embodies Logic: Nolan asks how ideas are formed, the nature of dreams and time, as well as the logical flow of reality.
They say we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential. Now that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep, our mind can do almost anything.Cobb
What’s terrific about studying critical thinking and logic is that you realise how many presumptions you have. These are ‘logical flaws’ as I like to put it. For example, when we dream, we presume we are passive. Like most presumptions, we haven’t really thought about said belief. By studying logic, we are forced to confront our biases and falsehoods.
Inception is a ‘mind-bender’ because it confronts bad logic and strategy. What’s also great about Inception is the commentary on logical action and science. Although being a work of science fiction, every idea proposed in Inception makes sense.
Never recreate places from your memories, always imagine new places. Only use details. A street lamp or a phone booth. Never entire areas. Building a dream from your memory is the easiest way of losing your grasp on what’s real and what is a dream.Inception makes a comment on ‘logical’ strategy.
Nolan is a craftsman in his filmmaking. Everything occurs for a logical reason. Inception embodies that quite well.
Other fields of ‘logic’ worth studying are mathematical and scientific logic. I also enjoy ‘deductive’ and ‘inductive’ reasoning. Nolan does also. That’s why whenever he explains a concept, it never feels forceful or condescending.
Rather, it is captivating storytelling.
Metaphysics = Interstellar
We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.Damn, Cooper!
Metaphysics: Who am I? Why am I on this earth? What is ‘the mind’? How does matter exist? Metaphysics deals with the fundamental nature of reality. It also asks big questions about life itself and the universe.
How Interstellar embodies metaphysics:
Interstellar is not just a movie with pretty scenary. Most of its themes, such as love, destiny, life, and time are metaphysical. This is because Nolan deals with human nature in his film.
Not only that, but Nolan does the exceptional. He attempts to answer the metaphysical questions. For example, a common theme in metaphysics is our purpose in life. And, in the face of catastrophe, Nolan says this:
We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.
What I also love about Nolan’s approach to human nature is his empathy and celebration of humanity. That is why he emphasizes the theme of love. After all, the story of Murph and Cooper is touching, melancholic but also beautiful and optimistic.
Overall, Interstellar is a fantastic example of metaphysics in fiction. Science Fiction is the perfect genre for metaphysics, after all. I find Nolan’s approach to be touching and intelligent.
The philosophy of Christopher Nolan is absolute brilliance. There are so many great films of his that I couldn’t mention. Dunkirk is probably the most notable omission! (I love Dunkirk, don’t get me wrong.)
Make sure you comment below with your thoughts on the philosophy of Christopher Nolan! I’d love to discover your thoughts on his work, and philosophy.