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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 3
In Which We Look at One Director's Transformation from Rising Prince of Noir to the King of Geekdom

Dark City
The Prestige
The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan Had you asked me, ten or eight or even five years ago, who I would pick as the best, most consistent filmmaker directing movies of the fantastique (to use John Clute's term), the last person I would have cited was Christopher Nolan. Granted, when Batman Begins opened five years ago, I thought it showed a genuine feel for and a high comfort level with the tropes of the comic book movie -- surprising, especially when one considers that Nolan's three previous full-length cinematic efforts contained little to no science fictional or fantastic content. And yet, with the dreamtripping Inception being released later this month, and with both a third Batman movie and a Superman reboot in the director's camera sights, he appears poised to become, as Ridley Scott once strived to be before turning his attention to other avenues, the John Ford of the fantastique.

The competition wasn't all that stiff. Several directors tried their hands at genre during the middle of the 1990s, some quite successfully, but, while many of Nolan's contemporaries matched or exceeded his quality, few if any have matched his success. This is not to say that features like Pi, The Matrix, Dark City, Pitch Black or Primer were failures; if they were not the most commercially successful movies of their decade, they nonetheless rank as the best that genre cinema of that period have to offer. Unfortunately, for genre fans, the follow-ups are a mixed bag. Darren Aronofsky's subsequent work appears too idiosyncratic and challenging (and, one might argue, too grim) for most audiences. The Wachowski brothers went from being the wunderkinds of the cinematic world to denizens of the dustbin of irrelevancy within less than four years. Alex Proyas created what is, in my opinion, the single best science fiction movie of the 1990s, yet his vision couldn't save the at best middling thriller I, Robot. In showing his stuff with small budget features that nonetheless showcased many vast charms, David Twohy seemed on the verge of becoming the next John Carpenter. And then came The Chronicles of Riddick, and Twohy became… the next John Carpenter. And, brilliant though Primer is, Shane Carruth hasn't made a movie since then, though sites as diverse as io9 and Movieweb recently that his next project, A Topiary, is in pre-production.

Enter Christopher Nolan, whose career takes a different trajectory. Like his idol Stanley Kubrick, Nolan began work not in the area of the fantastic (save for his short film "Doodlebug") but in the conventions of noir. (True, the conventions of noir and science fiction often intersect, and in surprising ways, but that is another column for another time.) His first three features, Following, Memento and Insomnia, are all crime dramas with an emphasis on alienated, doom-ridden protagonists caught in densely tangled webs of duplicity and deception, all of which are reflected in their settings (seedy London bars and apartments in Following, the perpetual twilight of Nightmute, Alaska in Insomnia) and structure (both Following and Memento are told in a nonlinear, fragmented fashion). In retrospect, Nolan's path follows that of his idol Stanley Kubrick, who began his feature film career with the noir features Killer's Kiss and The Killing before blowing movie-goers' minds with 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.

Of these, Memento contains the most interest for the science fiction fan. Its lead character Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has no short term memory and thus finds a disjointed sense of self, much in the same vein of many cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk characters. (One can see this trope used in John Varley's "Just Another Perfect Day," John Kessel's "A Clean Escape" and "Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine," Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers, Charles Stross's Glasshouse, and as a weapon in William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive.) Because Leonard's memory is unreliable, and because he cannot make new memories, he finds he cannot rely on the word of others, and must make notes to himself in order to pursue his wife's murderer. As the story unfolds in reverse chronological order (the first scene of the movie is, in fact, the last chronological moment of Leonard's pursuit), Nolan's picture becomes not just a gripping crime tale but a meditation on memory and identity, much like the works parenthetically listed above. Memento doesn't fit Brian Aldiss's definition of a science fiction work, or even Damon Knight's, but if one squint's just right, one can see a glimmer of understanding of science fictional tropes in the way Leonard copes with his affliction.

I didn't squint just right. Even if I had, I probably still would have missed it.

So when Nolan signed on to direct Batman Begins, I was intrigued. In my mind, Nolan's vision would focus on the hardboiled elements of the character. Interviews told me that at least he wouldn't visit the Gotham-meets-Wonderland of Tim Burton's efforts and infuse more substance than the vapid entries by Joel Schumacher. I was right, but I wasn't prepared. Nolan stripped the series of its excesses but retained Bob Kane's initial comic book vision, bestowing a soul upon what had become, four pictures in, a soulless franchise. Not only that, Nolan got it. He got not only what made Batman tick, but how the world of comics and the fantastic functioned. With such understanding, I forgave his convoluted action sequences and muddy fight scenes.

Batman Begins got Nolan through the fantastique door, but The Prestige showed us that he'd decided to kick off his shoes and stay a while. Based on Christopher Priest's intriguing quasi-steampunk novel, it combines dueling illusionists, dysfunctional families, sexual frustration, Tesla coils and mad science into a spicy gumbo. Though not as visually stunning as The Illusionist, another movie of magicians at odds released the same year, it proved a more compelling if occasionally slow-moving tale, and showed that Nolan understood science fiction in particular.

Then came The Dark Knight, and with it a complete reinterpretation of general perceptions of the genre. Nolan reinvented the Batman franchise, using real places for his Gotham City (in this case Chicago) and melding his noir sensibilities with elements of the fantastique to tell a story of the delicate balance between order and chaos, and how easily the latter can overtake the former. With winning performances from a superb cast (I have a feeling that the late Heath Ledger's Joker will be the definitive character for the next generation) and incredible, breathtaking action sequences, it's no wonder that audiences ate it up with gravy ladles. The Dark Knight is not without flaws; it runs a half an hour longer than it should, and too often sacrifices the realism it strives so hard to set up with comic book plotting, but it does show that Nolan can handle spectacle, one of the key elements of science fiction.

What can we expect from Inception? I have no idea. I've resisted the temptation to read much about it, and I'm doing my best to avoid elevated hopes. But its ideas of dream security give me the same thrill as hearing about a Philip K. Dick story, and the images spark my sense of wonder. And, based on what I have heard, it seems like Nolan will be blending noir and the fantastique to its fullest effect.

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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