A beginning can be a start, a middle, an end, or to a director like Christopher Nolan, it can be a manifold of all three. The visionary director’s talent for time-bending indie hits and prestigious blockbusters has made him one of the most widely respected filmmakers of all time. Yet in a career that’s taken him from the streets of Gotham City to the extra-dimensional interior of a supermassive black hole, Nolan has maintained his storytelling flair — and every story must have a beginning.
The start of Nolan’s films aren’t just staging points for the plot to follow, they’re a distillation of what will follow, whether it’s the subversive invitation of The Prestige or the fever-dream opening of Inception. Let’s rundown the greatest opening scenes of Christopher Nolan’s films to see exactly how the filmmaker prepares audiences for the story to unfold.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Christopher Nolan's filmography
Interstellar may be about a last-ditch attempt to save humanity from an increasingly inhospitable earth, but it’s also about one man finally getting the chance to escape his frustrating day-to-day existence. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is tormented by dreams of the dramatic crash that put an end to his career as a pilot. He finds himself grounded in a mundane farmer’s life, struggling to raise two children and accept his place in a world that’s given up reaching for the stars.
In the beginning, he wakes from a dream of the crash to find that he’s woken up his daughter Murphy, showing how his dreams will always disrupt his family life. Cooper stands looking out on the endless fields of corn that form the boundaries of his world, but not before Murphy pointedly foreshadows the movie’s time-bending twist:
“I thought you were the ghost.”
As it happens, Cooper is the ghost haunting her bookshelf, doing so via a four.dimensional time-library in the middle of a black hole.
5. The Prestige
- Release: 2006
Like any magic trick, The Prestige begins with an invitation to participate. As the camera pans across a stack of apparently identical top hats abandoned in the woods, Bordon (Christian Bale) asks,
“Are you watching closely?”
It’s a striking image that foreshadows the twisted truth of the movie. The audience is taken to the climax of a great rivalry between two magicians as Cutter (Michael Caine) narrates the form of any magical act, from the initial pledge to the resulting prestige. Cutter is shown performing a vanishing birdcage trick, as Angier (Hugh Jackman) performs his own crowning act on stage. Angier disappears, only to land trapped and submerged in a tank of water with Bordon looking on from outside the glass. The magic has seemingly gone wrong as Angier rapidly drowns, even as Cutter’s canary is ‘safely’ brought back.
The canary trick is soon revealed to be a barbaric sleight of hand, just like the magic trick that becomes both the ‘turn’ and the maguffin of the entire movie: the Disappearing Man. The act itself is a trick to entice Bordon and implicate him in a murder that he didn’t commit.
The opening of Inception is a crash course in the film's wibbly-wobbly pseudo-science. It introduces concepts like extraction and dreams within dreams, while giving Nolan the chance to experiment with time and reality in a way that still has many scratching their heads. There’s a series of feverish clips of Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) lying in the surf of a beach, watching his children from a distance. He’s quickly dragged before an aging Saito (Ken Watanabe) who hints about his past with Dom, even though Dom seemingly hasn’t aged. The movie flashes out of limbo to a clever con, a daring robbery and a violent shootout before a practical set piece that links the spectacular practicality of the movie’s action sequences to its cerebral subject matter.
A kick into a bathtub becomes a tidal wave achieved by water cannons. An overturning van becomes a twisting corridor that was built as a fully realized rotating set. With all that going on, it’s easy to forget that Nolan staged the entire movie as a flashback from when Dom willingly went down to rescue Saito from limbo to ensure the deal to get back to his children would still stand.
- Release: 2000
Memento is the eponymous #ChristopherNolan movie. An indie-hit featuring an A-list actor and a narrative told almost entirely in reverse. If it wasn’t enough that the story’s final scene comes first, Nolan made the striking decision to show the opening action in rewind. It begins with a polaroid of a bloody murder scene, with the image slowly fading from the surface. The audience witnesses the photograph slip back inside the camera and blood rolling backwards across the tiles. It at once suggests the movie’s unusual narrative structure and the unique mental state behind Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) search for revenge.
It’s the beginning and the end, only really making sense and taking on a deeper resonance when it's realized that Leonard’s entire life is a recursive loop of murder and manipulation. The fading polaroid is an apt metaphor for his mind which rapidly forgets his many individual acts of vengeance.
#Dunkirk is not a conventional war movie. It’s a portrayal of survival in defeat, and the brutal conditions and choices that soldiers often need to make to cling to their lives. Christopher Nolan opens his dour portrayal of the evacuation with an image of British soldiers being showered by Nazi propaganda, sucking water from dry hosepipes, pilfering cigarette butts from ash trays and attempting to relieve themselves in the street while their bodily needs are abruptly interrupted by viciously loud gunfire from unseen enemies. That’s what the Germans are referred to even in the opening subtitles, submerging the narrative in the soldier’s perspective.
This isn’t a movie about the political status quo of Europe in 1940, it’s about desperate soldiers harangued from the ground, the air, the sea, and each other. That all becomes quickly apparent as the camera tracks Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) violent introductory journey through the streets of Dunkirk. He abandons his rifle as he scrambles over gates and walls to an aggressive welcome from his French allies before being shepherded out onto the beach. What follows is a series of razor sharp moments, where he helps bury a man in exchange for water and is ushered out of a queue for being from the wrong branch of the military—all with barely a word of discernible dialogue. It’s in the combination of these gritty details that Nolan so accurately portrays the spectacle of Dunkirk, and the spirit of the soldiers that endured it. When dive bombers decimate the queues of waiting soldiers, those same soldiers return to their orderly lines, showing how almost commonplace the destructive passes of the German aircraft have become.
While it's only towards the end that audiences fully realize the implication of Nolan's mathematical structure, the groundwork is laid in this scene, with one desperate soldier calling out for the RAF. The action might cut away to Tom Hardy flying to the rescue, but the infantrymen's reaction to the pilot when they return to England betrays the depth of feeling and the gulf of time between the start of the movie and the Spitfire's arrival over Dunkirk.
1. The Dark Knight
- Release: 2008
While Nolan has experimented with multiple timelines and physics-warping sequences that all link back to their respective opening scenes, the beginning of The Dark Knight still stands out as his greatest opening. It’s a deceptively straightforward bank robbery that shows various stages of the heist, from a rooftop to a bank floor to a vault. What makes it so powerful is its tight editing and clever dialogue, maintaining the suspense while building towards the reveal of the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) sustained presence throughout the scene.
By the time the Joker takes off his mask, he’s already an established, maniacal yet terrifyingly intelligent presence, carrying out his criminality in a way that’s as chaotic as it is methodical. Heath Ledger’s iteration of the Joker is renowned as one of the greatest on-screen villains of all-time, partially thanks to his lack of backstory. He’s as much a force of nature as any character before him, a fact that’s reflected by the reveal in The Dark Knight's opening sequence. He removes the clown mask only to reveal an even more disturbing effort beneath. It's an idea that comes up every time he delves into the story behind how he got his scars: There's no truth or humanity to be found there, only chaos.
Christopher Nolan treats time as a subject, a tool and a plaything in his movies, experimenting with pacing and paradoxes in a variety of head-scratching ways. However, it all comes back to the beginning – which could also be a middle or an end.
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