The Coen brothers are legendary directors, sure. The Wachowski sisters are visual geniuses, yes. The Russo brothers are the new hotshots of comic book movies, certainly. But the siblings that most people overlook, and the siblings who are the best creators in Hollywood today in my opinion, are the Nolan brothers. Writer-director Christopher Nolan and writer-showrunner Jonathan Nolan create content that we don’t deserve in our culture of short attention spans and surface-level entertainment but content that we desperately need right now. In honor of the two-year anniversary of the release of “Interstellar” and passing the halfway point of “Westworld” season one, here are five reasons why:
- They don’t dumb down their content.
The two co-wrote “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Interstellar.” Every single one of those films challenges the audience’s level of commitment and engagement. “The Prestige” offers one of the more innovative film structures of the past decade, reaching meta-cinematic levels in how the structure mirrors the magic trick that the characters perform. “The Dark Knight” exceeds every single limit we thought existed on superhero films and not only reaches an epic quality similar to “The Godfather,” but also enhances comic-book film relevancy and becomes a salient comment on surveillance. “The Dark Knight Rises” is essentially a modern adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” while also commenting on the Occupy movement. “Interstellar” is renowned by Neil Degrasse Tyson as the premier portrayal of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity in film and finds a way to utilize those scientific elements as affecting dramatic devices.
To the Nolans, everything is fair game. They challenge the audience to think. They write movies that, instead of acting as means for pure escapism, cause viewers to leave the theater asking more and more questions, demanding second and third watchings. In a day of upsettingly simplistic blockbusters, these are the kinds of films we need.
- Christopher Nolan avoids CGI for practical effects, raising the scale.
CGI floods more and more of our movies, bringing nonsensical visual chaos that is truly sinking the industry. Christopher Nolan avoids CGI as much as possible — so much so that one of his post-production coordinators on “The Dark Knight Rises” said there are more post effects in romantic comedies than there are in that film. In “Inception,” Nolan’s team built a literal rotating hallway for the film’s iconic fight scene. In “Interstellar,” Nolan avoided green screens, in favor of projecting galactic images on large walls outside of full scale spaceships. The list of mind-boggling practical effects goes on and on. This methodology brings a tangible reality to his films. There’s an extra sense of engagement and immersion in both large-scale moments and abstract concepts that completely beat out the CGI blandness that so many films resort to.
This kind of approach lends itself to Nolan’s blockbuster scale. While some of the best films and TV shows have been low-scale, it’s undeniable that the content that takes advantage of the visual possibilities of each platform is ultimately the most enriching. And visuals that root in reality result in the kind of blockbusters that Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg created, blockbusters that benefit cinema. The Nolans are no strangers to huge scope and scale. The installments of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” act as massive tales of a city as much as they are films about Batman. “Inception” takes our most personal experiences, dreams, and grants an aspect of architecture as well as a James Bond-level action scale to Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending thriller. “Interstellar” literally takes viewers across the galaxy. “Westworld” envisions a time of literal world-rendering technological advances. These kinds of visuals are only possible in the moving image-based mediums. While photography and painting may get big, films and TV are the only forms of content that can add a sense of dynamic and unending space to images. And the Nolans have offered us some of the grandest worlds that most of us couldn’t have imagined.
- Jonathan Nolan’s “Westworld” is a cinematic masterpiece and asks big questions
The greatest TV shows mix gripping drama with large existential questions. Think “Mr. Robot” and “True Detective” season one. “Westworld” exemplifies both qualities, easily making it the best show of the year. Reimagining the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, “Westworld” unravels new layers in each episode that add to an already mountainous sense of intrigue. Jonathan Nolan’s show is not only an achievement in dramatic and calculated storytelling, but it also makes a statement in contemporary culture. Whereas the original film wasn’t too concerned on being socially relevant, the HBO series completely revolves around questions of consciousness in the robots — a choice that separates it from shows that avoid bigger questions. (Ahem, “Game of Thrones,” ahem.) This promotes creative, analytical and big-picture thinking of people living in today’s world. What kind of TV show would grapple with very prevalent, boundary pushing, societally implicative ideas about the evolution of life? Perhaps only a show by a Nolan would.
Asking big questions wasn’t always a consistent attribute of television dramas, oftentimes isolating itself to cinema. Along with that, “Westworld” takes on many other aspects of cinema — intensifying the trend of cinematization of television that started with “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad.” Where the series becomes a cinematic masterpiece is in its production. The show’s cinematography is evocative of the kind of visual elegance that started in film, capturing the rough western landscape in ways that classic western cinema did. Its production design, sound design, makeup, costume and visual effects all reach a quality that dramatic shows only dreamed of a decade ago. “Westworld” is one of, if not the greatest example of when an episodic series makes the most out of the best qualities of both television and cinema.
- They honor history (art, film, games, literature).
Film and television can be the most fruitful when they pull from history. Ignoring history entirely, either in narrative elements and/or in technical production, can result in content that feels bland and uninformed. The Nolans have pulled from all types of art history. Christopher Nolan pulled from painter Francis Bacon for Heath Ledger’s Joker and has constantly referenced Stanley Kubrick as his source of inspiration on the visual front of almost every film. Jonathan Nolan used the aforementioned Charles Dickens novel for the basis of a superhero film and has cited popular video games of recent history such as “Bioshock” and “Red Dead Redemption” for “Westworld.” The use of some of the most defining media gives weight to each of their works. These aren’t ignorant, isolated stories but rather culture infused with elements that have shaped the best of culture’s past.
- They are their own figures.
Most content-creating siblings are inseparable. If one were to investigate the filmographies of each sibling pair mentioned in the introduction, the instances in which they worked apart are incredibly, incredibly rare. But that’s not the case with the Nolans. While they do work together very often, each has significant works of his own. Christopher Nolan directs each of his films, on his own, and wrote “Memento” (Jonathan presented the story to Christopher, but the script was solely Christopher’s work), “Inception” and the upcoming “Dunkirk” by himself. Jonathan Nolan created and worked on the TV shows “Person of Interest” and “Westworld” by himself while also being the sole writer of the original production of “Interstellar” that once had Steven Spielberg attached to direct. They each have a singular creative mind that leads to different outputs. When they do work together, they push each other to the next level in their own work. They are distinctly separable, and that might just be the best thing about them.