Right in Time: Nolan, Time, and Dramatic Tension

Stories have to be interesting. It can be any of a million things that draws us in and keeps us there, but there does have to be something. For action movies, it can be something as basic and primal as “will the hero survive?” People tend to be interested in not dying, and if someone is likable, we tend to be interested in their not dying too. But sometimes storytellers have something a little different in mind.

I went to see Dunkirk on opening weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a guy who would be invested in the mythos of World War II, and I was very happy when I first saw the trailer. I came out of the theater even happier. As someone else said somewhere else, this is the movie Nolan was born to make.

Anyone familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the movie’s promotional material, is aware that the story is not going to be about defeating the Nazis in battle. The only victory we would see in this movie would be mere survival. That gave me a bit of pause, as I’ve always thought of Nolan as something more than a pessimist, and this sounded like it could be my great disappointment.

I was very pleased to be wrong. Within the first few minutes we are presented with three different perspectives, each of which is taking place across a different timeline, and will interweave to tell the story. One is that of a soldier on the ground, escaping Nazi gunfire, realizing that his safe haven is surrounded and pressed up against the ocean, and that there is little to no hope of escape. This starts several days before the evacuation. A second perspective is that of civilians taking their boat to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation, rather than simply giving it up to the Navy as they had been told. Two of the three-man crew are too young to be soldiers. The third perspective is that of several pilots patrolling the skies in the hours just prior to the evacuation, including everyone’s favorite actor, the upper half of ­­­Tom Hardy’s face.

At first I took these three timelines as a mere novelty, just something Nolan likes to do. Partway through the movie, however, something happened that led me to rethink Nolan’s use of time, not just in Dunkirk, but in his entire body of work. Spoilers ahead.

At one point in the soldier-on-the-ground’s story, he joins up with the tattered remains of a Highland regiment. They are walking across the sand towards an abandoned boat that had been beached at high tide. They are far from the rest of the Allied soldiers, and once they are all inside, trying to determine if the thing will float, Germans begin using the hull for target practice. It is determined that the boat will float despite leaks, but they may have to get rid of some weight. One of the companions our POV soldier has picked up turns out to be a Frenchman who is trying to escape with the British soldiers, and the Highlanders debate getting rid of him so the boat will float.

Now in an ordinary telling, the source of dramatic tension, the thing that keeps us interested, is the question of survival. Will the boat float in the first place, and will the tide come in before the target-practicing Germans either kill off the people inside the boat on accident, or fill it so full of holes in the first place that it can no longer float? Nolan has already added a moral dimension to the Highlanders’ behavior, but we don’t even know if their decision here will make a difference in the larger question of survival.

But then we switch perspectives. Our pilot in the air is trying to protect a fleeing ship from German bombers. As he approaches, we a second boat nearby. It is the blue boat from the beach. It has tipped over and begun to sink, but there are men in the water fleeing from it to the ship our pilot is protecting. We know that they made it off the beach—the Germans did not kill everyone off or fill it so full of holes it would not float. They are halfway across the channel. They survived.

This shifts the source of dramatic tension. When we return to that timeline, we are no longer asking if they will survive, but what they will do to survive. Will they sacrifice the life of the frightened Frenchman to save their own, or will they leave Dunkirk as defenders of the weak? The source of dramatic tension is now the ethics of the situation. Through the use of his mixed-up timelines, Nolan has shifted our attention from the physical danger of the situation to the moral dangers and the character of these soldiers.

Someone else somewhere else said that Nolan is very interested in time. As I thought about this sequence from Dunkirk, and reflected on the other Nolan movies I’ve seen, I realized that this is only half true. Nolan is certainly interested in treating time in unusual ways in his stories, but I’m not sure that’s the focus of the stories themselves so much as it is a tool he is particularly adept at using. For Nolan, non-linear storytelling is a way of drawing attention to moral dilemmas rather than mere questions of survival.

After Dunkirk, two more examples come to mind. The first is Batman Begins. I recently got a pretty solid deal on twenty DVD’s, and this was on my list. It had been several years since I had watched it, and I never really appreciated it as much as the other two movies in the series, or the rest of Nolan’s work. This time I realized why.

The superhero genre is a staple of American pop culture, but for most of its history, especially in the 90’s, it has been targeted at children. These are people with silly names in unlikely costumes who fight improbable villains in defense of mythical cities. We don’t watch them for their realism, but for the very operatic strangeness that makes them so attractive to children. Given this, we expect the story to draw dramatic tension from the larger-than-life character of the villain and his insane schemes, or from the incredible powers of the superhero and the impossible odds he must overcome. If there is some deeper lesson to be learned, we expect it to be tied pretty closely to our hero’s gimmicks—Captain America tells us something about patriotism, Hulk about anger, the X-Men about being different, and Batman about nobless oblige or the social benefits of a healthy population of winged rodents.

Batman Begins is not interested in more gimmicky or straightforward lessons, and even less interested in being zany and larger-than-life. The man under the cowl is not George Clooney. And that’s why the first half of the movie does something very Christopher Nolan: it messes with the timelines.

Now, this is not Dunkirk. There very clearly a primary timeline, and the secondary timeline is easily labeled as a series of flashbacks, most of them more or less explicitly memories that Bruce is meditating on for pretty straightforward reasons. He has been living as a criminal, trying to understand their mindset, and he has been taken in by a shadowy organization that promises to teach him how to make criminals pay for what they do to society. Naturally, he thinks about the points in his life where he learned fear, where he saw what crime did, where he thirsted for vengeance, and where he learned that vengeance may not be enough.

But that’s interesting. In the past, I was always annoyed because it seemed to take forever for the story to go anywhere. But that’s because I expected a very different story than Nolan wanted to tell. He wasn’t worried about the existential threat against Batman or against Gotham. Survival was not the point. He was interested in justice. Why do people commit crimes? How do they get away with it? Who deserves justice? What does justice look like? Who is entitled to mete out justice? What methods should they use? The series of flashbacks combined with Bruce’s training by the League of Shadows does not draw attention to any particular villainous threat, but does ask us to look at these themes. By combining past events who outcome is already known with a present which does not noticeably advance for quite some time, Nolan shifts the dramatic tension to the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces, rather than threats to his city.

The third place I see Nolan using complex timelines to draw our attention away from mere survival and towards moral dilemmas is in Memento. This may seem a far more obvious example to those familiar with the movie. For those who are not, this is how the movie works: there are two timelines, one in black and white, and one in color. We switch back and forth between them. One is working backwards from end of the story being told, and one forward from its beginning. The two timelines will meet in the middle, and our climax will be the transition from one to the other.

The very structure of this plot looks like a test case for the interwoven timelines of Dunkirk or the extensive use of flashbacks in the first half of Batman Begins. We know early on who will live and who will die. We find out far more quickly than our protagonist exactly who can be trusted and who cannot. We know where the story is going. What we don’t know is why the protagonist has made the decisions he has. We don’t understand the moral landscape. By the time we reach the end of the movie, we understand the protagonist’s motivations and the motivations of the other characters, but our knowledge of whether he survives or not has not changed. Survival was never the point—the moral landscape was.

Now I am sure that Christopher Nolan is interested in time for other reasons. It is also without a doubt true that he is good at creating threats to the survival of his heroes, and having them confront these threats in interesting ways. He is certainly a good action director, and he is also a bit of nerd when it comes to thinking about time.

But I believe this is an established pattern that Christopher Nolan has. He uses nonlinear storytelling as a tool to draw our attention from more basic threats to survival and towards moral dilemmas. Realizing this not only opens up new dimensions in Nolan’s work, but leads to the consideration of non-linear storytelling more generally. How do other writers and directors use it? What are they drawing attention to? What potential sources of dramatic tension are they defusing?

For me, this is one more good reason to be interested not only in stories, but storytelling.

Alien vs. Aliens

Ridley Scott’s Alien is pretty universally considered a sci-fi horror classic. It’s tense, it’s strange, it’s dark, and it’s fairly original. It was so good, it sparked the thirst for sequels. This thirst was not quenched until the fourth installment, wherein the reincarnated Ripley kills her weird-looking, lumpy, pink, giant alien baby by letting it get sucked through a tiny hole in a space window. And after that weirdness, there was still enough interest in some quarters to spawn two AVPs and one prequel (so far). But we’re not going to talk about all that. Instead, let’s take a look at the only direct sequel I can stand: Aliens.

 

The Shift in Vision

From the ground up, Aliens is totally different than its predecessor. Directorship shifted from the gifted hands of Ridley Scott to James Cameron, fresh off of the success of Terminator and the second Rambo movie. With this change of directors we received a change in genre. Where the first movie was a claustrophobic nightmare, the second would be an action-packed adventure complete with space marines. The tension of slow pace and a monster wreathed in darkness was replaced with a guns-and-talons, race-against-time shoot-em-up. The apple falls far from the tree, and the consequences are profound.

Conservation of Ninjitsu

There is a theory of fight scenes running around the internet called “The Conservation of Ninjitsu.” It runs like this: in any given fight, the amount of ninjitsu (general combat awesomeness) for any given side is finite. This means that while one ninja might be extremely deadly, a hundred ninjas will get mowed down indiscriminately.

When Aliens set itself up as an action movie, this law took effect. In the first movie, one Alien took out the entire crew of the Nostromo, and was only defeated when Ripley opened an airlock so that it was sucked out into the vacuum of space. In the sequel, any given soldier is able to take out several of the beasts. Heck, they come crawling in a giant mass through the ceiling and still  people manage to get away. Let’s not forget that a child survived for ages in a part of the compound we are later shown the aliens can easily get to.

Characterization

When Ridley Scott introduced us to crew of the Nostromo, it was sort of a slow unrolling of their personality. Each scene tells us a little more about the characters, and some of their motivations are not fully explained until the show is almost over. James Cameron did something different, and I can’t pin it down exactly, but if you watch the movie you can feel it. There’s a lot of noise and multiple conversations going on early in Alien, making our growing understanding of the crew seem almost incidental. Those scenes are as much about setting the mood as they are about introductions. In Aliens every new character is distinct, loud, and showy. We are getting a performance. That, at least, is how it came off to me.

The Others

Sexual themes and gender roles are a big part of the series in every incarnation. There are other themes, however, equally worth exploring. The very word “alien” refers to a concept of “the other,” of something foreign. The people involved in the production of both movies were very aware of this concept.

The driving force behind the horror of the first movie is that we fear what we do not understand. Scott seems to deal with this consciously not only in how he treats the monster, but also in how he deals with the crew. Two of them work below decks, and they are not getting equal shares with everyone else. This causes tension as they try to get a better deal. Early on, one of the two men comments that “It’s us versus them. That’s how they see it.” This minor rivalry between the grimier workers below decks and the skilled laborers pales in comparison, however, to the big reveal concerning Ash. Ash is an android, a robot put there by the company who is ultimately willing to kill off all the humans or just let them die to ensure that the monster makes it back home to be studied.

Throughout the first movie, the invasion of the creature and the eventual reveal concerning Ash all serve to unite the crew. They must confront their rivalries and differences in the interest of surviving. This is because their differences are nothing next to the horror of the unknown which confronts them.

In James Cameron’s take on the mythos, this is not so much the case. A minor point is made that Vasquez is Hispanic and a woman, but it never gets in the way of the unit’s working together. Like Ash, Bishop is an android, but the movie goes to great lengths to teach Ripley that he is to be trusted. The man she cannot trust, Burke, is not an “other” so much as he is a jerk. Even the aliens aren’t really an unknown, seeing as the space marines have all killed off aliens before. This is just a particularly nasty variety. The whole idea of the uncanny other generally gets set aside in favor of a more action-movie ethos.

Was It Worth It?

There is no doubt that the first sequel was very different from the original. It does very well as an action movie, though it is far from a masterpiece of the genre. On the other hand, the first movie was truly groundbreaking and has a timeless horror to it. It might be said that shifting genres and undercutting the original themes did a disservice to Alien, but I doubt it. What Alien did was unique, and trying to recreate that would have just been a cheap disappointment. The changes may have prevented Aliens from living up to its predecessor, but that is not something it ever could have done. Indeed, because it was so different, it gave the brand a chance to live on through further sequels and crossovers as that universe was explored from different angles by different directors. So, yeah. While I can’t say I loved Cameron’s take on Scott’s creation, I have to say he did a good job.