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.

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Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night. After @jenningsaxfl voiced his disappointment, and @GKRaptorton said this was as expected, I rose to its defense. They asked for a review. Here it is, relatively spoiler-free, and short. By my standards.

 

I went into Wonder Woman expecting two things: feminism and cheap action thrills.

Given the superhero in question, and the current cultural climate, I expected Wonder Woman to be a story about girl power and the flaws inherent in mankind (males), who would of course have been ruining the world in the absence of sensible warrior-queen leadership. That’s not what I got at all.

This is not to say WW is not feminist in the sense of being something else. How could an Amazon heroine be anything but? It’s simply that the movie is just not that concerned with those themes. Instead, the differences between a woman-only and a male-dominated society is mostly played for laughs as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot’s Diana get to know one another in the context of their two subsequent fish-out-of-water experiences. Even when she proved more capable in combat than any of the men in the “world of men,” it was not used to make a point about women being equally capable, but just like another super-powered human in a world of mere mortals.

So the first thing I began to notice was the degree to which it wasn’t feminist. The second was the way it played to my Mummy-loving heart.

A bit of context: I realize The Mummy is not the best film ever created, and it’s certainly not deep, but it’s easily one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of exploring strange worlds, of high adventure with a competent crew of odd individuals, played as much for self-deprecating humor as it is for the thrill of chase scenes and shootouts. I haven’t seen a lot that hits those notes and does it well since The Mummy. It’s kind of my gold standard for this sort of thing, I’d given up expecting something in the twenty-teens to give me that.

Wonder Woman did. Themyscira was a strange, interesting place. The architecture was very Greek, and the climate was very Mediterranean, which I suppose was to be expected, but it felt like somebody actually enjoyed creating that world. The Amazons have a weird semi-mythic, semi-scifi flair to their civilization, besides the weirdness of being women-only, that made it absolutely fascinating to try and figure out.

Then you throw in Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. In many ways, he’s just the Chris Pine we’re used to. But Chris Pine is exactly the sort of heroic yet self-deprecatingly humorous presence that can capture something like what Brendan Fraser did in The Mummy. He goes through his fish-out-of-water tale, which I find to be pretty fresh. It doesn’t go for a lot of obvious jokes, and the ones it goes for are played pretty well.

Now Diana is really interesting to me. She’s got this thirst to see combat and to be a hero that I can very much relate to, having, y’know, been a kid once. What’s interesting is the way that’s played as maybe unhealthy, but more importantly, naïve. This kid does not understand what war is. She does not know what it means, what it costs, the ugliness of death and destruction, the darkness in humanity it exposes. She has never seen the darkness of humanity. She naively believes that all war can be ascribed to the influence of Ares, and that when he is killed, war will end. She believes mankind is basically good.

Now I don’t want to go into detail, but this is the heart of the movie. It’s not about girl power, though there are powerful girls. It’s not about dudes being sleezeballs. It’s about the darkness in humanity, the sin nature, and Diana’s coming to grips with its existence. It’s not played how you might expect—she doesn’t lose her ideals the moment she hears about dead civilians, or the first time she sees cowardly generals, or the first time she’s exposed to the horrors of WWI’s trench warfare and killing technology. Remember, she has Ares to blame for that. Or so she thinks.

But beyond the confrontation with what a Christian would call sin nature, there is the question of what to do about that. Wonder Woman has godlike powers, and the nature of the story allows her to do things for humanity no one else can. When she finally does realize what humans are, she has to decide what to do about it. That’s where this movie gets even more theological.

Now I’m going to back away from spoilers. I also got pretty deep into the themes of the movie, which really come out in the latter half, even if the groundwork is well-laid for it early on.

The first half consists of a lot more Mummy-style high adventure. London is as strange and foreign a world as Themyscira, and Diana has her own fish-out-of-water story to go through. There’s a ragtag band of scoundrels to be assembled, including a Scottish sniper with PTSD, an American Indian smuggler, and a lovable Middle-Eastern rogue who is the Lando of this feature, but with Benny from The Mummy’s hat. This movie’s got fights in alleys, sneaking into fancy German castles and scary German munitions factories, undercover dances at galas, aerial combat, ridiculous low-tier villains, a respectable boss, explosions, good fight choreography—it’s just a fantastic adventure.

But there’s one last element I want to mention, and that’s the romance. I kind of expected there to very pointedly not be one, because Diana’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. That’s not what happened. Nor is there some sort of role reversal where instead of the girl always being the damsel, the guy is always being the damsel. Nor is she put off by his having her back in battle. She respects it and thanks him for it.

This is actually a love story, absent of any tortured gender politics that might have been inserted. There is some mild battle-of-the-sexes stuff, but it’s in the context of two people who fall in love in a very traditional way, with very traditional iconography. And it’s not shallow, either. There’s humor to cultural gap between them, but there’s also a lot of humanity to her soon-to-be-crushed idealism and his deeply scarred knowledge of the horrors of war and of human nature, but his willingness to keep fighting despite that. They have a common mission, not just in the literal movie sense, but in the sense of the kind of people they are. They are, dare I say it, helpers meet for each other. A complementary pair. And it’s moving, and tender, and also features mad suicidal dashes through no-man’s land. I like it.

So there you have it. This movie was far less political and far deeper than I expected. It was also a lively adventure in strange places with fun characters, theologically interesting, and rounded out with a dash of good old-fashioned romance. It is what Marvel wishes it could be, and what I never thought DC would become. Thanks to this movie, I am actually going to walk into Justice League with a smile on my face.

And if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.

X-Men and the Master Race

We have spent some time with H. P. Lovecraft, his dark view of the cosmos, and his undermining of a man-centered view of the world. While this is one way of telling stories inspired by an evolutionary naturalist cosmology, it’s far from the only one. Bryan Singer’s X-Men has a much more positive take on such a world, and decidedly more human-friendly.

Before we get started, however, we should take a moment to note the vast difference between what Lovecraft was doing and what Singer, screenwriter David Hayter, and earlier X-Men creators were doing. For Lovecraft, the issues of naturalism and the eons-long march of evolution were central. His horror was cosmic in scope, and cosmic in emphasis. X-Men, on the other hand, is first and foremost a superhero story. Mutation and evolution serve more as an origin story and a clever device for exploring other themes than central ideas in themselves. Therefore, we should be careful not to make more of its presence in the story than the occasion warrants.

That said, let’s dive in.

 Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

This quote, appearing before even the title sequence, brings us directly into deep waters. It is a generally acknowledged fact that the fossil record has less “transitional species” than many Darwinists might like, with supposedly distant evolutionary ancestors occurring in layers just below their descendants. While the situation is not so difficult as to make most scientists reconsider the theory of evolution itself, it has caused some to ask what might explain the apparent lack of evidence for the gradual transformation of species. Two of these proposed solutions are “punctuated equilibrium” and “saltationism.” It is the latter that concerns us.

Saltationism is the fairly straightforward belief that while species usually changes only subtly from one generation to the next, on occasion massive changes between a single parent and its child, creating an entirely new species in a single great leap. The details of this theory or its history in the scientific community are not important. What is important is the opportunity this provides for a storyteller.

Superheroes are a fun sort of character to play with. Their immense power when compared to the average human, and responsibility that comes with it, provide material for plenty of storylines and grand battles. Their strange powers, however, usually require an explanation. Here in salatationism, the writer of a superhero story has a ready-made explanation, complete with its own complex themes worth exploring. The X-Men are not merely freaks, they are the next stage in the history of the human race and life on the planet.

And “next stage” is right. Right off the bat, we are given a picture of humanity evolving “from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” Not only is this picture man-centered, it also a picture of human progress. Evolution is a ladder, climbing up from inferior slime to superior man. When the mutants of the X-Men world appear, they are not just different. Their appearance is a “leap forward.” We are going somewhere, a better somewhere, and evolution is taking us there.

This is wildly different than Lovecraft’s picture, or, as we will see later, that of H. G. Wells. Many who adopt a naturalist and evolutionary view of the cosmos hold nothing like this idea that evolution means progress, that it is somehow a forward movement or an upward climb. Evolution is merely the survival of those creatures which are best adapted to their environment, and that may have nothing to do with what any civilized man may recognize as “good.” But for the X-Men, that is not the case. In this world, evolution means progress.

The very next scene sets up another interesting backdrop. It is 1944, in a concentration camp in Poland. A crowd of prisoners is being herded into the camp, among them a young boy. He sees that the people working across the fence from him have already been branded like cattle, numbers tattooed into their arms. As they reach the gates, he is separated from his parents. Crying out, he tries to follow them. He is held back by soldiers, but he extends his hand, and the metal gates begin to bend. The soldiers can’t fight the power he is wielding, and begin sliding in the mud. As he begins to crush the gate, another soldier hits him hard in the head, knocking him out.

The fact that the first mutant we see appears in a concentration camp is no accident. Here is a place where people who are different are rounded up, registered, enslaved, and eventually killed. Here are the monsters of the twentieth century, those who experiment on fellow human beings, who exploit scientific methods to eradicate masses of people. This is important for mutants as type of the persecuted minority, but fascism at work here also represents what the Brotherhood of Mutants is reacting against—and what they become.

Not long after, we are standing before the Senate, hearing a debate over the Mutant Registration Act. Americans are afraid of mutants, afraid that their powers will allow them to exploit the relative weakness of their ordinary neighbors. They want every mutant registered, so the government can keep tabs on them. Later we learn that if it were up to Senator Kelly, the chief proponent of the act, then all mutants would be locked up in prison.

Looking on are the two leaders of the mutants, two friends with two very different responses. We have a choice between their perspectives, and it is clear which we are supposed to choose. On the one hand is Charles Xavier, who takes in outcast mutant children and raises them as if they were his own. He advocates tolerance for the foibles on the human race, patience as they come to grips with the existence of mutants. On the other hand, we have Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. This was the boy from the concentration camp, his arm still bearing the marks from the last time a fearful populace decided to “register” him. His reaction to this threat is far from tolerant.

Outside, Professor X confronts Magneto, telling him not to give up on mankind. They have evolved since the forties. That’s a bold statement, again equating evolutionary change with moral and civilizational progress. Magneto replies that it’s true, mankind has evolved. Into mutants.

“We are the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter!”

In this statement, we see where life has taken Erik Lehnsherr. When he was young, he saw the Germans, afraid of the Jews, round them up and register them. Registration was only the prelude to something far worse. Seeing that possibility looming on the horizon again, he will not let it happen. He will stand and fight. Of course, despite the fact that the mutants are numerically fewer, they are much stronger. It is now Erik who is afraid, and it now Erik who reacts in violence, dismissing an entire race as a relic of the past.

That issue of race adds an additional layer of depth to the story. While The X-Men undoubtedly wants you to notice the responding-to-fear-with-violence theme as it plays out in the Nazis, Senator Kelly, and Magneto, it doesn’t dwell on the themes of racial superiority.

It is important to remember that the Nazis were racist in a distinctly evolutionary context. They believed that they were more highly evolved, a superior kind of human. The Jews, on the other hand, and many others, were inferior. They held back the human race, weakening it, and diluting pure Aryan blood. Nazism was involved in genocide and eugenics not merely out of fear, but out of a desire to progress along the evolutionary ladder. Germany was expanding and eliminating “inferior” races to make Lebensraum for itself—room for the master race to grow. Breeding programs were started in an attempt to produce more and better Aryans. Evolutionary progress was a very important idea to the Third Reich.

Taking that into account, the entire movie takes on an uneasy atmosphere. In the world of The X-Men, there is no doubt that the mutants are the next step in evolutionary progress, that they are, in some sense, superior. Ordinary humanity is genuinely backwards, and does pose a genuine threat to the progress of the human race. The mere facts of the situation line up exactly with Nazi ideology. They are not what is in dispute in this film, only what the proper course of action is, given such a world.

This weird fascist undercurrent expresses itself in other ways, and not just among the bad guys. Granted incalculable power over others, Professor X is perfectly willing to use it. He pries into Wolverine’s deepest secrets and readily speaks of them without the slightest hint of reluctance, without thinking to even ask permission. Of course, such violations of a man’s personal life are acceptable when they come from a more highly advanced creature, a person higher up both the evolutionary and moral ladder than those around him. With great power comes a lack of accountability.

This particular incident is startling next to the earlier discussion of the Mutant Registration Act. Senator Kelly asks what mutants have to hide, which entirely misses the point in the eyes of the X-Men. But not long after, Professor X seems to operate off the same principle. What does Wolverine have to hide? The professor is the protector of mutants; doesn’t he have the right to know what’s going on in this man’s head? It’s for the greater good.

Nevertheless, Charles Xavier is decidedly opposed to Magneto’s course of action. He sends his people to interfere in his enemy’s plans, hoping to forestall what both Erik and Wolverine assure will be a war between mankind and mutants. He still has hope.

Meanwhile, Magneto has captured Senator Kelly. Up until this point, everything we know about him has made us hate him more and more. When Mystique slaps him around with her feet, the scene is written to make us cheer. This guy really deserves what’s coming to him. And what is coming to him? He will be experimented on, transformed via radiation into a mutant. This scene is intercut with the horrified reactions of Xavier’s people as they learn that Wolverine was once experimented on. Both these events echo Nazi experimentation on Jews during the holocaust. With that in mind, it is more than little off-putting to see Senator Kelly’s transformation played out as an almost-justified comeuppance.

It turns out that Magneto’s plan is to use this same radiation on a gathering of UN delegates at Ellis Island. This is incredibly significant on multiple levels.

First, we are reminded again of minorities coming to America, of our country as a melting pot that welcomes the downtrodden. In a world where mutants struggle for equality against overwhelming racism, this theme points once more to the progressive narrative of the minds behind the project.

Second, the UN gathering plays into the same theme. It has loomed behind the whole movie, and along the way we were given the chance to see Senator Kelly snidely dismiss it, telling us that America will do whatever it pleases and the outside world can fend for itself. With this coming from the bad guy, and keeping in mind the whole tenor of the movie, and the fact that the action takes place on Ellis Island, it’s not a leap to infer that the UN is viewed here in a positive light. This is the voice of human progress and unity.

Finally, this plan is significant because it reveals something about Magneto. He wants to transform all of these powerful people into mutants, believing that if they saw with mutant eyes, they would sympathize and work to protect them instead of treating them like a threat. He just wants people to sympathize, and he’s willing to use force to get them to do so. Of course, we know that his plan will not work. The radiation that turns them into mutants will also kill them in a few days’ time. Instead of creating new allies, he’s committing a mass assassination that will backfire on him and his plans for mutant acceptance.

Of course, our heroes save the day, and Magneto is incarcerated in a plastic prison where Xavier can come to visit him and play chess. He hopes that Erik’s heart will change, that he will come to accept humanity, to be patient with them. But if not, he assures his old friend, the X-Men will be there to stop any future maniacal plans.

The movie is a fun watch. The close friends battling things out, the strange new world, the whole atmosphere grabs you and holds your attention. The friendship between Wolverine and Rogue in particular is fantastic, and worthy of attention in its own right. But underlying the whole thing is that strange fascist echo. The X-Men are the future. They are the next step in evolution, in human progress. Not only are they superior in their abilities, the majority of them appear to be presented as morally superior.

Both sides use their powers on other people without a second thought, and humanity is asked to accept this as normal, and not to seek to control them. And yet, this is decidedly a melting-pot world, one that asks humans of all backgrounds to unite. The powerful must tolerate the weak, and the weak the powerful. It’s a strangely contradictory world, one of values held in tension.

In Lovecraft, that tension did not exist. The universe was amoral, and man’s petty feelings about the behavior of other entities meant nothing. There might be the strong and the weak, but neither had any obligation to the other, and any desire to see the improvement of the species was mere self-interest writ large. But here, in a world of evolutionary progress, in an anthropocentric, humanistic world that accepts that view of the cosmos, there is that tension. In that world, the Nazis are not far wrong on the facts, but we must, of course, reject their methods.

Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—I’m more at ease with Lovecraft’s take on the cosmos.