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A Cyberpunk Reading of Christopher Nolan

by Rhodora O.

Finding Cyberpunk in Christopher Nolan’s “Now”

The cyberfuture your favorite books, games, and films have been foretelling may finally have arrived. The wealth of serious online privacy and surveillance concerns; the rise of nefarious international corporations and fascist political movements; accelerated environmental, social, and institutional decay; the commodification of, well, everything–you don’t need an article to hold your hand through this line of thinking. Now seems the perfect time to dive into an engrossing cyberpunk story, rising from the depths with some new insight to help humanity navigate this dystopian future we’re entering.

And yet, outside of a few notable examples, cyberpunk remains somewhat of a niche genre. Perhaps, then, there’s value in discovering what unattributed contributions cyberpunk has made to pop culture at large. If we are to believe that cyberpunk is now, then it only follows that we can find bits and pieces of cyberpunk in the cultural works that define “now” for millions of people. With this in mind, we propose a cyberpunk reading of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. While stopping short of defining Nolan’s catalogue as cyberpunk per se, this author is interested in exploring what a cyberpunk interpretation of these films might reveal, or what value these films might hold for the cyberpunk enthusiast looking to reframe popular culture.

Christopher Nolan Makes Movies with “Cyberpunk Spirit”

Because cyberpunk is one of the most relevant genres of our times, the trends in its predictions are always at the nexus of what’s happening on the streets and what’s happening in the labs. Nolan, arguably one of the greatest blockbuster auteurs to come out of Hollywood after Steven Spielberg, shares many of the same interests and themes as our cyberpunk favorites. His particular brand of moviemaking is rooted in time, memory, and identity. He dazzles us with fantastic rotating hallways deep inside his characters’ minds. He challenges us by chopping up a story’s chronology and serving it in reverse (Memento), or in nested time-frames (Dunkirk), or by keeping it niftily hidden in plain sight (The Prestige). Even though nearly half of his filmography has no outward relation to futuristic adventures or humanity’s over-reliance on technology, nearly all his films attempt to answer questions that cyberpunk stories grapple with.

Memento

The most notable cyberpunk connection in Memento is the effect it has on the viewer. The film is relayed in short sections from the protagonist’s current life that are played in reverse. This is interspersed with black and white snippets in linear order from events that happened in his past. The first viewing always fascinates by creating a disorienting, frenetic effect. The result is a taste of the hero’s fragmented mental state induced by his short-term amnesia.

The effect of this structure on the viewers is quite similar to one that many readers report on their first reading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Readers sometimes find the novel’s language disjointed and confusing. The novel famously does not have an accessible, strong plot in any way that really matters. Instead, Gibson forces the reader to embrace an alternative form of existence, and that is what counts.

The same is true Memento. The plot is nothing extraordinary without the conceit of amnesia. It’s a tale of revenge. The hero is bent to murder the policeman who killed the love of his life.

Christopher Nolan's Memento
Christopher Nolan's Memento

We are meant to experience this main dramatic conceit directly through the manipulation of the movie’s timeline. On his part, William Gibson forged an entirely new way of experiencing science fiction, capturing not only the surface experience of cyberspace, but also the anarchy of the human state mixed with a diffused co-existence with artificial intelligence. Similarly, Nolan initiated his own particular brand of cinema with Memento where he used the tools of cinema itself to explore what it means to experiment with time, identity, memory, perception and the fabric of reality.

Nolan has previously explained the structure of this movie. Unfortunately, it may not help matters much. Instead, head over to the slide-sharing website Prezi for this brilliant interactive infographic. It will explain any missing pieces you seek.

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige
Christopher Nolan's The Prestige

The Prestige

Here is another of Nolan’s productions which vies for the status of masterpiece. Based on a Victorian novel with no outward cyberpunk connections, The Prestige earned its place in this discussion based on three things: the blending of illusion and reality, the sacrifice of one’s humanity for megalomaniac pursuits, and an obsessive over-reliance on technological prowess. We haven’t even mentioned the meta-stylistic elements yet.

Just as Memento is designed to evoke an amnesiac’s frame of mind, The Prestige is a story of rival magicians that is structured like a magic trick. This elaborate narrative device drives home one point that academics call “the perfect lie.” What people perceive under ordinary circumstances is the reality to them. What happens when an extraordinary illusion has been made ordinary to the viewer by sleight of hand? By the end of the movie, we discover that perceptions and beliefs may be all but child’s play to anyone who has the means to create this perfect lie. In fact, the cataclysmic revelations at the end of the movie are not unlike Neo waking up from The Matrix for that first time.

What seemed real turns out to be nothing but a cocoon created by an expert trickster, magicians in the case of The Prestige and artificial intelligence in The Matrix.

However, the morale of the story from the characters’ perspective is the opposite. In the words of the academic George Faithful, “The perfect lie will save you from lesser lies, but will also protect you from the destructive austerity of the truth.” This chillingly corresponds to the conclusion of The Matrix trilogy where harmony is restored, the system is reset and everything goes back to the techno-normal. Both magician characters suffer tragic losses in Nolan’s movie, paying the price for refusing to accept the perfect lie and for striving to deconstruct it. For all his efforts, Neo is blinded and finally killed at the end of his endeavors, only for all of his achievements to feed back into the constructed obliviousness of cyberspace.

Inception

The strongest case for interpreting Nolan’s work as cyberpunk is Inception. The parallels between Case’s heist for the Villa Straylight in Neuromancer and Cobb’s inroad into Fischer’s mind are many. Both protagonists are like jockeys hooked on the drug of their preferred modes of constructed reality, the land of dreams for one and cyberspace for the other. They are both criminals using technology to sneak through to other minds or systems, to manipulate their way out of life’s troubles and make some money along the way. William Gibson himself observed the influence of his works on the movie.

In Burning Chrome, Gibson’s first short story to mention the cyberspace matrix, he describes it as an “extended electronic nervous system”. Dreams, on the other hand, are the cinematic productions of our nervous system. Cobb uses technology, much like Case’s Ono-Sendai, to hack into others’ minds via dreams and manipulate them to his ends.

Cristopher Nolan's Inception
Cristopher Nolan's Inception

Cobb is aware of his fate if he, or any other dreamer, dies at any of these dream levels. They risk falling into a limbo where time comes to a standstill. In Neuromancer, we spend so much time with Case slipping in and out of cyberspace in his quest that we can tell his fate would probably be similar if he were unable to switch back to real life. Time stands still in Neuromancer in several different ways. A person’s mind can be CD-ROM-ed after their death. Anyone’s persona can be recreated as avatars in cyberspace, whether they are dead (as in case of Linda, Case’s former girlfriend) or have merely visited the matrix (as Case discovers when he looks back into it for the last time before the novel’s end). Since the cyberspace matrix itself has an existence independent of individual lives, it is the limbo. Once there, you will leave something behind and your avatar will live on forever.

Then there is the matter of the darkness of those entering this space coming to haunt them. According to one analysis of Gibson’s Burning Chrome, “darkness unearthed from within an individual and projected up into cyberspace remain[s] there, in the open, ready to terrorize anyone who encounters it in the shared space.” Nolan created more literal embodiments of this terrorizing darkness in his dreamscapes by having a train crashing into Cobb’s ongoing heist, Fischer’s militarized subconscious taking on the team, and Cobb’s dead wife haunting him. The production team of Inception apparently acknowledged  the architecture of Neuromancer’s Villa Straylight as the inspiration for the Paris-bending scene in Inception, but the debts to Gibson in this movie are clearly far above and beyond.

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Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy

The Dark Knight Trilogy

A dilapidated city where every citizen is seemingly out for themselves. Grunge, grime, and general depravity in a world mired with crime. Unethical use of technology. People rooting for anarchy. A world on the brink of apocalypse without the help of aliens or climate change. Any cyberpunk story worth its salt could have Gotham City for its setting. Inception may be the most cyberpunk Nolan in content and structure, but the game-changing Dark Knight trilogy feels and looks the most cyberpunk.

Several of the pet themes in either cyberpunk or Nolan’s films at large get an interpretation here. We have the hyperreal identity element resulting from the blurring of reality and construction. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) faces escalating personal conflicts in the battle to preserve his three distinct personas of vigilante, playboy and private citizen. We have the overreliance on technological prowess and the trauma it can create for the hero, as well as the disruption of general society when everyone wants in on the freedoms being such a hero provides.

We have the tough questions about disregarding or manipulating the ethics of human behavior. Batman’s fear of losing himself while playing a part in manipulating reality for everyone else is as apparent here as it is in Inception’s Cobb or Neuromancer’s Case. Last but not least, we have the existential crisis resulting from losing something that cannot be recovered and that drives the obsessive pursuit of the character towards an unattainable resolution. Joker (Health Ledger) gets to taunt the irony of being a hero who seems to be on the brink of falling off the edge.

In Gotham, the city’s spiritual elders–Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman himself, and even his butler Alfred (Sir Michael Caine)–play God for “the good of the people” and create the perfect lie multiple times. In The Dark Knight, they collude to frame Batman for Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) crimes so people don’t lose all hope. In The Dark Knight Rises, they conduct a public funeral to allow Bruce to escape the trauma of having created the perfect lie. Gotham’s population are not trusted nor allowed to escape the box, much like the perpetually hallucinating humans of The Matrix trilogy, who are too drugged on the sweet obliviousness of this escapist tech to even care or notice.

Interstellar

The fear that reality can be a construct for humanity created by other beings is the common running thread that deeply connects Nolan’s filmography to cyberpunk tradition. Interstellar approaches this angle in an entirely new way. By placing its hero in various points of the space-time continuum, Interstellar shows how our reality could possibly be an an artifact of  space-time passage. At any given point in the story, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) interacts with his daughter as a young girl, a young woman, and an old lady on her deathbed. The interaction depends on where he happens to be on his interstellar journey. Thus time and its linearity, something we take for granted, is revealed to be as fragmented and nonlinear as Leonard’s perspective in Memento.

Even though the characters were expecting it, the first time-jump creates emotional upheaval in the time travelers (that’s what they really should be called). The theme of circling back to the beginning of the narrative is also present as Cooper is able to turn and reach back to a moment in time of his choosing.

A Cyberpunk Reading of Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar

Having escaped the linearity constraints of our world, time is now nothing more than just another dimension. It is as manipulable as anything else. This element is present in other works we have discussed as well.

In Inception, Cobb attempts to manipulate time by trying to imprison his wife’s memories when he fears increasing disruption from her. In Neuromancer, Case wishes to hold on to Linda, forgetting that Linda is now just a creation of the AI controlling cyberspace. Bruce Wayne looks to reinvent the cycle by passing on his resources to Robin. The system in The Matrix trilogy reboots after eliminating Neo.

Cooper may have escaped the box and experienced the relativity of time firsthand, but he is not at liberty to let untied threads dangle in Nolan’s vision. He must make sure the cycle stays in place, so all events keep taking place as planned. This allows the humanity trapped on earth a chance to escape their looming apocalypse every time. The structure of this intention is similar. Reinstitute the perfect lie so the world may survive. Much like the Neuromancer, the plot events of Interstellar are too convoluted to follow and may feel irrelevant by the story’s end. It’s the emotional truths and the mind-shattering effects on the observer that matter more.

More Cyberpunk Than What You See

These stories can also be grouped into two more themes: those of fractured identity and technology-mediated dystopias. The identity problem is a frequent result of the hero’s great emotional or mental struggle to beat the odds and succeed in his outsized ambitions. The amnesiac must have his revenge. Cobb must reunite with his children. Case must return to cyberspace. No matter what the cost.

Technology-mediated dystopias are a hallmark of all cyberpunk. Only Inception, Interstellar and apparently the upcoming film Tenet actually tap into these. Characteristic of the genre, the dystopias may have an outward sheen of utopia, but are invariably dystopian once the sheen is seen through. The intoxicating malleability of the dreamscapes easily spirals in suicide in real life or ends in the no-man’s-land of limbo. The beautiful lifelike Matrix that lets you fly up into the sky is a horrible, consensual hallucination of drugged humans lying arrayed in pods. The tesseract at the end of Interstellar may have the feel of a utopia, but it was born of the apocalypse that made the earth inhabitable.

The utopia transforms into dystopia over time. It is painstakingly hidden behind a facade.

Will Tenet Be a Cyberpunk Movie?

Let us pat our backs for a moment on having laid any doubts to rest about Nolan being a cyberpunk at heart. Even when his creations do not outwardly feel cyberpunk, they explore much the same themes using surprisingly common structures.

Nolan’s next offering Tenet seems the most direct continuation of what he started with Inception. It’s a technology-aided dystopia allowing him to explore the construction of time and reality. It is not outrageous to assume that the perfect lie the movie’s premise conjures up for its characters will lead to some cataclysmic effects on the protagonist’s psyche. As for the playing out of the pledge, the turn, and the prestige on the audiences, well that’s why we would be sitting in the good seats.

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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AmPHGenius August 23, 2020 - 5:56 pm

Ms Rhodora, this is an amazing article you’ve written, the artwork was phenomenal, and the care that you took to explain and thread the themes together was wonderful, can’t wait for Tenet, the new Batman film, and next gen Cyberpunk material!

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