Why Time Runs Out in All of Christopher Nolan’s Films

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John David Washington stars in Christopher Nolan’s newest film Tenet. Melinda Sue Gordon/WB

Any consideration of time requires an acknowledgment that time is finite. That even though time is ultimately a human construct, humans will never have enough of it. The idea that time is running out is at the core of Christopher Nolan’s filmography (“Time runs out” is a literal tagline for Tenet) and the undercurrent of his obsession with time may actually be the fear that it’s ephemeral.

This anxiety becomes most manifest in Inception—and later in Dunkirk, which mirrors the three-level narrative structure of Inception—but all of Nolan’s work shares a dread of the ticking clock. In Memento, a movie concerned with both the literal loss of memory and the figurative loss of time, the clock turns backwards on itself, recapturing moments as a way of trying to reclaim one’s life. The scenes are filled with trepidation, particularly the further back they move, and Nolan seems fixated on whether not knowing what’s happened to us could equate with reducing the time on our own ticking clock. In Memento, time is memory, and is it wasted if we can’t recall it?

The idea that each minute should be valued reemerges in The Prestige, a movie that is not ostensibly about time at all. But as Nolan investigates illusion and perception, he also creates a story about allowing obsession to eat away at what little time you may have. His two magicians—who turn out to be three—throw away their years on revenge, until they have nothing left but to destroy each other. In typical Nolan form, the film’s chronology is not linear, which highlights these themes further, and it foreshadows his later work, where technology becomes the way we buy ourselves more time. It takes a miraculous scientific invention to thwart the ticking clock, a premise that defines Interstellar and that eventually becomes central to Tenet.

In Dunkirk, Nolan overlays a personal fear of the loss of time with a historical one. The events of Dunkirk really happened—time really was running out for the men involved—and his approach is anything but subtle. As the British and Allied soldiers remain trapped on a French beach, surrounded by Germans, there is an actual ticking clock present in Hans Zimmer’s ominous score.

“I made a recording of a watch I have and I sent it to Hans and said: ‘This is seed of the musical track we’re going to need,’” Nolan said in an interview with AP in 2018. “I showed him the script and explained to him the musical principles I used to construct the narrative. I said we’re going to need to reflect that in the score not just in the Shepard tones but also in a rhythmic way so we can keep this relentless pace going and going and going, and a constant reminder to the audience that time is running out.”

In the same interview, Nolan also explains his obsession with time—specifically with manipulating it. In Dunkirk, he tells the same story in three ways: over an hour, over a day and over a week. These timelines converge in a very clever way, similarly to how the different levels of time converge at the end of Inception as a “kick” jolts the characters awake.

“I’ve tried to grab a hold of what in most films is a subtlety. It’s there but the audience isn’t particularly conscious of it. I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is because I think it’s a tool that’s unique to cinema.”

“Conventional film grammar has an unbelievably sophisticated approach to modulating an audience’s sense of time,” Nolan noted to AP. “The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab a hold of what in most films is a subtlety. It’s there but the audience isn’t particularly conscious of it. I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is because I think it’s a tool that’s unique to cinema. The idea that we can go to the same movie theater, look at the same screen for the same period of time, and we could be watching something that represents hours or we could be watching something that represents millennia, and we’re fine with that. Cinema has this amazing ability to change and manipulate people’s feelings about time while they’re watching a film.”

Of course, Nolan isn’t just interested in showcasing time or investigating how time can be presented in non-linear or unconventional ways onscreen. Manipulating time and playing with our perceptions of it is a way of reclaiming it. In Interstellar, a father and daughter are reunited through a literal bending of time, with one reaching across time and space in an act that eventually helps to save the human race. In Tenet, the characters physically invert time in order to prevent death and catastrophe. These moments of moving forwards and backwards in time, which have some real grounding in science but aren’t presently possible, allow us not only to stop the ticking clock, but to add minutes or hours or even days to what remains. Often, Nolan bends time in order to save it.

In Dunkirk, the ticking clock represents death. The circumstances are dire. But in Inception, not getting out of the dream space before the kick means becoming trapped in limbo—a level of time that is infinite rather than finite. In the film, endless time is presented as the equivalent of death, a cage from which you may never escape. But Nolan frequently creates narratives that expand or extend time, whether it’s Inception’s limbo or Interstellar forcing his characters to live out years in solitude on distant planets. And it’s clear that endless time isn’t the answer to his fear. If time isn’t running out, then it becomes meaningless and less valuable. Years trapped in space alone are worse than minutes together with your loved ones on a dying Earth. A false life in limbo can’t fulfill you the way real life, however tenuous, can.

Nolan’s movies are a reminder that while time is fleeting we shouldn’t want it to last forever. We’re scrambling for more time because it’s meaningful. For Nolan, it all boils down to whether we’re willing to accept that life is fleeting or whether we’ll go to great lengths to deny the inevitability of time itself. In an interview with WIRED about Inception in 2010, Nolan explained why the line “Do you want to take a leap of faith?” recurs throughout the dialogue.

“Without getting too wild and woolly about it, the idea is that by the end of the film people will start to realize that the situation is very much like real life,” he said. “We don’t know what comes next, we don’t know what happens to us after we die. And so the idea of the leap of faith is the leap into the unknowability of where the characters find themselves.”

In that way, Nolan’s films offer us a possibility: that the amount of time on each of our own ticking clocks is unknown, but, despite the fear, we should leap anyway.

NOLAN/TIME has been a series exploring how we’ve watched the clock in Christopher Nolan’s films. This is our last post in the series. Thank you for reading! Read our intro and the rest of our stories here.