The experience of seeing a Christopher Nolan movie in theaters is hard to forget, thanks to the filmmaker’s expert knowledge of shooting on IMAX film and capturing stories that match the spectacle of the 1.90:1 aspect ratio. Nolan’s early marketing negotiations for Oppenheimer (2023) included a gracious 100-day theater-exclusive release with Universal Pictures that resists their once-common same-day premieres on HBO Max.
This is because Nolan has always believed in the cinematic experience, and his twelfth film about the man who created the atomic bomb is no exception. Not only is it going to be his first movie that breaches the three-hour mark, but it will also include the first black-and-white film footage ever to be shot with IMAX cameras— which allows you to shoot with the largest aspect ratio in current cinema history, with a hefty $500,000 price tag to match. With a full-frame sensor and a high-resolution capacity, the director can fill the frame with incredible detail and composition, so it’s always been a go-to for Nolan, even when the technology was still in its infancy.
In 2008, Nolan used all four of the IMAX cameras that existed to shoot his sequel to the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008). This film became instantly famous for its sweeping cinematography and landmark performances by icons like Heath Ledger. Still, it also included 28 minutes of IMAX footage, a historical advancement in the evolution of cinematic technology. No one had seen footage that large before, and it set a precedent for war and action films in terms of storytelling potential.
Fast forward 15 years later, Nolan has amassed tremendous experience shooting in such a large format while giving his characters space to shine and grow. He has rarely let it become a distraction from the story (as some of us might have found in his worst-grossing film, Tenet, 2020), and now it has set him up to present the story of one of the most potent scientists to have ever lived: J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer (2023) is Nolan’s first biopic, based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t include his trademark complexity regarding the plotlines, the representation of time, or even color itself. Nolan has revealed in interviews that all the black-and-white footage in the film will be what transpired in Oppenheimer’s life, while the colored scenes will be more interpretational. As he revealed to Total Film. . .
“I wrote the script in the first person, which I’d never done before. I don’t know if anyone has ever done that, or if that’s a thing people do or not… The film is objective and subjective. The color scenes are subjective; the black-and-white scenes are objective. I wrote the color scenes from the first person. So for an actor reading that, in some ways, I think it’d be quite daunting.”
-Christopher Nolan for Total Film
There is quite a bit to unpack from this quote, both from a story-based perspective and a cinematography standpoint. However, it first reminds me of the experimental techniques used in the movie Memento (2000), which was only Nolan’s second feature and was released more than twenty years ago. In that film, two plotlines ran parallel, except one was running forward in the protagonist’s memories, and the other was running backward. Nolan knew he needed to distinguish what memories were running in what order, so he shot the future scenes in black and white and the past sets in color. If this all sounds confusing, Nolan intended it to be that way for the sake of the character, who’s trying to retrace his steps throughout the movie and struggles to see what is truth and fiction. Linked below is a video of Nolan explaining the method behind the madness.
If Nolan were to possess a golden ticket for storytelling, I think it would be to establish character sympathy by creating that same experience for the audience. It sounds rudimentary enough, but Nolan executes it to a level that not many of us can catch at first viewing. For example, his sci-fi epic Interstellar (2014) is shot from the perspective of a farmer who knows just as much about parallel universes as we do, so his discovery of another lifeform is our discovery. This also happens in Inception (2010) when we discover Mal’s viral infection in Cobb’s mind only when he comes upon that realization himself. It’s a classic storytelling technique that Nolan has grown to refine in the genres of sci-fi and dystopian drama, where often there is more focus on building the world than evoking character pathos. (However, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) may be a rare exception that managed to master both techniques with a morsel of today’s technology.)
So, after recognizing this trend, it appears evident that Nolan would write a script about Robert Oppenheimer in the first person—not only because it’s based on a biography, but because Nolan doesn’t like telling the story of one person. He wants to make a character out of each of us, whereby feeling the same pain and asking the same questions, we walk out of the theater wanting to ask, “Did that just happen to me or in front of me? Did we discover what it feels like to dream jump? Or communicate with a higher life form in a fourth dimension?”
Walking out of the theater on July 21st, I think we’ll all be asking a similar question. “Is that what it feels like to have the fate of humanity in our hands? And what do I do with the power I have over others?”
More than fancy cameras and mind-boggling plotlines, this is what I think Nolan captures best—the restless conflict within us all to pursue our deepest desires, whether it comes at the cost of humanity or our own valued sanity.
“You either die the hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
–The Dark Knight (2008)