Hell and Salvation in the Films of Christopher Nolan

In the logical, rational films of Christopher Nolan, heroes often make a mythical journey into the land of the dead, Ryan writes...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Christopher Nolan stands in front of a chalkboard, carefully scratching out a network of lines and arrows. He’s attempting to describe the complex structure of Memento, his second film, which cuts between two intertwining stories – one told in a conventional order, the other told in reverse.

“Most movies present a quite comfortable universe,” Nolan says, standing in front of his odd hairpin-shaped diagram, “where we’re given an objective truth that we don’t get in everyday life. That’s one of the reasons we go to the movies.”

For many, Memento was their first encounter with Nolan’s style of filmmaking, which seems fixated on the precise and the concrete. He favors the use of celluloid and practical, in-camera effects. Like Stanley Kubrick before him, Nolan grounds his stories in logic and rationalism. Ghosts and the afterlife don’t exist in Nolan’s movies; the point of The Prestige, his 2006 film about rival magicians, is that there is no magic – only conjuring tricks and illusion. But classical storytelling staples like heaven, hell, and purgatory run deep in all of Nolan’s work – he just finds modern, personal means of exploring them in his storytelling.

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Purgatory in The Dark Knight trilogy

A sense of the mythical runs throughout Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, from the moment Bruce Wayne tumbles into the underworld of a dried-up well in 2005’s Batman Begins to his encounter with Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan has made no secret of his ambition to emphasise Batman’s mythical roots (“Superheroes fill a gap in the pop culture psyche, similar to the role of Greek mythology,” Nolan once told The Guardian), but his allusions to Greek myth extend well beyond the character himself.

That tumble into the well at the start of Batman Begins is a key moment: Nolan makes the entrance to the cave look like a set of jaws. It’s as though the young Master Bruce has accidentally stumbled on a portal into the underworld of Greek legend. The scene is significant not just because it introduces Bruce to the bat – which will become the symbol he adopts as an adult – but also because it foreshadows the murder of his parents. If Bruce’s jaunt round his garden in the film’s opening represents his childhood innocence, the cave’s black maw could be seen as his first glimpse of death. Horrified, he recoils; it’s only later that he learns to embrace his fear and take on the Batman persona – a deathly symbol designed to inspire the same terror in his enemies.

Viewed as a modern spin on a Greek myth, Bruce Wayne is akin to  a hero like Heracles, Aeneas, or Theseus – one of a select number of mortals who’ve journeyed into the land of the dead and made it back again.

The underworld features heavily in The Dark Knight Rises, in which Batman meets his physical and intellectual match: the hulking, masked Bane. If Batman is a hero who has embraced the underworld, Bane is more akin to Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Bane makes the allusion himself when he utters the famous line:

“You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, moulded by it.”

We discover that Bane was raised in The Pit – a subterranean prison located somewhere in the ancient world. Production designer Nathan Crowley underlines the hellish nature of The Pit by presenting it is a surreal network of criss-crossing stairways which lead to nowhere. Above, cold light pours in from a circular opening clearly designed to echo the well Bruce found himself in at the start of Batman Begins.

In what appears to be an allusion to the famous “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” line from Dante’s Inferno, Bane describes the pit as a place engineered to replace hope with despair:

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“There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on Earth,” Bane tells Batman. “Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy. So simple. And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned that there can be no true despair without hope…”

Defeated by Bane in a bone-shuddering fist-fight, Batman is left abandoned in The Pit. In mythical terms, Bruce is killed and thrown into the kingdom of the dead; it’s only by taking a highly symbolic leap of faith that Bruce can resurrect himself and make his climb back to the land of the living.  

A personal hell in Memento

Heroes stuck in purgatory is a recurring theme in Nolan’s films outside the Dark Knight trilogy. In Memento, protagonist Leonard Shelby’s head injury leaves him in an eerie personal hell where he’s cut off from the normal trappings of adult life. Leonard lives alone in a hotel room, consumed by his desire to find the attacker who killed his wife and left him with permanent amnesia. Cut off in time, Leonard’s mind can only retain the memories he has of his wife’s death and life before that fateful moment; everything else fades into mist.

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At the end of the film, we discover that Leonard’s revenge mission is itself a myth; he’d found and presumably killed his attacker years before – he’d simply allowed himself to forget. With revenge being his life’s sole purpose, Leonard hunts and kills over and over again, selecting new targets as the memory of the previous one’s death slips from his memory.

“[You] set yourself a puzzle you won’t ever solve,” Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) tells Leonard. “You know how many towns, how many guys called James G? Or John G? Shit, Leonard, I’m a John G.”

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Leonard could be compared to Sisyphus, the king fated to push a boulder up a hill over and over again for eternity – except, in Leonard’s case, he’s chosen the fate for himself, believing that’s it’s better to have a boulder to push than no purpose at all.

Journeys into Hades in Insomnia, Inception and Interstellar

Nolan was effectively a director for hire on his next movie, 2002’s Insomnia. It’s a remake of the Danish thriller of the same name, yet it’s easy to see the same themes of purgatory and redemption even here. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, a cop who falsified evidence in order to put a criminal behind bars. An investigation has been ordered into his conduct, which could see his reputation torn to shreds and the criminals he’s incarcerated let free.

With that case in the back of his mind, Dormer heads to a small town in Alaska to solve the murder of a 17 year-old girl. A place of chilly air, thick fog, and permanent daylight, the town is purgatory for Dormer. Unable to sleep, racked by guilt after the accidental shooting of his partner, Dormer’s tormented by both his past and the murder case unfolding in front of him.  It’s only through finding the killer that Dormer can find his salvation – that is, the chance to finally close his eyes and find inner peace.

The hero of Inception (2010) has a similarly troubled past. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at using a piece of technology to enter the subconscious minds of his targets and steal vital information – or, on occasion, plant the seed of a new idea. Nolan presents a heist thriller of dreams within dreams, where events or sensations in one dream have a knock-on effect in the other. In a film littered with mythological allusions (Ellen Page’s character’s even called Ariadne), Nolan also places another purgatory.

Drilling too deeply into the dream realm leads characters to a place called Limbo – an expanse of “infinite subconscious.” Here, a single moment in the real world feels like decades years in Limbo; we learn that Cobb and his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) spent 50 years constructing a world together in this ethereal plane.

What follows is a twist on the Orpheus myth. The real Mal died years earlier, but a projection of her still exists in Cobb’s mind, residing in Limbo but capable of springing up elsewhere in Cobb’s dreams to disrupt his activities. Like Orpheus, who travelled into the underworld to find his dead wife Persephone, Cobb heads into Limbo to confront Mal and his own guilt over her death.

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Matthew McConnaughey’s Coop makes a similarly mythical journey in 2014’s Interstellar – though his mission here is not to save his wife, but to find a means of finding a new home for the inhabitants of a dying Earth. Coop’s voyage through space takes him to desolate planets where, in an echo of Inception, time itself is distorted;  he encounters a fellow astronaut seemingly driven insane by his own rescue. The odyssey eventually concludes with Coop entering the story’s own land of the dead – the eye of a black hole.

Coop’s bravery is ultimately rewarded; within the black hole lies humanity’s salvation – and like those heroes of Greek myth, Coop escapes from his sci-fi underworld and travels back to the land of the living.

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The stories in Christopher Nolan’s films draw from the same creative well that writers and artists have visited for centuries. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey describes the archetypes which underpin the stories from cultures all over the world: the hero who journeys from the ordinary world and crosses the threshold into new realm of trials and enemies. It’s part of our collective unconscious as a species; the framework for everything from ancient legends to modern superhero movies.

What Nolan does is find a means of moulding these myths and archetypes after his own rationalist philosophy. There are no ghosts in Nolan’s films, though Interstellar does hint at one; there are no gods to save humanity or a heaven or a hell. But time and again, Nolan’s heroes find themselves in their own purgatory, their own land of the dead. Some are doomed to remain there; through their wit, cunning and sheer force of will, a lucky few forge their own path to salvation.