The Lengths of Nolan

Some friends and I went to see Inception this afternoon because we had some time to kill and we were all curious about it. For a summer blockbuster, it's not bad at all.


Of course, you knew there would be a "but". For a summer blockbuster, it's not bad at all, is the faintest of praise. It's not like the competition is exactly a pantheon of cinematic glory.

My feelings about the film are similar to those of Dennis Cozzalio, who wrote a long, thoughtful post that relieves those of us who agree with him from having to say a whole lot more. He says, "It’s not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie," and that sums it up well for me. I didn't strain as much to keep up with the background and plot as he did, but I suspect that's just because I'm very familiar with science fiction exposition. (I think Abigail Nussbaum also has a lot of insight into the movie, particularly from the SF angle.) The puzzle aspects of the film are fun, and they keep our brains engaged while watching, which is more than can be said for most summer blockbusters.


It's awfully long. That was the biggest impression the movie made on me. It wasn't as annoying to me as The Dark Knight, a film I thought so extraordinarily bad in many ways that I just couldn't get much pleasure at all out of watching it the first time (it's actually an interesting film to re-watch, I think, once you no longer expect it to be particularly good on the whole, because there are some moments of magic, and the ways that it's bad are, at least to me, interesting). Inception is entertaining. But it's awfully long.

I recently watched Christopher Nolan's first feature, Following. It's clever and enjoyable in that utterly-contrived-puzzle way that is Nolan's forte. It's also 69 minutes long. Just about the right length for its content. I haven't seen Memento for a while, but I remember it feeling more or less economic in its narrative -- or, at least, I don't remember it lasting for forty days and forty nights like The Dark Knight.

That got me wondering...

I looked up the running times of all his feature films on IMDB, and made a chart:

Interestingly, The Prestige is the only film with a significant move downward in length. Further, it's the one Nolan film I hold in really high regard -- it is, indeed, easily one of my favorite films of the past decade. (Some of the reasons are purely personal rather than aesthetic or rational ones -- I've a fondness for stories about stage magicians and for novels by Christopher Priest, and as adaptations of novels go, I agree with Priest that it's an excellent one.)

For those of us who prefer Nolan's less ... prodigious ... work, there is hope: Inception is four minutes shorter than The Dark Knight, so perhaps his future movies will reverse the trend toward epic length and give us a few more films of the quality of The Prestige.  With luck, Nolan will not prove such hopes to be less real than dreams.


  1. Length correlates with budget here and it is a more general point that summer blockbusters have increasingly stretched to tortuous lengths. I agree that it would be healthy for Nolan to make a film for the budget of The Prestige (about a quarter of The Dark Knight) but presumably he is about to plunge straight into Batman 3

  2. Hi Matt. I recently discovered your blog & love what I've read so far. It's proving quite the task to catch up (at this rate I never will) but it's well worth it.

    Anyway, your length-focused criticism of Inception is one that I've seen applied increasingly more often in the past few years in respect to films in general. Perhaps it's just the venue of analysis your blog provides, but this is the first time I've given the issue much thought, & my stance, for now, is that using length itself as a focal point for criticism is beating a straw dog. After all, 2001: A Space Odyssey & The Godfather are also very long films, but I've never once heard complaints about that regarding the latter, while every person I've spoken to who did not enjoy the former indicated length as the primary reason for their dissatisfaction: my point being, I think additional factors are responsible for a film feeling too long. It actually has very little to do with the run-time itself (though of course a 90 minute film will always feel shorter than a 120+ minute one).

    I think the blog post by Dennis Cozzalio you mentioned (thanks for that) contains a better idea of what lies beneath the oppressiveness of the run-time: while far from the only factors, both pacing & tone contribute a great deal to how long a feature feels, as well as how “comfortable” one finds the length. I don’t have the link, but I recall a blog post from back when The Dark Knight came out; its premise was that the frenetic & relentless pace of TDK (as well as its uniformly dour tone) accounted for the length criticism, & that - ironically - extending some shots, lingering on scenes, would have made it feel shorter even if doing so would actually prolong the experience.

    For my part, Inception didn’t feel long to me. I think I tend to have more patience than others regarding movie length (I consider 2001 the best film ever made, long or not), but I can still understand where people are coming from. Editing is probably the greatest lost art in film for the better part of the past two decades, perhaps longer, & I think most directors don’t understand how to correctly pace films anymore in respect to their content. It’s a bit baffling. Nolan, in my book at least, covered his ass by having Inception’s form mirror its content: the labyrinthine nature of the narrative structure ties in to the desired architecture of the dreams, & the film seeming too long resembles how more time passes in dreams than in reality. Still, there are plenty of other criticisms to weigh it down, namely how thin most of the characters were. On a side note, I think Cillian Murphy & Marion Cotillard’s work saved this film from being a complete let down.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen, for the great comments -- you're absolutely right about length and budget, Martin. There are lots of reasons, I think, for what feels (I haven't crunched any data) like a general move toward longer films, and I've certainly nothing against length per se (I much prefer the longer version of The New World, for instance). It's a purely subjective sense of what feels justified for the story, and I certainly know various viewers respond in different ways -- most of the audience I saw the short version of New World with seemed to hate it and think it was way too long, and plenty of folks I know thought Inception and The Dark Knight flew by. I filled the post with personal qualifiers because I know there are lots of viewers who feel exactly the opposite of me. I just thought the trend was worth noting.

    Ryan's mostly right, I think, that length is an ancillary element of our evaluation of any film. I don't entirely agree that a 90 minute film will always feel shorter than a 120 minute film. While that's certainly mostly true, something like Tarkovsky's My Name is Ivan at 95 minutes probably feels longer to most viewers than Casino Royale at 144 minutes. The first time I saw Public Enemies (140 mins), I was sure Michael Mann had made his shortest movie in ages, and was stunned to find out what time it was when I left the theatre!

    My sense of Dark Knight feeling eternal was more from getting more and more angry at the story, cinematography, and editing choices as it went along than from its pace, really. The length just meant my frustrations with the film were going on and on and on...

    I'm totally with you, Ryan, on Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard. I loved them both, and have loved them in everything I've seen them in -- I was just telling somebody today that he should see Breakfast on Pluto and The Wind that Shakes the Barley to see some more wonderful work by Murphy. I've seen some criticism of Cotillard for her role in Inception, and I don't at all agree with it, but I also thought she was fabulous in Public Enemies, and even some defenders of that film hated her. There's something about her performances in English that seems to really bother some people. I actually thought all the performances in Inception were good -- my frustrations with Nolan are generally not about his actors (though I agree with Jim Emerson that he didn't seem to know what to do with the goldmine that was Heath Ledger's performance). I thought DiCaprio gave one of his best performances in Inception, oddly enough -- it's somewhat similar, as many people have said, to his work in Shutter Island, but I didn't particularly care for him there (I was indifferent to the movie, but have resigned myself to the fact that I am indifferent to Scorcese's films in general). In Inception, he's especially good in silent moments -- he's really learned to use his eyes to convey entire worlds of emotion and possibility. I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt in anything, and Tom Hardy is, I expect, likely to be seen as one of the great actors of our time, if he can keep getting good roles (he has brief moments of wonder in Inception, but to really see what he can do, we have to look at something like Bronson).

  4. I myself have noted a trend toward longer comments on the that sometimes it feels that they extend beyond the length of the original post. But that may be due simply to their differing appearance, which is to say a decrease in the horizontal but an increase in the vertical. I have considered copying the posts and the resulting comments into Word so that I can do an accurate word/letter count, but I will leave that for the true blog aficionados. Now it is on to see what Hal Duncan has to say!

  5. Your attempt at cleverness is noted, Ralph. Now I'll just wait for you to pay me $150 million for my latest blog posts.


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