Remember the last time you watched a Christopher Nolan movie and didn’t immediately feel the urge to go on the internet and google everything from the story’s twist to what-in-the-Nolan happened to the characters at the end? Well, we can’t either, which is why we’ve decided to rank the director’s films in order of complexity.
It’s not that the acclaimed British filmmaker actually sets out to confuse his audience, but his work more often than not ends up involving intricate scientific and philosophical topics that you don’t necessarily find in other movies, even if they happen to be in the speculative fiction spectrum. Visualizing mathematical concepts, playing around with the physics of time and space, and exploring the psychological effects of existentialism on the human brain are only a few Nolan staples, and whether he’s making a film about the cruelly apathetic nature of deep space or delving into the brain of one of the most infamous inventors in human history, you can be sure that some of those tropes will find their way into the script.
Here’s a list of every Christopher Nolan movie ever released, ordered from his least confusing thriller drama to his most confounding sci-fi masterpiece.
10. Oppenheimer (2023)
While we still have a few days until Oppenheimer opens in theaters, we can expect the biopic to be the most straightforward Nolan film in terms of plot and narrative building blocks. Sure, it might still include a lot of scientific jargon in the service of breaking down the invention of the atomic bomb, but unlike most of Nolan’s portfolio, Oppenheimer is going to focus on the ethical nature of its titular character’s work on the Manhattan Project. At most, it will be a psychological study of J. Robert Oppenheimer and not of the kind that gets into the surreal or hallucinatory realm, as Oppenheimer was always sound of mind, even after the tragic destruction wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
9. The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)
The Dark Knight trilogy doesn’t have a simple narrative, but it’s still quite easy to understand and follow despite Nolan’s peculiar inclination to make everything needlessly complex. 2005’s Batman Begins is the perfect Bruce Wayne origins story, while 2008’s The Dark Knight is a direct study of your typical good vs. evil mythos. The Dark Knight Rises capped everything off with a brilliant flourish, bringing this hero’s journey to a satisfying conclusion.
Arguably the most confusing dialogue you could come across in those movies is whenever Heath Ledger’s Joker gets a chance to monologue and rants about something like “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Yes, Nolan simply can’t help himself, even when he’s making a blockbuster superhero flick.
8. Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia is among Christopher Nolan’s best films, and not without reason. Starring Al Pacino in a psychological thriller that asks profound questions about morality, responsibility, guilt, and conscience, Insomnia takes you on a journey that might not be comfortable to experience through and through, but you won’t find yourself regretting the fact that you spent two hours on it. In terms of complexity, Insomnia doesn’t feature a whole lot of the quirks Nolan has come to be known for, which is why we’re putting it on the eighth spot on this list.
7. Dunkirk (2017)
I know what you’re thinking. Why on Earth would I put Dunkirk lower than The Dark Knight or Insomnia? Well, even though the 2017 historical war film didn’t have much in the way of a plot, it was still a little confusing to sit through. Dunkirk is arguably one of the best war films in history, but when you go back to it a second time. The first time, you’re going to be confused by the lack of any dialogue or explanation as the movie constantly shifts POVs across the English Channel. And don’t even get me started on those aerial dogfights featuring Tom Hardy’s character. Nolan certainly doesn’t make it easy on himself or us, does he?
6. Following (1998)
The movie that started it all, Following takes place in London and centers around a character named the young man, who is a struggling writer. The young man decides to follow people around the city in the hope of finding his muse, but what he finds instead in the form of his burglar pal Cobb thrusts him into a world that tests the limits of his psychological understanding of other human beings. Do you know how Inception uses the twist of a dream inside a dream inside a dream to keep the narrative moving? Well, Following basically does the same, except the factor in question is not the world of dreams, but conniving hustlers.
5. The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige marks the project where Nolan properly embraced his geeky creative voice and went all out in terms of intricate plot devices. This 2006 classic starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the rivalry of ages sets the perfect pace and ends with one of the most brilliant plot twists in the history of cinema. And it’s also the first movie wherein Nolan purposefully plants a lot of red herrings to keep the conversation going even after you’re done with the film itself. Even now, people continue to speculate about The Prestige and come up with interesting fan theories to explain away some of the movie’s mysteries.
4. Memento (2000)
Memento is one of the strangest movies in Nolan’s portfolio. What he attempts in this movie from a narrative perspective is something we’d yet to see attempted in any other flick, at least on such an ambitious scale. Memento basically features two intersecting points-of-view, what Nolan refers to as a “non-linear narrative.” On the one side, you’re seeing the events play out in chronological order, but most of the film is telling the story in reverse, and the two points finally coincide at the end and completely blow your mind.
If you were confused after Memento, then don’t worry; that’s a feeling you share with most people who’ve watched this movie. And much like any other Nolan film, you can definitely wrap your head around the plot if you think about the story hard enough, or rewatch it a few more times. What can we say – the man just loves to hoodwink us.
3. Interstellar (2014)
I don’t think Nolan would actually agree that his 2014 sci-fi drama Interstellar was difficult to understand. Sure, the movie mostly takes place in outer space and adheres to the laws of physics, but at its heart, Interstellar is about love of a father for his children. So, if you can look past all the different cosmological phenomena like worm holes, the space-time continuum, black holes, five-dimensional beings, and gravity warps that stretch time for decades, you begin to see that Interstellar isn’t simply trying to bedazzle you with its intellectual prowess.
Then again, if you’re unfamiliar with such concepts, it might be a bit difficult to wrap your head around a few key plot points in the film. Unless you decide that it’s all generic sci-fi hogwash, in which case you might be able to enjoy Interstellar as Nolan intended it.
2. Inception (2010)
Where do you even begin to discuss Inception and the brilliant interplay of script and screen it brings to the fore? Nolan would refer to this 2010 masterpiece as a dream-heist, but Inception is so much bigger than the sum of its parts, and equally as incomprehensible. The director spent a decade refining the script, so imagine all the thought that must have gone into making Inception such a mind-blowing spectacle. A novel we’d understand, but 10 years on a 100-page movie script?
Inception is about dreams, the subconscious mind, free will, our very perception of reality, and why it’s possible that your very sense of the present might be nothing but an illusion. It’s also a film that gives you something new to think about every time you watch it, and some fans have dove so deep into the story that they still think Nolan’s camera is the biggest unreliable narrator in that movie, and that whatever Cobb is experiencing is nothing but another dream. Now, where did I put that spinning top?
1. Tenet (2020)
In Tenet, Nolan truly outdoes himself and goes for a plot that’s a little too difficult to comprehend, perhaps even for himself. You simply can’t keep up with Tenet and all the crazy elements it throws at you in every step. Time moving backward? People fighting in corridors where time moves differently for each of them? Characters literally travelling in time and planting seeds for their own creation? No, you simply can’t understand Tenet. I mean, you could, but that doesn’t justify the needlessly complex narrative structure that doesn’t do anything compelling with its characters. Even the director recognizes the folly of this, hilariously telling you in the movie that you “shouldn’t try to understand it” but “feel it” instead.
In a lot of ways, Tenet is the weakest script Nolan has ever produced, so we’re hoping that its overly complicated narrative structure turns into a lesson for any future ventures in the realm of sci-fi that the director attempts after Oppenheimer. Because you know as well as we do that another Nolan brain-fryer is all but inevitable.