Don't solve Christopher Nolan movies — feel them

Director Christopher Nolan's Tenet is another mindbender of a movie, and it's sparked another wave of attempts to dissect and explain every detail of Nolan's plots.

That's a mistake. Nolan movies are better watched with your brain turned off. I don't mean like when you're watching Furious 8. I mean that if you try to approach a Nolan movie like an elaborate riddle to be solved, you'll strip it of its true power.

Yes, at first glance many of Nolan's movies appear to be ornate puzzle boxes, confounding you with their many knobs and levers and false bottoms, intended to be tweaked and prodded until it reveals the secret inside.

Yet that way leads to exhausting CinemaSins-style nitpickery, where you tut-tut about how the Joker smuggled the bombs into the hospital or whine about how we didn't see Batman sneak back into a Bane-held Gotham.

But Nolan's movies shouldn't be understood as puzzles. They're something closer to operas or ballets. They're symphonies of heightened emotion.

So the Dark Knight trilogy excels at capturing the feeling of anguished helplessness when confronted by fear, terrorism or chaos. Dunkirk lets you feel the claustrophobia and incoherence of war inside your gut. Interstellar only uses its sci-fi wormhole technobabble to access the anguish of loss and grief tied to being separated from the ones we love.

Hell, the message of several of Nolan's movies centers on the danger of being obsessed with answers.

The man with the 15-minute memory in Memento tries to solve his wife's murder only to trick himself into more atrocities. The magicians in the Prestige kill themselves over and over again — literally in one case due to their obsession with cracking each other's signature magic trick. In Inception, Marion Cotillard's character leaps to her death because she believes she's decoded the truth — that she's still in a dream.

By contrast, the final shot ends with a top spinning: If it keeps spinning, Leonardo DeCaprio's Dom Cobb taught us earlier, he's still stuck in a dream. If it falls, it's real life.

And of course, this triggered a deluge of YouTube essays purporting to decode that final riddle, analyzing the frame-by-frame wobble of the top to declare whether it's actually a dream. But the riddle isn't the point. The point is that the riddle is not the point. Setting aside the mystery and embracing the things that really matter is.

I haven't seen Tenet. But if I do, I'm not going to try to solve the magic tricks. I'm just going to let the top spin. ♦

Chris Otten: Wounded Deer @ Terrain Gallery

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...