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All of Christopher Nolan’s movies are about exploring what scares him most

From Memento to the Dark Knight movies to the new Oppenheimer, one running theme links his stories

J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) slumps against a boulder outdoors, looking shaken, while his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) grabs him by the lapels of his jacket and leans close to tell him to get himself together in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

In 2018, an interview with Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan went viral — possibly because it was the first time he’d ever appeared relatable. In that conversation, he said his children sometimes jokingly call him Reynolds Woodcock, after the aloof, reserved protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Though Nolan’s scripts often feature signature, repeated (and often mocked) tropes, including time manipulation, dead spouses, and protagonists who face complex moral decisions, he injects very little of his own personality into his movies. Characters like Leonardo DiCaprio’s troubled team leader in Inception and Robert Pattinson’s equally troubled handler in Tenet are clearly styled after Nolan himself. But viewers rarely come away from Nolan movies with a greater understanding of his worldview, at least compared to the way directors like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino put their personalities on screen in every movie they make.

One underappreciated idea does recur over and over in Nolan’s work, though, and it surfaces again in Oppenheimer. The protagonists of many Nolan films become obsessed with a specific fear and go to great lengths to better understand or control their terror. In Nolan’s first blockbuster, Batman Begins, gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) tells Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), “You always fear what you don’t understand.” The quote acts as something of a guiding light not just for Bruce, but for Nolan’s back shelf of protagonists who seek a deeper knowledge of their phobias for the sake of control. In Oppenheimer, Nolan imprints this narrative device on a historical figure for the first time, and it feels like he’s being more open than ever about revealing what keeps him up at night.

Cillian Murphy holds his hand over his eye as he contemplates horrors in Oppenheimer. Image: Universal Pictures

There is no evidence that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, struggled with frightening visions of high-energy subatomic particles. This doesn’t come through in any documents about Oppenheimer the man, and Nolan seems to have added the idea to dramatize the film, as Oppenheimer periodically pauses to register and recoil from flashes of light, particles, and fire, all representing wordless fears he can’t explain. Though the movie’s dialogue never explicitly references these mysterious events, Nolan’s evocative imagery asks the audience to fill in the gaps themselves — are we seeing what’s in his mind, his future, or something else entirely?

Nolan’s Oppenheimer presents as an awkward, unsociable student with something off about him. It isn’t hard to imagine that he’s troubled by something. And what does this frightful student do? He dives deep into particle physics, devoting his life to understanding and attempting to control his fear — until it reaches critical mass.

The origin story in Batman Begins is the clearest example of this phenomenon: Batman’s vigilante persona was inspired by a traumatic childhood experience with bats. That plot point hews closely to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic 1987 comic arc Batman: Year One, but the film dives far deeper into Bruce’s fervent need to understand and control his terror. In a number of sequences featuring fear gas used by the movie’s villain, Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy, who also plays Nolan’s Oppenheimer), the filmmaker dips his toes into horror-inflected imagery. The Gothic architecture of Gotham combines with nightmarish sequences where villains see the superhero as a demonic monster, literalizing the metaphor of Bruce becoming his fear.

Batman (Christian Bale) strides through a yellowish hallway, surrounded by a flock of blurred, fast-moving bats in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins Image: Warner Bros.

Following Batman Begins, Nolan’s Batman movies continue to dwell on this theme. Nolan assaults his protagonist with a series of villains who take on the shape of new nightmares. It’s as if he’s trying to teach Batman how to overcome the things he most dreads.

In addition to Bruce Wayne, the two protagonists Oppenheimer most resembles in this way are Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb in Inception and Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby in Memento. The latter, Nolan’s mainstream breakthrough, focuses on a man with short-term memory loss who is so afraid of forgetting his purpose that he has it tattooed on his body. A significant portion of Inception takes place within Cobb’s dreams, which, through a very thinly veiled metaphor, are haunted by his wife Mal, played by Marion Cotillard. Guilt-ridden by the circumstances of her death, he subconsciously creates a murderous avatar in the shape of the shame he’s too afraid to face. He wrestles for control within his memory, attempting to hide her in a symbolic (and literal) basement in his mind. It doesn’t exactly work out.

Throughout Oppenheimer’s three-hour run time, Cillian Murphy’s protagonist struggles with existential horrors that are much larger than his personal regrets. In addition to the frightening visual bursts of atomic space, the film focuses most of its second-act tensions on the threat that the first atomic bomb test might ignite the hydrogen in Earth’s atmosphere. In real life, that threat was discussed and dismissed by the physicists at Los Alamos. But Nolan lingers on it, sending Oppenheimer to get the opinion of Albert Einstein, who acts as a sort of patron saint of science in the film. But Einstein provides no comforting answers, which ratchets up the tension and fear felt by characters and audience alike.

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) sits shirtless in front of a curtained window in a hotel room, covered in reminder tattoos and with some paperwork in front of him in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Photo: Sony Pictures

The threat of humans bringing about their own extinction is no new ground for Nolan’s films. And that may answer why, exactly, he’s so obsessed with fear and the war for control. In Interstellar, climate change devastates crops with a futuristic, dystopian blight. In his 2020 movie Tenet, an unseen society in the future attempts to reverse the flow of time to stop climate change before it gets out of hand. Between those two movies lies the World War II film Dunkirk, about the struggle for survival against a faceless threat. Though the Nazi presence implicitly hangs over the movie, Dunkirk doesn’t linger on a potential apocalypse in quite the same way as other Nolan movies. But the pervasive dread remains.

The fearsome final minutes of Oppenheimer drive this point home, as Nolan gives his protagonist a vision of a future devastated by nuclear apocalypse. His visions of dancing particles and flames give way to a clear, unambiguous doomsday — an uncountable number of rockets fire from an unknown country, streaking across the globe and detonating. Fire consumes everything.

Nolan’s devotion to the theme of people wrestling with their fears ties him to his protagonists, and his more recent focus specifically on humanity causing its own doom ramps that fear up to a universal level. It’s a heavy, existential worry, but it’s an illuminating glimpse into the mind of an artist who rarely lets the audience in. In his films, when a character obsesses about a topic, it typically means that’s the fear that keeps them up at night and drives them toward obsession as a means of control. Both Nolan and his iteration of J. Robert Oppenheimer are exposing their fears that humanity has the power to devastate life on Earth. And as climate change and political tensions simultaneously rise across the planet, it’s hard to blame him.

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