A common complaint about Christopher Nolan’s films (often heard in critical circles) is that they are unemotional puzzle boxes—despite dazzling the senses and bewildering the mind, there is no deeper significance or interest to their hyper-intellectualized set-pieces. Put differently, they’re like $200 million Sudoku puzzles: engaging distractions, but distractions nonetheless.
I think this perspective overlooks something crucial about Nolan’s films. Yes, they are grounded in an often-bewildering array of rules that require immense amounts of exposition to explain, exposition that often takes precedent over developing characters and relationships that would normally take center stage in even a blockbuster film. But the centrality of these rules is absolutely essential to Nolan’s films, for they define the bounds his characters are struggling to break free from.