From Superman to Saving Private Ryan, 10 films that influenced Christopher Nolan’s signature style

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick (M.G.M / Album / Alamy Stock Photo)
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick (M.G.M / Album / Alamy Stock Photo)

Oppenheimer won big at the BAFTAs last night, but it was far from a surprise: Christopher Nolan’s latest film, a biopic about the man dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb”, has already won over 260 awards, and is currently in the running for 13 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

Described as Nolan’s most ambitious film yet – astonishing given that his directorial credits include Inception, Interstellar and Tenet – Oppenheimer sees Cillian Murphy transform into J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who led the team that developed the world’s first nuclear weapons.

The film, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus, was described by the Standard as a “dark, immersive epic” and Nolan’s “most profoundly pessimistic work yet”.

So what really characterises a Nolan movie? Some feature a soft, somewhat washed out colour palette. They’re often accompanied by a sonic slap in the face from an intense soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson and Hans Zimmer. Plus Nolan is one for super-complex, non-linear storylines, that try to visualise abstract concepts such as memory, time and the subconscious.

Although Nolan’s style is entirely his own, he’s always been open about his biggest influences and the movies that informed his career. From sci-fi classics to franchise favourites, these are some of the films that have inspired the celebrated British director.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

There’d be no Nolan, as we know him, without Stanley Kubrick. Nolan has described 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his formative cinema experiences, travelling to see the film in Leicester Square with his family at the age of just seven. And it shows: the similarities between the 2001 film and 2014's Interstellar are absolutely apparent.

Both are stuffed with striking and awe-inspiring imagery, often heightened against the stark background of the Milky Way. Both explore fatherhood in space, and both feature protagonists crossing barriers of time, travelling decades in a matter of moments.

Still, the influence goes deeper. For all the complexity of Nolan’s directing style, he’s drawn to simple truths, much like the directing style of his hero Kubrick.

"There’s nothing frenetic about it. It’s very simple,” Nolan told Entertainment Weekly (via IGN), explaining Kubrick’s approach. "There’s a trust in simple storytelling and simple image making that actually takes massive confidence to try and emulate."

The Right Stuff (1983)

Another sci-fi epic which greatly influenced Nolan's cinematic trip to space in Interstellar was Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. The film paints a more authentic picture of space travel than most glossy Hollywood examples, with the four-hour film focusing on the gruelling selection of the US's first astronauts, also known as the Mercury Seven.

“You can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar, but the other film I’d have to point to is The Right Stuff,” Nolan told IGN. “I screened a print of it for the crew before we started, because that’s a film that not enough people have seen on the big screen. It’s an almost perfectly made film.”

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s visceral film changed the game for war movies when it arrived in 1998. The first ten minutes are some of the most unforgettable action scenes ever put to screen, following US forces arriving on Omaha Beach during the Normandy landings. It had such an impact on Nolan that he reached out to Spielberg personally when preparing to direct Dunkirk and it became a touchstone for the movie itself – and one he wanted to avoid copying.

“The film has lost none of its power,” Nolan told Variety about Saving Private Ryan. “It’s a truly horrific opening, and there are later sequences that are horrible to sit through. We didn’t want to compete with that because it is such an achievement.”

The Thin Red Line (1998)

On a technical level, there are few films that have inspired Nolan quite like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.

The film conveys the intense heat, the sweat and the dirt of the Pacific War and makes for a moving watch, but it was the editing of the film and the way the movie was cut in post production that had the greatest influence on Nolan. The blurring of the narrative lines, which shift from linear to non-linear and convey human memory in inventive ways, directly impacted Nolan’s approach to his breakthrough movie Memento.

“I also see a lot of attempts to do what I saw Terrence Malick doing, in terms of the portrayal of mental states and memory,” Nolan told Movieline. “If you watch The Thin Red Line, that was a revelation to me. [Malick is] cutting to memories and flashbacks with simple cuts; there are no wavy lines or dissolves. There are moments [in Memento] where Guy’s character is remembering his wife that were taken very much from that film.”

Superman (1978)

Nolan has always grounded his films firmly in reality, adding superhero elements and ambitious sci-fi notions in otherwise believable settings. This mix of the real and the surreal is something which can be traced back to his early fascinations with the Superman movies.

Nolan has said that as a young man, he was taken with the way that the world around Superman stayed so grounded, even while the superhero was flying around the world and saving earth from the brink of destruction. It was the realism of these surroundings that had the biggest impact on the budding filmmaker, with Nolan finding the contrast between the fantastical and the everyday so appealing.

“It’s about trying to find the translation and credibility in the events and fantastical nature of what is going on,” Nolan said to IndieWire, talking about his appreciation for the film. The influence is perfectly shown in scenes from Inception, where regular streets are quite literally turned upside down during mind-bending dream sequences.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Nolan is a director who lives and breathes his art form, holding an interest at every level of the process, right down to incredibly specific elements of production – just take the revelation about his on-set chair ban.

One of the films which has influenced this approach is Lawrence of Arabia. The director previously explained how the film still continues to influence his decision to shoot his movies using celluloid rather than digital cameras, as it picks out elements on screen that could otherwise go unmissed.

Speaking about his love of celluloid during a talk at the 2015 London Film Festival, he said Lawrence of Arabia shows “the very subtle shadow detail and the particular tonality of skies” in the original when compared to the remastered digital version. “Here you can see them on the camel as they first come out of the desert far sooner than you can on Blu-ray,” Nolan said.

It’s a very precise, niche detail, but the kind that has fascinated Nolan throughout his career. It showcases his appreciation for the technical side of movies and his deep-held fondness for the mechanics of filmmaking.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock – and his celebrated films – were a touchstone for some of Nolan’s later works. Nolan previously explained how one set-piece from Hithcock’s 1940 espionage thriller Foreign Correspondent directly influenced his 2017 war movie Dunkirk.

Speaking to the BFI, Nolan said: “No examination of cinematic suspense and visual storytelling would be complete without Hitchcock, and his technical virtuosity in Foreign Correspondent's portrayal of the downing of a plane at sea provided inspiration for much of what we attempted in Dunkirk."

Star Wars (1977)

Like so many people of his generation, Star Wars had a huge impact on Nolan as a child. It influenced his very earliest experimentation with the art form, informing his creative decisions when first picking up a camera as a child. It also seems to be the film, along with 2001, that first ignited his love of space and sci-fi cinema.

“[Star Wars] came out in the Seventies and I’d been experimenting using Super 8 films and stuff,” Nolan told Business Insider. “And then from the second I saw Star Wars everything was spaceships and science-fiction.”

His fandom persists, telling the Daily Beast in 2014 that he “lives and dies with each new bit of information about Star Wars.”

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Nolan has been vocal about his love of the Bond films for many years. At various times he’s said that The Spy Who Loved Me and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were his favourites in the film franchise, and the director claims that the films gave him a greater understanding of creating a thrilling spectacle, which he then used when making films like Inception and the Batman trilogy.

“The Bond influence on the film was very intentional because, for me, growing up with the Bond films — they’ve always stood for grand-scale action,” he told the BBC, citing its direct influence on the dynamic set-pieces in Inception.

Blade Runner (1982)

Nolan is Hollywood’s go-to-guy for high-concept sci-fi in 2020, but in the early Eighties it was Alien and Blade Runner-director Ridley Scott who was considered one of the finest cinematic world-builders around. Nolan has recognised Scott's influence on his work publicly, and stressed his status as one of the most important figures in sci-fi cinema.

The most important thing he claimed to have taken away from Scott’s work was his ingenious use of miniatures and physical effects. Scott had used them to create the epic, futuristic cityscapes of Blade Runner in the years before hyper-realistic CGI, an approach Nolan also pursued in order to give his film a more grounded feel.

“Blade Runner is actually one of the most successful films of all time in terms of constructing that reality using sets,” he told Forbes. “On Batman Begins, unlike The Dark Knight, we found ourselves having to build the streets of Gotham in large part. So I immediately gravitated towards the visual treatment that Ridley Scott had come up with, in terms of how you shoot these massive sets to make them feel real and not like impressive sets.”