Monday, April 15, 2024

What’s Next For Christopher Nolan Following The Oscar Success Of “Oppenheimer?”

With the 2023 Oscar season over, everyone is already looking ahead to 2024. However, others may be looking further ahead to 2025 or 2026 since that’s likely when “Oppenheimer” Oscar winner Christopher Nolan will have his next film ready. Yet whether that film is another “Oppenheimer” or not, one must wonder what more Nolan could have up his sleeve, now that he finally has his Best Director Oscar, a Best Picture winner and a near-billion dollar film without a Batman in it.

With officially nothing left to prove or win, what could possibly be left for Nolan to accomplish or pull off now? Though there are rumors he’s already writing his next film, it’s certainly too early to guess what it could be about. But if we can speculate way too early about what next year’s Oscars will be, with barely any evidence to go on, we can speculate about what Nolan will do next, too—and what might still be left on his bucket list, if anything.

There is actually a very telling pattern in Nolan’s films that should give us a solid clue. Ever since “The Dark Knight” in 2008, he has gone back and forth without fail between movies that are entirely original ideas of his own and ones based on IP or true stories. He followed “The Dark Knight” with his own brainchild in “Inception,” then went back to Batman with “The Dark Knight Rises,” returned to non-IP based storytelling in “Interstellar,” adapted his first WWII true story in “Dunkirk,” dreamt up “Tenet” after that, then went back to another true WWII story in “Oppenheimer.” If Nolan continues on this pattern, his next movie will be an entirely original story. And since “Oppenheimer” most likely gave him a bigger blank check than usual, he will likely feel free to come up with the most out there, brain-puzzling premise he can think of since Universal or some other studio will surely back him all the way. No matter what.

Oppenheimer” was technically Nolan at his most restrained in that context—if a non-linear, half-black-and-white story with his first sex scenes and first R-rating in 20 years is restrained by his standards. Now that he’s been rewarded for staying somewhat inside the lines of an epic biopic, he may be anxious to get back into “Tenet” or “Interstellar” mode and make up a universe/solar system-shattering story all his own again. However, the last time Nolan did that, “Tenet” was perhaps his lowest-rated and least well-received movie since he broke into the A-list. Between that, insisting on “Tenet’s” theatrical release at the height of the pandemic, and the start of his breakup with Warner Bros, it was the lowest point in Nolan’s career – until “Oppenheimer” erased it and then some. But now that his resurgence and the end of the pandemic have gotten “Tenet” reappraised in some circles, right down to a one-week theatrical re-release a while back, it might make Nolan feel validated enough to make another “Tenet” like head-scratcher.

It wouldn’t be the first time he used a blank check from a historic summer blockbuster to do so. After all, once “The Dark Knight” broke box office records and officially made Nolan an icon, he used his newfound status to make “Inception” an even more unlikely blockbuster. It was the first proof of concept that he didn’t need Batmen, jokers, or any established characters or franchises to make a massive hit, as his own star power and puzzle box storytelling were enough. And in a time where franchise oversaturation, in general, teeters on the brink of collapse – thanks in part to “Oppenheimer” proving they aren’t the only thing that can make billions – there may be no better time for him to prove the power of original stories again. No matter what, it’s hard to see Nolan returning to another franchise unless he tries to launch one himself or finally gets to make a James Bond film. Failing that, it’s easier to imagine him going back and forth between his own original ideas and non-comic book/franchise adaptations for a while longer. Of course, it’s harder to imagine what other books or biographies he could adapt, especially if he’s run his course with WWII stories.

Aside from a Bond movie, Nolan’s biggest unrealized dream left is a Howard Hughes biopic, which he tried and failed to get off the ground at the start of his career. But since it has been 20 years since “The Aviator” and Nolan has far greater power than in the early 2000s, he would indeed have far fewer obstacles if he tried it again. Yet since he told the New York Times last year that his “Oppenheimer” script was a culmination of “20 years of thinking” going back to his Hughes script, maybe the itch has already been scratched in a way. Maybe after “Oppenheimer,” doing another biopic about a mid-20th-century icon would seem more old-hat anyway. Nonetheless, since he already revitalized that kind of biopic, changed superhero films forever, made confusing sci-fi films into mega-blockbusters, and just swept the Oscars, it really does appear that there’s nothing new left for Nolan to do or prove now.

The same kind of dilemma looked to hit Steven Spielberg back in 1993 when he too culminated a decade-plus of revolutionary blockbusters with a seeming career-capping/validating Oscar sweep for “Schindler’s List.” Given how Nolan and Spielberg took almost the same path 30 years apart and how Spielberg himself presented Nolan with the Oscar, perhaps Spielberg’s path could keep on pointing the way for Nolan now. After “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg didn’t release another movie for four years, which is a bit slow by Nolan’s recent pace. But when Spielberg returned in 1997, he tried to do the exact same thing he did in 1993 – release a commercial blockbuster in the summer and a powerful story of injustice in the fall. However, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Amistad” did not have the triumphant 1-2 punch of “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” so going right back to the “Oppenheimer” well could yield similar diminished returns for Nolan too. Spielberg released “Saving Private Ryan” just months after that, which won him his second Oscar. If he could win a second Oscar in five years for another WWII story, maybe Nolan can, too, down the road. In between all that, Spielberg helped launch his own studio in DreamWorks, a feat that Nolan probably isn’t interested in. But with studios in the dire straits, they are in now, who knows what might open up or become necessary later, especially if things change at Universal in the next few years.

Founding his own studio is one of those very few things Nolan hasn’t done yet, at least off-screen. On-screen, there are technically a lot of stories and genres Nolan hasn’t done, but it’s tough to imagine him doing most of them. There’s certainly no way to picture Nolan doing a comedy, a musical, a full-on romance, or anything outside of serious/elevated drama, even in a genre film. But maybe there is still one final frontier Nolan hasn’t tried yet, which he is realistically due to. Perhaps the most radical thing he can do that he’s never tried before is to make a movie with a woman as the main character.

Whether it is a quirk, a serious flaw, or both, women in Nolan films are usually either killed off – like the wives and/or girlfriends of countless Nolan leading men – underused, or both. Despite all its new ground for Nolan everywhere else, “Oppenheimer” was no exception, between Florence Pugh’s underwritten, seemingly bipolar, and ultimately suicidal or murdered Jean and Emily Blunt’s Oscar-nominated yet still only barely elevated Kitty Oppenheimer. Even in a script that was undoubtedly his best in a very long time, his continued struggles with writing for women were a lingering asterisk – and maybe one that helped justify his Adapted Screenplay loss to “American Fiction.” Of all the puzzles Nolan writes, the one he still can’t solve is writing about fully complex women who serve more than just the leading man’s story. Even in attempts to make a real effort, like Kitty in “Oppenheimer,” Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat in “Tenet,” Murph in “Interstellar” and Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” they’re still little more than secondary and often saddled with some of their film’s most ridiculous lines, clichés or failures of real imagination. However, a story with a woman as the actual lead would give Nolan no choice but to tackle this problem seriously.

With luck, Nolan still has decades left in his career to solve it and work out what else there is to do that he still hasn’t done yet. We likely have a year to guess what his next move is, but all of our guesses will likely fall short—whether the answer is actually a Nolan-worthy surprise or not.

What do you think will be Christopher Nolan’s next film following “Oppenheimer?” Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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