Recent films like Oppenheimer confront us with humanity’s capacity for evil while offering little hope

Written by Adam Kline

This week the Oscar nominations were announced and Oppenheimer received 13 nominations and is the clear front runner for Best Picture. Earlier in January, Oppenheimer won the Golden Globe for best drama; its director, Christopher Nolan won Best Director. For those who have been fans of Nolan for the last twenty-plus years, all this recognition feels overdue. 

Other films directed by Nolan have been awarded for technical achievement, but Nolan himself has only ever received Oscar nominations for three of his films (up until now) and has never won.

It could be that Nolan’s films are too bleak for widespread acclaim. But considering the themes in his films through a different lens, many of his works could be called prophetic, because of their unrelenting examination of human depravity and self-destruction.

Consider Memento (2001), his first wide-release film in North America and first Oscar nomination. Memento is a murder mystery about a man who tirelessly searches for the person who murdered his wife, even though he suffers from anterograde amnesia and has lost the ability to make new memories. The film itself is ingeniously constructed—alternating between two timelines that eventually converge in an unforgettable conclusion. It’s no surprise that Memento launched Christopher Nolan’s career.

Every time I revisit the film, however, I’m shocked at how bleak it is. Due to the film’s construction, we empathize with the protagonist’s amnesia, but by the end, we realize we’ve been following a man who trusts no one, and probably can’t even trust himself. The film’s final revelation provokes meaningful questions, such as: If we were the authors of our own stories, what devastation would ensue? 

Through his narratives, Nolan often examines and exposes our own corrupt nature. His frequently inventive use of story construction and timelines entertain us, and yet, no matter how twisted or layered they become, their conclusions remain the same: the human race has a proclivity for self-destruction. This strikes me as a valuable warning, the sort of warning the ancient prophets would proclaim:

“This is what the LORD says: ‘For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not relent. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire on Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem’” (Amos 2:4-5).

But are stories of prophetic warning enough? Does an honest examination of our own sin sufficiently provoke true change?

In the tradition of the ancient prophets, it is not. For to be “prophetic” in the biblical sense is to live in the tension between warning and promise. To be wholly honest about our sins is just the first step. To invite repentant creatures towards redemption is essential, otherwise we would be without hope.  

Nolan’s most hopeful film is the sci-fi, Interstellar (2014). The film is about a father who must leave his children to save the world. The Earth is on the brink of ecological collapse and so a new home, a new world, must be found for humanity. This father and his team of astronauts must journey across space and time in search of hope, and ultimately, they encounter deeper and different dimensions of reality.

Throughout the film, cosmic imagery is rendered in a nearly sacred manner. The twist, however, is that even though this is a story about hope, the film’s conclusion is wholly secular. The human race is both the problem and the answer. What the protagonist discovers in the end, is that the mysterious signs he encountered along the way were not evidence of the divine, but fully evolved humans.

Which brings us back to Oppenheimer, a film about our greatest scientific minds bringing us all to the brink of total atomic collapse. A story that leaves audiences less in awe of human achievement and more terrified by what we’re capable of. On top of that, there are almost no admirable or aspirational characters found on screen (although the performances are all remarkable).

Oppenheimer, therefore, strikes me as the perfect summation of Nolan’s entire career. It captures on screen, through tremendous artistry, the absolute best and worst of human potential. We are creatures imbued with great intelligence and the ability to discover many of the universe’s inner workings. But if our hope for tomorrow never reaches for something (or someone) greater than ourselves, then these abilities will be wasted. On our own, we can only offer warnings, never a lasting promise.

Ancient prophets like Amos teach us that after examining our sin and self-destruction, we need reminders that there is someone who offers hope. “Seek good, not evil, that you may live,” Amos 5:14 says. “Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.”

Adam Kline leads intercultural missions for the Free Methodist Church in Canada and has a passion for storytelling. He lives in Belleville, Ont. Read more columns from “Behind the screens.”