This Is the Only Way To End a Christopher Nolan Film

The Big Picture

  • Montage endings in Christopher Nolan movies create a potent impact before the screen goes to black, using smooth transitions and emotional storytelling.
  • The endings of Inception and Interstellar focus on the conflict between fantasy and reality, with the protagonists finding closure and new beginnings.
  • In The Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s journey challenges his heroism and the ending reflects the emotional bonds between characters and their ultimate sacrifices.

Think about Sylvester Stallone training as Rocky while the empowering theme song building him up. The montage is an editing technique you have seen before, in many different ways, like Rocky reaching those museum steps. It might be emotional, the passage of time can be rapid, and there might be new reveals. You have probably seen this technique in the movies by director Christopher Nolan, which dive into the spectacle of the story and emotional cores of the characters. A dream thief struggles with fantasy and reality. A dark knight never loses his heroism. The thoughts of doomsday torture a physicist. Editors Lee Smith and Jennifer Lame worked on these titles to create an ending with a potent impact before the screen goes to black. While not all of Nolan’s movies end this way, he seems to love a good montage to bring everything full circle.

‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’ Expand Their Worlds in Different Ways

Dom Cobb in 'inception'
Image via Warner Bros. 

“Come back to reality,” Professor Miles (Michael Caine) says for an important line in Inception (2010), where not everyone knows what is real or fantasy. The professor tells this to Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert thief who can invade a target’s dreams. The loss of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) has turned him into a haunted man. He deeply regrets his part in her death, but one mission could allow him to return to his children. That is if Dom doesn’t cause his own downfall. He constantly rushes to use his totem, waiting for the spinning top to topple over, which will assure him he’s out of a dream. Many of the memories Dom retreats to in his mind are of his late wife, but there is also the final moment he sees his kids. And after Dom successfully completes the central mission, Hans Zimmer’s score intensifies on the journey home.

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There is hardly any dialogue in this montage ending. The pacing and transitions are smooth and quick, almost dream-like, as Dom gets closer. Then the music slows. Dom doesn’t look to his spinning top, instead he hurries to his family when he gets the chance. His memories and life have been seen throughout the movie, and this, his most personal experience, isn’t meant for us. The camera pans away to the spinning top, which is about to fall. Mal was “possessed by an idea,” Dom explained at one point, this last shot of the spinning top is just as captivating. Nolan clarified what the ending means, in his own way, “There is a nihilistic view of that ending, right? But also, he’s moved on and is with his kids. The ambiguity is not an emotional ambiguity. It’s an intellectual one for the audience.” Dom’s totem and his children are part of Inception’s conflict of fantasy and reality, and this is what the montage lingers on. In Nolan’s other sci-fi epic, he goes bigger than slipping into someone’s subconscious.

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

The universe to Interstellar (2014) is endless. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), and the Endurance crew travel through a black hole to hostile planets in distant galaxies. They hope one will be the new home for the endangered human population. At various moments, there is cross-cutting, one method to limit how far Cooper is from his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain). In a last ditch effort to save many lives, Cooper leaves Brand to travel to the next planet, allowing himself to be taken into the black hole. But it spits him out into a strange new setting where Cooper communicates with Murph across the previous years. Murph uses the data he sends over to save him and the world. For the existential crisis that erupts on Cooper’s space odyssey, the story narrows down to a child and parent finding each other again.

Cooper is finally reunited with Murph (Ellen Burstyn), now decades older than himself. She weeps, but takes comfort in seeing him, knowing it would happen. And why? “Because my dad promised me.” She doesn’t want him to see her imminent death, so she sends him to go find Brand. The ending closes in on both Cooper and Brand, separated by galaxies, but he’s been faced with greater obstacles. The montage has Cooper get into a spacecraft, while Brand sets up camp on a planet that will be suitable for life. It’s a new beginning, and Murph’s narration works as a closing statement: “Maybe, right now, she’s settling in for the long nap, by the light of our new sun, in our new home.” These final moments are hopeful. However, in Nolan’s superhero movies, it gets more complicated.

Gotham City Perseveres Because of the Batman

Batman standing amidst smoke in The Dark Knight.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

The Dark Knight (2008) challenges Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) like never before with the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger). When it seems this villain is defeated, the Joker cackles, “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?” Another force of chaos is unleashed in the grieving, half-burned Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who has been manipulated terribly. Gotham’s white knight has sent crime lords and mobsters into prison, cleaning up the streets, but by the end, Dent wants revenge over who he blames for the murder of Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), including a loved one of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Dent is killed when Batman intervenes and the linear timeline is made flexible during the movie’s closing moments.

Batman isn’t a white knight, he can be blamed for Dent’s actions. In the montage sequence, Gordon gives a eulogy on Dent, then smashes the Bat Signal at a later time. For the greater good, the public will believe the cover-up. Can Batman die a hero, or will he live long enough to see himself become a villain? It seems Batman will be a villain to Gotham. But in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the nocturnal crusader figures out how to avoid both of these scenarios. What helps is the emotional core to this trilogy in the relationship between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Bruce.

Alfred explains how he would take a trip to Florence, and visit a café where, “I had this fantasy that I would look across the tables and I’d see you there, with a wife, maybe a couple of kids. You wouldn’t say anything to me, nor me to you. But we’d both know that you made it. That you were happy.” That doesn’t seem to be the ending for Rises when Gotham is trapped under a nuclear bomb’s countdown. Batman is able to secure it to the Bat Wing, flying it safely out of the city, without any way he could survive the ensuing explosion. Bruce and Batman are soon memorialized, where Wayne Manor gets turned into an orphanage and a statue is built in honor of the dark knight. They die as heroes, or so it seems.

It’s in the title, the whole movie is about rising. There is the chant, “Deshi Basara!” that echoes in a prison pit, translated to, “Rise.” There is Bruce’s return into the bat armor, then his second return after his back is broken. Gordon delivers another eulogy, this time for Bruce, stating, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.” The ending makes good on all these motifs. Alfred goes to the café he mentioned and there he sees Bruce, alive and content. A booming score swells during the final scene, where Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is lifted in the Bat Cave to become a new protector. For this brisk epilogue, Bruce gets his happy ending, while Gotham remains in safe hands. When Nolan makes movies based on real-life, the montage reflects on the horrors that have been seen.

Christopher Nolan’s Historical Thrillers Face the Future

Cillian Murphy as the shivering soldier in Dunkirk
Image via Warner Bros.

Dunkirk (2017) pays off from previous scenes for a somber conclusion. On the civilian side of the story, George (Barry Keoghan) jumps onboard Mr. Dawson’s (Mark Rylance) boat, hoping to do something big with his life. The plan is to save the lives of stranded English soldiers. An accident from a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) causes George to fall and suffer a severe head wound. Laying nearly motionless, he confides to Mr. Dawson’s son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) his hopes of being in the newspaper where his father and old teachers see him credited him as a hero. He ultimately dies, not surviving long enough for the rescue of soldiers from a disaster. George’s death doesn’t seem courageous in any way until the ending.

During the final scenes, Peter gets George’s picture and obituary into the paper, where he is hailed as the hero the young man wished to be. This cross-cuts with other scenes with active soldiers. Alex (Harry Styles) makes Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) read the paper, unable to meet the eyes of people outside their arriving train. They aren’t viewed as cowards like Alex fears, they are victors, having survived is enough. Out on the beach they were rescued from, infantry helmets lay out on the sand, although many were saved, many others died. Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) is taken captive, but after he burns his plane to destroy it from getting into the enemy’s hands. Out of all these moments, the strongest element goes to poor George. He is a hero for stepping onto Dawson’s boat and for having to deal with the consequences of war. In the case of Nolan’s other historical movie, a darker resolution is reached.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Studios

Oppenheimer (2023), at three hours long, is laced with doom. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a man who can’t articulate his anxieties, or if he does, he’s ridiculed for it. At the start, he’s fascinated with the quantum world. Once he conquers the atomic bomb, these visions turn against him. The physicist soon fears that his creation will destroy everything one day. In a fantasy, he’s stuck in a fighter jet watching nuclear destruction. In another, he sees the world catch on fire when the atmosphere ignites. A major scene takes place between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), but the audience can’t hear what is being said at first, just like the lurking form of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s this exchange that concludes the story.

“When I came to you with those calculations,” Oppenheimer tells Einstein, “we thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the entire world.” Einstein nods, recalling this, “I remember it well. What of it?” Murphy’s face is frozen, an expression that shifts depending on who might be watching, it could be of shock, horror, or a grim acceptance for what he’s done. “I believe we did,” Oppenheimer replies. In his head, nuclear missiles are fired into the sky and the atmosphere lights up, this time from global nuclear weaponry. The ending is no longer the physicist’s nightmares, but a plausible, current threat which the movie’s own audience will have to deal with.

Inception, Dunkirk, and the other movies have a runtime that is over two hours long. The ending needs to finish strong. Swift cuts keep the pacing from feeling lethargic. Repetition in visuals can bring a new meaning to what has been seen or said earlier. The energy to these montage endings can lift you up, or it can stick with you for a feeling that innocence has been lost. Either way in a Christopher Nolan movie, there is no going back.

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