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No, Christopher Nolan is not “the Next Stanley Kubrick”

Another Christopher Nolan film, another round of stock comparisons.

To his credit, Nolan sparks genuine critical debate and discussion online, even if there’s an uncomfortable whiff of sensationalism to the coverage. Is Christopher Nolan responsible for everything that is wrong with Hollywood right now? (Spoiler: No. Not at all. Not even slightly.) Is Christopher Nolan a pompous and privileged douchebag for wanting audiences to see his film in the format that he has intended? (Spoiler: While he could probably be a bit more mindful that one size doesn’t always fit all, dude has a right to have a preference about how his work is consumed.)

To be fair, these provocative and confrontational articles at least provide a nice reprieve from the listacles and fan service that define so much of the discourse about modern summer movies. How does [minor character] set up the future of [major franchise]? How many easter eggs did you identify from in [franchise blockbuster]? One of the advantages of Hollywood’s modern franchise-driven mindset is that it makes ranking [entire franchise] articles popular and recyclable. It is exhausting. At least a new Nolan film tends to mean new director-centric debates.

That said, there is one comparison that tends to get rehashed quite a bit. Almost every time that Christopher Nolan releases a feature film, film writers who really should know better stop to ask whether Christopher Nolan is the next Stanley Kubrick. Andrew Pulver addressed the comparison in The Guardian, providing a nice piece of symmetry to an article he wrote almost a decade ago. Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, made the case only a few years ago.

It is a fairly obvious argument. Both Nolan and Kubrick are directors who worked at a remove from the press, tending to live and work outside the studio system while developing their ideas. They both seem to straddle the Atlantic, both having spent a lot of time living in England and working in America. Neither director ever seemed entirely comfortable talking to the press or doing the publicity circuit. Both produce films that are very stylishly produced, often tending to keep the audience at a slight remove from their characters that some may consider “cold.”

However obvious the comparison might be, it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of both directors.

To be fair, these sorts of comparisons are generally quite reductive. It is one thing to acknowledge a given director’s influence on a filmmaker’s filmography, to acknowledge shared themes or techniques, but it feels too much to describe a given filmmaker as “this generation’s [other director].” It is a form of critical shorthand, one that diminishes both artists in the comparison. In particular, it denies the younger director the opportunity to be taken seriously on their own terms as a creative force in their own right.

In some ways, this impulse is the critical equivalent of a larger cultural trend, description by reference. It is comparable to the cutaway gags on Family Guy, superficial comparisons that serve to frame one object entirely by reference to another. Modern pop culture often feels like it repackages emotional and plot beats by importing them wholesale from earlier works, a sort of postmodern storytelling that relies on the audience understanding the context for these elements. Why develop character when you can define it by reference? Why earn an emotion when you can emulate other cinematic expressions of it?

By definition, Christopher Nolan is not “the next Stanley Kubrick.” He is “the current Christopher Nolan.” To treat his body of work as something that must be defined as an imitation or an extrapolation of another artist’s milieu is to miss the point entirely. This is not merely Nolan-related snobbishness. It seems like a reasonable critical position, one that could just as fairly be applied to much-maligned directors like Michael Bay or Zach Snyder, both of whom have cultivated their own directorial personas and stylistic sensibilities that are worthy of discussion on their own terms.

However, turning to this specific comparison, to the comparison between Nolan and Kubrick, it feels woefully superficial. There are undoubtedly similarities between the two men, as there are between any two artists. However, the differences never feel particularly fundamental. The things that define Kubrick as a filmmaker are very different from the things that define Nolan as a filmmaker. In many ways, on the most fundamental of levels, Nolan and Kubrick are very different filmmakers.

Nolan is in many ways a much more rigid storyteller than Kubrick. Kubrick was a director with a tremendous range, capable of hopping between moods and genre with considerable skill. Kubrick could helm a farce like Doctor Strangelove, a slavery epic like Spartacus, a Vietnam War film like Full Metal Jacket, a horror movie like The Shining, a psycho-sexual drama like Eyes Wide Shut, a science-fiction epic like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a meandering period narrative like Barry Lyndon. These are films that exist (sometimes literally) worlds apart from one another.

In contrast, Nolan has to date demonstrated a much narrower focus. He has, for example, conceded that he would never direct a comedy. While Nolan can shift between genres, those genres tend to fall within a reasonably confined spectrum. His film noir aesthetic infuses MementoInsomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception. His interest in science-fiction high concepts bleeds through The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar. Even the epic drama of Dunkirk feels like an extension of the gradually expanding narrative worlds and geographically (and temporally) diverse ensembles of The Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar.

None of this is to diminish Nolan as a filmmaker. Within those genre frameworks, he demonstrates considerable range. While his films all have a similar enough texture that they could easily fit within a shared universe populated by clones of Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, they are remain distinct and unique. Even within Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the three films are very clearly differientiated; Batman Begins is a psychological thriller, The Dark Knight is a crime saga, The Dark Knight Rises is a social epic. That said, it is hard to imagine Nolan every producing a film as gonzo as Doctor Strangelove, as explicitly sexual as Eyes Wide Shut or as horrific as The Shining.

With all of that in mind, Nolan might be closer to Hitchcock in narrative terms than he is to Kubrick. Like Hitchcock, Nolan has a knack for generating narrative tension. Like Hitchcock, Nolan has a number of storytelling elements over which he seems to obsess. Hitchcock was fascinated by strangulation and icy blondes, while Nolan returns time and again to non-linear narratives and lost loves. In some respects, Nolan’s tendency to elevate pulpy genre material through confident direction might be seen as another connection to Hitchcock. Psycho was derided by many critics and commentators as a crass piece of work, only reevaluated in retrospect. The same is true of a lot of Nolan’s films.

(There is also, like Hitchcock, a sense that Nolan is not taken entirely seriously by the cinematic establishment because of his choice of material. Kubrick always had a sense of cultural cache, perhaps because he balanced his genre work like 2001 or The Shining with more conventionally prestigious fare like Full Metal Jacket. In contrast, Hitchcock and Nolan worked consistently in genres that are often critically dismissed and overlooked; suspense thrillers, superhero movies, science-fiction thrillers. Kubrick certainly got more love from the Academy than either Hitchcock or Nolan.)

However, the most fundamental point of distinction between Kubrick and Nolan comes in their outlooks. Kubrick is a director who often seems rather cynical about human nature, who seems to regard human existence as messy and awkward, full of errors in judgment made by people who spend their lives groping around in the dark. Kubrick seems to regard human beings as deeply flawed creatures who have done (and will continue to do) terrible things to one another while living within systems that enable and perpetuate this inhumanity.

(This might be why The Shining works so well, despite its awkward position as perhaps the most populist film in the Kubrick canon. Kubrick’s worldview is perfectly suited to the horror genre, and the director turns what might otherwise be a stock slasher movie narrative into a more primal existential horror. The Shining is a movie that plays Kubrick’s perspective as outright horror instead of dark comedy or psycho-drama, and the oppressive tone perfectly hammers home Kubrick’s bleak outlook.)

To be fair, this is something of a generalisation of Kubrick’s filmography, as tends to happen when one attempts to reduce a director’s entire body of work to a simple paragraph summary. There is a sense that Kubrick in some ways admired mankind’s “messiness”, and found something meaningful in this dysfunction. Barry Lyndon finds something to love in the rise and fall of a gambler who has it all, loses it all, and proves ultimately powerless in against the sweep of history. A Clockwork Orange suggests that to remove a person’s ability to be monstrous is tantamount to stripping out their humanity.

There is a tendency to think of Nolan’s work as similarly detached and cynical, similarly intrigued by dysfunction and confusion. After all, Nolan’s early scripts all dabbled in the trappings of film noir, with protagonists often wrestling with deep-set issues. In Memento, Leonard was manipulating his own memories to provide himself with a sense of false purpose that left him open to the manipulations of outsiders. In Insomnia, Will Dormer is a corrupt cop haunted by a bad decision. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is driven by a singular obsession. In Insomnia, Cobb is haunted by his wife’s death.

Nolan works in genres that are, by their nature, largely cynical about humanity. Nolan’s films are populated by characters who do horrific things to one another, often losing sight of anything of value or meaning. In many ways, the knee-jerk description of Nolan as a cold and emotionless filmmaker mirrors the stock criticisms of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers in the nineties, with may critics arguing that they were “nihilistic” filmmakers because of their use of violence. It is an argument that mistakes form for content, ignoring the strong morality at work in most Coen and Tarantino films.

However, Nolan’s filmmaking has a distinctly humanist bent to it. Perhaps most obviously, The Dark Knight Rises is the rare Batman story that dares to imagine a “happily ever after” ending for its protagonist. However, Nolan returns to this idea again and again. Many of Nolan’s stories focus on characters almost consumed by their obsessions who return to a family life at the end. The Prestige is a story about destructive obsession, but it ends with one of the Borden brothers leaving that world to return to what remains of his family. Inception has a very similar ending, with Cobb rejoining his children.

More tellingly, Nolan juxtaposes his obsessed protagonists with a more optimistic perspective on humanity. In Inception, Cobb might be close to becoming undone, but Ariedne exists to anchor him and to keep him focused. In The Dark Knight, the Joker rants and raves about how people are fundamentally cowardly and awful, but the climax of the film hinges on the idea that (all things being equal) two boats full of strangers would not blow each other up to save themselves. The Dark Knight Rises ends with Gothamites reclaiming their city, rejecting Bane’s nihilism. (“This only gets fixed from the inside!”)

Even Dunkirk hits on these ideas. Dunkirk is full of characters who are defined very broadly and archetypally; the lead character is a British soldier named “Tommy”, while Cillian Murphy plays “shivering sailor” and Tom Hardy spends most of the movie with a mask over his face. Some of the characters do horrible things in the face of death. However, Dunkirk affords most of the cast their dignity. Dunkirk is a story about how wonderful people can be in the face of impossible situations. Repeatedly, characters in Dunkirk look to the heavens for salvation, and that salvation comes in the form of other people.

However, the most effective point of comparison between Nolan and Kubrick is undoubtedly Interstellar. In many ways, this is a film that invites comparison to Kubrick. Nolan has openly acknowledged the influence of 2001 upon Interstellar, and it is quite obvious just looking at the structure of the film. Both are movies about mankind journeying into outer space, building to a trippy time-bending third act. In some respects, Interstellar plays almost as a reimagining and reinterpretation of 2001, its climax even something of a fan theory about Kubrick’s earlier work. (What if the monolith wasn’t alien, but was sent by mankind from the future?)

The comparisons between 2001 and Interstellar provide a nice contrast between Nolan and Kubrick. 2001 is by far the more narratively ambitious film, reflecting Kubrick’s sensibilities as a director. It is a film told on three acts spanning a huge portion of human history. In contrast, Interstellar is a more accessible film. Nolan’s focus is a lot narrower. Interstellar is a movie that imagines eternity as an extrapolation of a child’s bedroom toward infinity. 2001 undoubtedly plays back to cinephiles, while Interstellar is a movie that would make a crowd-pleasing Christmas family movie.

2001 is a story with an infinite array of interpretations and meanings, with many critics and film fans arguing over what it means to this day. There is no single explanation for the monolith, no single reading of the movie’s striking third act. While 2001 is relatively linear, it is a movie with incredibly ambiguity and nuance. In contrast, Interstellar is a much more straight-forward film, with a clearer set of character and plot arcs. Even though the movie grapples with concepts like relativity and dime dilation, the audience always understands exactly what is happening and why it is happening.

Even the plot elements and production techniques in 2001 and Interstellar invite comparison. Nolan emulates Kubrick’s clever decision to anchor the camera on the objects in space, rather than from an objective perspective. The computer in 2001 is the most emotional character in the film, while the artificial lifeforms in Interstellar are quite pointedly secondary protagonists. While HAL cannot emotionally connect with his crew, TARS and CASE become close friends to Cooper and Brand. While the portal in 2001 is found in orbit of Jupiter, the wormhole in Interstellar is only slightly further out in orbit of Saturn.

However, the biggest difference between 2001 and Interstellar is thematic in nature. 2001 is a beautiful film, but it is also a film that reflects Kubrick’s cynical view of humanity. 2001 is not populated by characters so much as plot functions. The film’s most human character is a deranged computer. The solar system has populated by the forces of capitalism, and the film hints at the idea that the Cold War has continued into eternity with politics and secrets at work. The astronaut who journeys “beyond the infinite” seemingly dies as confused about his circumstances as the audience at home.

Kubrick’s cynicism is most overtly at play in the opening act of 2001, a sequence set at the dawn of man. Kubrick does not suggest that mankind came into being in a moment of self-awareness or with the discovery of fire. Kubrick suggests that mankind came into being in the moment that one ape discovered that he could use a heavy object (a bone, no less) to bludgeon another living creature into submission. Mankind was born in violence, its power secured through the use of weapons rather than tools.

In one of the movie’s most iconic and powerful shots, the ape throws that bludgeon into the air. The camera cuts to the start of the twenty-first century, focusing on a white space craft in orbit. It is a masterful piece of direction. However, the director’s script and the notes make it clear that the cut is more than just a nice visual contrast. The space craft is actually an orbital weapons platform. Kubrick suggests that mankind’s evolution is defined by their capacity for violence. Indeed, Kubrick even considered ending 2001 with a nuclear apocalypse, but feared he would be repeating Doctor Strangelove.

In contrast, Interstellar is a movie that is based around the notion of love. In one of the movie’s most frequently mocked moments, a scientist offers an extended monologue arguing that “love” is as potent and tangible a force in the universe as “time” or “gravity.” This is delivered in a manner that is entirely earnest. More than that, it is an argument borne out by the film. Whenever the characters make choices governed by love rather than by cold hard science, those choices seem to work out rather well for them.

Interstellar often seems like a very blunt statement of purpose from Nolan. It is a firm rejection of earlier criticisms of his work as overly intellectual or unemotional. In many ways, Nolan is a highly emotional film maker. Most of his protagonists tend to be motivated by love and loss, two very tangible and heightened emotions. More than that, Nolan seems to have a deep-seated faith in people that is rooted in a fundamental humanism rather than a dispassionate detachment. Nolan is arguably much closer to the sentimentality of Spielberg than the remove of Kubrick.

However, Interstellar is also a movie that invited comparisons with 2001, and – through that – a clear contrast between Kubrick and Nolan. While 2001 and Interstellar might have a lot in common in terms of genre and premise and plot elements, they are fundamentally different in terms of outlook. In many ways, Interstellar felt like an attempted exorcism, one last attempt to banish these facile comparisons by producing a definitive counter-argument. As such, it’s disappointing to see them resurface with Dunkirk.

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7 Responses

  1. I agree that Nolan is probably more like Hitchcock than he is Kubrick. Both make films that can challenge an audience but both have earned that trust from a long history with audiences. I feel like the Dark Knight trilogy is Nolan’s way of establishing that trust with audiences before bringing them into things that might run deeper or require a little understanding of who he is and the film making process like Inception. Hitchcock used to toy with our expectations and I feel like Nolan does as well.

    • That’s fair, I think. But I do think that it’s possible to underestimate just how well constructed Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is, as a reflection of contemporary United States.

  2. Kubrick is overrated.

    Nolan is just bad.

    Hitchcock is a god.

  3. I think another key difference between the two directors is how they use music. Kubrick often lets music play by itself to create a sense of otherworldlyness. Whether it be grandeur in 2001 or fear as seen in the Shining. Nolan, on the other hand, often uses music almost as if it is part of the sound design. The music rarely plays without something happening, as the music seems designed to enhance the gritty realism of the scene rather than create a unique atmosphere. In short, Nolan’s music enhances the action, whereas Kubrick’s music creates an environment.

    • Couldn’t agree more.

    • Yep, the music in a Nolan film is very much woven into the fabric of the film, which is true of every decision that he makes from a technical point of view. The use of 70mm Imax cameras to shoot faces in Dunkirk is very pointed for example, more than just “let’s do it because we like the technology.” The same with his use of Imax cameras in earlier films. I love how the black bars literally pull back when you get to an Imax scene in The Dark Knight or Interstellar, as if the action is actually encompassing you.

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