When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced, thousands of Christopher Nolan fanboys cried out in pain. Their precious Interstellar was only nominated for technical awards, and not for best picture, screenplay or director. Talks of the egregious Christopher Nolan snub shot through the Internets. People who would not have watched the Oscar’s anyways posted livid responses.
Now, I like Interstellar and I think that it got nominated for the correct awards. You know what film really got snubbed? Nightcrawler. But we will not discuss that here.
What has been really annoying me though is the fanboys who console themselves by saying that Nolan is the new Stanley Kubrick. The comparison seems reasonable. Both directors specialized in visually driven movies, and both got regularly snubbed for academy awards.
But comparing Nolan to Kubrick is faulty, wrong, and shows a complete misunderstanding of the movies that both directors make. Nolan will never be as good as Stanley Kubrick. Here is why.
Distinct visuals does not equal distinct visual style
Since the work of both directors rely heavily on visuals, most of the comparisons start here. This is fair… I guess. True, both directors have distinct visuals, but there is a key difference. Christopher Nolan develops distinct visuals, while Stanley Kubrick developed a distinct visual style.
What is the difference?
Visuals are what is on the screen. They can be accomplished by special effects, character placements or lighting. For instance, here are some distinct visuals from the directors’ films:
From Inception (Christopher Nolan)
From 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
These are just two examples of distinct visuals in both directors’ films. Christopher Nolan has some awesome visuals in his film, that is true. But what he lacks is a distinct visual style.
Style is slightly different. Instead of just focusing on the image on-screen, a visual style has to do with how the camera moves, how the cinematography is shot and how the scene unfolds. Kubrick had a very distinct visual style, mostly revolving around point-perspective shooting. This will be best presented with an example. Here is a scene from The Shining. Notice how the camera moves, how symmetrical the shot is, and how the placement of the camera develops an emotion. Also notice how this shot is accomplished without computers.
Kubrick used perspective to create tension and innovated the use of the Steadicam to get this shot to work. It has a style that is distinct to The Shining and to Stanley Kubrick. It is such an interesting shot, and is just a kid riding down a hallway.
In comparison, let’s look at the cool zero-gravity fight scene from Inception. The visuals here are really cool, and the fact that a practical set was used is really fascinating. But the scene lacks style.
Did you notice how the camera moved and how the shots were edited? Very standard stuff for an action movie. Even though this scene seems more exciting than the scene from The Shining, it is less interesting to look at. If Kubrick had shot The Shining in the way that Nolan shot Inception, it would have been a boring movie. What makes Inception interesting to watch is not the style, but the visuals. And this is true for all Nolan’s and Kubrick’s films. While Nolan fans may argue that the visuals in Interstellar were amazing (and they were), there was no innovation to how they were shot. No style, just cool visuals.
Iconic characters and moments
One of the biggest criticisms of Christopher Nolan is that his films are emotionally distant and that he has a hard time with presenting realistic characters. This is a valid criticism, and is one reason Nolan will never be as good as Stanley Kubrick.
Even though Kubrick’s movies initially strike people for how visually impressive they are, he also took the time to write iconic and interesting characters. Lets compare the two directors.
Nolan does have some iconic characters. Here they are:
But the rest of Christopher Nolan movies? Can you even remember the names of any of these people?
Sure, so maybe Hugh Jackman’s character in The Prestige and Guy Pearce in Memento were kind of memorable. But I cannot remember any of these character’s names, and I would have a hard time describing them without referring to what they look like and what they do in the movie. They just are not very unique.
Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, recognized that memorable characters were important to films. That is why Kubrick’s movies feel more human than Nolan’s. Here are some of Kubrick’s most memorable characters.
I purposefully chose the most abstract image I could of HAL 9000, but I am sure that you recognized him instantly. I find it fascinating that HAL, a computer who’s only feature is a big red eye is much more interesting than any of Nolan’s characters. HAL is not even human, and we never see his face.
Even though Nolan makes good movies, he is almost incapable of creating any memorable characters that feel like real people.
Even though Kubrick was great at visual style and creating interesting characters, what really made him special was his versatility. Lets just look at the high point of his career and what movies he made.
- Dr. Strangelove (1964) – An anti-war black comedy
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Considered the best sci-fi movie ever
- A Clockwork Orange (1971) – A psychological dystopia thriller
- Barry Lyndon (1975) – A Victorian era period piece
- The Shining (1980) – A horror movie
- Full Metal Jacket (1987) – A war movie
Every single one of these movies is different in tone and genre. How many other directors can swing between making science fiction movies to period pieces to horror movies? Even though Nolan’s movies are interesting, he does not have the versatility of Kubrick by a long shot. All of his movies are either action movies or science fiction films. Good films, yes, but not unique in tone or genre.
Trusting the audience
There are a lot of things I can write about the difference between these two directors, but I will leave with this. The main difference between Kubrick and Nolan is that Kubrick had the ability to trust his audience. He knew that his films could be ambiguous and people would still find them interesting. This is why Nolan films will never be as intelligent as Kubrick films. Instead of trusting his audience, Nolan feels the need to spell everything out, and any ambiguity is only accomplished through tacked-on twist endings. Stanley Kubrick let the audience discover his movies and think about them. He knew that everything did not need to be spelled out to keep the audience involved. That is why he was a better filmmaker.
There will never be another Stanley Kubrick, but if we had to choose a modern director that is following his legacy it would not be Christopher Nolan. Wes Anderson has an equally distinct visual style. The Cohen Brothers are the most versatile directors currently filming. Terrance Malick, David Lynch and Darron Aronofsky all make intelligent movies that trust their audiences. But as great as all these directors are, Stanley Kubrick stands above them all as encapsulating everything that makes movies great.