Why Christopher Nolan is not the new Stanley Kubrick

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Tom Huddleston explains why the director of 'Inception' hasn't yet scaled the great heights of Kubrick

In their eagerness to praise director Christopher Nolan and his new film, dream-thief actioner ‘Inception’, the critics have taken one particular phrase to their collective hearts: he’s the New Kubrick. Their reasoning is simple: both men have been allowed to exercise total creative control over their projects, both explore science fiction concepts, both utilise an often icy, clinical style and seem rather uncomfortable with the vagaries of real human emotion and experience. But one viewing of ‘Inception’ should be enough for any viewer to find the holes in this lazy, facetious argument. Here are a few to get you started.

Kubrick knew how people worked

The most obvious and endlessly repeated criticism of Stanley Kubrick is that he didn’t ‘like people’. True, films like ‘2001’ and ‘Dr Stangelove’ eschew characterisation in favour of ideas (and, in the latter, satire), but what about ‘The Killing’, ‘Paths of Glory’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ or ‘Eyes Wide Shut’? Every one of these films features beautifully rounded and painfully human central characters struggling with forces beyond their control. In ‘Inception’, this equation is reversed: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb may be a decently written tormented hero, but the other characters are, without exception, dull ciphers: empty vessels who exert total control over their world, down to the last detail. And where’s the fun – or emotional investment – in that? When Nolan directs a scene as shattering as the barroom finale of ‘Paths of Glory’, we can discuss it…

Kubrick lived in the real world

Though his films took place in a variety of different time periods and locations, Kubrick always dealt with very human problems, be they political, technological emotional or spiritual. As robotic as ‘2001’ is, it still takes time to sketch out its futuristic world as an environment so complex and controlled that humanity is getting pushed aside. ‘Inception’ has no interest in exploring the wider ramifications of the technology it depicts: for all its visual trickery this is a movie on a very small scale, with no interest at all in how such technologies might ripple out into the real world.

Kubrick kept things simple

This is, perhaps, the key argument. True, Kubrick wasn’t an action director, so we don’t know how he’d handle a mainstream blockbuster like ‘Inception’. But the few action sequences he did shoot – the battle scenes in ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’, the fights in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – give us a decent idea of how he might have approached it. ‘Inception’ is a visually busy, at times wholly confusing film, full of smash-cuts and zippy editing, crowding the screen with CG flashes and whizzing bullets. Kubrick, even in his most intense moments, like the Hue city firefight in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, kept everything simple: you always knew how the location was laid out and where the characters were within it, allowing the viewer to focus on what was happening, to feel its impact, rather than squinting through a blur of computer graphics and flying bodies.

Kubrick had a working sense of humour

This is, after all, a man who cast Leonard Rossiter in ‘2001’ and Peter Sellers in both ‘Strangelove’ and ‘Lolita’: Kubrick’s sense of humour may have been arch and even cruel, but it was painfully effective. But where are the laughs in ‘Inception’? It all comes back to character: both Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon Levitt are proven comedy talents, but here they’re reduced to such blank, lifeless caricatures that neither gets the chance to exercise their comic muscles. Sure, there are a few pithy kiss-off one-liners, but you can get that in ‘The A Team’.

Kubrick was an original thinker

The one thing everyone seems to agree on about ‘Inception’ is that it’s terribly original. Where’s the evidence? True, it has a solid, exciting premise (though hardly an entirely original one – has no one seen ‘Dreamscape’ with Dennis Quaid?). But Nolan’s treatment of this concept is tediously sterile: how many readers have regular dreams about empty city streets or wood-panelled hotel corridors? The central concept of the film should mean that all bets are off – a chance for a director to really let himself go, to imagine the unimaginable. Nolan never gets started. We can only dream (if we have the imagination to do so) of what Kubrick would have made of it: images like the Star Child from ‘2001’, the Korova Milkbar from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ or even his rough sketches of the futuristic city from his unmade ‘AI’ project are evidence of a visual mind unlike any other. Nolan seems to have taken all his inspiration from Volvo adverts.Millions of people will rush to see ‘Inception’ on its release this weekend. Some will enjoy the film for its crackling action and breathless pace. Others will sit bored in the dark, wondering what all the fuss was about. But let’s hope none of them mistake it for what it so desperately wants to be: a masterpiece.

Author: Tom Huddleston


Users say

7 comments
Jake J
Jake J

Stanley Kubrick died the year after Christopher Nolan released his first film. Comparing directors from different generations negates all of the social, political, cultural, economic, and technological factors that are intrinsic in the production of any film. Whilst Nolan was operating with full knowledge of Kubrick's masterpieces- he lists 2001 - A Space Odyssey among his favourite films (http://www.24lps.net/directorsrecommend/nolan.html), Kubrick had no knowledge of Nolan's existence whilst directing his films. This article does raise some interesting points but is disconcertingly bitter and is, in my view, rendered somewhat redundant in light of the generational gap between the directors. Furthermore, the author refers to nearly all of Kubrick's films but only mentions Inception in Nolan's arsenal, what about Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and the Dark Knight Trilogy?  

jojo
jojo

true . no one can compare to kubrick no one.

jimmy
jimmy

every director is different and unique in their own way...

XXON
XXON

Kubrick is a true master, unsurpassable on his own terms. Yet don't bash Nolan too hard since he acknowledges & appreciates his influence.: In Christopher's own words: "There is only one Stanley Kubrick; he really is inimitable."

EnGeneVortex
EnGeneVortex

Don't forget Nolan completely ripped off Paprika with the idea of going into people's dreams only Inception is far less imaginative a enjoyable. Nolan is a hack film maker who panders to snobbish critics with his over-pretentiousness.

Liam Quane
Liam Quane

The writer seems to be offended that there would be such a comparison. maybe because if there is someone of a similar talent then the uniqueness of this writer's "Hero" would be significantly dashed and he would not be as special. this is bias and unprofessional.

Thomas Nilsen
Thomas Nilsen

Yeah whatever, maybe we should let someone who actually cares for - and sees where Nolan is coming from - before delivering this nonsense that Kubrick/Nolan have no similarities.



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