Why Christopher Nolan is not the new Stanley Kubrick
Tom Huddleston explains why the director of 'Inception' hasn't yet scaled the great heights of Kubrick
Kubrick knew how people workedThe 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 worldThough 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 simpleThis 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 humourThis 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 thinkerThe 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
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