Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan have one thing in common, and that is that they are very good at spectacle. The large set pieces, the big actions, the great and cataclysmic adventures at which they hurdle their characters with absolute abandon like a shuttle at a black hole. These are things they both do very, very well and should be commended for it.
The difference, though, is that Kubrick is conducting an explosive opera. His films rip and race and tear through dramatic action and weighty battles and lofty themes, and in this cacophonous symphony, he can lose his audience. He loses me, anyway.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example. Here, we have this massive essay on the evolution of man and our place in the solar system–nay, the universe!–crammed with many a treatise on evolution and science, but in doing so, in focusing so much on these heavy thematic elements, his story falters.
Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, knows how to tell a story. Carefully, with the practiced and precise cuts of a surgeon, he carves and stitches, operates and weaves, freeing his films to drift through his grand set pieces without ever, not even once, losing the importance of his characters and of their stories.
Interstellar is a fantastic example: no matter how big the adventure gets, no matter how over-your-head the science or how grand the stretches of the galaxy, the movie never stops being about the humanity of all those involved, namely the tumultuous-at-best relationship between our intrepid space hero, Coop (Matthew McConaughey), and his daughter back on Earth, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain).
If Stanley Kubrick is a conductor, his singers belting out to the world while the opera rages on behind them, Christopher Nolan is sitting with you across the campfire, the embers crackling, the crickets chirping, and this gentleman with the giddiness of an excitable little boy is telling you–not the audience, not the world, but you–this incredible tale in barely more than a whisper, and he watches your eyes, watches the excitement glow behind the campfire crackling in your pupils, and in that moment, he knows that you are just as excited to hear his story as he is to tell it.
In that moment, you are not being treated to a show, but are instead invited into another universe, a universe that, no matter how grand, you feel was made just for you.
As a film student, I feel like I’m constantly at odds with professors in that I did not care for the vast majority of films that were deemed “classics” by the powers that be. In my mind, a lot of these classics, these films we’re all expected to appreciate–to worship, even–may be technically good, but they fail at what I feel is the most important thing a film should do, and that is tell a story.
I couldn’t care less how technically good a film is if the film cannot tell a story, and the ability to tell a magnificent story is, by and large, far more important to me than the ability to make a technically good “film.”
My favorite movie directors can tell magnificent stories, and they can all be described as different kinds of storytellers. Hell, they can be compared to students at school. Martin Scorsese is the shy kid in the back of the creative writing classroom who, every time he quietly submits his papers to the university publication, suddenly finds himself bombarded with accolades from students and faculty alike. David Fincher runs around the public park, taking pictures of anything and everything and scrutinizing it all under magnifying glasses, and then he smashes together intricate tales about these things and their relationships with each other, and you believe him. Quentin Tarantino is bouncing off the walls of a classroom he broke into at 4am, playfully yet violently bickering with his friends and scribbling magnificent maps all over white boards until campus security shows up and throws him out.
Christopher Nolan sits with you on a dock by the bay in the middle of the night, telling you this impossible story that you can barely hear over the gentle lapping of the waters against the shore, encouraging you to listen to every last detail, and when the sun comes up and he’s finally done, he turns to you and smiles, quietly thrilled that he managed to make you stay.
Stanley Kubrick may be a good filmmaker. But he is nowhere near the kind of storyteller that we find in Christopher Nolan.