The release of the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar awhile back got me thinking, mostly about the way Nolan has catapulted himself to the top of a very small list of filmmakers whose influence and clout comes with a studio-backed seal of approval to handle the biggest blockbusters around. An obsessive like me would categorize this as “Spielberg Syndrome,” meaning an auteur that has successfully managed to bridge the gap between the spectacle and the personal. Naturally, with all the Star Wars news floating around, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander and compare Nolan and Star Wars: Episode VII director, JJ Abrams, another Spielberg acolyte who has dealt with blockbusters before but in a very different direction. Since we’ll be hearing a lot more about Nolan at the end of this year and way, way more about Abrams based on general geek principal, here are five reasons why I think Christopher Nolan is a better blockbuster filmmaker than JJ Abrams.
1. Intelligent Design
Nolan’s films are thinking man’s blockbusters. These intricately constructed films imbue their narratives with equal amounts of heady story beats and explosion-heavy spectacle, and despite what the haters think these two details don’t compromise each other in Nolan’s films in the end. Abrams, on the other hand, tends to tip the scale in favor of pure spectacle instead of informed logic. He’d rather have something look cool than make sense. Putting people in missiles in Star Trek Into Darkness, yeah why not? An unexplained but mysterious MacGuffin that leads characters to jump off buildings and blow up bridges in Mission: Impossible III? Yeah, alright. Most of us viewers want a little more intellectual meat on the bone instead of ostensibly mindless oohs-and-ahs, and Nolan delivers that.
2. The Anti-Mystery-Box
Both filmmakers have admirable methods of teasing their upcoming films during an era when most movies are seemingly fully revealed in their trailers or pre-release ad campaigns, and yet the so-called “Mystery Box” mentality may be Abrams’ biggest flaw of them all. Basically he’s of the mind that you reveal literally nothing about the movie before the release and essentially deny any rumor that comes up about it until the film is unleashed onto an inevitably disappointed audience. Nolan knows how to tease without being frustrating. Just look at the teasers for Interstellar or Inception, there’s a substantial amount of detail there that still keeps the larger points of the films under wraps. It’s shrouded but in plain sight, and that’s a much more tantalizing technique than giving up nearly nothing at all.
3. Originality, Plain and Simple
Nolan’s ability to come up with and pull off new ideas trumps Abrams’ almost comical tendency to do the exact opposite. On the one hand I’m talking about Nolan writing and directing new things, but then again he attained his gargantuan status by taking over Batman. Yet it’s what he did with that status as a stepping-stone that is the most admirable; after Batman Begins he came out with The Prestige, after The Dark Knight he came out with Inception.
It’s like a one-for-them/one-for-me-type situation that Abrams just doesn’t have. Instead of using his cinematic clout for originality, Abrams fell back onto a wantonly gratuitous Spielberg ripoff that was ultimately met with indifference.
4. Nolan Lets the Geeks Come to Him
Abrams’ biggest geek blockbusters are popular, but they’re also pandering. Nolan is usually only worried about doing his own thing while both Abrams Star Trek movies get overly bogged down with showing the fans what they want. Granted, this kind of thing is essential in these kinds of properties, but the reasons behind putting Leonard Nimoy in the Trek reboot or hijacking the end of Wrath of Khan to flip around into Star Trek Into Darkness are secondary to those iconic details themselves. Nolan veered dangerously close to this with the whole John Blake as Robin plot point in The Dark Knight Rises, but the incorporation of potentially crippling details from the source material doesn’t trouble Nolan as much as the story itself. In that way, he mostly isn’t beholden to the fanboy scorn.
5. He’s a Traditionalist, but He Doesn’t Let it Get Him Down
Christopher Nolan has been a very big proponent of shooting his movies on film and using practical effects when he can. Snooty film buffs would say it gives his movies a timeless and tangible look, and they wouldn’t be wrong about that aesthetic. Abrams’ style is that he doesn’t really have a style, and is basically defined by the lens flares that flicker in nearly every scene. Nolan’s tendency towards traditional methods doesn’t hold him back, instead it gives him a more dynamic approach to his craft even when he’s working in genres awash in bad CGI. While Abrams has showed some of those same traditionalist tendencies (namely the space jump sequence in Star Trek and the few peeks at Episode VII we’ve gotten so far), he doesn’t really err on either side for better or worse.