In honor of the newly released war film, Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, I have decided to dive deep into shark-infested waters to compare one of our generation’s most creative minds to one of cinema’s finest film-makers, Steven Spielberg. Christopher Nolan is not of the caliber or status of a Steven Spielberg quite yet, but the potential is certainly there and has been there since his big screen debut, Following, in 1998. Christopher Nolan has taken the modern cinematic landscape by storm in a way that cannot be ignored. He is dedicated, ambitious, creative, and crafts unique works time and time again, many of which he spends years researching and studying before bringing to the screen. This, of course, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. Both of these men are directors who have became household names through their ability to insert their audience into the worlds they create, directing us on these paths toward cinematic journeys unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Although there is no one truly like Spielberg or who can truly touch his legacy, Nolan is well on his way to rivaling that status. That is one of the many reasons I believe Christopher Nolan is Steven Spielberg (specifically in the years between 1970 and 2002) “reincarnated.”
When looking at the early portion of Spielberg’s filmography in comparison to Nolan’s first ten feature films, we see very similar approaches to direction. While Nolan approaches with both a writer’s and director’s mindset, each have a significant thing in common: their movies beg to be seen on the big screen. This is where the foundation of my argument ultimately lies. I wasn’t alive when a movie like Jaws released, but, when discussing it with my parents, I was told that everyone was afraid to go into the water because of what Spielberg captured in his film. Nolan has that ability as well. Nolan has not made a film that causes us to question what lies in the depths of the ocean, but he has made films that make us question our own reality, from the intricacies of dreams to the farthest reaches of outer space. These two filmmakers manage to find a way to elevate the moviegoing experience every time they make a new movie and have an incredible ability to transport us into fresh, nearly unimaginable worlds and realities. Due to this, when you see an upcoming release with the name “Christopher Nolan” or “Steven Spielberg” attached, you know you have to witness it in the biggest format possible with a packed audience to truly take in the guaranteed spectacle.
No modern filmmaker, in my eyes, has achieved Spielberg-like status like Nolan. I would argue that only a director like Nolan that understands, appreciates, and cherishes the theater-going experience can ultimately save it. There is something special about walking through those auditorium double doors and seeing “A Film by Christopher Nolan.” That feeling is reminiscent of those who went out in droves to see the words “A Film by Steven Spielberg” on the big screen again and again. Spielberg is still directing today and continues to churn out project after project, but his films in the 21st Century haven’t quite measured up to the work he produced previously. People still make time to see the next Spielberg film, but these efforts have lacked that magic that once was sprinkled over every film the legendary director put out. Furthermore, many people would claim that Nolan takes himself too seriously and doesn’t allow his movies to have any fun. When I see a movie like Interstellar or Inception, I see a director pouring every ounce of hard work and passion he has into each respective project. It is almost as if Nolan approaches every movie as if it were his last, making sure that each one gets the respect, care, and love that it deserves. I don’t know of many directors that would spend five or six years of their life studying the science behind interstellar travel in order to prepare for a movie of the caliber of Interstellar, especially while writing and directing three other films.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Nolan was asked about his childhood experience with film and his nostalgic favorites. He cited Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey as two major influences on his love for cinema, largely due to their massive world building and new environments. It is in moments like these where I see exactly who Nolan is as a filmmaker and why his films appeal to such a broad, worldwide audience. Nolan creates an entirely different experience every time he makes a new movie. Audiences have been whisked away to so many new worlds, met so many new characters, and been involved in some of this era’s finest stories put to screen through Nolan’s work. That is exactly what Spielberg accomplished for decades. Nolan has even mentioned in other interviews how movies like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind really spoke to him about the potential of what movies can do in taking an audience on an adventure. From Nolan’s interviews, you can definitely see how his inspirations have transferred over into his own work and, even when he isn’t speaking in interviews, you can see how Nolan is following a similar path to the one great minds like Spielberg paved before him.
Spielberg never really tackled a franchise outside of the Indiana Jones trilogy. Nolan is similar in this respect as he has The Dark Knight as the only franchise to his name. Both men went after new genres, meshing styles, and exploring eras of history in ways we have never seen before. They implemented their own sensibilities as directors and crafted unique tales every single time. This makes every experience with them feel new. Most high-profile directors today can’t help but give everything they create an overdose of their own unique style, causing every new project to feel the same as the last. A movie like Memento and a movie like The Prestige bear similar sensibilities in how Nolan is able to intercut and edit his stories utilizing the art of misdirection, but there is an entirely new experience to be found in both films. Nolan has the ability to keep us involved in his stories. Spielberg is a master at this as well. There are few other directors like them that also boast Nolan’s commercial success in this modern age of cinema. Outside of Spielberg’s 32-year rampage of high-quality films that garnered endless acclaim and massive profits for himself and the studio, no other director has quite measured up to that level of commercial, financial, or critical success until Nolan. When he jumped on the scene with Batman Begins, he changed his future in the industry forever. Jump forward to the twelve year mark and Nolan has finally tackled his first film in the war genre, forming another bridge between himself and the legendary creator behind Saving Private Ryan.
Dunkirk honestly surprised me with how much of a powerful impact it left on me as a viewer. Dunkirk may be the prime example of Nolan making truly immersive theater going experiences. Experiencing Dunkirk in IMAX was nothing short of unforgettable. Nolan’s ten-movie streak is undeniably impressive. Dunkirk is going to draw many comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, but they are very different takes on the war genre. Both are tremendous cinematic achievements in their own right, but the directorial approaches displayed are drastically different. In Saving Private Ryan, audiences don’t really experience the events, but rather, we witness them over the shoulder of soldiers. In Dunkirk, events are lived out as if we are soldiers in that scenario. It is unlike anything the genre has seen in this age of filmmaking and will probably not be replicated any time soon. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum throughout this article, Nolan cherishes the theater going experience and that love is on full display here. Both Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan are films I saw on the big screen and found myself blown away by what the director achieved. Through each war film we see what each of these directors do best: they force you to see their films in the biggest and best format possible.
I love Steven Spielberg. I love Christopher Nolan. But, most importantly, I love the experiences they create. Spielberg was a skilled craftsman who took the landscape by storm with hit after hit. As time passed, he became overrated to many and his prestige began to fall after his last truly great film, Catch Me If You Can, in 2002. Nolan is following a similar path, not only in the way he approaches making art but also by tackling different genres within his medium. Nolan has been rewarded with both massive critical success and a vocal fanbase that rivals even Spielberg at the height of his career. It is likely that things will only continue to look up for the visionary filmmaker. What Nolan has done to keep the theater going experience alive is following in the footsteps of the greatest men to ever touch an Arricam LT. By following this path of success we are seeing theaters flooded with viewers of all ages. Nolan is a game changer. Ever since The Dark Knight, it has been Christopher Nolan’s throne that everyone else is just fighting to touch. We are witnessing history repeat itself through the works of Christopher Jonathan James Nolan.