I've seen a number of critics compare Christopher Nolan to the works of Stanley Kubrick. When one surveys the current state of big name directors, Nolan is perhaps on the surface the most appropriate modern analogue to Kubrick, but only insofar as they both began in noir and their films show an unusual attention to detail. In terms of subject matter, style, and character, they have very little in common. But the comparison seems valid, and after musing on it for a bit, I've developed a theory about why. This theory also examines why some people have felt disconnected from Inception (a film that I suspect I may end up considering Nolan's best).
The theory goes like this: Nolan's films and Kubrick's films are alike primarily because before we see the actors playing the roles, we see the director lording over them. Very few directors exert control over their films like Kubrick and Nolan. They themselves are the stars, and their names are used to not only to promote but also to define the film and the experience of seeing the film. They go beyond being simple marketing tools and become promises: you are about to see a Christopher Nolan film. And that means something based on our previous experiences with Christopher Nolan films. It was the same with Kubrick.
But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that this may be an illusion. I suspect this because it is important to ask: what defines a film as a Christopher Nolan film? They all share some visual similarities, as did Kubrick's. They sometimes feature either the same stars or supporting players, as did Kubrick's on occasion (a stretch, I'll admit, but Peter Sellers, Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden, and many supporting players featured in multiple Kubrick films). But those are almost superficial when one tries to get to the core of a Christopher Nolan film.
What is a Christopher Nolan film? Some people like to compare it to a puzzle, but I've started to think that the puzzle aspect of Nolan's films is simply misdirection. He tells us as much in The Prestige, both through words ("Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.") and through direction (the men in the boxes). No matter how we examine his puzzles, we'll never solve them, so why are they there? My personal belief is that they serve as misdirection, to distract our minds long enough to allow for maximum emotional impact, rather intellectual impact. (In this respect, I believe that Inception may be his masterpiece - I was openly weeping at the end.) But Nolan's Batman films aren't puzzles. They're remarkably straightforward and accessible. Yet as you watch them, you don't feel like he's lost any of his artistic sense or "sold out." They are Christopher Nolan films as much as his others.
Nor are his films unified by subject matter. In fact, they cover a very wide range of settings, themes, and ideas. Following has something in common with Memento, but little in common with The Dark Knight or The Prestige. Similarly, The Prestige doesn't connect with either Batman film (except for casting) or Inception in style or story. Again, Kubrick was similar here. Dr. Strangelove had nothing in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had nothing in common with any of his work in the seventies or eighties. The Shining and Lolita aren't connected by anything except the force of Kubrick's personality. There's nothing in those stories that link them as Kubrick films. There's no Tim Burton-like fascination with social outcasts, no George Lucas-like lust for escapism or nostalgia, no Tarantino-esque fascination with cinema as a reflection of society. Each of Kubrick's and Nolan's films has nothing to do with the rest of each man's catalog (with the unique and insignificant exception of Nolan's two Batman films, which also cover wildly different ground from each other).
So what links them?
My theory - and I'm not sure how much of this I actually believe - is that there actually is very little connecting these films. There is not a definitive Christopher Nolan style or Stanley Kubrick style. Their works span a huge range of subjects, themes, etc. But because the men themselves are such huge personalities, such iconic filmmakers, we go into their films expecting that we will see "A Christopher Nolan film" or "A Stanley Kubrick film" without knowing what that means. In effect, we in the audience are responsible for linking these films to one another, because we expect that a director will conform to a particular set of expectations based on previous works. We are responsible for creating the notion of "A Christopher Nolan film" or "A Stanley Kubrick film," but if you ask each of us what that means, you'll probably get wildly varying answers. And what that indicates to me is that what defines these men as artists is not the unity of their catalog, but the diversity of them. Christopher Nolan has made very different films about wildly varying characters in wildly varying settings, just as Kubrick did. They bring their sensibilities to their work, but the piece itself and the way it is treated is unique from film to film. The fact is that there is no definitive Christopher Nolan film. There is no definitive Stanley Kubrick film. There is not that one defining work that tells you everything you need to know about the artist at his best. There is no Star Wars, no Pulp Fiction, no one film that is going to stick in the public's consciousness and define the filmmaker.
So when we see "A Christopher Nolan" film, we think that we know what to expect, but we actually don't. It's the same thing with a Kubrick film. We are constantly off-balance, never quite sure what we are getting, and if what we get doesn't match up with our expectations - what we bring into the theater with us - then it's sometimes tough for us to swallow. What can we do then? As with Kubrick, we should go into Nolan's films with an open mind and leave our expectations at the door.
You know, exactly the thing that is next-to impossible for we human beings to do when evaluating any artistic endeavor.