Christopher Nolan Vs. Steven Spielberg: Who’s the Better Director?

Our generation is extremely blessed to witness the works of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan while they are still alive. I say this because any shootout between two film directors becomes a bit one-sided when one of them has passed away due to the sheer respect that cinephiles have for most directors. Spielberg is a member of the old guard and still churns out impressionable flicks while Nolan is the relatively new kid on the stage spitting out one blockbuster after another. For the older generation Spielberg is not just a director, he is the epitome of great cinema, the man who defined a Hollywood blockbuster. I distinctly remember my father going to the theater solely to catch Munich (2006) because it was a Spielberg film.

Nolan is the god like figure who just cannot go wrong for us millennials. Spielberg is the master of sci-fi and genre defining adventure films while Nolan, though less experienced is hot on his heels and a few media outlets have even termed him as the ‘next Spielberg’. So, let’s have a shootout between the two directors and hopefully arrive at a conclusion.

The comparison will be based on five rough parameters. These parameters I believe define a filmmaker’s work and career as a whole.

1. Writing and Originality

Steven Spielberg is a director who has been in the industry for more than four decades now. He made a mark in Hollywood with Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977). Both these films are iconic in their stature and are directorial masterpieces and introduced a drastically different kind of filmmaking which critics then termed as escapist. When his mechanically operational design of a shark failed miserably, he used the camera as the POV for a shark and it worked wonders on the screen coupled with tense music. That was directorial masterclass.

When it comes to writing, it is very clear from Spielberg’s obscenely big filmography, that he is not a writer. Every major hit film that he has directed has been written by someone else or is an adaptation of a biography or a novel. E.T : The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Terminal (2004), Munich (2005), Bridge of Spies (2015) the list goes on. Each of the above films have been written by someone else, people who are terribly good at conjuring scripts (eg. George Lucas, Coen Brothers). The only major writing credit he has is for Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977) and even there the entire script and screenplay was written by a bunch of script writers. Taking nothing away from his directorial feats, it can be safe to say that Spielberg is no writer and lacks in conjuring up his own original ideas.

Christopher Nolan burst onto the scene at the turn of the century with his critical and commercial hit Memento (2000) and he has never looked back since with not a single movie flopping at the box office. In fact all of his films after that have been received with universal acclaim. While Spielberg is no writer, Nolan on the other hand has written or co-written each of his films with his brother Jonathan Nolan. Apart from the exception of Insomnia (2002), every script after that has been credited to him. The entire Dark Knight Trilogy rests solely on its writing. The Batman we saw on screen was nothing like we have seen before. The plots for all the three movies were so well crafted that audiences remembered the antagonists as much as the caped superhero. This was the magic of Nolan’s writing.

While it is true that Jonathan Nolan is more of a writer than Christopher (clearly evident in Dunkirk’s screenplay which was written solely by Christopher), the brain behind Inception(2010)  and Interstellar (2014) is Christopher’s. Inception and Interstellar are the kind of movies that require multiple viewings to get your head around the complex story. His writing involves deep research of topics viz. Dream sharing, interpretation and meaning, space-time continuum theories and relativity. Nolan is the perfect embodiment of an amateur scientist complementing the writer and the director inside of him.

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2. Range of Themes

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Consider the following films for a moment : Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, ET : The Extra Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies. It is impossible to believe that all these movies are directed by the same person. The cinematic themes range from animal thriller, sci-fi to adventure. More lately he has been addressing humanistic issues like the Holocaust, civil rights, terrorism and war.

Being around the block for four decades has certainly played to Spielberg’s advantage but without a shred of doubt, Spielberg can direct whatever is thrown at him with the same zeal, vigor and consistency as his previous films. Directors usually stick to their guns and seldom diversify their offerings, but not Spielberg. Whatever the plot of the movie, his directorial brain weaves a complex web of frames and character caricatures that are hard to forget.

It is extremely necessary to note that Nolan started his feature film direction career in 2000, when Spielberg already had more than 15 movies to his name. Nolan started with neo-noir psychological crime dramas like Following, Insomnia and Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy, no matter how real it may feel is still by all means a super hero film and The Prestige, Inception and the overly hyped Interstellar are sci-fi outings. This is a fairly good range of themes that he has touched upon.

But on comparison with Spielberg’s, Nolan doesn’t even come close. One can argue that it’s the direct result of Spielberg’s sheer longevity, but apart from Dunkirk which is a war drama, Nolan’s themes seem to be clichéd. To say the least, he has bouts of thematic indulgence wherein he makes movies pertaining to a certain subject over a period of time.

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3. Character Development

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What do audiences remember when they walk out of the theater ? The average cinegoer isn’t really concerned with directing styles, camera angles and other nuances of filmmaking. He only takes with him whatever he can relate to, namely the story and the characters within the story. It is true that Spielberg isn’t as great a script writer, but having said that he has created the most iconic characters in his films through his lenses.

Right from the Police Chief, Adrian Brody in Jaws and moving onto Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Capt John Miller (Tom Hanks), Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) to as recent as Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), he has engraved those characters into the viewers’ minds by taking them into the very life of those characters. Every little nuance of a character is portrayed in such a way that it might even be plausible to guess it’s next move in the film. Though not on the same level as the likes of Martin Scorsese, Spielberg has given us characters that will forever be etched in pop culture; Indiana Jones being primarily one of them.

No matter what his fans say, Nolan does falter miserably in this area of the craft. Nolan’s films seem a bit hurried in the sense that during the course of ‘explaining’ the plot to his viewers, his characters seem a tad bit under developed. The Joker, played by Heath Ledger became a phenomenon solely because of the man himself as Nolan himself admitted that he never intended The Joker so dark. The character of Adrian (Ellen Page) in Inception seems terribly half-baked. For no rhyme or reason she decides to help a potentially criminal act and gets the smallest of technicalities of dream sharing in an instant.

Nolan’s latest movie, Dunkirk (2017) is so devoid of human emotion that the viewer may feel completely unsympathetic to the soldiers’ predicament on the beach. Jonathan Nolan’s absence was dearly felt as the almost non-existent screenplay dragged on only to give the viewers a few embarrassing politically correct dialogues from Harry Styles. Coming to think of it, Nolan’s film’s lack the human touch required to feel any kind of connection between the audience and the characters. This round definitely goes to Spielberg.

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4. Directing Style

Jaws (1975) was a watershed moment in motion picture history and has been mentioned in countless best film lists over a period of time and so have Spielberg’s many other films. The reason I mention Jaws is because of the then unique POV of the shark used to signal the arrival of the animal. At the start of the film, a woman goes skinny dipping in the sea she is attacked by the shark. All the viewer sees is the woman disappearing and the water gushing together ending with blood on its surface. Essentially, the graphic violence takes place in the mind of the viewer.

Similar is the case in Jurassic Park (1993) when a goat is lowered into the T-Rex’s cage, all the viewer sees is the bushes and trees moving violently. Interspace visuals though touched upon before by Kubrick and Lucas, Spielberg took those to an industry defining standard with E.T. His ability to awe audiences by continuously pushing the envelope in visuals, sound and effects is what makes his style a standard setting one. Munich, which is one of his most underrated films, is probably his best directed of that decade solely for the characters he created and the way he chose to tell the story. The movie induces feelings of a peculiar calmness before a storm, the silence before an ear shattering explosion and it’s Spielberg at his genius best.

There is no bigger director working today than Nolan. His films are events and his name is a brand in itself. His every movie is marketed as masterpiece in motion picture history. There is no doubting that his style is innovative, influential and almost has a scientific approach to it. Heavily urbanized settings thrown in with film noir elements make his films a treat to watch. Having said that he relies too heavily on visuals and sound to make his movies grand.

Nolan’s last two films, Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017) can be lessons in the visual department but when movies tend to depend heavily on it, viewers may just see through it. His methods of direction especially action sequences (Inception, I am looking at you !) are astounding to say the least but at times they feel like experiments in filming techniques at the expense of an emotional payoff of the audience. Though being a fairly young director his continued use of film stock is something that should be applauded if not awarded, as most directors choose the easy way (digital) out with inferior picture quality. Spielberg may be better at directing than Nolan but that may be the result of his longevity and his immense experience. Nolan being the auteur that he is isn’t far behind and one wouldn’t be surprised if he is eventually regarded better than Spielberg. But for now, Spielberg takes the cake.

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5. Box Office Success

This one may seem straightforward but it’s not. Spielberg is the highest grossing director in the history of Hollywood with total box office earnings of 9.3 billion USD whereas Nolan sits in at 4.7 billion USD. But what one must consider is that Spielberg’s filmography consists of more than 30 films whereas Nolan has directed only 10 feature-length films. Given the fan following Nolan has, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Nolan surpasses Spielberg in worldwide box office collections because realistically, Spielberg isn’t going to churn out extremely high money-making blockbusters through his directorial antics, though the movies may be critically acclaimed. Lately, he is more focussed on Dreamworks and financing and producing films. As mentioned before, every Nolan movie is a celebration, an event in itself and even though he may direct a flop sometime in the future, it will rake in as much money as any of his other films have post The Dark Knight (2008). People may disagree with me on this one, but this round goes to Nolan, or it’ll be safe to say it will in the not so distant future.

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Any comparison is fairly subjective. But it can be safe to say for now that Spielberg is the better director than Nolan with countless movies in best movie lists named by renowned critics. Yes, Nolan has a super long career ahead of him and there is little shred of doubt that given the way he is going right now, he will surpass Spielberg. He is in the same league but for now, Spielberg is the one winning it.

Read More: Best Christopher Nolan Movies