We are lucky to live at an age when two of the most talented directors out there are dedicating their time and effort to bring amazing science-fiction stories to the big screens. Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve have proved to be gifted directors and storytellers, each giving their unique flair to films that entice a whole generation of movie watchers.
Because of their love for sci-fi, they have been labeled as genre directors, and for this, it is common to see people comparing them. However, their styles are quite distinct. Which is obvious, given that they are different people.
They may be different, but both styles work well for the sci-fi genre. I also want to compare the two to pinpoint their particular strengths and unveil why their movies are so fascinating.
So let’s talk about Christoffer Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, and science fiction. Because Nolan is a senior in the industry, I'll limit the comparison to three of each director's most recent SF movies.
Christopher Nolan's high concepts
Christopher Nolan’s connection to sci-fi comes from a subset of his filmography. In particular, Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), and Tenet (2020) have become instant classics in the sci-fi genre, often included in the list of best sci-fi movies ever made.
(Can I include the Dark Knight trilogy in his SF list? I will omit them for now — are superhero movies a separate genre? — but let me know what you think of this in the comments.)
Nolan’s science-fiction movies are always on the list of best of the genre for the very same reason readers love sci-fi: high-concept stories. I think author R. Jean Mathieu perfectly defined the genre when he said, “science fiction is the literature of ideas.” And Nolan’s films always have brilliant ideas.
If you have been around for a while, you know that I love when a story explores time. And Nolan seems to love it too. His stories deal with structural and existential questions, and he does so by exploiting the relativistic nature of memory and time.
His use of practical effects and action-packed cuts highlight his narratives’ science and fiction, especially in an era when computer-generated images are the norm for these blockbusters. Nothing against CGI, of course. But, when abused, it creates a surreal, veiled impression more befitting fantasy stories.
But let’s go back to the common ground concept in his stories; I genuinely appreciate the inventive ways he explores time in his narratives. Those are not your run-of-the-mill time-travel stories. Time is bent, dilated, and inverted, yes, but the plot does not rely on the usual time-travel trope.
Interstellar uses gravity to toy with time, flattering my theoretical-physicist side. Time dilation is a verifiable prediction of Einstein’s general relativity, and nowhere is this effect stronger than near a black hole. The inverted entropy in Tenet is a bold concept that leaves the watchers eager to discuss the movie afterward. It is possibly the most time-travel-y plot in Nolan’s filmography, with an ending reminding me of The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov.
My favorite of Nolan’s movies is Inception. The dream environment is mind-boggling! Not only does time slow, but the reality itself is shapeable. It is beautiful, engaging, and spectacular.
Which is your favorite? Let me know in the comments.
Denis Villeneuve’s high visuals
The Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is a match in talent to Nolan. Under his belt are titles like Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Dune Part I (2021) (part II is on the way!) Luckily for us sci-fi fans, Villeneuve really understands the genre and the characteristics that make it great.
Yes, high concepts are also present in Villeneuve’s list of sci-fi movies. But there is a noteworthy difference between his and Nolan’s films; Villeneuve’s genre works so far have source materials. Both Arrival and Dune are outstanding adaptations, while Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to the movie based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Ship? by Philip K. Dick. Rumor has it that Villeneuve is also involved with the adaptation of Rendevous with Rama, the classic novel by Arthur C. Clarke.
What strikes me the most in adaptations is not how the concepts are explored — the quality of source material is a given — but how well the stories can be translated to the big screen. Because it is a literature of ideas, adapting science fiction is not easy. Worldbuilding in sci-fi is often neglected (compared to fantasy, for example) in favor of conceptualization. Much of the visuals are left to the reader’s imagination. And Villeneuve’s awe-inspiring view of those stories complements their ideas perfectly. His captivating visuals and storytelling reworking are original while remaining faithful to the source material — a super tough thing to do!
As I've mentioned, adaptations are hard to do right, but Villeneuve has mastered them! Blade Runner 2049 was particularly challenging to do right because Dicke’s story is a classic, and the first movie is often considered one of the best sci-fi ever made. But this sequel rose to quality. Some argue it’s even better. Dune’s adaption was astounding! I haven’t read the book yet (waiting for part II before I read it), but it was universally praised by both critics and audiences.
But my favorite Villeneuve movie so far is, unsurprisingly, Arrival. I mean, it’s a Ted Chiang story! This film is often cited as an example of an adaptation better than the book. Although I have to disagree with this statement. Both are equally great, in my opinion, and they differ just enough to have widely different takes on time. (Check out my post about Arrival and Ted Chiang’s take on time!)
The bot family voted!
In my last newsletter, I asked the members of the Bot Family which they prefer, Nolan’s high concept or Villeneuve’s high visuals. The answer was both! It was precisely 50/50, and I expected nothing different.
Now I want to know your opinion. I know both are great, but which is your favorite style? Let me know in the comments.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.