Sam Raimi Vs. Christopher Nolan (Mania.com)
Date: Tuesday, October 13, 2009
At a glance, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan make strange rivals.
To our knowledge these men have never had films compete directly for box office cash, nor has there ever been any indication of anything existing between the two other than mutual respect for one another’s work.
Yet similarities between the two directors abound. Both made their ascent into the Hollywood elite on the backs of imaginative low-budget features that became overnight cult classics. Both have used highly inventive techniques to establish a memorable filmmaking style. But it’s an older, more archetypal confrontation that pits Raimi head-to-head with Nolan. You see, one carries the cinematic torch for Marvel’s greatest franchise (Spider-Man) while the other has taken the Batman mythos to new heights for DC.
And so it goes that these incongruous auteurs are the principal architects of the modern superhero genre and, whether they realize it or not, that makes them arch-enemies.
Raimi Vs. Nolan: Indie Film Cred
Nolan burst onto the scene in 2000 with the limited release of Memento, a little known,independently financed picture co-written with his brother Jonathan, which took all of 25 days to shoot. An expertly crafted noir mystery told in reverse chronological order, the film served notice of Nolan’s incredible talents. Winning more than 30 film festival awards and receiving two Academy Award nods, Memento went on to gross over eight times its production budget. Up to that point, Nolan’s only other feature-length directorial effort was a flick called Following, which was made for less than $50,000 and generated considerable buzz on the independent film circuit.
While the success of Memento gives Nolan a legitimate under-the-radar classic to his credit, Sam Raimi is a veritable demigod of modern cult film. After building a local name for himself in Michigan based on the success of several horror and comedy shorts, Raimi changed the course of horror movie history when he released The Evil Dead in 1981. More of a spoof of ‘70s horror films than a serious endeavor, The Evil Dead pioneered many of the techniques that later became part of Raimi’s repertoire, including gratuitous slapstick violence, first person follow-cam sequences, and fast-motion scenes filmed with actors moving backwards and then played in reverse. Raimi eventually directed The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn and the Army Of Darkness, thus completing what many consider one of horror’s greatest trilogies. The franchise has spawned comic books, video games, a line of action figures and a Broadway musical. Not bad for what started out as a $375,000 concept film.
The Edge: Raimi, by the length of a “boomstick”
Raimi Vs. Nolan: Blockbuster Rep
After achieving critical and financial success early in their respective careers, both men eventually received the opportunity to back their considerable creativity with seven-figure investment. In Raimi’s case, the path to Hollywood notoriety was a bit of a roller coaster. Despite directing A-Listers like Gene Hackman, Liam Neeson, Leo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe in a string of modestly successful films in the late ‘90s, it wasn’t until Raimi got the nod to make Spider-Man (2002) that he became a household name. Since then, the web-slinger series has become one of film’s all-time most successful franchises, with parts one, two and three all among the top 26 spots on the list of highest grossing movies in history. And Raimi is already signed on for Spider-Man 4.
Over the course of his career, he has also churned out a few subpar efforts, most famously the head scratcher that was For Love of the Game—yes, a Kevin Costner baseball movie. But underappreciated genre gems such as The Gift, A Simple Plan and Drag Me to Hell have rounded out his curriculum vitae.
Nolan’s big budget resume is considerably thinner, but in quantity only. Since the breakout success of Memento, he has directed four feature-length films, each with a production budget of more than $40 million and each boasting a cast of heavy hitters. The results? To put things modestly, he’s four for four.
In each of his mainstream pictures (Insomnia, The Prestige, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Nolan received widespread recognition for his intelligent storylines and character development. He’s also won copious industry awards and turned a healthy profit on every film. The Dark Knight, in particular, has been hailed by many as the best superhero film of all time. It won two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s magnificent turn as the Joker, and has made it onto numerous top 10 lists, even briefly holding a place atop IMDB’s ranking of highest rated films of all time. Yes, you read that correctly.
Today, Nolan looks ready to keep the mojo rolling with 2010’s sci-fi thriller Inception—already drawing hushed but unmistakably reverent speculation—as well as another entry in the Batman series.
The Edge: Nolan, for rescuing us from Joel Schumacher
Raimi’s films are heavily influenced by equal parts comic book action and vaudeville comedy of the silver screen. He is a master of goof ball horror, owing a debt of gratitude to his childhood inspirations—The Three Stooges. He also has a gift for the genuinely creepy. The Evil Dead series has more than its share of terrifying moments, while Drag Me to Hell and A Simple Plan are at times difficult to watch. In general, his films revolve around flawed but flamboyant heroes battling dark forces bent on corrupting what is right and decent.
Raimi has a penchant for creatively improvised special effects. The original Evil Dead film was banned in several countries due to its excessive gore, achieved with the use of dyed cream corn guts and clay molds of body parts. The Spider-Man films made use of top-notch CGI, but 10 years earlier, Raimi’s Darkman dazzled viewers with pyrotechnic visuals and stunning, visceral makeup effects. But of all the director’s calling cards, perhaps nothing symbolizes his style quite like his camera effects. Point of view steady cams, ultra fast zooms and rapid panoramic shots are among the techniques he has used to give audiences a range of action-packed perspectives. This style has since been dubbed the “Raimi cam.”
Nolan is no less spectacular. His films leave the impression that he is trying to fit the largest amount of action in the smallest amount of time possible. This is achieved with the liberal use of hard cuts and fast, heavy dialogue. He is also notable for his willingness to deviate from the linear narrative. Several of his films eschew the chronological pacing of action, choosing instead to jump around or move scenes backwards through time.
All of Nolan’s movies are mysteries with surprise endings. The protagonists typically suffer from physical maladies (Memento, Insomnia) or inner demons (Batman Begins) that double as both a motivation and a hindrance. Nolan displays a strong grasp for crime drama, using intricate plots that twist through several multi-dimensional characters and keep audiences guessing. All of his films come across as sharp and professional, albeit dark and gritty. It’s not a stretch to say that Nolan never wastes a centimeter of filmstrip, nor a second of running time. If there is a criticism to his style, it may be that it’s almost too involved and complicated for even savvy viewers to follow.
The Edge: Dead even, no pun intended
Raimi Vs. Nolan: Industry Influence
Nolan has gained quite a reputation in only a few short years. His name has been linked to all sorts of projects, and big-time talent seemingly lines up to work with him. His anti-chronological story-lines and feverish action pacing have been the inspiration for some of the brightest directors of the day, including Michel Gondry, Alejandro González Iñárritu and David Fincher. Success has also allowed him to establish his own production company, Syncopy Films, and together with his wife Emma Thomas and brother Jonathan, Nolan has created a formidable movie-making enterprise.
Raimi, on the other hand, has been a creative leader in the horror space for the past 20 years. In addition to his directorial efforts, he has written and produced several winners, including The Grudge, 30 Days of Night and the comedy The Hudsucker Proxy. For years, he put a major stamp on sci-fi fantasy TV by helping create shows like M.A.N.T.I.S. and Xena: Warrior Princess. Known for having literally dozens of projects in development or under discussion at any given time, Raimi has been a luminary of the genre who has made his presence felt on untold high profile projects. He even received a special thanks credit on Wes Craven’s classic Nightmare on Elm Street. Special props also go to Raimi for the role he’s played “discovering” such talents as Joel Coen, who he hired as an editor on The Evil Dead, and Bruce Campbell, high school chum turned B-Movie star.
The Edge: Raimi, for the time being
Raimi Vs. Nolan: Final Cut
Sam Raimi could retire from the movie business today, and he would be forever remembered as the man who gave audiences Ash, the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, and the Army of Darkness, while in the process helping launch the luminous careers of Joel and Ethan Coen. He could also lay rightful claim to being the only man to successfully bring your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to big screen brilliance.
Nolan, meanwhile, despite having written and directed two of the greatest comic book adaptations in history (perhaps numbers 1 and 2), does not carry the same immortal cache. Not yet, anyway. For one, his version of the caped crusader, while unforgettable, represents only one manifestation of a character that has been effectively portrayed on numerous occasions and probably will be again. But more importantly, Nolan is 12 years Raimi’s junior and has yet to create a transcendent movie franchise without a pre-sold brand behind it. Raimi, contrastingly, built the Evil Dead and Darkman sagas from the ground up.
Of course, given Nolan’s meteoric rise in show business, this assessment might look short-sighted five years from now. Using critical reception as a compass, he’s already held in higher regard than Raimi and, pound for pound, the two Batman films are superior to the three wall-crawler pics. But when it comes to the total body of work, the talented Londoner is still a few steps behind the pride of Royal Oak, Michigan.
The Verdict: In the words of Raimi’s greatest character, hail to the king, baby
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