In anticipation of the release of Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic Dunkirk, I was chatting with a friend last night about Nolan’s impressive back catalogue: Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar — arguably four of my top 100 movies of all time, or at least in the top 200 (or maybe 300? I’ve never tried to do a list). Nolan is that great of a filmmaker, and that’s why I’m always excited whenever he announces a new project.
Accordingly, I went to watch the very first session of Dunkirk today, and in recommended IMAX too. And I’m glad I did, because the 70mm film is a beautiful, visceral spectacle where the sense of immersion is amplified by the IMAX screen and incredible sound and soundtrack. It’s about as close as you can get to being in the action while sitting comfortably in your cinema chair.
Perhaps in response to the backlash of the complexity and melodrama of Interstellar, Nolan went for a much simpler film this time in Dunkirk, based on the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII as Allied soldiers found themselves under siege from the Germans in the Battle of France. It’s a lesson in “showing” rather than “telling”, as Dunkirk is all about a visual narration of what the soldiers experienced on the land, on the sea, and in the air. It features an ensemble cast with some notable names (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, and so forth) but not a whole lot of dialogue. It is sometimes chaotic and there’s a sense of not knowing exactly what is going on at times, which I felt was aimed at reflecting the sentiments of the soldiers living through the ordeal.
Unlike some war films you may have seen recently, such as Hacksaw Ridge or 13 Hours, Dunkirk is less about exalting heroism and patriotism and more about the realities of survival. It’s about ordinary people trying to get back to their families no matter what and civilians putting their lives on the line to serve their country. As noted above, the narrative is split into three strands — a group of soldiers trying to get home on the land, a civilian mobilised by the military to rescue the stranded soldiers on the sea, and two fighter jet pilots taking on enemy fire in the air. The three strands intersect, though the film does not follow a linear timeline, primarily for narrative and tension creation purposes. Despite this and the lack of one central protagonist, the film does feel cohesive and compelling thanks to the cast of great actors who can get the most out of just a few lines and facial expressions.
Nolan has come out and criticised streaming platform Netflix for its awkward foray into feature film productions. With Dunkirk, you can see why he feels that way because it’s a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen, preferably an IMAX one. It puts you right between the gunfire and the torpedoes and the corpses, with a booming soundtrack that keeps ratcheting up the tension and crisp sound effects that make you jump with every bullet that shoots by your ear.
The sheer scale is amazing, with breathtaking sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the horizon, while the fighter jet sequences made it felt like you were sitting inside one as it turned and dipped and shot at enemy aircraft with machine guns. It felt like a movie without CGI because everything just seemed so seamlessly grounded in reality. And interestingly, there’s very little blood and gore in the movie for the sake of a more viewer-friending rating from the censors, but it somehow gets away with it. I do wonder, however, if the impact would have been even greater if Nolan ignored the classification and just went down the flying limbs route, or whether that would have instead taken away from the aspect of the war he was trying to depict.
At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is short for both a Nolan film and a war film, but I think that was all it needed given the intensity audiences have to sit through. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, though it’s also a film that speaks more to the senses than your mind and heart. While there are indeed some subtle moving moments throughout the film, it is not as emotionally resonating as I hoped it would be, probably because of the way the narrative and characters are structured. I admire the film from a technical perspective and for the epic sensory experience it delivers, but years from now I may not look back upon it as fondly as some of Nolan’s other classics.
4.5 stars out of 5
PS: Unfortunately for my wife, the immersive experience got too much for her (probably a combination of the size of the screen, the blaring sounds and the camera movements) and she had to leave the cinema to throw up. She hadn’t done that since we watched Cloverfield back in 2008.