Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dunkirk


Wow, what a unique movie-going experience this turned out to be! I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't expecting this to be great. Christopher Nolan is my favorite director working today, and he has yet to disappoint me. I thought Interstellar was a masterful work of sci-fi with mind-bending concepts explored in a thrilling and eye-popping way. I was also one of the few who thought that The Dark Knight Rises was the best of the Batman trilogy, which is an opinion that I mostly still hold. Then there's Inception, which may be my favorite movie of all time. I honestly can't think of a single flaw in that masterpiece of a film. So yeah, I obviously have a great deal of admiration for Nolan has accomplished, but with that also comes increasingly lofty expectations for his latest efforts. Could he possibly live up to his own high bar with this unusual WWII film?


Dunkirk tells three different experiences simultaneously, though each is told in a different timeline. The Mole, which is the dock at which all of the ground troops are awaiting rescue on Dunkirk beach, takes place over the course of a week. The sea, which follows a small civilian vessel that is embarking to help as many British soldiers stranded on the beach as possible, takes place over a single day. Finally, the air tells the story of Spitfire pilots who are trying to ward off as many enemy planes as possible from raining down destruction upon the helpless soldiers. The events of this last story take place in just one hour.

I feel like that's plenty of explanation about the plot, particularly since this really isn't a plot-heavy movie, unlike many of Nolan's previous films. With Dunkirk, he's taken himself completely out of the box we've placed him in with complicated narratives involving twists and turns that introduce us to dozens of characters and usually lasts well over two hours. I for one was stunned to read that Dunkirk would only be a little over 90 minutes in length, a little more than half the running time of Nolan's previous directorial effort. However, the running time was as intentional as every other aspect of this brilliant movie. Nolan knew that the tension would be so palpable and unrelenting that he couldn't put the audience through it for too long. There's hardly a moment of relief from the building suspense of each character's struggle to survive, which is really what this movie is about.

I don't know that I've ever seen a movie quite like Dunkirk. Everything looks so authentic and real, from the sinking ships to the aerial combat. And why does it look so real? Because he filmed almost all of it in camera! The Spitfires were really airborne and there were IMAX cameras mounted to the wings in order to get the truest possible portrayal of what those pilots experienced. This might detract from some people's enjoyment of the film, as it can occasionally result in camera shakes and disorienting angles that could be unpleasant to weaker stomachs.

The noise of the film might also put people off, like the moment the first enemy plane comes on screen and we hear the building roar of the engine like a monster about to strike. Each gun shot sounds like it's happening right in your ear, and the explosions are thunderous and literally seat-shaking. However, what I love is that there's hardly any embellishment to the combat or destruction. The guns from the Spitfires don't cause fire balls to erupt from the enemy cockpits upon impact, but rather a trail of smoke appears as the plane slowly glides toward a violent crash on the surface of the water.

I could go on and on about the technical wonders this film achieved, but I'm sure it will be recognized by the Academy soon enough. This film might be light on story, as the few people who didn't like it will be quick to point out, but that's entirely by design. Nolan wasn't interested in making a movie that people had already seen dozens of times before. Instead, he pushed the boundaries of what could be done and put us in a terrifying environment with the characters in his story so we could experience their fear in the face of almost certain death. I'm perfectly fine with the fact that we didn't get long backstories about each person we encounter. To paraphrase what one character says at the end of the film, sometimes survival is enough.

Honestly, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this was a spectacular film, and one that isn't short on emotional payoff either. Once again, Hans Zimmer delivers with a heart-pounding score that perfectly accompanies the ever-rising intensity on screen. Just go and listen to the incredibly ferocious track "Supermarine" to see what I mean. I've seen some pretty great movies already this year, but so far Dunkirk stands head and shoulders above the rest as my favorite of the year. If you still can, I BEG you to see it in IMAX. It's unlike anything you've ever seen in the theater. Nolan has done it again, and I think this could be his year where the Academy feels the same way. I give Dunkirk a resounding 4 stars.

DUNKIRK is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language