Okay so I said I would review all of Christopher Nolan’s movies before Dunkirk came out, and I ended up being much busier than I had anticipated. Still, since he has a movie out, I might continue with the reviews, after this review for Dunkirk.
As I write this, I’m wearing a t-shirt that was given to me for free at the 70mm IMAX showing that I went to. Going into the film, it really felt like an experience. For a Thursday night showing in Alabama, the theatre was packed. They were handing out free t-shirts, and everyone was oozing with anticipation, myself included. It felt like we were really about to experience something.
And we did, in many respects. But even so, Dunkirk is a mixed bag for me. It’s good, don’t get me wrong; but it’s not great, in my opinion. In fact, I might be my least favorite Christopher Nolan movie thus far. I’d had to go back and rematch it to confirm for sure, but I must say I was disappointed with Dunkirk overall. I still like it, and it is sticking with me the morning after, but I cannot deny the glaring flaws that were almost overpowering for me.
Let’s start with what’s great about the movie, because there is a lot to talk about here. In regards to the 70mm IMAX experience, you need to see it that way if you can. This movie really is made for that kind of viewing experience, and Nolan and his DP Hoyte van Hoytema. The visuals are some of the best ever captured in a Nolan movie. Wide landscapes of the sea and the beach, intercut with extreme close-ups in cockpits and in boats, make for a truly engrossing experience. That’s one word I can safely use to describe Dunkirk: engrossing. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that really goes the extra mile to visually transport you into its world. The experience of watching Dunkirk is something special, in that regard; and that’s why I recommend that you do see it in a movie theater, especially in IMAX if you can. The 70mm is no gimmick, it actually helps contribute something to the movie.
The battle sequences are nothing short of remarkable. Nolan’s use of practical effects pays off in spades with Dunkirk; it’s arguably his most effective employment of them yet. He’s grown so much as a filmmaker over the years, in this regard, that one really does feel like they’re watching the work of a master in his craft. The airplane battle sequences, for example, are probably some of the best ever put to film. The same can be said of the sequences that take place on the sea, with the sweeping landscapes and the destruction of massive warships. Again, this is where the 70mm experience really becomes more than a gimmick; the experience of watching the movie is thrilling because of these grand, sweeping, sequences that show Nolan utilizing one of his best attributes as a filmmaker: his sense of scope. Dunkirk in many ways-again, strictly from a visual experience standpoint-feels like it belongs with Gone With The Wind and Lawrence Of Arabia and Lord Of The Rings in regards to its epic scope. This is why I would say that you must see this in a theater, because its not often that filmmakers really go the extra mile to create a theatre experience like Nolan does here.
Also, Hans Zimmer has once again created a fanatically cinematic score…and in other news, the grass is green and water is blue 🙂
That being said, I had a lot of problems with this movie, particularly in the writing department. While I do believe Nolan is a master of cinematic storytelling, I think his writing of this screenplay is where the movie falls flat. Yes, the experience of the movie is special; however, there is glaring lack of true characters throughout the film. Many have made the argument that “that’s what war is like, it’s realistic and many die without anyone knowing their names or where they come from or who they are.” While there is maybe some merit to that for photography, I’m sorry I just cannot agree that there is merit to that for filmmaking. What makes film great is that it is the amalgamative art-form: it takes the best of narrative storytelling, visual majesty, and booming sound and combines them all into the grand experience that is cinema. When you leave one element out of the equation, in this case narrative storytelling, then the overall magic suffers. And you can’t have effective narrative storytelling without good characters. I can feel objection coming on from Nolan die hards, because I myself am a Nolan die hard and had a similar reaction when people pointed out glaring flaws with Interstellar back in 2014. I came to acknowledge those flaws and still enjoy the movie, and that’s what I’m able to do with Dunkirk, just less so than with Interstellar. But let me raise a counter to any objections: why do people come out against the Transformers movies? Among the many reasons is that the human characters aren’t well written or well realized; yet, the visual spectacle of those movies cannot be denied. But, people say “if the story and characters aren’t good, it doesn’t matter.” It’s the same with Christopher Nolan; granted, he does it better than Michael Bay, and Dunkirk is a better experience than Transformers, but root problem is the same. Even if the people who are in the movie are based on real soldiers and real civilians, it doesn’t matter. It’s a story, and part of telling it well is telling with good characters. You can’t invest, truly, in a story if the relatable arm of said story-the characters-aren’t well realized. And I’m sorry to say, Dunkirk fails miserably in the character department. The movie is good, but it could’ve been great if it just took time to allow us to become emotionally invested in these people.
“But Daaaannnn, can’t you just care because they are people and they are in danger? Is that not enough for you?”
Again I say: tell that to Shia LaBeouf! Yes, Dunkirk is based on true events; but it’s still a movie, and so the principles of storytelling still apply!
The only character I cared about was Mark Rylance, he has the most development. Tom Hardy has some heroism that adds merit to his character as well, but it’s not until the very end; the rest of that time, he just kind of looks cool flying around in a plane. Great cinematography doesn’t make him a great character. The soldiers, lead by Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead, are practically lifeless. They hardly say a word, and unless they were getting shot at or going down with a sinking ship, they are bored me to death. They felt like obligatory solider characters; and I know didn’t intend it that way, but that’s how it comes off.
The result of all this is a movie that is indeed a mixed bag for me. It’s a visual spectacle, yes; but emotionally, it falls flat and fails to have any lasting resonance. Should you see it on the big screen? I think yes. Should you buy it on DVD? I doubt it, unless you’re a Nolan die hard or are just really interested in learning the BTS of the camera work.
Dunkirk is good, but it could’ve been great. I understand what Nolan intended, but it doesn’t make the movie work for me. If I’m being honest, this is probably in bottom three favorite movies that he has done. Many have said that they believe it to be among his best, and that’s awesome! I’m glad they loved it that much! But for me, the intense character drama paired with epic scale that comes with the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige, and Memento is far superior. In terms of Nolan’s filmography, this is more along the lines of Insomnia or Following for me (that’s not bad company to be in, those are good movies; again, it was good, but it could’ve been great). And I must say, while I am thrilled that people seem to be enjoying the movie, I do think that part of the reason that this is getting as much praise as it is is because it’s Christopher Nolan. Seriously, if this was a Michael Bay film, and that same visual grandiose experience was there, I think this would be hovering at 65% or maybe 70% on Rotten Tomatoes…not 90%. In other words: in my opinion, it’s good but overhyped.
So, while I enjoyed Dunkirk, I must say that overall I was fairly disappointed. Still, I’d say go out to the theatre and see it, because I don’t think there will be anything like it visually for years to come.