Star Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
For the first time in recent memory, I was not excited about a Christopher Nolan film. I can’t entirely pinpoint why, but there was something about Dunkirk that didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps, I’ve out grown Nolan as a filmmaker. Perhaps, it’s my disinterest in war films. Perhaps, it’s the knowledge that Nolan is incapable of telling a simple, linear, story. Perhaps, it’s a combination of all three. Regardless, I found myself walking out of the theater Saturday night, amidst all of my fellow film goers gushing about how incredible Dunkirk was, only to feel that I had missed something. Even all of the early reviews have praised Dunkirk for being Nolan’s new masterpiece. A film that will stand the test of time and go on to be remembered as the defining achievement of Nolan’s career. Perhaps, I missed something.
Dunkirk, as the name implies, is about the city of Dunkirk in France and the evacuation of Allied troops during WWII. Nolan chooses to look at this evacuation from three different perspectives over the course of three different periods of time. The first plot line looks at the evacuation from the soldiers on the beach and takes place over the course of a week. The second plot sees the evacuation from the perspective of the civilians who traversed the English Channel to rescue some of the soldiers on the beach and takes place over the course of 24 hours. The third and final plot sees the evacuation from the Air and the Royal Air Force as they fly to stop German bombers from taking out larger ships. This third story takes place over the course of an hour. As the film progresses, these three storylines interweave to tell one, somewhat, cohesive story about Dunkirk.
In typical Nolan fashion, he uses these three intertwining stories to play on audiences expectations and create a feeling of pseudo-tension across the film. Everything is edited in such a way that the film is almost disorienting to watch because it seems as if events are happening at the same time, when in fact they could be days or hours apart. There were several moments throughout the film when I thought I was aware of the differences in timing, only to be proven wrong by two of the plots overlapping to show their relationship in time and space. At first, this technique is incredibly clever because Cillian Murphy’s character manages to show up in the second plot line, and almost immediately after he shows up in the first plot line, which then acts as a sort of flashback for his story arc. It’s a fantastic example of what sets film apart as a visual, sequential, art form. Nolan manages to show how film as a medium can play with audiences expectations without overindulging in boring exposition. While this technique did help with some creative story telling in several moments, it also worked as a disservice to audiences. Nolan, in several spots, tried to inter cut the action in a way so that the entire story felt like it was building, and this would often mean cutting away from a scene or plot at a critical moment which would, in turn, pull the viewer out of the supposed emotion of the scene. The way the different stories weave together is a typical Nolan storytelling gimmick that ultimately works against the overall story than benefits it.
The way the film’s various plots are cut together is meant to create a feeling of tension that builds throughout the entire film, leading to the moment when all of the British soldiers are rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. The film lacks any sort of explosive climax that most war films are known for and instead opts for a more poignant declaration of why the evacuation of Dunkirk was so important to history. This doesn’t stop the film from making the audience believe that everything is going to build to some great, explosive battle toward the end. The film begins by dropping the viewer right into the middle of the action as one of the main characters is shot at by Germans while he works his way to the beach. From beginning to end it is almost non-stop action, with very few “quiet” moments intended to give the viewer a respite from all of the action. These scenes are rendered useless with Hans Zimmer’s score which uses a Shepard tone to give the illusion of a constantly rising sound. It’s meant to create a sense of tension throughout the action but instead, prevents the viewer from actually resting when these quiet moments come. It sets up a pattern of rising action that the viewer comes to expect after the second “fight.”
Another issue that plagues this film, and several of Nolan’s other films, is the lack of character depth. After leaving the theater I could not remember the name of a single main character introduced in the film. The only thing to orient the viewer is actors names, face, and places within the story. There is very little dialogue throughout the entire film. We know from basic human understanding that the characters want to survive the evacuation, but not much else is revealed about the characters throughout the film. By the time the film ended, I hadn’t made a single emotional connection to any of the characters. While this could have been intentional (Nolan could have been trying to create a story that was solely factual in nature) it’s hard for me to believe that it was intentional. Most of Nolan’s films lack real emotional depth with the characters.
The only saving grace that I could find in Dunkirk was how marvelously technical it was. Compared to a lot of the big budget blockbusters that come to theaters every year, Dunkirk was almost hyper-realistic with its primary use of practical effects. I am sure some CGI was used, but I could not find any blatant examples of it throughout the film. Nolan’s hard headed refusal to accept the industry’s slow transition to digital filmmaking is actually advantageous for Dunkirk. The film grain creates a sense of awareness and nostalgia that works for the period this film takes place in. Film still manages to create a sense of depth that silicon and sensors are still not quite capable of creating. I can’t help but wonder, though, how amazing this film would look with the sharper image digital film is now capable of creating thanks to 8k cameras. The color palette of the film itself does very little to show off the color depths that film is able to create vs. digital filmmaking. Regardless, Nolan has proven again that he knows what he is doing with film, even if his beliefs about digital filmmaking now make him sound like a Luddite.
Dunkirk is far from a great film. I wouldn’t even say it’s a “good” film. But it’s not bad either. It could have been better. There could have been more plot and more character development. If you really want to see this film, save your money and rent it. The cinematic experience is incredible from a sound perspective, but that isn’t enough to make this film deserving of the full price of admission. Dunkirk represents the culmination of years of technical wizardry that has defined Nolan’s work, but it is also the greatest representation of his short comings in story telling.