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Review: Dunkirk

Image from Warner Bros. Pictures' DUNKIRK

Before watching Dunkirk, you have to know that you’re not about to see the usual film about World War II. If you don’t, you may leave the theater confused and disappointed like I did the first time I saw it. And if you do know what you’re about to get into, you may leave with an entirely different perspective while wondering what goes on in the mind of Christopher Nolan. That’s how I felt after seeing it for a second time.

Based on an actual mission that took place in 1940, Dunkirk features a story about hundreds of thousands of British troops surrounded by enemy forces. Trapped on a beach with nowhere to go, the group of men have to find a way to survive long enough for scores of civilians and military personnel come together to save them from certain annihilation.

The main issue that you will most likely have with this movie will come in form of the structure. Going into it, you have to realize that what you’re seeing isn’t done in chronological order. If you haven’t read up on it or followed it closely, you might not be expecting that and it could end up being something that’s disruptive enough to ruin your experience regardless of if you see it in IMAX, 70MM or at home when it’s released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.

To explain, I’ll point out that Dunkirk is essentially three stories all being played at one time. The first story is about the men stuck on the beach as they’re being driven back by the Nazi forces on the ground. The second story is about an older gentleman, his son and a seventeen-year-old boy who set sail as part of a crew of boats sent out to help rescue the soldiers who are in trouble. The third story centers around a trio of pilots who are fighting off the enemy in a battle for the skies.

In real-time, all of these stories happen at different periods. What we witness in the story on the beach lasts for a week. The story in the sea lasts for a day while the story in the air goes on for an hour. All of these are running concurrently, so you’re getting them all at basically the same time. As I said, if you don’t know anything about this beforehand, the structure here will likely throw you off. During the film, they give you a little bit of a hint early on, but they don’t do a good enough job of establishing this properly. This is the main reason why I went to two screenings of it.

While I had a big issue with this at the start, I ended up figuring it our on my own during my first time watching it. Even though I did that, it was hard for me to get involved with what was taking place since some time had already passed, and I was busy trying to readjust to what was going on. The second time I watched it, I understood the structure from the start and found it easier to just sit back and watch the Dunkirk simply as a film.

Although there’s a part of me that would probably still prefer that Dunkirk be presented in the usual format, I actually understand why it wasn’t presented in the conventional fashion that we’re used to. By choosing this non-linear style of filmmaking where all three stories are presented at the same time, Dunkirk is allowed to move at a pace that never really slows down. This makes for a more exciting event that constantly presents various conflicts and unrelenting intensity.

One way that they make this more intense than most movies based on World War II is the constant playing of Hans Zimmer’s score in the background. Once the clock starts ticking (literally), the music doesn’t stop until it gets to the end. This simply could not happen if this were done in chronological order since there would be more down time and a slower pace as we would spend much of our time sitting around with the soldiers on the beach who are hoping to be rescued.

Taking the approach it does also allows Dunkirk‘s main characters to stick around through the entire movie. Since the second and third stories would come in closer to the end under the conventional format, we would risk losing any type of attachment to the characters from the first story. It would also make the other characters introduced in the last two stories seem as if they had smaller roles. And that’s an awkward thing since the leads (Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy) in those stories are pretty much the biggest stars in the movie.

Keeping our attention on everyone is also important since the characters aren’t really all that engaging. Because we start off in the middle of the war, we never truly get to know any of the characters as people. With that being the case, there’s already a level of detachment here. We never feel connected to any one individual, but we don’t necessarily need to since the pace is so fast and barely ever lets up. All you care about are the situations these guys find themselves in and how they’re going to survive.

Since his movie before this one (Interstellar), I’ve come to the conclusion that Nolan isn’t that good at showing human emotions outside of fear. And with that being the case, making a movie where the emotional connection isn’t needed was actually a wise choice. Unlike the film that preceded it, Dunkirk is able to show all of Christopher Nolan’s strengths while completely avoiding almost all of his weaknesses. I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but it helps to reestablish him as filmmaker after his odyssey into space was nowhere near close to reaching the ambitious heights that it wanted to.

With all of this being said, you’re going to have to decide if you’ll be watching Dunkirk in IMAX or 70MM. With IMAX, you’re getting a bit of an overload of the senses since the sound and volume is being delivered in such an immersive way. This was something that I appreciated a great deal, but it may wear some people down since it truly is a non-stop kind of thing that’s taking place.

On the other hand, seeing it in 70MM means that you’re getting a more vibrant experience in terms of color. It’s also a bit easier to see some of the action that takes place in a few scenes. While I don’t mind digital, the film look really worked here as well because of the fact that it was clearer and more colorful. Both showed to have their positives, but I guess the way you choose to see it really depends on what you’re looking for. Either way, you’re in for something different from what you normally get during your trips to the theater.

Rating: PG-13

Director: Christopher Nolan

Fionn Whitehead
Tom Glynn-Carney
Jack Lowden
Harry Styles
Aneurin Barnard
James D’Arcy
Barry Keoghan
Kenneth Branagh
Cillian Murphy
Mark Rylance
Tom Hardy

Film Length: 106 minutes

Release Date: July 20, 2017

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Score - 7.5/10
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