Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and with your theater’s best sound system. This is a war movie in its simplest terms. Immediately thrown into the middle of the war, Dunkirk features one of the best sound designs of recent memory. When the bullets are shot or the planes are attacking, the vibrations in the IMAX theater make you feel like you’re there with them. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema uses different color palettes to highlight the beauty on the beach in comparison to the horrors the soldiers are facing. One of the more interesting elements is the differing aspect ratios. While most of the film is shot with special IMAX cameras, some of the more claustrophobic scenes, such as the ones where the soldiers are below deck are shot with a tighter aspect ratio, making the screen seem tighter and the scene more confined.
Dunkirk expects you to know some backstory to WWII. Other than a brief title card, there’s very little context to this movie. We’re immediately thrust into this escape mission. The Nazis and the Germans are never mentioned by name, only as “the Enemy.” This gives it a timeless sort of feel, which allows audiences, no matter where in the world they’re located, to transport themselves into the world of these characters, soldier or civilian.
Regarding the characters, they take a backseat towards the action and war. Most of them don’t have names, and if they do, they’re mentioned quietly in passing. With so many young white brunette soldiers, sometimes it was hard to keep track of who was who. This was probably to give a sense of community and uniform to the soldiers, but it did make following some of their individual journeys kind of difficult. This movie isn’t dialogue heavy at all, so we don’t learn anything about these soldiers hopes, dreams, pasts, or ambitions. All we know is they’re trying their best to survive. While this helps put you in their desperate mindset, it makes it difficult to empathize with them as individual characters.
While Dunkirk plays around with narrative structure, it’s done in a more straightforward way than some of Nolan’s previous works. As he introduces the three main plot threads (the Mole, the Air, and the Sea), their titles and times come on the screen. This makes it easily digestible and allows us to focus on what’s happening on screen, rather than trying to put pieces of a puzzle together. Although some characters do pop up at different times in different storylines, for the most part, it’s pretty straightforward, especially when compared to some of the more uniquely plotted Nolan films, like Memento and Interstellar.
This movie is closer to an ensemble of smaller parts, and while there’s no real lead, Tom Hardy stands out, in his now signature face covering role, as the pilot trying his best to keep the air clear of enemy planes. I imagine a fair amount of teenagers will go see this to support Harry Styles acting debut, and he does a serviceable job as one of the beached soldiers. Depending on the next few movies he signs on for, I could possibly see him having a promising acting career. He was the one familiar face in the beach of soldiers, so he was easy to differentiate, for better or worse. Cillian Murphy is the one character who has the closest thing to a character arc as he deals with shock and PTSD, but because of the different timelines, there are significant pieces missing, that I feel could’ve added to his character’s journey.
While hearing about the Battle and Rescue of Dunkirk, I assumed most of the movie would focus on the civilians coming to the rescue, which seems like the most unique aspect of the story. These are ordinary British civilians who took their own boats into the warzone to save the stranded soldiers. While the one-third of the film focusing on Mark Rylance covers this, it focuses almost solely on his boat. This humanized it, and I’m sure many of the other civilian ships had similar experiences to that of Rylance’s, but it underscored the scope of the mission.
Dunkirk should definitely be seen for its technical achievements. The visuals and sound design are nearly flawless, and they, combined with an infectious score by Hans Zimmer, complete with a stopwatch motif to increase tension, make it a fully immersive experience. You really feel like you’re on the warzone with these men, which is a huge cinematic achievement. If your appreciation of film focuses more on visuals and spectacle, you’re going to love this movie. If you prefer more story driven movies, you’re probably still going to enjoy it, but maybe not as much, depending on your interest and appreciation of things like practical effects, sound design, and cinematography. Either way, with Dunkirk Christopher Nolan has created a war film that can hold its own against the best war films. If you’re going to see Dunkirk, see it in the theaters. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to see it on your home TV. And consider splurging for the IMAX tickets. It’s certainly worth it.
Montclair State | New Jersey