Dunkirk Falls Flat But Is Technically Stunning
Review by Aaron Haughton
Dunkirk is the new World War II film from Christopher Nolan and centers on the the true story of the mass evacuation of the French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk in June of 1940. While waiting to be evacuated, the soldiers are sitting ducks for enemy pilots and have to fend off the imminent Germany threat with little hope or resources. Due to the circumstances and the fact that the military vessels are easily destroyed while docking, the English civilians answer the call and play their part in going to aide in the evacuation of their men and fellow comrades in war. The story is a very harrowing and inspiring one, but how does it hold up on screen? Well, the answer is: it's not perfect, but it is technically sound and somewhat enjoyable.
Much like a majority of Christopher Nolan's body of work, Dunkirk is grossly overhyped and championed with too high esteem; although, this may very well be his best film since The Dark Knight, which is a pinnacle I don't believe he'll ever be able to reach no matter how hard he tries. However, Dunkirk is a welcomed change of pace, in that it doesn't clock in over 2 hours and contains very little dialogue, both of which are unusual attributes for a Nolan film. The lack of dialogue, aside from the obvious technical bravado, is one of the crowning features of the film, and serves a narrative purpose by conveying the soldiers' perspective, their shock and fatigue. After all, they are faced with a hopeless situation wherein they don't really have the words or energy to describe, and the silence captures that nicely.
In typical Nolan fashion, he builds the narrative by intercutting between three primary timelines: land (beach), air (planes), and sea (boats). This gives way to some great moments of extreme tension because it allows Nolan many options to play with and cut between; however, some of these moments are so unoriginal and can be spotted, like the enemy aircrafts, from miles away. Take, for instance, the scene with one of the gun downed English pilots, which is obviously built up for him to be trapped within the sinking cockpit. It's a pretty standard filmic moment that we've seen a million times over, but Nolan heightens the stakes by cutting between this obvious moment and one we (or at least I) didn't see coming or playing out in the way it does.
The cinematography is truly stunning, especially any instance or scene with the aircrafts -- those are truly perfect. The drag to this, though, is that the film contained only a handful of truly memorable moments, like opening with the raining pamphlets, or the soldier who gives up and wades out into the ocean. The film could've benefited from more moments like these to elevate itself, but instead leans too heavily on the technical effects and the historical aspect, more so than building a compelling story.
I think the film's problem was that the characters that the film featured prevalently lacked any real character or depth. It's a film about survival, not war, and the enemy is faceless; the only indicator of connection we have to the characters as a viewer is that they’re human, which isn't really captivating enough to latch onto or rally behind, in my opinion. Not to mention that really none of the performances are really standout or worth noting. On the flip side, I think it may've been Nolan's script that prevented this, which may very well be his intention, but it kept me from sincerely being able to connect to the story or hang from the edge of my seat.
I'm by no means a gore hound, but the fact that there was no blood or viscera kinda pulled me out of it. As soon as the soldiers wandering the city were gunned down, I wondered, "Where's the red mist?" It's such a shame too because that opening scene is very well crafted and intense. Nolan has made an R-rated film in the past, so it's kinda silly to not go there with a war picture, especially since he's attempting to make it gritty and realistic. He's even willing to tow the limits of a PG-13 picture by including the maximal amount of f-bombs, so why not put in a bit of gore to heighten the reality? It doesn't need to be overdone, but it should at least be there. It's hard to stay in the story when dudes are getting blown up on the beach and nothing really appears to happen to them.
I've also got to knock the film for using title cards at the beginning to queue us into the events, which we can basically ascertain in context through the scene with the raining pamphlets. It's this kind of handholding and coddling that will definitely alienate some viewers. The film is also full of some pretty silly, bordering on dumb, narrative moments, like Tom Hardy's plane flying for (what felt like) an extended period without fuel, the soldier who wakes on the dock to make it seem like he's been left behind (of course he wasn't), the fact that the soldiers salvation seems to appear miraculously out of thin air, and especially the kid who hops the civilian boat to go pick up the soldiers, who basically serves no narrative function whatsoever. The film's score (by Hans Zimmer) is also utter shit; it's like he's trying to do a Batman score over a period war drama, attempting to heighten moments of genuine tension with the cheapening effects of deep bass booms and percussive bangs.
Seeing it in 35mm on one hand was a nice experience. The natural film grain is an instant boner, and it's just plain 'ole nice to see the cigarette burns in the cinema again.
On the whole, it's just an all right film and was met with such a lukewarm clap on opening night that it was almost laughable. It's just another instance of Nolan exploring the dark side of humanity with an overly populist eye. Mind you, Nolan once said in an interview that he only resorted to writing his own screenplays because a studio just doesn't hand you a script when you're starting out. While Dunkirk proves that Nolan's got a director's eye and technical savvy, it also may prove that he should maybe let someone else doing the writing from here on out.
All grievances aside, I would recommend it be seen on a big screen, preferably in 70mm or 35mm for the best experience.
Rating: 3.5 civilian boats outta 5.
What do you think? Did you enjoy the film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!