Dunkirk (2017) Movie Review

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Originally published on Creators.co on July 24th, 2017 as “4 Reasons Why ‘Dunkirk’ Is A Must See”

Some may call me a Nolan fanboy. I suppose by the virtue of me enjoying nearly all of his films makes me guilty as charged. With each passing film I wonder to myself, will this be the one I dislike? I use to do that with Pixar films (and then Cars 2 was released). Still, when Dunkirk was announced as Nolan’s next project, I was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps at the time, I was hoping for the next Inception or Interstellar type of movie or even a James Bond movie directed by Nolan. A World War II film seem a bit mundane compared to Nolan’s other projects. Still, I was excited for it based on the trailers and the six-minute IMAX preview shown by Star Wars: Rogue One.

Despite my initial reaction, Dunkirk is far from a mundane war film. Dunkirk is unlike any war film I have ever seen. Foregoing many war film tropes and clichés, Dunkirk is a near masterpiece of visual storytelling, suspense, intensity, and aerial dogfighting footage. Nolan stimulates our senses with pitch-perfect sound design and unique story structure. Dunkirk isn’t another Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it is something else entirely. Dunkirk is a must see in theaters.

1. Storytelling

Dunkirk’s storytelling choices may surprise some going in. This film opens up directly in the midst of the evacuation of the beaches of Dunkirk and doesn’t stop from there. This event is told from three different perspectives of the evacuation: from the land, sea, and air. Nolan also uses his signature non-linear style of storytelling in order to tell this type of story. Enabling non-linear storytelling allows Nolan to keep the forward momentum of the suspense without sacrificing any of the perspectives that would never have lined up time-wise during the actual event.

2. The Suspense and Intensity

Dunkirk [Credit: Warner Brothers]
Dunkirk [Credit: Warner Brothers]

First and foremost, Dunkirk is a suspense film. The entire movie is built around building up suspense but never giving all the payoff, thus never losing the film’s tick-tock intensity. Despite its PG-13 rating, this is among one of the most intense war films I have ever experienced. The movie doesn’t need gore for the shock value nor does it attempt to follow the template set by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (the movie that nearly all World War II movies since have tried to replicate to varying success). The sheer helplessness of the situation provides all the horror that the audience needs. The air horn of a Germany Stuka Dive Bomber coming down towards the beaches of Dunkirk is enough to make your blood curl and your heart pound with fear. This is only bolstered by Hans Zimmer’s once again masterful musical score.

3. Cinematography and Practical Effects

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

The cinematography helmed by Hoyte Van Hoytema and practical filmmaking style of Christopher Nolan go perfectly together. Nolan uses many real boats, extras, sets, locations, and aircraft to bring the evacuation to life. Hoytema moves his camera in and out of these varying locals, placing the viewer right thick in the middle of the action and forcing the viewer to confront the same horrors that the main characters are facing.

The aerial photography rivals anything that’s ever been put to film. I love good dogfighting scenes in movies, and this has some of the most realistic and stomach curling scenes of dogfighting ever made in the air. The camera is placed on the side of the aircraft and in the cockpit with the pilots, which is stunning to view. Made with real aircraft as opposed to computer filled fast-paced dogfighting, these scenes have weight and tension because of Nolan’s practical effects and Hoytema’s cinematography.

Nolan’s choice to film this movie with IMAX camera pays off in a big way. The scenes shot in IMAX have such a richness and depth that it draws you into the action in a way that 3D only attempts to do. The movie looks massive and the IMAX cameras are able to capture that size and magnitude. Added with it is the mind-altering sound quality gives you the more lifelike experience.

4- It’s Visual Character Building

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

A point of contention with some regarding Dunkirk was how it handles its characters. Dunkirk is designed from the very beginning to throw the audience into the same situation as the characters. For them, there isn’t a moment to breathe or to be calm, it is all about survival. In that, there isn’t nearly any time given to sit down and get to know who these people are like there are in other war movies. For many, this is the biggest flaw with the film, but for me, it is one of the most powerful and subversive choices that Nolan made.

Many war films give moments where a character can give large amounts of exposition about who they are and where they have come from, but Dunkirk doesn’t. Nolan makes a conscious choice to not allow that to happen. If Nolan did go that route, then he would have to bring the entire momentum of the film to a grinding halt. Instead, we learn about the characters through visual storytelling and their actions. There are interesting moral dilemmas that Nolan poses to our main characters and that gives the audience a keyhole into what type of people they are. I found this to be an interesting and profoundly powerful choice. I did care about the people regardless of how little I knew about their backstory. There is a difference between an approach like this and a lack of character development. One is a mistake and the other is conscious.

Wrap Up

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Brothers]
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Brothers]

In the past few weeks, I feel that I have been treated to some of the best movies of the year. From Baby Driver to The Big Sick, to War For The Planet of the Apes, and now I can add Dunkirk to that list. Dunkirk is a unique, powerful, and stressful war film that is a feat of visual storytelling and practical effects. Everything from the sound design to Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is nearly perfect, and I do believe this is among Nolan’s best films he has directed. This is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

I got to see this in IMAX, and I can confirm seeing it in IMAX added a lot to the experience. I do believe something will be lost by not seeing this in theaters as opposed to seeing it at home or (god forbid) a phone. Dunkirk is a true theater-going experience, one that is uniquely modern yet reminiscent of classical cinema. Go see it when you get the chance.

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