Movie Review – Dunkirk (2017) – IMAX 70mm
This film is a mess. It’s not as big a mess as The Dark Knight Rises, which is arguably Christopher Nolan’s worst feature. With this film, it pushes Nolan more toward the camp of Michael Bay and less toward the camp of Alfred Hitchcock, which Nolan’s early works reminded me of. It seems apparent now that Nolan is more concerned with spectacle than he is with character or fleshed-out storytelling. What one would hope is Nolan’s career would go the way of Steven Spielberg. As such, this film would likely be his Saving Private Ryan (1998), but this film doesn’t even come close to that epic, Oscar-winner. Mainly, one walks away not knowing or caring much about any of the characters here. Ostensibly, Nolan wants us to care about the 400,000 men he’s trying to depict but in reality the only thing he cares about are the numerous ships and planes he destroys throughout this film’s 100 minutes.
One of the selling points of this movie is that it’s getting the widest release for any film projected on 70 mm film. This includes the IMAX screenings, which could have also been in digital, but I attended the first show at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I even got a free T-shirt (pictured above) to commemorate it. Playing in IMAX isn’t particularly special. What makes this film special is that Nolan used 70 mm cameras for nearly the entire shooting process, which puts the movie in a very unique club.
Within the past 20 years, there were only two other narrative features to use 70 mm cameras for the entire shooting process. They were Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). The beauty of 70 mm is the huge images it captures. It is in fact the biggest image currently available, and when projected it produces a picture that is four-stories high. The Franklin Institute has a screen that is the shape of a dome, and the image there is so huge that one can’t see the whole thing without turning one’s neck up, down, left and right.
One benefit is the wide vistas that can be captured without ever having to move the camera, as well as the depths that can be understood with just a single frame. 70 mm is stunning that way. Both Anderson and Tarantino got that traditional benefit of 70 mm, which is why in both their films, they knew how to lock the camera in place and show an image that was either a vista or had great depth. Their editing choice was to hold the image and allow the audience to absorb it because invariably the audience would have to move their necks up, down, left and right, so Anderson and Tarantino gave time for the audience to do that.
Nolan doesn’t really give that time, nor does he bother to lock the camera in place as often as one might hope. There are a few times when Nolan doesn’t have restless camera syndrome. One time is when a bunch of soldiers are all lined up on the mole and they all have to duck when an approaching German plane flies over. That was a unique moment in this film. Reportedly, the IMAX cameras are heavy, but that is apparently of no consequence to Nolan as many scenes feel handheld and not always in the good way. It probably doesn’t help that many scenes take place on boats out in the water, so a natural bobbing is to be expected. Yet, Nolan’s quick pace and arguably choppy editing only hinders the enjoyment of his images.
A particular scene of men trapped in the bottom of a ship, which actually occurs twice, is especially egregious. The writing of that scene is inadequate, but the way it’s shot and edited is such that there’s little to understand about what’s happening. The camera is bobbing or shaking in a confined and dark space. Instead of being immersed, which one hopes with 70 mm, I was only confused and frustrated.
The premise is based on the true story of Operation Dynamo, which was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France, to Dover, England, which was about 100 kilometers across the English channel. The evacuation occurred early in World War II, from May 26 to June 4, 1940, after Germany had conquered France. It required hundreds of boats ferrying men to safety.
The film follows several of the men trying to get to safety, as well as some of the men trying to help with the rescue. The failure of Nolan’s writing is we learn practically nothing about any of these men. They are just action figures that Nolan flings around. They aren’t developed characters whom we get to know on any deeper level. I couldn’t even tell you the names of any of them.
Nolan doesn’t make things easier in the way he structures the plot. Since Memento (2000), Nolan has liked playing with time. That 2000 film had its narrative reveal itself in reverse chronological order or backwards. Inception (2010) had multiple action scenes cross-cut between others running at different speeds. Interstellar (2014) literally had time-travel. Here, Nolan combines several of his previous techniques and he has several action scenes cross-cut but happening at different chronologies.
Nolan has ostensibly three time-lines going here, but it’s not clear that they are all concurrently occurring. Some characters are followed for days. Some characters are followed for only one day. Another character is only followed for a few hours. Yet, those characters are cross-cut between each other, almost as if it’s all progressing at the same time, unless I’m totally confused.
For example, we see Nolan go from day scenes to night scenes with some of the men going from the beach to the boat and across the channel. Yet, Tom Hardy (pictured above) plays an air force pilot who flies around shooting down German planes. The whole movie follows a single flight ending with his plane running out of fuel. He’s never seen at night unlike the others. It’s also funny how this is the second film where Nolan has Hardy give an entire performance from behind a mask.
Yet, I cared more about the guys in Red Tails (2012) than I ever did Hardy’s character. Same goes for all the other recognizable, UK actors here, including Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy and Cillian Murphy. I couldn’t tell you what any of their characters’ names were or much about any of them.
Nolan is too busy sinking naval warships or shooting down German planes in dogfights that seem there only to pad out the run-time and quite frankly distract from the sea rescues, which are the main point of Operation Dynamo. Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest did a better job depicting a sea rescue from Dunkirk and that film was more about a screenwriter. There is an aforementioned scene with men trapped in the bottom of a ship. A dramatic moment arises when they think one of them is a German spy. The moment is so poorly set-up that it didn’t resonate. The moment also didn’t work because when the men come under fire, I don’t know who they are and the geography is never properly established, so I didn’t understand what was happening.
Earlier this year, an Italian film about men being rescued by water called Fire At Sea was nominated at the 89th Oscars. I was reminded of that documentary because Nolan’s film is about men rescued by water too and at one point he stages a literal fire at sea. Yet, I knew it was nothing but empty spectacle because I never felt anything about the men dying in this IMAX splash than I did the men dying in that documentary.
Rated PG-13 for intense war violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.