A monumental achievement, the latest from Christopher Nolan is an experience like no other.
Christopher Nolan, one of the most successful directors of all-time, came from humble cinematic beginnings to crafting massive blockbusters, ranging from comic-book heroes to sci-fi mind benders. Exchanging fantasy for gritty realism, Dunkirk is a World War II epic, exploring the evacuation of allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France. Right from the haunting prologue, Nolan immediately immerses the viewer into the terrors of war, and refuses to relent until the credits roll. Dunkirk is a singular, overwhelming experience that demands the largest possible screen, relying on some of what has made Nolan a success, but flexing more artistic muscle than ever before to make what may be Nolan’s best film to date.
Dunkirk unfolds over three separate stories over three separate timelines. One takes place over an hour, one over a day, and the other over a week. It is an almost Inception-esque move, but Nolan has proven his ability to handle multiple timelines, and these three stories are weaved together to magnificent effect. Nolan has always struggled with character development, and takes this to the next level by having a cast of characters who have few defining characteristics, and I can’t say I remember more than a couple of names after the film. While this has been an issue in previous Nolan films, here its a real asset: Dunkirk is a film all about immersion, and bringing the audience into the experience over all else.
Nolan’s scripts in the past have relied heavily on exposition, virtually none of which is to be found in Dunkirk. Quite the opposite actually, as the film has large stretches without a single word uttered, and in some ways the film recalls silent war epics like Abel Gance’s Napoleon. The lack of dialogue is a fascinating choice when considering other major films in the war genre. The war genre frequently falls victim to lengthy passages of exposition, particularly when outlying military strategies. There is nothing of the sort in Nolan’s film, and the only example of discussing strategy happens early in the film where a few officers briefly discuss the situation.
The enemy is always a crucial component in war films, but Dunkirk turns the genre on its head yet again, as the enemy army is never seen in the film. German soldiers are always present – lurking underwater, beyond the shore, in the sky, or floating in the vast waters. Nolan makes the threat feel constantly present, and considering we never really see an enemy solider, this achievement cannot be ignored.
What makes Dunkirk so powerful is its technical prowess, and especially the work of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Hans Zimmer. The film’s sound design is as close as you can get to a lock for a pair of Oscars. Bullets whistle by, explosions pack serious weight and the overall soundscape constantly increases the tension. Van Hoytema, who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, uses an enormous canvas explore scenes of war. Scenes involving a fighter pilot (played by Tom Hardy) are exquisite, and do a great job conveying both the endless opportunities in air combat and the searing intensity of close combat. Then there is Zimmer, whose scores are known for their frequent blares and flurries of intensity, who puts forth some of the best work of his career in Dunkirk. Zimmer’s score is matched to the action perfectly, each beat effectively upping the tension to a fever-pitch.
Nolan’s latest does so much more than highlight a particular moment in World War II. It’s mission is to fully immerse the audience into the unimaginable chaos of war, and it is an enormous success. While there are some aspects of the film that are distinctly Christopher Nolan, there is also a lot that shows a director at the top of his game moving in bold new places, which only serves to add to the 107 minutes of constant thrills this film provides. Dunkirk is a masterful film, and is the years first serious Oscar contender, and as far as I am concerned, the best film of the year so far.
Note – this film demands the biggest screen you can find. If you can see it in 70mm IMAX, it is without a doubt worth the extra money.
Dunkirk is out now nationwide in IMAX.