Welcome to an experience where Han Zimmer’s soundtrack is your heartrate monitor and the IMAX cameras tests your Acrophobia and/or Thalassophobia. 400,000 troops are surrounded on the shores of Dunkirk, waiting for a rescue. Battleships are preyed upon by German pilots like fish in a barrel as the sea engulfs the bombed vessels and its passengers to a watery grave. Unbeknownst to both sides, British civilian ships sail towards death and dogfights as a last ditch effort to save their waterlogged veterans.
That’s the idea behind Christopher Nolan’s latest experiment. At 106 minutes there’s never a moment to come up for air in this non-stop, faithful recreation of one of World War 2’s biggest defeats. Bodies are drowned, planes ballet around each other’s ammunition and even real-life Dunkirk ships from long ago are called to sea again to add even more authenticity to the situation. Yet somehow the violence is kept at a PG-13 rather than an R for spilling more oil than blood and body parts in the ocean. And then there are the dog fights which are now the new standard since anything in the Star Wars franchise, whether in video games or movies. The IMAX camera clings for dear life to the wings whenever the planes spiral from left to right tilting the world around it. Meanwhile the cinematography embraces the freedom of flight from one longshot of a beach to a wide shot of the endless ocean. Finally, the sound editing emphasizes the diving planes as a siren of death to all the sitting ducks on land and sea when bullets aren’t turning enemy planes into Swiss cheese. There’s never a dull moment from beginning to end when you’re literally thrust into the situation at the start.
I can’t say I remember much about the characters outside of their actors (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and especially Mark Rylance), but they’re simplicity works in service to the experience while the camera does all the talking without the clichéd war exposition. Especially for a director who’s philosophical speeches can pad a story out to nearly three hours. Everyone is just part of an expensive re-enactment where the goal is to give a sense of what it’s like to survive through an historical hell. In fact, this might as well have been Christopher Nolan’s lesson to Michael Bay’s Titanic clone, Pearl Harbor on how to subtlety honor a military without over-compensating with flags and catchphrases. It’s also surprising that there’s not a single swastika, Hitler salute, or any other over-the-top propaganda depictions of the Germans given the time period. All of them are concealed behind airplanes, torpedoes and metal piercing bullets as a reverse take on the Wolfenstein formula. They’re still an elite force to evade, but only though incredible sound editing and visual direction do they show their lack of mercy.
Dunkirk is easily one of the best experiences of the year whether or not character development is important in this recreation. While they’re not the most developed, they along with the cinematography, sound editing and incredible visual effects are meant to serve the ultra-realistic immersion (I smell another clash between Nolan and Serkis for the visual effects Oscar this year). If you can accept the lack of backstory when modern entertainment focuses more on characters more than story, it won’t disappoint. But If you’re looking for a more character driven narrative, there’s always Hacksaw Ridge to fall back on, but no one can deny that the actions on camera here spoke louder than Matthew McConaughey did up in space for two hours.
Note: It goes without saying that the use of IMAX cameras makes it mandatory to take that leap of faith even if you need to weld your hands to your seats when the dogfights hijack the direction.
Pros: camera work, best movie dogfights, authentic practical effects, sound editing simple characters