When Christopher Nolan has a new release, it’s an event to get excited about. There are few directors I can say this about. Sure, there are directors that I like, but still there are few who manage to capture what makes going to the cinema an experience. Dunkirk is his latest cinematic opus. Despite it being his shortest film, with the exception of The Following, this is the first time he has shot a film almost entirely in IMAX form. What’s the big deal? Well, aside from the picture being twice the size of the regular format, what he does with these cameras is deliver a beautifully striking picture of destruction and survival. There’s a lot of buzz going around with this film, and already it’s being looked at as the first real Oscar contender of the year. Is the film worth the hype? Is it really Nolan’s best picture?
Christopher Nolan is widely known for his Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as Inception and Interstellar. While I’m a fan of these films, it’s his film Memento that has always stuck with me as his most inspired work, a film that plays with a timeline to serve the overall experience of the film. Dunkirk is yet another film that unfolds over the course of three timelines to tell its story of heroism and survival. While I appreciate Nolan’s attempt to be innovative with this storytelling technique, it’s definitely something I feel harms the overall film, because as the film unfolds we jump from one scene in the afternoon to another scene at night, and the sequences are edited to in such a way that tonally they coincide, but visually it’s jarring. But still that’s not the greatest fault I find in the film; instead, it’s that I feel we are missing the entire first act of the film.
We are thrust into the film, as British and French soldiers are doing what they can to evacuate Dunkirk, France as the German army is taking control. The battle has already occurred, and what remain are 400,000 soldiers on the beach trying to escape to fight another day. Despite seeing all the soldiers and taking place during WW2, this isn’t a war film by any stretch; instead it’s closer to a survival disaster film. At times it’s like watching the last half of Titanic, but on a grander scale.
The film has three stories going on at one time. We have the soldiers who we are following as they are attempting to flee the beach. We have a father, played by Mark Rylance, who along with his sons uses his yacht to sail to Dunkirk to rescue as many soldiers as they can. Then there is a pilot, played by Tom Hardy, who is one of three pilots who are attempting to provide protection for the ships departing Dunkirk.
There’s very little in the way of dialog for a good portion of the film. This makes it somewhat difficult to develop any attachments to many of these characters. We follow a pair of young soldiers as they avoid being bombed and escape sinking ships and numerous other hellacious situations where they are in a constant fight for their survival. While we’re rooting for them to survive and be rescued, it just would have been nice if we got to know more about who these guys are. An extra 20-30 minutes at the start of this film could have improved this film for me on a story level, but I understand Nolan was going for a more visceral impact with this film.
Where the film does squeeze in some very touching emotional bits is with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his rescue mission. Rylance delivers another great performance and is simply becoming one of my favorite working actors lately. As he and his sons rescue a lone survivor, played by Cillian Murphy, it’s this storyline that kept me engaged the most as Dawson and his boys must contend with a soldier who is traumatized and is terrified of the prospect of returning to the hell he literally just managed to escape from.
Hardy, as the spitfire pilot, is very much another character where we are rooting for him, but it would have been nice to know a little more about him. Granted his actions throughout the film will have you engaged with his character, but I just wanted a little more.
As for the true spectacle of the film, the massive amount of destruction and constant peril we witness on screen — that is what works here. The film is simply unrelenting when it comes to the struggle these characters are faced with. The moment a character escapes one torturous situation they seem to be flung into yet another. There will be some who may find the experience of the film a bit hard to watch, if not exhausting to endure. The film clocks in short of two hours, and from start to finish it will have you gripping your seat as you watch, hoping that by some miracle these men will all manage to survive.
The cinematography in this film is stunning, and I’m eager to see what this looks like on a large IMAX screen. Everything from the aerial dogfights to the sinking of ships, the camera work is breathtaking and worth the price of admission alone. While this may not be a film with the finest storytelling, the film works as a visual feat showing us the true story of the hell these British and French survivors endured in the name of survival, to literally live to fight another day. While the film has its flaws, it makes up for so much in its execution of its harrowing disaster sequences.
Dunkirk is presented in its original two aspect ratios of 1.78:1 and IMAX 2.20.1. That means the aspect ratio will shift throughout. You might expect that to be distracting, but I hardly noticed. I am rather glad that the full cinematic video presentation was preserved. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 65-70 mbps. When it comes to 4K discs, it’s a special treat when the source material is not only on film but large-format 70mm film. Christopher Nolan still insists on film, and it shows particularly well in a 4K disc. That’s because the material is actually at a higher resolution that 4K. Colors don’t dominate. This was a cloudy and smoky environment. What works here is just how detailed the large visuals are and how they can immerse you so much with great depth of field. It’s like looking out of a window into the battle. The facial close-ups that Nolan uses so often give you a chance to catch these actors at their best performances. The grit of the sand is so full of texture that you can see grains on the surface. Black levels are a bit hazy as was intended.
The DTS:HD MA 5.1 track delivers, but you have to wonder why this release wasn’t given an Atmos of DTS:X 7.1 audio presentation. Apparently it was at Nolan’s request that the simpler surround format be used. Can’t say I agree with him. This is a very impressive audio presentation, but it’s nothing like it was in the cinema. There are indeed wonderful surrounds as planes bank and fire. The crisp dynamic delivery is wonderful inside the grounded ship while the soldiers are being fired upon. Each hole and pink is startlingly realistic. I can hear Tom Hardy a bit better here than I could in the cinema. The score is huge but manages to stay in its own place. Dialog is clear for the most part (see Hardy issues). The real hero in this film is the sub levels. You can feel the bombs landing on the beaches and on the soldiers on top of the mole.
The extras are all on a dedicated Blu-ray.
Special Features: (1:49:46) Yes, that’s what it’s called. This is a massive behind-the-scenes feature split into five parts with a play-all option. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. The focus here is on the historic authenticity and where it had to be fudged. There’s also a lot on the logistics of using these large-format cameras strapped to planes and taken into tight spaces.
Films like Dunkirk are why the movie theater experience will always have its place; this isn’t a film you wait to see at home. Dunkirk is a film that needs to be appreciated on the largest screen you can find with the most state-of-the-art sound system available.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani