Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s latest film. You know, that guy who directed The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception? He’s kind of a big deal. But apparently he’s veering away from fantasy and science fiction with this film about the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II. According to Nigel Farage, Dunkirk is a move all youngsters should see. According to most critics, it’s a film all people should see. Yes, yet again, a Nolan film is receiving high critical acclaim. But does it deserve it? Dunkirk, you know that story. British troops are stuck on a beach in France, waiting to be evacuated to Britain. World War II looks like a failure for the Allies. Supplies are needed for the probable Nazi invasion of Britain, so civilian ships are used in the evacuation. That’s all you need to know, really. That’s all Nolan wants you to know. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s an admirable simplicity that’s missing from most films in Dunkirk. The opening scrawl that explains what’s happening is only a few sentences. Characters don’t explain over and over again what’s happening or about to happen (like in Nolan’s own Interstellar or Inception). We’re often not told anything at all.
“I’m not going back”
But this simplicity is also one of the failings of Dunkirk. The simplicity filters down into the characters themselves. We are told/shown nothing about them. Some of the main characters aren’t even given names. How are we supposed to care about characters that we know nothing about? I don’t want a full, expositional history of each character. Eyes and gestures can tell us in a few seconds what dialogue would take us minutes to tell. I understand that the main drive behind the characters is survival. That’s all they care about. But give us a reason to care about them as well.
Emotion is something Nolan’s struggled with in the past. His films are technically brilliant, but some have struggled to make the audience feel something. Dunkirk is no exception in the area of technical brilliance. It looks beautiful and real. There’s no apparent CGI here. That gives the film an intimate and smaller feel. Of course, some may wonder why there are only three Spitfires in the entire film, and only a few more German planes. But at least everything looks authentic. It creates a believable atmosphere, something that is lost in all the CGI worlds we plunge into when we visit the cinema.
But looks are only skin deep (or so I’m told). You need something more than that to carry a film. Tension is the name of Nolan’s game here. Tension from the Spitfire firefights. Tension from Harry Styles trying to escape Dunkirk. Tension from the civilian captain and his crew of two attempting to cruise to Dunkirk to save soldiers. Hans Zimmer’s mechanical score desperately tries to inculcate a deep tension into the viewer. The deafening bullet shots or explosions also try to add to the tension and horror. But both fail to portray tension. I won’t deny I felt gripped for a few scenes of the movie. For the majority of it, however, I felt…bored.
“Seeing home doesn’t help us get there”
Yes, bored. I felt the same scenes were repeated over and over again. Tom Hardy seems to endlessly chase a German plane. Kenneth Brannagh looks into the distance a lot to portray a feeling of portent. Ships capsize and soldiers struggle to escape. Among the deafening sound effects and Zimmer’s plundering score, I found myself twiddling my thumbs or struggling to hear what people were saying. That’s not an uncommon complaint when watching a Nolan movie at the cinema (or most movies, actually), but when important plot points are being talked about and you can’t hear them, it’s annoying. Tom Hardy is more inaudible here than he was in The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, that just might be the audio at my local Odeon.
But one thing that wasn’t my local Odeon’s fault is the non-linear storyline. Did a story like Dunkirk need a non-linear storyline? Or was it merely a Nolan device to further distract you from the film’s shortcomings? Different people in war may perceive time differently. Was that Nolan’s reason for the non-linear storyline? Whatever his reason, the flips back and forth in time only served to undercut the supposed tension. For example, we see Hardy’s fighter companion execute an emergency landing in the sea. Later on, we see the same emergency landing from a different point of view. However, Zimmer’s score pumps up the volume, hinting that he might crash land. We know that he doesn’t crash land, so why the boom and bombast?
Throughout the boom and bombast, my emotions were pulled a few times towards the ending of the film. The first was the sighting of the civilian boats in the horizon. The second was a solider reading out Churchill’s “we will fight on the beaches” speech. But I always tear up when I hear that. That’s what Nolan is hoping to capitalise on here: our nostalgic belief in the Dunkirk spirit. Sometimes it works. But more often than not, it fails. Here’s a film that avoids CGI but falls into the trap of every stupid blockbuster that’s out there. It trades in genuine tension for deafening sounds effects and a blaring score. It gives us cardboard cut-outs of characters instead of characters you can care about. It gives us a non-linear story in hope that we won’t see the flaws inside it. I left the cinema feeling stunned. But stunned that I felt empty after watching Dunkirk. I felt more emotional during that one five minute scene about Dunkirk in Atonement that I did for the entirety of Nolan’s Dunkirk.
VERDICT: 4/10. Dunkirk tries to make you feel tense, over and over again. But below the deafening sounds effects and booming score lies an emotionless, boring film.
What did you think of Dunkirk (2017)? Leave your comments below!
Click here for my review of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)