Dunkirk review: The best film of 2017, so far

- Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK is a masterpiece and the best film I’ve seen this year, so far. Period. DUNKIRK is the reason we go to the cinema.

DUNKIRK is a reminder of why practical effects are the key to immersive action. DUNKIRK is a celebration of celluloid and more proof that film contains a magic quality that you can’t find in digital filmmaking. DUNKIRK is the type of film that can save cinema. DUNKIRK proves that a score can be a film’s leading character. DUNKIRK shows that a film based in WW2 can be under two hours. DUNKIRK is a film that makes the audience work and treats that audience with respect. DUNKIRK is everything you want in cinema.

IMPORTANT NOTES:

1) Here's a list of theatres where you can see DUNKIRK in 70mm IMAX and IMAX LASER: http://bit.ly/2u68qwo

2) If you live in the DMV area and are looking for the best places to see DUNKIRK, here are three: Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. or Lockheed Martin IMAX in Washington D.C.

Before I get to my actual review points, I want to break down why seeing this film in 70mm IMAX or IMAX Laser is a must. The issue with theatres today is that we are given so many options for how to see a film: IMAX 3D, 3D, Real 3D, IMAX, EXTREME, 35mm, 70mm and so many more. These options become muddled and confusing to audiences, which leads to the wrong decisions that can affect the viewing of the film. It’s important to know how a filmmaker filmed their film and how they intend for people to see it.

The 70mm IMAX presentation of DUNKIRK is arguably the most immersive experience I’ve ever had in a cinema. The other two that come to mind were Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR and Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. Here’s the problem: there are very few 70mm IMAX film theatres in the world. That is a problem that I hope cinema goers can fix by attempting to see the film in its intended format of 70mm IMAX. Depending on where you live, the drive could be a few hours but it’s worth every single penny. The drive for my first DUNKIRK 70mm IMAX experience was two hours in traffic. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And yes, I understand not everyone can see it that way, so my hope is to lead you in the best direction to experience it the way Nolan intended.

Christopher Nolan shot around 75 percent of the film on IMAX film cameras. That means when you sit down in an IMAX theatre, the image will fill the entire screen. This then leads to a discussion of “real” vs. “fake” IMAX. When it comes to seeing a film where a filmmaker shot on actual IMAX film, the key is to find a theatre with a 1:43:1 aspect ratio. If you see a theatre that is IMAX Laser or 70mm IMAX film, that will be 1:43:1 aspect ratio. Typically, you would find this type of screen at a science museum.

For example, I live in the Washington D.C. area. I have three options that serve the 1:43:1 aspect ratio to see the film in Nolan’s intended vision. Two of these options are at the Smithsonian’s UDVAR HAZY and LOCKHEED MARTIN IMAX theaters. Formally, these theatres were 70mm IMAX FILM theaters which have now been converted to IMAX Laser. The massive screens are still the same but the projection is now different. While IMAX Laser is digital projection, you still get the full 1:43:1 aspect ratio of DUNKIRK. Basically, you’re still getting the LARGE IMAX images that Nolan shot. The only difference is that it will be projected digitally. If you know me, you know I prefer film over digital, so if you want that full 70mm IMAX film experience, you would have to travel to Baltimore to the Maryland Science Center. Though, all three theatres will give you almost the exact same experience.

This leads to an interesting question, though. There are many theatres throughout the country that will be showing the film on 70mm film (Non-IMAX). Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT really helped bring back the idea of seeing films on 70mm film. The “Roadhouse” showings of THE HATEFUL EIGHT were beyond memorable and made me hope this type of cinema was more frequent. Theatres across the country installed 70mm projectors to show Tarantino’s film and, at the time, it was the widest 70mm release in decades. The idea of installing 70mm projections in theatres has now made another comeback with Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK.

This is where it gets really interesting though. These 70mm (Non-IMAX) theatres will NOT feature the massive 1:43:1 aspect ratio IMAX films shots. So while 70mm is glorious film projection, you’re still better off seeing it in IMAX Laser to get the full IMAX shots that Nolan used for 75 percent of the film.

So you might be asking why Nolan shot 75 percent of the film on IMAX film and not the entire movie. The other shots in the film were shot on 65mm film, which is still large format type of film. He does this because the IMAX cameras are extremely loud so he uses the 65mm film cameras for more intimate dialogue sequences. This is different than how he shot THE DARK KNIGHT and INTERSTELLAR. Those two films were shot on 35mm film and IMAX FILM for the IMAX shots. Therefore, DUNKIRK will shift from the 65mm film shots to the IMAX film shots making the entire film large format. When you’re watching DUNKIRK in 70mm IMAX or IMAX Laser, you will see the shots go from filling the full screen to having black bars on the top and bottom of the screens.

 

Ok, so you don’t have a 70mm IMAX or an IMAX Laser near you. Don’t worry. The film is still incredible on its own. I will get to that aspect of the review shortly. This brings us to an interesting question of seeing the film on 70mm film (Non-IMAX) or digital IMAX (Non-Laser). Digital IMAX (Non-Laser) will be a smaller IMAX screening and not the 1:43:1 aspect ratio. Though, you will get the jump from the non-IMAX shots to the IMAX shots. These shots just won’t be as large. I would say it’s a toss up here because I would almost prefer the 70mm film presentation over the “fake” IMAX. This just comes down to your personal preference. Again, if it was me, I would make the drive to see DUNKIRK in 70mm IMAX film for IMAX LASER.

All of these numbers aside, DUNKIRK is a film that reminds us that the cinematic experience can’t be replaced at home. It’s crazy to think that people are watching movies on their iPhones or tablets. Nolan wants to preserve that cinema experience and films like DUNKIRK are the reasons we go to the movies.

DUNKIRK gives the audience the type of action and suspense that we deserve. Nolan is huge on practical in-camera action effects. With THE DARK KNIGHT, he actually flipped that 18-wheeler. With INCEPTION, they built a massive 100-foot spinning hallway for the Joseph Gordon-Levitt floating sequence. This was an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.” With DUNKIRK, he takes it to another level with real Spitfire planes flying with massive IMAX cameras strapped to the side. The film was partially shot on the actual beaches of DUNKIRK with real explosions, a semi-recreation of the Mole and more.

When I first heard that DUNKIRK’s running time was 1 hour and 47 minutes, I was a bit concerned. Though, that concern only comes from the fact that we are used to WW2 films being between 2 to 3 hours long. For one, DUNKIRK is set during WW2 but it’s not a WW2 film. This is based on a true story of survival where Nolan drops you in to the situation and makes you work as an audience member. The film’s running time ends up perfectly encapsulating the idea of the film. It’s fast-paced, intense and doesn’t lag. Nolan didn’t want to over-explain elements or tell the audience how they were supposed to feel. The script was only 76-pages and features very little dialogue.

One of the most insane aspects of the film is the non-linear storytelling. The story of DUNKIRK is told over three different timelines that are intercut telling different viewpoints of the DUNKIRK story. The basic premise is the story of the Dunkirk evacuation where over 330,000 British and Allied soldiers were rescued during Operation Dynamo. The Germans had forced the British and Allied soldiers back to the beaches of Dunkirk. These soldiers couldn’t get home and were essentially sitting ducks that could be killed at any second. The beauty of the story, which I wasn’t too familiar with, is that civilian boats came to the rescue of these soldiers. Around 400,000 soldiers were stuck and over 330,000 were successfully rescued.

In the beginning of the film, Nolan tells you the three timelines:

1. The Mole. This timeline covers one week’s worth of time and focuses on the British and Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. This is the storyline featuring Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and more as they try to survive so that they can be rescued.

2. The Sea. This timeline covers one day’s worth of time. This story is centered around Mark Rylance’s character; a civilian who takes his boat, “Moonstone,” to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers.

3. The Air. This timeline features performances by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden who play Spitfire pilots helping to shoot down German planes who are trying to kill the British and Allied soldiers. As you can tell, the timelines are different lengths so scenes will overlap. Imagine the kick in INCEPTION for the entirety of the film.

What’s most important about the storytelling is that Nolan just drops you in. There’s no filler backstories or love stories. You are just as confused as the characters and trying to figure everything out. You will see scenes repeated from multiple perspectives. 

Hans Zimmer’s score is the leading character of the film. While I loved every performance from Harry Styles to Tom Hardy to Cillian Murphy to Kenneth Branagh to Fionn Whitehead to Jack Lowden, the real emotional star is Hans Zimmer’s music. This is the consistent beating heart of the film and what drives you through every single sequence. The music along with Hoyt van Hoytema’s brilliant cinematography and Nolan’s direction, take you on an intense, brutal and immersive journey. Zimmer has worked with Nolan many times over the years. The brilliant music he wrote for THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR work on their own just as powerfully as they work in the films. That is always the key to a great score. Since DUNKIRK has very minimal dialogue, Zimmer’s score becomes the emotional driving force. A cool little side note is that the ticking clock sound you are hearing throughout the score is actually a recording of Nolan’s pocket watch which was synthesized and then changed to use throughout the score.

Speaking on some of the performances, I do want to bring up Harry Styles. Styles delivers his first acting role in a major feature film. He does a great job and he blends beautifully in to the story. There is no Harry Styles, the singer, in the film. It’s his character Alex that we see on-screen. With Nolan’s use of practical effects, Styles has said this created an environment where you didn’t need to do much acting. A lot of what you are seeing comes from natural reactions. Along with Styles, there are brilliant performances from Fionn Whitehead, who is the closest anyone comes to a leading character in the film. Tom Hardy spends almost the entire film in the cockpit of a Spitfire with his face covered. Through his eyes, he masterfully performs the character. I will say that I had trouble hearing some of his dialogue but it felt natural considering he was speaking inside the mask. You hear what you need to hear.

DUNKIRK just continues to prove the incredible range of Christopher Nolan. From “Memento” to “The Prestige” to “The Dark Knight” trilogy to “Inception” to “Interstellar.” We are truly witnessing one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His work strives to keep cinema alive and you can feel his passion boiling through the films he makes. Nolan wants to give the audience movies they deserve. If you’re spending $20 for a movie ticket, you want to be seeing the best quality you can possibly see. So many filmmakers rely so heavily on CGI (computer-generated) effects that it hurts to the creativity of the film. Nolan’s goal is to use as little CGI as possible and do everything he can in-camera with practical effects. This leads down paths where he has to make decisions to make it work. When you see the IMAX shots from the Spitfire’s POV, you will see where all that creativity went.

DUNKIRK is the best film of the year, so far and my fourth 5/5 of 2017.

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Watch Kevin's interviews with Christopher Nolan, Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden and Barry Keoghan below. (mobile users: click here to watch)


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