After a string of sci-fi/thrillers with a trend of plot revolving devices (Dream State, Cloning Machine, Wormhole/Bookcase), Christopher Nolan brings it back a notch with ‘Dunkirk’ a thriller, set to the backdrop of World War Two. Specifically, the evacuation of nearly 5,000 British soldiers of the beach of Dunkirk in France, Nazi forces closing in around them. That’s what makes ‘Dunkirk’ interesting, it isn’t a war film but a thriller. Instead of offering a commentary of the horror of war as seen in other war films, ‘Dunkirk’ makes you feel the horrors of war. Even if it sacrifices the development of characters.
First and foremost, ‘Dunkirk’ is an experience like no other and deserves to be experienced in IMAX. Each gunshot pounds your chest and every plane engine roars in your ear. The English Channel is a vast void of blue ocean and blue sky captured with amazing cinematography as to be expected by Nolan. Mixed with Nolan staple Hans Zimmer’s score, the result is white-knuckle, pulse pounding inducing. This is also enhanced by Nolan’s constant exploration of time.
In ‘Inception’, ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ time plays an important role in Nolan’s films (for better or for worse, for some films) and he incorporates it into ‘Dunkirk’ through its structure. The film focuses on three aspects of the evacuation; land, air and sea. Each period is separated by a week, day and hour before all the soldiers are finally evacuated and the storylines converge together. This results in moments when audiences see the end of a story that has not started and left wondering, heightening the tension regarding the fate of the ‘characters’.
The various soldiers, sailors and pilots the audience follows are never given the time to develop nor are their names memorable. But that’s the point. This is a brief period in a horrific time of history and instead of offering the cliched ‘girl waiting back home’ trope or generic character types seen in particularly American war films, Nolan leaves the ‘characters’ a blank canvas for the audience to project on. Or instead of making characters Nolan made people; ordinary soldiers; boys and men who’s one goal is to survive that audiences instantly sympathise with them (if they have a soul and care about human life).
A staple of Nolan is the relationship with Hans Zimmer as composer, who once again offers a brilliant, moving, epic and tense score. The film focuses on the race against time to save the soldiers and Zimmer incorporates this by including a constant ticking stopwatch in the score (with a beautiful and satisfying payoff).
Nolan once again has created an Oscar calibre film in the guise of a summer blockbuster, with the complexities of one and the broad appeal of another. The performances are heart-wrench and powerful, even One Direction’s Harry Styles proves the nay-sayers wrong with a surprisingly raw monologue.
‘Dunkirk’ is what Nolan promised. It isn’t a War film; it’s a Thriller on the backdrop of War. Go in expecting a pulse-pounding story of survival, and not a commentary of the horrors of War. Audiences already know that War is horrible; ‘Dunkirk’ let’s audiences experience that horror.