The visceral thrills this movie provides are matched only by this decade's best blockbusters – Gravity
and Mad Max: Fury Road.
(In my opinion, these two movies, especially the latter, are as close to perfect as it gets.) Similarities between these three movies abound; they are all non-stop roller coasters from start to finish. Nolan provides sparse dialogue and brief rooms to breathe before he throws you right back into the spectacle. And the spectacle works very well. The harrowing film recreates the dreadful atmosphere of war, without needing to delve into what is now called "war porn" – spilled intestines, rampant shrapnel, and demonic enemies. "War porn" was pioneered by Saving Private Ryan
and most recently exemplified by Hacksaw Ridge
, but Dunkirk
is more akin to the pure survival/horror of Gravity
and action/adventure of Fury Road
. This subversion of genre tropes and violence that is not seen but felt are Nolan's leading accomplishments.
However, what Nolan adds on top of Gravity
and Fury Road
is his director's trademark – non-linear storytelling paired with cross-cutting editing. From breakout hit Memento
to personal favorite The Prestige
, almost all of Nolan's films feature some form of non-linear storytelling. This originates from Nolan's fascination of how the cinematic medium manipulates time, and is very well-experimented in Interstellar
on the basis of relativity. The experiment continues, this time in fully-fledged feature-length form, to both benefit and detriment. This approach is arguably necessitated; otherwise, Hardy would only appear at the end with 5 minutes of screen time. Showing certain events not once but thrice also reinforce some of the film's themes, such as the repetitive, hellish experience of the soldiers and the elaborate effort needed from all three parties to coordinate the miracle of the evacuation. On top of that, the convergence (i.e. the entire third act) was done beautifully and led to an emotionally satisfying climax. However, the non-linearity was hampered by the editing. Non-linear narratives, especially ones as intricate and convoluted as Dunkirk
, creates unavoidable confusion, and a key part of the editor's job is to lessen the confusion and smoothen the audiences' viewing experience. Editor Lee Smith's work leaves much to be desired, as he did not help the audiences piece the puzzle together. There was one point when I felt the editing almost butchered the cleverness and brilliance of Nolan's presentation of his themes through the structure.
I was also troubled by the editing in Interstellar
– this seems to be a worrying trend.
Another major point of criticism, other than the non-linear storytelling, is the supposed "lack of character development" and resultant "disconnection with the viewer". I found myself deeply engrossed by the drama and never felt any sort of disconnection whatsoever. The lack of character backstory is another wonderful subversion of genre tropes and contributes significantly to the unstopping tension and authenticity of the film. It never made me care less for the characters. What I see in Dunkirk
is hundreds of thousands of people facing an insurmountable challenge and near-certain death. Their struggle, in the face of such overwhelming calamity, is palpable. As Mencius would have noted, it is the human instinct to care for them. I am alarmed by all these reports of "disconnection" with the characters, for these viewers must be stone-cold and devoid of empathy. I was also very moved by the third act when the Miracle of Dunkirk happened, and it had nothing to do with my British passport. Patriotism is indeed heavy in the film, but the emotional reassurance that comes with the glorious yet bittersweet ending easily warms the hearts of audiences worldwide.
The sound of the film is also noteworthy. I am by no means a historian, so I was very pleased to read reports of how accurate the sound effects of the planes were. The second presentation of Dunkirk
I saw featured absolutely earth-shattering sound which put audiences right on the shore, at the sea, or airborne. Watching the film was truly an experience that attacked every inch of all the senses. I was also intrigued but ultimately approving of Nolan's use of the score. Almost every second of the film features Zimmer's score. While many have complained since Interstellar
that Nolan overuses the score to cheaply manipulate the audiences' emotion, I found his placing of the score more of a thematic statement than a suspension device. However, I was letdown by Zimmer's score itself. With leitmotifs found only sparingly, it is certainly no masterpiece like Inception
. The central theme, "Supermarine", is great work but merely standard fare from Zimmer et al., and negatively reminiscent of "Mombasa" from Inception. The emotional high-points were heightened not by Zimmer's original work but by Edward Elgar's famous (and arguably overused) "Nimrod". I do understand Nolan and Zimmer's use of Elgar's work – "Nimrod" is indeed the quintessential British piece, and it would be pointless to try to emulate Elgar. However, this lack of originality severely detracts from the score on its own. Most of Zimmer's work is atmospheric and complements the film appropriately, but hardly stands on its own.
Other aspects such as van Hoytema's cinematography and Crowley's production design are all brilliantly accurate and spectacular yet never distastefully glorifying or glamorous. The cast works in perfect harmony, and I was particularly impressed by Styles' charismatic acting debut. It is these performances that flesh out characters, not clichéd backstories. Dunkirk
is a fantastically crafted sensory experience and a fascinating albeit occasionally troublesome cinematic experiment. There are conspicuous shortcomings, but they can be forgiven, as Nolan has created a tour de force that fills the eye with spectacle, fills the mind with profoundness, and fills the heart with sentiment.