‘Dunkirk’ is the most Viscerally Harrowing Thrill Ride of the Summer

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Christopher Nolan seems like a serious fellow. As an interview subject his words are measured and spoken quietly. He creates powerful images and sweeping stories. For all their occasional dreary over-seriousness, Nolan’s films demand attention. They have become a sort of event. Always in IMAX or 70mm. Always impeccably shot and presented with grandeur. He seems like the Cecil B. DeMille of our time. Nolan makes very big films. Nolan makes very serious films.

It’s not as if his work is without any comedy. Heath Ledger’s Joker certainly had his moments. I remember laughing quite a bit at TARS from ‘Interstellar.’ Still, I wouldn’t think of Christopher Nolan as a light director. His films are Intense. Intense with a capital ‘I.’ Intense in italics.

Intense.

I say all that so that you understand my meaning when I say this is Christopher Nolan’s most intense film. ‘Dunkirk’ is truly something to behold. This is a war movie unlike any I have ever seen. It is a staggering spectacle of almost pure cinema. Relentlessly suspenseful, extremely light on dialogue and brazenly confrontational in its design, this is a rare summer prestige film that needs to be seen (and just as importantly: heard) on the big screen.

It’s important at this point to mention that I saw this in non-70mm IMAX so that is the only format I can comment on. ‘Dunkirk’ was shot on 70mm IMAX film so while I was able to see it in proper IMAX ratio, it was not a proper 70mm projection. I did see this at a full-size IMAX (not a LIEMAX) and it was breathtaking but if you have the rare opportunity to see this at one of the 30 theaters worldwide playing ‘Dunkirk’ in IMAX 70mm, I highly suggest you seek it out. I have also been asked whether to see this in IMAX or standard non-IMAX 70mm. I only have my experience to speak of but I would lean toward IMAX because of their formidable sound system. And yeah… we need to talk about the sound.

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When I attended the advanced screening they were handing out little pieces of swag. There were mini-posters and t-shirts. I usually don’t grab any of it. Firstly, it’s just more stuff to clutter up my house, but it’s also an unspoken rule that members of the press don’t take swag. There’s always some little kid or teenager who would appreciate it more. I will admit however that I have a weakness for the kitschy stuff. The weirder the better (I once got a backpack clip digital watch with Kiefer Sutherland from ’24’ on it. A ‘Knights of Badassdom’ pewter sword letter opener.) So when I saw the credit card holder with an adhesive back meant to attach to a cellphone case embossed with the title of the film, I couldn’t resist (nothing says “World War II” like a rubber cellphone wallet.) I like my little cell-sleeve thing, but the perfect swag would have been official ‘Dunkirk’ ear plugs.

Seriously though: this is the loudest film I have ever experienced in my life. It feels weird to express that as one of my biggest takeaways. That seems so surface level. It feels like a cheat of some kind. But really… this movie was loud. Loud with a capital ‘L.’ Loud in italics.

Loud.

And you know what? I’m accustomed to loud. I go to concerts all the time. I’m going to a music festival this weekend. I’m the guy who listens to his music on full blast driving down the highway. The walls thump when I watch movies at home. So when I say ‘Dunkirk’ is loud, you better believe me. This is almost too loud. This is maybe-they-should-have-put-a-warning loud. This is probably-don’t-take-grandma-and-grandpa loud. I covered my ears at one point. I flinched so many times I lost count. I wasn’t alone.

I was near the back of the auditorium which gave me a bird’s eye view of the other audience members. I mentioned earlier that ‘Dunkirk’ is intense. I brought up comedy because there is not a single laugh line in the entire film. No levity. No breaks. ‘Dunkirk’ is like a roller coaster that is eighty percent loopty-loops and the other twenty percent hanging upside-down. The deafening crack of bullets rip through our eardrums. I feel this strange fellowship as I look down at the other audience members. We are in this together, paralyzed with awestruck horror. We are all silently asking ourselves “is it really supposed to be this loud?” There seems to be a cloud of electric danger in the theater, an “I’m scared but I kind of like it” kind of thing.

Propelling this: the behemoth and indispensable score by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer who once created stirring melodies (He did the score for ‘The Lion King’ for goodness’ sake) has now settled into the droning roar phase of his compositional oeuvre. He introduced the world to the room shaking BRAAM! with which the Hollywood trailer soundscape became as enamored as a child discovering fireworks. Zimmer has made the transition from emotionally epic melodies to experimenting with aural mood manipulation. He has mastered the sound that builds and builds and just when you think cannot crescendo any more, it does. ‘Dunkirk’ is a bomb ready to go off, Hans Zimmer’s score never lets you forget that bomb is ticking.

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The plot of ‘Dunkirk’ is refreshingly simple. So simple in fact that one of the teaser posters tells you most everything you need to know. It reads: “400,000 were stranded in Dunkirk. 700 civilian boats came for them.” That really is the long and short of it. Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed the film, excels is in the way he tells the story. I will admit that I came into this film with expectations. I thought that this would be the heroic story of a few boats going to rescue these stranded soldiers. It would be thrilling and a bit sappy, a bit preachy. There would be long segments of silence and some overwrought dialogue broken by monumentally staged set-pieces. After all, I saw ‘Inception.’ I saw ‘Interstellar.’ I know the game by now. But Nolan threw me for a loop, he still has some cards up his sleeve. He reminds me that he’s the man who made ‘The Prestige’ and his latest trick is creating something of such forceful pace, invasive sound design and unforgivingly dire perspective that he has delivered the most unexpected summer blockbuster in a long time.

Christopher Nolan also continues his explorations of unconventional storytelling as in ‘Memento’ and ‘The Prestige’ which was a very interesting way to tell this story. It seems like every decision he made along the way was in service to increasing the tension. It pays off.

I keep thinking this doesn’t belong in the summer. It is almost certainly a shoo-in for Academy Award nominations. This should be an end of year movie. But no, it’s perfect where it is. Because you want the summer to thrill you, and this is a thrilling movie. There are sweeping vistas and dizzying aerial dogfights. ‘Dunkirk’ is intense and loud and a master-class in war films. Again, I can only speak to IMAX, but this will go down as one of my most memorable movie experiences.

See ‘Dunkirk.’ See it in IMAX if you can. See it because it’s probably going to be the thing everyone is talking about. But do not go in without the serious warning about the sound levels. I have to believe it is by design, but this is a confrontational film. While it is not gory like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ it is extremely violent and shocking. There will be silence and then a sudden explosion or hail of gunfire. I’m glad I don’t have a weak heart.

‘Dunkirk’ is a phenomenal technical achievement and an unnerving masterpiece. I don’t know if I ever want to see it again but I recommend it for the sheer audaciousness and cinematic wizardry.

I hope by tomorrow my ears stop ringing.

 

‘DUNKIRK’ IS IN THEATERS JULY 21ST, 2017

 

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