From the beginning of his career, Christopher Nolan has been known for confounding expectations. After the success of his Batman trilogy, he’s used his financial success to tell stories with stunning, expensive visuals. That approach continues with his latest film, Dunkirk, but rather than tell some grand story on the level of Inception or Interstellar, he’s gone a wildly different route. Dunkirk is a film that’s almost exclusively about an experience, in this case the survival of British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II. And when I say that it’s a film about an experience, that experience doesn’t just dominate the film. It jettisons things like characters and plot, to a large degree. For a film of this financial scale, Dunkirk is unusual, to say the least. The degree to which it works really comes down to how the audience responds to it, and with this being shot 100% with IMAX screens in mind, total immersion is key to the experience.
Dunkirk follows three timelines, each intertwined and only noted on screen at the beginning of the film. First is “The Mole,” which follows a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) over the course of a week as he and other young British soldiers try to find a way out of Dunkirk. Next is “The Sea,” which follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) over the course of a day as they sail from Britain to Dunkirk to help rescue soldiers. Finally, there’s “The Air,” which follows British pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) over the course of an hour.
You may not catch the names of any of the characters over the course of the film, to be fair, because they ultimately don’t matter as distinct entities in this film. They’re part of a much, much larger experience: what happens when you’re in a nightmare of a situation, with little to no hope for survival. It’s a different kind of experience than we’re used to getting from a World War II film, which tend to place battles in the context of a higher narrative.
It’s also a film that, because of its purpose, is unbelievably intense. I’m torn on the film’s approach to war, given its PG-13 rating. To be fair, this film really pushes against the limits of that rating in terms of its depiction of violence, though that’s more due to the the relentlessness of the material than war gore. Part of me wishes Nolan had gone for the R rating, to show just how devastating war can be, but Dunkirk is unnerving enough as a PG-13 film to make that wish one I’m fine with not coming true.
Still, Nolan uses Dunkirk to continue pushing the boundaries of what modern film technology can achieve. He’s using the IMAX format to show an immense scale, not to bombard the film with CGI. With the brilliant cinematography on display here, combined with Hans Zimmer’s score, Dunkirk is a technical achievement. And I appreciate what Nolan is trying to do by avoiding conventions audiences are accustomed to with World War II films. I hesitate, though, to call this Nolan’s best work overall, because it’s such a different film than what he’s tried before. It’s hard to fairly compare this to anything he’s done before outside of a technical level, because of the relative lack of narrative momentum driving the film. But it is a worthwhile watch, preferably on a full-size IMAX screen.