Dunkirk ★★★★★

Last night I had the opportunity to fully experience Nolan’s highly anticipated Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm, and left the theater both shell-shocked and drained. The British Expeditionary Forces waiting on the shores of Dunkirk had no guarantee of escape, despite being able to see their home across the channel. In keeping with this sense of hopelessness, Nolan gives us no promise of resolution or release, and what results is a mercilessly tense and unnerving experience that we are forced to endure alongside the British soldiers (which feels like an eternity, but actually only clocks in at a lean hour and 50 minutes). I can’t say I’ve had quite as tense of an experience since watching The Wages of Fear.

Despite bringing high concept films into mainstream cinema, Nolan has been criticized for his lack of emotional core, overexplaining of his worlds through tiresome dialogue, and his experimentation with music that is at times unbearably loud. It seems that with Dunkirk Nolan has been able to successfully play to his strengths as a director, avoiding the trappings of his earlier films. Nolan is neither concerned with investing in characterization nor arousing our emotions, yet I still found the overall experience profoundly moving (I can’t remember the last time I got dusty while watching a film, no less a Nolan film). Dialogue is sparse and economical - through brief titles at the beginning of the film and a pamphlet that falls from the sky in the opening scene, Nolan explains all he needs to about the world of Dunkirk. The overbearing music and SFX further immerse you in the endlessly rising tension rather than take you out of the action. Zimmer brilliantly uses the ticking clock motif, increasing tempos, and Shepard tones to relentlessly sustain tension from scene to scene.

What impressed me most about this film is how Nolan ratchets up the tension almost exclusively with visual and auditory cues. We see the bobbing of soldiers’ helmets on the mole, the scattering of bullet holes in the side of a boat, solitary figures on a beach that seems to extend forever, and planes being engulfed in an endless sea. We hear the sputtering of failing engines, bullets whizzing behind our ears, and the churning of the ocean which threatens to swallow both ships and soldiers alike. Yet it is also what Nolan decides not to show us which works to extraordinary effect: other than seeing enemy planes from a distance, we are not even given glimpses of the enemy. This serves to heighten the desperate struggle for survival and the dread of waiting to be rescued from an unseen but omnipresent threat.

In order to fully appreciate Dunkirk, this is MUST be seen in IMAX 70mm. Similar to his to Interstellar, Nolan obsessively attempts to convey realism through the production design, including on-location filming, and even going as far as crashing replica model planes into the ocean. As a result, Dunkirk is immersive, overwhelming, horrifying, and dare I say it – Nolan’s best work to date.

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