Some of the most talented filmmakers working today have been subjected to criticism based on the assumption that their work comes off as “pretentious.” Christopher Nolan is among them. I am one who would agree with this claim, yet it does not stop me from referring to the man who challenged traditional story structure with Memento, dazzled the subconscious mind with Inception and redefined comic book films with The Dark Knight as one of my favorite modern day filmmakers. I would even say that it takes a certain amount of pretentiousness for someone to be a filmmaker of such abilities. But every once in a while, even the best go a bridge too far and I personally believe that Nolan may have reached that point.
Nolan’s latest epic, Dunkirk, is inspired by the events that took place at the titular French city during World War II. After a battle against Germany leaves them stranded on the shores of Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers from the British, Belgian and French armies struggle to evacuate while taking heavy fire from the German army by air and by sea… not that you would know that from watching the film.
In order to accurately follow the story, you would have to do your homework first. Other than an all too brief expositional introduction via title cards, Nolan throws you straight into the action, following characters whose names are rarely mentioned as the story jumps back and forth between three separate timelines. It is yet another one of Nolan’s ambitious concepts in challenging traditional story structure. However, last time he attempted such a feat with Memento, the result was gasp-inducing and thoroughly entertaining. This one only left me confused and underwhelmed.
There is plenty to admire about the film, particularly on its technical level. Shot on 70mm film, the gorgeous cinematography captures highly realistic battle sequences by sea, air and land. The special effects department takes a cue from Mad Max: Fury Road, using practical effects as often as possible, which opens the imagination to how some scenes were put together. But even then, it could not distract from the disconnection I could not help but feel from the people whose survival I should have been rooting for. While the film is rich in visual stun, it lacks heavily on emotional resonance. It is my personal belief that the story could have used a distinct protagonist, or at least a character with a backstory, a personality, etc.
Other than its 106-minute runtime, which is unusually and, to be frank, refreshingly short for a Nolan film, Dunkirk barely feels any different from its trailer: a collection of beautifully filmed scenes of war with expertly crafted practical effects that lacks a consistent narrative to hold it together. It feels more concerned with visual spectacle than humanity, which is a theme I believe to be important to any war story. And, if I am to continue being frank, I honestly dread the possibility that I may be the odd one out here. I wanted nothing more but to enjoy Nolan’s return to film. Dunkirk is a film that I can still admire, but, unfortunately, not one that I enjoy.
** ½ / ****