An icy, chilling war film plucking threads of an avant garde, art house feature with sharp elements of impressionism, Dunkirk proves to be a new and different addition to Christopher Nolan’s filmography of grandiose epics.
“All we did was survive.”
Survival as a form of heroism: a very prominent theme of Dunkirk that is not very often discussed in war epics, perhaps ever. The film goes down to the most basic, most fundamental yet most overlooked premise of a war film.
The greatest spectacle of the film is that it’s almost as blank as a clean canvass, showing no lengthy back stories from any of the characters, suggesting how generic, yet how survival is everything to any being. Nolan’s technique of casting almost greatly unknown actors, and hundreds of faceless extras paves way of showcasing a war’s authenticity, and how fighting for life and death greatly applies to any human caught in a maze of catastrophe that doesn’t seem to begin and end. This is a very slim, risky wire as it could easily go almost emotionally distant not knowing these characters on an intimate level, yet it highlights the importance of life without the depth of intimacy or personal agenda. He purposely built the persona of a soldier in a rather one-dimensional box, limited to only one thought: to live. That itself is perhaps the most honest that a war film could ever showcase without being romanticized: the hunger to survive.
The film is so quiet, you could almost hear the clock ticking, showing the minutes that soldiers await for their fate; occasionally, it gives contrasting roars of fireballs and rampaging attacks, establishing how empty and cold the need of survival could get — no subplots, no drama, no soap-ish lines of having the unpredictable fortune or misfortune of a war’s aftermath: it’s just an intimate conversation between the psyche of a soldier, and the carnage of bombs flown onto them.
Christopher Nolan’s famous non-linear narrative technique works well in hemming three important features: the sky, representing defense and attack; the sea, representing hope and persistence for escape; and the land, representing the endless hours of entrapment. Nolan created a universe as basic as the atmosphere of a war zone, yet is everything compacted into one. The meaning of looking up, looking down, and looking back as an impressionist and allegorical play between the wounded, the enemies and the help.
The film borrows several aesthetics from the colors of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), the shivering stillness of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the non-stop roar of Howard Hughes’ silent war epic Hell’s Angels (1930). The palette of Dunkirk is as cool as ice, but as ablaze as burning jet fuel.
The best element of the film is its eerie score composed by the great Hans Zimmer. For a film that’s almost as quiet as the ocean, Zimmer exhausted every second of the movie with his haunting music that jars the mind, almost making you tip toe on a rope of fire as every bullet shot and every bomb thrown is the judgment of every hero’s life. This perhaps is one of the best original scores ever produced on cinema.
The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is as flawless as the film’s picturesque sky, projecting fighter jets that intricately scratches the clouds with its smoke traces. The production design is a great catapult where the narrative of a genius sits down. Every light and every darkness speak volumes, and not a single production element has gone to waste. Every object bears meaning and importance to the film’s overall intentions.
To those who closely follow the repertoire of films Nolan has given, from Memento (2000) to Interstellar (2014), will ultimately find Dunkirk as something new, yet is the closest definition of a directorial masterpiece. Given how contemporary the film’s approach is, this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t change the fact that Dunkirk, indeed, is an unprecedented monumental achievement in its genre, or even in the world of cinema.