2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)
My long-standing opinion of Christopher Nolan is that he is very similar to Stanley Kubrick, in that he is very technically adept with the logistics and craft of film-making, but doesn’t really have the skills to facilitate the dramatic aspects. His films are cold and clinical, more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Further to this, I must make the point that on this intellectual level, Nolan’s films are inferior to Kubrick’s if only because Nolan doesn’t make such interesting films as Kubrick did. Nolan’s space epic Interstellar is vastly inferior to Kubrick’s 2001, for instance.
This opinion is in no way revised following watching Dunkirk, a film clearly impressive as a work of logistics and craft but as lacking in emotional content (despite the endless hysterics of Hans Zimmer’s noisy score) as anything Nolan has done. It is a very good film and one easy to admire- the sound design is quite extraordinary and many of the visuals highly impressive, but as with most (if not all) of Nolan’s films, I have to question any emotional involvement with any of the characters, any sense of really knowing anybody. The characters seem to be pieces on a chess board moved with clinical precision without really knowing how or why they are there- their mindset or purpose or what makes them tick utterly unknown, almost as if they were the monoliths of Kubrick’s 2001.
Which is not to suggest that Dunkirk is a bad film. It is just that there is a hollowness in Nolan’s films that I find personally frustrating that precludes his films ever really achieving the greatness that so many critics seem so keen to label them with. Of course comparing Nolan’s films with blockbuster fodder such as the Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, they are practically high art and deserve all the accolades they get, but films can be more. I do worry that such inevitable comparisons elevate Nolan’s work to a stature they don’t truly deserve, for we are where we are in film entertainment and we truly do lack the serious film-making talent of people like Kubrick.
When I watched Dunkirk at my local Cineworld, there was an advert for films in Imax and 4D and 3D, as if all audiences are after is sensory overload and the thrill of the new, whether it be cgi spectacle or the actual methodology of viewing, etc, as opposed to quality drama or acting. It matters if your seat shakes, it seems, or the sound is all around you or if the image is huge or reaches ‘out’ to you in 3D, more than if the film is well-written and directed with skill and dramatic flair or acted well. In some ways Dunkirk is symptomatic of this trend. It is very loud and visually impressive with plenty of ‘wow’ moments and the soundtrack relentlessly hammers at you as Zimmer tends to at his worst (more sound effects design than scoring, here) but does it really involve on a deep level? Do we ever really get to ‘know’ these characters or what makes them tick, really care whether they live or die? Dunkirk portrays an event but what does it say to us about that event?
So Dunkirk is ultimately a frustrating experience, at least for me. Yes I could well praise its editorial conceit of telling three seperate stories over three time-periods that interact with each other at particular moments of the film, or note Nolan’s evident fascination with such plays with time in several of his films. But beyond its success on an intellectual level, does it ever really facilitate any more emotional involvement than a simple chronological telling might have managed? Early on I was distracted by continuity errors in lighting and time of day until I realised what Nolan was doing with his three timelines/stories. No doubt it’s a tricky feat what he was pulling off and many critics adore Nolan for that kind of stuff but I have to wonder what his films gain with it.
So anyway, Dunkirk is a good film but I hesitate to heap the praise upon it that others seem to be rushing to. Maybe I’m missing something. I am sure this film will be very successful at the box office and many will simply adore it. But I fear that there is a trend in film these days to elevate the technologies of film-making over the decades-old basics of good storytelling. Maybe Kubrick would have loved these new tools and made films inferior to Nolans, I don’t know. I just have to wonder what are we losing with everything we gain?
And yes, I hope that Nolan finally really achieves greatness with his films when he realises the skill of empathy and emotional content as much as his skill with logistics. To be fair, that’s a film I really want to see., and I dearly hope to see it. Someday. Dunkirk just isn’t it.