Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: 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.

dunkirk2When 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.

14 thoughts on “Life’s A Beach

  1. I thought the same about it being night and then day until I realised the story wasn’t being told in the same order. I was blown away by the film though.

    1. Yeah, it just took me out of the film a little though, being puzzled by the lighting/weather conditions not matching between scenes until I realised what was going on. I’m sure on a second viewing on disc it will flow much better, being aware of it. The titles on-screen were a bit puzzling too (‘1: The Mole, One week’) for instance. Just annoys me being pulled out of a film by technique.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I would have to agree with everything here, except that I don’t think Nolan would achieve greatness by dealing with emotions: I think INTERSTELLAR made it abundantly clear that it’s something he’s just not built to handle.

    I actually think DUNKIRK steers him in the right direction, towards logistics and pure spectacle. He has a peculiar type of cold-bloodedness to him that doesn’t sit well with sentiment, so I’ve found his last few films more like SPARTACUS in their stodgy unevenness than true Kubrick movies. The more minimal the emotional content, the better his films are, for me.

    I was also a bit confused by the chronology here, especially towards the end when the timelines converged. I’m sort of thinking that a straightforward telling might have been better.

    1. Yes, that’s what I thought. Is he just complicating things because he gets a kick out of it, like its all a big toy set? God knows the critics seem to adore him for it but its not exactly purely storytelling is it? If the whole point of the three story-lines coming together was to reach a big emotional payoff, it didn’t work at all.

      All through the film I kept on wondering where the Germans were and what the hell they were doing (barring the air battle stuff). I was hoping the film might explain why the Germans allowed the evacuation to happen or how they failed to stop it, but apparently Nolan didn’t want any Germans in the film. Odd. Again, too clever for his own good?

      1. Yeah, I agree with your review almost completely. The only counterpoint I’d make is that I wonder if Nolan was trying to suggest that the soldiers were largely unknown: just one of 400,000. Lack of character development is one thing but we didn’t even learn the names of some of the major characters. I’m hoping it’s along the lines of the unknown soldier, but hey, I could be wrong.

  3. I think cinemas have got themselves into this mindset (for understandable reasons) that they have to differentiate themselves from just staying home and watching films on Netflix, which is why they place importance on big images, surround sound, 3D, shaking seats, etc. It’s (one of the reasons) why the big blockbusters that work with those things keep making big box office and the smaller or more emotional films are increasingly pushed towards premium TV. It’s a self-perpetuating problem, really, and I imagine at some point one bubble or another will burst.

    As for Dunkirk, I thought it actually played to Nolan’s strengths in that it de-emphasises the characters so. It’s almost like we’re the character, going through this experience alongside other people. Not that it’s wrong to feel a need for that kind of emotional connection to the characters, but I don’t think Nolan’s even trying for that here. On the bright side, it means the film dodges all the war movie cliches — you know, the private who just wants to get home to see his wife and newborn son (so is inevitably going to die), that kind of stuff.

    1. Some of the guys at work went out to see Dunkirk in 4D last night. Their report this morning was interesting- seats shaking, seats leaning this way and that, wind blown in their faces, sprays of water from various directions. Very immersive, they said. While it sounds more like an amusement park attraction than a serious movie, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

      I suppose it suits different kinds of films, but its a little depressing when all I want films to do is get better (and more original) scripts. Sure we can ‘see’ things films in the 1970s and 1980s could never show thanks to technical advances in effects etc but do we really need distracts of shaking seats and wind and water in our faces? It reminds me of that sketch in… was it Kentucky Fried Movie?

      The last hurrah of cinema, now that 3D seems to have run its course, before Netflix and Amazon finally take over?

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        Is this what ‘4D’ is then? Is this actually a thing?! How ridiculous. I’m surprised Nolan is going along with it, given he doesn’t even like 3D.

      2. Yeah, my work-colleagues were describing it and yes its very real. They give you health warnings prior to starting the film. You’d think that would have caught on with Michael Bay movies.

      3. I knew there were cinemas with seats that vibrated, but I didn’t realise they did the full tilting / wind / water shebang. It is, literally, like a theme park attraction, which is sort of fun for about 10 minutes (apart from the Bug’s Life one, which at one point literally pokes you in the arse), but I’m not sure about two hours of a proper movie… Presumably someone has to actually design / program the system for the specifics of every movie they show, which must be a strange thing to do — for people who see it in 4D you’ve contributed a major part of the experience, but most people will never see it like that.

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