Dunkirk is visually stunning, but emotionally lacking

Warner Bros. Pictures

Back when Dunkirk was first released theatrically, our Jeremy Fogelman gave the film a glowing review. I was not fortunate enough to see the film projected on the big screen in the IMAX format, but I have had an opportunity to see it in the next best way – 4K home video. I have to say though that while the movie is engrossing and nerve-wracking, I didn’t find it as emotionally investing as I expected.

You can go back and read the original review but the plot, briefly, puts us in the middle of the evacuation of 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk, France as the Nazis were bearing down on them. The only problem was that the Nazis were not far from the beach and Dunkirk and England was on the other side of the channel and the Navy was not interested in sending more than one ship at a time to get its men, preferring to save those ships for the next battle. But a call was put out to anyone in England with a boat to make the journey and it was actually hundreds or civilians that rescued and returned the bulk of the troops. It’s a great story, and one that is probably told better in the new theatrical release Darkest Hour.

I am torn about my feelings for the movie. This feels more like Nolan indulging himself, trying to pull off another Memento with three separate storyline playing out at different speeds but ultimately converging. It got confusing at times as we’d see one event, like a pilot forced to ditch his plane in the ocean, and then see the same event again later from a different perspective. Perhaps Nolan felt doing things this way kept the running time under two hours — a real surprise for a movie like this — but it felt disjointed.

The other problem is that we never really get to know any of the characters. Even though we spend a lot of time with one young man (Fionne Whitehead, in his first movie) trying desperately to get off that beach and back home, we never know much about, not even his name (even though he’s billed as Tommy in the credits). Another man in a similar situation doesn’t even speak for the bulk of the movie (for a reason) so it’s hard to become emotionally invested in their lives. The fact that there’s not much dialog for them doesn’t help. The really successful section of the film focuses on one of the Brits with a boat, Mr. Dawson (the excellent Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan). We do get to know these characters and when they pick up a stranded sailor on the wreckage of his ship — another unnamed character, this one played by Cillian Murphy — there is some real drama when he realizes his saviors are taking him right back into harm’s way. As the film is divided into three sections, Land, Air and Sea, the air portion features Tom Hardy, again behind a mask like he was in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a role that could have been played by anyone.

But while the movie is not that emotionally gripping, it’s still action-packed. Think the opening of Saving Private Ryan stretched to feature length (without the blood and gore). Scenes of thousands of men on a beach, out in the open, trying to duck and cover as the Germans fly in and start shooting and bombing is harrowing. Ships sinking with men trying to get off before they’re trapped is frightening. Scenes of aerial combat are thrilling, and there is a tad bit of emotion once Mr. Dawson and the others start hauling troops into their boats to safety. What makes all of this truly fascinating to watch is that Nolan opted to do pretty much everything for real, no green screen, little CGI. The ships and planes are real. The scenes on Dunkirk beach were shot on the actual beach with the assistance of the residents of Dunkirk. Technically, Dunkirk is a master class of what classic filmmaking was like … and Nolan shot the whole thing on actual film. The film’s score by Hans Zimmer is also thrilling, seeming to run constantly from beginning to end, sometime imperceptibly when the low bass seems to be more of a sound effects than music, and the subtle sound of a ticking clock throughout will also keep your nerves frayed. You may not get emotional over the characters, but I can guarantee that your heart will be pounding and your nerves will be on edge right from the start. Just for all of that the film is worth seeing.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has just released the film to the home video market, and they are hoping that this will be the movie to kickstart the 4K format. This being my first experience with a 4K video presentation, I was absolutely blown away by the clarity of the image, down to the weave of the fabric of the uniforms. It’s truly a stunning visual experience that was completely supervised by Nolan (the film is also part of a new Christopher Nolan 4K collection which includes this film, the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar and The Prestige, all mastered under Nolan’s supervision) and in what he calls his “preferred” format — ironic coming from a director who has insisted on shooting all of his movies on film (except for Interstellar. If you’ve been considering upgrading your home system to 4K, this is the movie you want to use for reference. The audio is also immersive even though it’s only presented in a 5.1 surround mix, again at Nolan’s request. It’s still bold and robust and the surrounds are used to great effect from leaflets falling to the ground to planes zipping by overhead. The 4K version of Dunkirk is simply stupendous.

The 4K package also comes with a Blu-ray and the film is presented on each format by itself to give the image the highest bit rate possible (and again at Nolan’s insistence). The bonus material is included on a separate Blu-ray and it’s quite an impressive collection of behind-the-scenes footage. There is a Play All option, but the bonus material is also categorized into sections — “Creation”, “Land”, “Air”, “Sea” and “Conclusion” — which can be viewed with their own Play All function or as individual segments. Altogether, the bonus material actually runs longer than the film and is quite comprehensive in detailing what went into rebuilding “the mole” at Dunkirk, how they made 300,000 troops appear on the beach without CGI, and finding the planes and ships used in the movie. For the technical achievement Dunkirk is, this is a fitting look at how Nolan was able to achieve his vision.

While Dunkirk may not be the most character driven war movie ever to come along, it’s still an amazing piece of cinema that is served extremely well with the new 4K format. Definitely worth adding to your collection.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment generously provided Hotchka with a 4K/Blu-ray version of the film for reviewing purposes.

Warner Bros. Pictures

 

 

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