I’d been keen to watch Dunkirk considering all the positive reviews about it, so as soon as it came out on DVD I buckled myself in (figuratively), cranked up the surround-sound and prepared for the ride.
From the outset, the score gets your heart pounding and your senses on edge as the drama unfolds. When I say ‘unfolds’, I mean like a moth emerging from a chrysalis, and when I say ‘drama’ I mean ‘a few vaguely interesting things’.
Let’s not dick around here: Dunkirk should be called Dullkirk.
Christopher Nolan is no novice when it comes to either action or drama [Memento, The Dark Knight] but I can’t help but feel he wasn’t well when he made this. Perhaps he slipped through one of his own interstellar wormholes and somehow inhabited the same body but with a different mind. Or, maybe the whole thing was an experiment. Either way, I’m honestly baffled at how well it has been received.
First, let’s cover the story. What’s interesting (and, in some ways, a positive) is that the event itself is the hero. Not just one awesome character who beats all the odds and manages to get home, but three roughly simultaneous stories. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy might be the central role, and highest billed, but it’s the least interesting and courageous. After making his way through the town and somehow escaping a torrent of ‘friendly’ machine-gun fire, he pretends to be a medic to jump the queue onto a boat home.
I’m sorry, but The Hero has to be a lot better than that.
Sure, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo dressed as Stormtroopers to enter The Death Star, but then they did go on to save the damn Universe. A moment of deceit or slipperiness is fine from an action Hero, so long as it’s not a recurrent thing. But Tommy was essentially a liar and a coward the whole way through. Alright, some might say he was resourceful in a situation where everyone was trying to survive… but it just wasn’t terribly British…
Then there was Mark Rylance and his little boat, which was one of the good points of the film. Although I did feel it was too implausible that the young lad could die so soon, and with so little blood, from a small fall down the steps; and every time Mark spoke I pictured The BFG wading across the English Channel; but apart from that it was a solid sortie.
And thirdly, Tom Hardy’s spitfire pilot, Farrier. [A farrier being someone who puts shoes on horses, perhaps a reference to War Horse, which was - as I wrote previously - absolute garbage.] Clearly ordered by Nolan not to even raise an eyebrow, he’s the epitome of the cucumber-cool Spitfire pilot. His plane gets shot and he starts losing fuel at a tediously slow rate. Pensioners walk to the shops more quickly than his ride lost power. It takes the best part of an afternoon for it to eventually sputter out, he finally guns down a pesky German bomber (he’s not even a very good shot!), and then casually lands on the beach. Tony Scott would’ve been turning in his grave (whilst giving them the bird in an inverted 4G dive). It was, frankly, pretty lame.
One good point, though, was that they captured the gutsy roar of the Spitfire particularly well. And having experienced that roar relatively close-up, I can tell you it is a sound of true magnificence. So that brought a wee (and very welcome) smile to my face.
So, what about the visual side? Film is, after all, a visual medium.
Well, it is well directed. Or rather - the choice of shots is good, but then you would expect that from an A-list Hollywood director and the team around him. We see what we need to see. But I have major issues with the look of it. Or the looks of it.
Whoever was responsible for colour grading this film should be tied to a pole on a beach and peppered by a Messerschmitt. If you know me, then you’ll be aware of my hatred of that ghastly ‘Orange & Teal’ look that so many recent films bear, and for a short while it seemed that Dunkirk might not go down that route. Yet, sadly it does.
Or: half of it does.
The difference between some shots - and I don’t mean shots in different locations, but consequential shots in the same location at the same bloody time - was so shockingly jarring that I had to pause the film and rewind so I could believe what I was seeing. Compare these images:
The first is from the same battle, moments apart, and the other two are from consecutive shots. Hopefully I don’t have to explain this, because you have eyes, but … these do not match. This isn’t just a case of ‘It was cloudy one moment, sunny the next’, this is a case of terrible grading. Like two separate and completely unconnected people coloured it from other sides of the planet with no communication whatsoever. The sea goes from realistic cadaver grey to Little Mermaid aquamarine, and back again. In the same sequence. And what’s more shocking is that Nolan presumably signed off on it. I can’t get my head around that.
This only adds more weight to the argument that Nolan was unwell when he made this.
Moving on … Let’s someone how imagine that nobody's noticed the obscure shifts in colour, and they’re concentrating on the film’s other elements, like, er, story. It's Dunkirk, right? So there's going to be a massive scene with 100s of boats and 1,000s of soldiers, all warding off the attacks of the Luftwaffe and managing to get home in time for tea. Right?
Nolan chose to avoid CGI as much as possible and use real boats and soldiers in this film. Well, that's in general a principle I admire, like what JJ Abrams did in The Force Awakens wherever possible, but the thing is ... it needs bloody loads of boats and soldiers and bombers and Spitfires and Messerschitts and explosions and bloody everything. Alas, they are woefully lacking.
Massive cock-up, Nolan.
It's Dunkirk! We want to see a big bloomin' rescue!! That should be the first thing that's written in the script, even if it just says: "Big fucking scene where millions of people get rescued".
I mean, that's like having Gladiator with no fight scene. Star Wars without Darth Vadar. Ghostbusters without ghosts. I could go on ...
The viewers want it. They expect it. So where the hell is it?! CGI or not, 300 ships in the Channel would look a whole lot better than 20. If he even had that many; it might've been 12.
12. That's like if the chariot scene in Ben Hur had 2 horses, 1 chariot, and a bloke in the crowd shrugging indifferently. This also baffles me, because I can picture a stereotypical Hollywood producer (with obligatory cigar) insisting to Nolan that there's gotta be a big scene with loads of boats and explosions. And since this film has very little story and is a mostly visual film, it NEEDS LOADS OF BOATS AND EXPLOSIONS. It's the raison d'être.
It's like Paddington without a bear. Mad Max without Max. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is ...
Oh god, kill me now.
And yet ...
... and yet, it is surprisingly watchable. And this is where I must (very gently, in a very reserved British kind of way) applaud Nolan, because what he's managed to do here is create a film that has sod-all story, but is sufficiently watchable. As I said above, from the start the music sets you on edge. It's like someone poking you in the arm and saying "Something's going to happen, something's going to happen" for 100 minutes. Like one of those annoying dreams where you're running from something and you're not sure what but you just keep running and jumping and running and you've no idea when it's going to end but it's fucking exhausting and oh shit you're running again and jumping and running and ...
But, having said that, it's still not satisfying. Compare to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which was incessant, violent, heart-stopping and breathless. Typically an action film has 'Camp fire' moments in which everyone relaxes from their exertions and gets to know each other, but Apocalypto had barely any and as a result was like mainlining heroin. And maybe it wasn't beautiful from a screenwriting point of view, but as far as non-stop action film went, it ticked every box.
Yet Dunkirk didn't.
And to compare to another recent film, Mad Max: Fury Road was similarly a disappointment. (Another film that has me absolutely befuddled by its critical reception.) Non-stop action, yes, but literally NO STORY, no character arc, no real baddie, no emotional attachment ... basically I didn't give a shit if they succeeded in their goal or not, and that's a huge writing flaw.
But maybe this is the new thing. The film equivalent of 'punk'. Films that have as much story as a Snapchat post yet are visually engaging. A sensorial amuse-bouche that teases you, that bullies your eyes and ears into enjoying it so you come out of the cinema and go "I'm going to buy that on DVD!", and when you ultimately do buy it or download it you're disappointed, but it doesn't matter. The film company has already taken your money and what do they care?
They don't care.
Dunkirk was, basically, nothing more than a long music video. Style over substance. Not much of a story, more a motif that repeated itself like the chorus of an 80s pop song. A guy on a boat, another guy on a boat, and a handsome pilot whose plane defied the laws of physics, with its repetitive verse of bullets and bombs, but no chorus.
Is this the future of film? God I hope not. Despite its attempts to elicit a tear and bring it all home with Elgar's majestic Nimrod over the top of Churchill's "Fight them on the beaches" speech, this left the viewer feeling empty. Unfulfilled. And just rather annoyed.
This may have been an experiment. Nolan may have been unwell. But this movie will ultimately amount to nothing more than a footnote in the pantheon of war films, and a reminder that the audience demands certain elements from a film, elements that Dunkirk miserably omitted.