Dunkirk Review: A Shallow Spectacle
Dunkirk tells the story of an entire army trapped on the northern beaches of Europe, awaiting the Germans to attack and destroy them. It is stunning on a technical level. The gunshots are sharp and loud, the cinematography is grim and intense, and the in-camera action is phenomenal. The film tells its story in a unique way, which again, works well on a technical level. Unfortunately, once you peel back all of Dunkirk’s mechanics, you are left with a bland war film lacking any true characters or heart. And when I say lacking true characters I mean it: I could not remember a single name, I hardly knew a single backstory, and I never witnessed the distinct personality of anyone. Some have argued that this imbues Dunkirk with realism, but here Nolan chose to sacrifice story for realism and it was (in my view) an unnecessary trade-off. Realism in and of itself does not make a good film, so while there were a handful of truly amazing scenes in Dunkirk, I was bored by most of it. Many segments of the film focus on soldiers in fear waiting for bullets to fly, and while this is realistic, it isn’t engaging.
Before I explore my criticisms of Dunkirk, I must praise what it does right. The action scenes in this film are handled very well, and many of them had me on the edge of my seat. This is due in large part to the sound effects. When the planes roared overheard, the deafening sirens seized my attention instantly. Rather than soft booms, the gunshots in this film are harsh and earsplitting; every time a gun was fired I felt immediate intensity. And Dunkirk has several scenes that truly gripped me. The film doesn’t offer the massive battles of The Lord of the Rings or Braveheart, instead, many action scenes place characters in a small confined location while German soldiers shoot at them from above.
Every actor on screen does an amazing job encapsulating the terror of the battlefield, giving great performances considering the script they were handed. Whether it is Mark Rylance playing an old sailor drifting towards Dunkirk or the countless extras who ducked or ran in response to German fire, everyone on screen is phenomenal.
Another great thing is how Dunkirk uses time to complicate its narrative, and while I won’t explain it for fear of spoiling the mechanic, I found it to be original and interesting.
I admit that this film is a technical marvel, but technical marvels don’t make films great. Amazing stunt work and fascinating chronology can improve a film, but they cannot serve as the foundation of a film. What often makes a film great is its characters. What do they want? Why do they want it? What will happen if they fail?
Why should I be invested?
In Inception, another film directed by Christopher Nolan, these questions have satisfying and interesting answers.
What do they want? To enter a dream with someone and plant an idea inside their mind. Why do they want it? The protagonist, Cobb, will be able to see his children again after he was (sort of) framed for the murder of his wife. What will happen if they fail? If they fail inside the dream, they could become lost to a world of insanity and despair.
In Dunkirk, these questions have far simpler answers.
What do they want? To stay alive. Why do they want it? To not die. What will happen if they fail? They will die.
Why should I be invested has more possible answers than the previous questions, but it is often answered by the previous questions. You are invested in the story because of the depth of the characters, the stakes, and the goals.
Dunkirk offers characters with very little depth, no personality, and basic goals.
The characters in this film are given no backstory whatsoever, and most of them do nothing but evade danger throughout the entire film. Long stretches of this film are filled by people anxiously awaiting the next thirty second attack. Once that attack comes and goes, silence and anxiety take hold over the film again. None of them have personality, and this is because Dunkirk evades dialogue at almost every turn for the sake of realism. While it is believable that people trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk would not spend much time talking to each other, it makes the long stretches between short bolts of action eventless and dull.
Survival is often used as a basic motivation for characters, but to for survival to be effective requires the characters to be interesting. I don’t want to see the Allied soldiers die, yet I am not heartbroken if some do.
Imagine if Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of the stars of Star Trek abandoned their ship and left behind the Red Shirts as the cast. For those who are unaware, the Red Shirts in Star Trek are essentially depthless members of the crew; characters who exist only to die. If one of them is killed, I’m upset, but I am not depressed as I would be if Spock or Kirk bit the dust.
Your enjoyment of Dunkirk will depend on how much a nearly two-hour spectacle driven story can entertain you. The filmmaking is brilliant, but to me, Dunkirk feels like an intricately and expertly designed skyscraper, with no color, no purpose, and no people.