To call Dunkirk immersive is a major understatement. The latest project from blockbuster king Christopher Nolan, who has consistently pushed the boundaries with films such as the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Memento, tells the story of one of the defining moments of World War II in extraordinary fashion, throwing the viewer headfirst into the horrors of the conflict with every gunshot and explosion having a brutal impact. In this way it is in fact the perfect war movie, a film not so much about war but a film that literally is war. Add to this the fact that it was shot with IMAX in mind and this is truly, like Nolan described it himself, "virtual reality without the goggles."
In terms of structure and storytelling, this is without a doubt Nolan's most barebones film to date. Divided into three intersecting parts, land, sea and air, we follow the efforts of the British soldiers, the RAF and the sailors as they struggle to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk with the Axis forces swiftly closing in on them. Such is the intense focus on the rescue mission that we never actually see the enemy forces in person.
Instead, their presence is felt much more ominously as an ever present force, threatening to destroy the British with attacks from all angles. Dialogue is also sparse and character building minimal but Dunkirk still manages to be a highly affecting experience, steering clear of the pitfalls of the "disaster porn" genre (à la Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor) to make every death witnessed a genuinely shocking image. Even with little blood and minimal gore in general, this is by far one of the most traumatic 12A certificate films released.
In many ways in fact, Nolan seems to have thrown the formula almost entirely out of the window and gone against many of the most basic expectations of cinema. Despite having a cast packed with star-studded actors, Dunkirk relegates many of its best known players to largely supporting roles. Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, for example, must have only been on screen for about ten minutes at the most and even Mark Rylance, who has become a firm favourite in Hollywood as of late, barely features, though he still manages to deliver a large portion of the film's dialogue. While all this may sound like criticism, it simply allows the spotlight to shine on the film's many up-and-coming actors, with Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Barry Keoghan all impressing in key roles. Even singer Harry Styles, who in an initially bemusing decision was cast as soldier Alex, is surprisingly decent.
Dunkirk once again proves Nolan to be the master of scale, with plenty of stunning beach shots where thousands of extras stretch into the distance and the chaos of the French landscape surrounds the beach. He also shows just how well he can orchestrate chaos, with the brutal and eye-wateringly intense action sequences made all the more brutal by the up close and personal camerawork. In particular, the air sequences are spectacularly shot, with sweeping panoramic shots of spitfire battles an absolute thrill to witness.
Also integral to the power of the film is Han Zimmer's score. Although his formula for epic film scores is arguably growing a little tired and overdone, his style always works wonders with Nolan's projects and particularly with the war movie aesthetic, ensuring the film keeps up an apocalyptic intensity throughout. And of course, it wouldn't be a Zimmer soundtrack without the iconic ticking sound, a simple but incredibly effective way of building tension.
It may sound like hyperbole of the most extreme kind but I am honestly pretty confident in saying that with Dunkirk, Nolan has truly redefined the cinematic experience. Witnessing this film on 70mm physical film, at 16K clarity, on an IMAX screen is really like nothing I've ever experienced. With 75% of the film actually shot on IMAX cameras, the first film to achieve this, it begins to transcend the boundaries of film, instead becoming an all-encompassing experience that places you, without exaggeration, into the centre of the action.
The surround sound system is incredible too, with Nolan personally taking control of the sound levels to ratchet everything up to be as loud as possible. All of this is something that could never be even closely recreated on a smaller screen and, hopefully, it will encourage studios to rethink both the potential that IMAX has and the advantages of physical film.
Unfortunately, the film has recently been criticized for its various historical inaccuracies, with some pointing fingers at Nolan's apparent whitewashing in terms of the mostly-white cast. But I feel this is hugely unfair, as Dunkirk focuses on a tiny group of characters and seeks to tell a personal story of the experiences of just a few men.
If Nolan had wanted to tell a story that included the many different sections of the forces involved in Dunkirk, he would've. But the film he made is much more about creating the hectic, chaotic and traumatic nature of war as seen through the eyes of a few, select characters. And it is so much better for it, becoming a hugely personal and deeply affecting tale of the damaging effects of war on man.
On paper, Dunkirk shouldn't really work as a film at all. Barely any character development, minimal dialogue, scarce exposition and a largely unknown cast of leads all go against the essential elements of a basic film. But Christopher Nolan's latest isn't just any old basic film. It goes far beyond all of these elements to deliver an ultra-immersive depiction of war that shocks and stuns in equal measure and is a truly unforgettable experience.