Director Lanthimos has fashioned himself his own cinematic universe. Each film has its own set of bizarre rules. His last film, the Lobster, involved people being turned into animals if they don't find a spouse.Read More
2017, Denis Villeneuve
4.5 out of 5 stars
Set in a hyper-manufactured future where authenticity is a scarce and precious resource, it is no surprise that every design element in this world seeks to either project or mimic the real. One person confesses they have never seen a tree in person before. When the movie first opens with a bird's eye view of California, any sign of a natural landscape is nowhere to be found. The city is a machine with no discernible purpose. Once the camera descends down into the domestic scale this problem of the real is still there.
When we look at a person we search for clues to tell us whether they are a Replicant or a human. We question their humanness and wonder whether our eyes are being deceived. When a person enters the frame we don't ask who they are but what they are.
At first it was difficult to form a human connection or feel empathy towards someone who we know isn't human, even if they were carefully designed to embody the essence of one. Only tiny serial numbers embedded into their biology would tell you that they are human-made. Or they look human until you realise they are slightly translucent. They are made of light and projection. Eventually these artificial surfaces collapse from the sheer weight of authenticity that these non-humans convey. In the words uttered by one of the Replicants: "we are more human than humans."
A buried box propels the mystery that sets off the plot but its stories of love that underpin the entire movie. Love stories with a science-fiction twist. It reminded me a lot of Spike Jonze's HER, another movie that asks how two people can love when one or both don't possess a body or soul.
One love scene in particular is one of the saddest and sweetest things I've seen this year. Watching the characters try to search and feel something close to love - something they were never made for - was intensely moving. Making great use of visual effects, for intimacy rather than spectacle, it conveys so much of what the film is questioning. The real, the imagined, the projected, the manufactured, the human and the human-like merge and coalesce into something sublime.
What is admirable about Villeneuve is that he never gets carried away with the concept. Like his previous film ARRIVAL, in my view one of the best science-fiction films made this decade, he never forgets the emotional core that anchors the ideas. The way story is crafted and arranged is always to serve the purpose of delivering insight into how humans behave, think and feel. To say more about this would give too much away. But at its close, and especially in the second viewing, I found the movie's pace and structure designed deliberately to culminate to a poignant conclusion.
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An army of faces I barely remember. An agonising wait for rescue. A whirlwind of micro-narratives that bleed into each other until it paints a picture of war. War movies are most memorable when they are immersive. When the spectator is dropped in the middle of the action and the chaos envelopes the senses. This is what Nolan achieves in this film and more.
The opening sequence feels like being dropped with a parachute and left disoriented in the company of unknown soldiers. We get no introduction of each character. There isn't a protagonist in a traditional sense. In a way, we are the protagonist. The camera captures in the first-person. What we see is immediate and within reach. We follow the soldiers and we get to know them by simply watching them be.
Because of this, there is no time wasted for exposition or, consequently, for clunky explanatory dialogue. This is probably because Christopher Nolan's usual co-writer, his brother Jonathan Nolan, had nothing to do with the script (good riddance) and instead the script focuses on building tension and atmosphere through sounds and images. It's a classic example of show and don't tell.
What this generates is a series of intensely beautiful, intensely moving and intensely brutal moments. The emotional atmosphere flows like an unpredictable body of water, letting the drama unfold naturally and without the distracting presence of a screenwriter with their bothersome structures and perfectly packaged parcels of dialogue. That is not to say that this movie is pure chaos, there's still a structure but it is a more natural one.
This lack of artifice extends to the special effects. Nolan relies on practical effects with real objects that hold weight and real locations that imbue a sense of history. Everything just looks real. When the ships topple over, you feel its heaviness groan into your bones. When you watch the actors swim in an ocean of spilled oil, you feel it sticking to your skin and smell its stench. It is truly a big screen experience. I would encourage all who can to see this in 70mm. I cannot imagine the time-soaked cinematography would lend itself well to digital projection.
Finally, another reason to see this in the theatre is for the magnificent score by Nolan's usual collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The score seamlessly melds with the images and action that it becomes difficult to discern between which is music and which are the sounds of war. Zimmer composes an unrelenting symphony of war and destruction. I can't recall a scene that was not filled with sound - it's always there.
Dunkirk is Nolan's most direct expression of his skill as an image-maker. It isn't bogged down by anything unnecessary like plot twists and mind-bending tricks. It isn't dampened by eye-rolling monologues about how love transcends space and time. It communicates its grand themes by simple gestures: a soldier stripping off his uniform carrying his sorrows out to sea or a general looking into his binoculars and seeing home coming towards him.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros
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