Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Dunkirk: The Inception Successor
Written Review by David Carter
Christopher Nolan is probably one of the last major blockbuster voices of a pre-producer driven franchise landscape. Back when studios were willing to take chances on directors who had a string of low to mid budget successes and handing them the reigns to truly gargantuan properties. Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Guillermo Del Toro with Blade 2 and the Hellboy movies. Sam Raimi and the Spider-Man trilogy. Peter Jackson and the miracle known as The Lord of the Rings. They all put their own characteristics and calling cards on those films with what seemed like minimal studio interference. Christopher Nolan was somewhat of a latecomer to the system but in the end, he turned out to be the most enduring. He had been picked up to helm what would become The Dark Knight Trilogy after having three critically acclaimed and financially successful movies (Following, Memento, and Insomnia) break through in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Say what you will about any individual entry in the Dark Knight franchise but it can’t be denied that those films helped shape the movie going experience in the mid to late 00’s in a way that’s only comparable to what Steven Spielberg did in the 80’s and 90’s. Like Spielberg, Nolan has accumulated enough good will he had grandfathered himself into doing whatever he wants, however he wants. However, I don’t think this goodwill comes solely from the success of those Batman films but from the unexpected success of an original idea. The 2010 dream-heist thriller Inception.
Inception would coalesce and solidify what would be recognized as many of Nolan’s fixations as director. A focus on almost sterile but highly proficient craft and spectacle, puzzle box narratives with heavy exposition established rule sets, and perpetually “fridged” wives that drive our protagonist motivations and decisions forward. Inception would take all of these things and put them into practice in a way that served the overall function of the story he was telling. These were no longer just crutches or proclivities but all elements that amplified the story of a man looking to be absolved for something he unwittingly did years ago. It’s for this reason that Inception stood as Nolan’s masterpiece for so many years. But what Inception also brought to the forefront was Nolan’s most important and driving fixation: Time. Sure, it was in his work before Inception. The completely cut up narrative timelines of Following and the contrary timelines and backward reveals of Memento were certainly hallmarks of those films, not to mention The Prestige’s layered timelines told through the diaries of two rival magicians. Inception just took all of those elements and put them to their extremes. For as much flack as Nolan gets for his expository dialogue and table setting of rules (which to his credit is always spoken by interesting actors in interesting ways), it’s always been in service of gratifying payoffs. For Inception, Nolan went all in on what Griffin Newman of the “Blank Check with Griffin and David” podcast calls “the Faustian bargain” for lots of setup for double the payoff. The entire last hour of the film is nothing but catharsis and the clockwork-like interconnection and action of dream layers that all move at different speeds. Hell, Hans Zimmer’s greatest composition to date is the climactic theme of the film simply called “Time.” It’s a masterclass in giving action scenes stakes. Meaning the rotating hallway and zero gravity fight scenes are aesthetically pleasing and thrilling on their own, but when you understand what happens on the other layers and what’s up for grabs, your hands start clenching the armrest from the tension.
After Inception, Nolan would continue his experiments in time and tension with The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. While interesting in their own rights, neither quite matched the highs that Nolan set for himself.
That is until Dunkirk perfected and blew every previous effort out of the water.
Dunkirk is the rapturous peak of Nolan’s experiments, banked up studio goodwill, and box office stability. It’s a World War II film, but only one that Christopher Nolan and his team of talented craftspeople could make. A World War II film that is simply about one thing: survival, and how time is the ever looming presence that threatens that one visceral human instinct.
Dunkirk is the telling of the famous military snafu that left thousands of British soldiers and allies stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Sitting ducks for the enemy to pick off via air raids. The film is simple, establishing its setting (and to an extent rules) right up front. There are three different timelines in three different locations. The land (Play out over the course of a week), the sea (one day), and the air (one hour). The story of land is one of pure desperation and terror as the soldiers sit and wait for deliverance from their predicament. The segment is led by two privates, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles of One Direction fame), and their journey to get off the beach and back to their homeland by any mean necessary. There is also Commander Bolton (played with aplomb by the legendary Kenneth Branagh) who takes the responsibility of making sure that every man gets home.
The sea is about the civilian owned and manned rescue boats going to get the men stranded at Dunkirk and the trials of operating in dangerous waters with an unstable passenger. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance who has solidified himself as one of our greatest screen actors in a very short period of time), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their boat hand George (relative newcomer Barry Keoghan) set sail to serve their country. Along the way they pick a shell shocked soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) who disagrees with their advancement towards Dunkirk and their skies are darkened by a Spitfire battle overhead.
The air is where the movie’s acrobatic action and taught tension transpires. Three British Spitfires race to Dunkirk to offer air support as German pilots do everything to stop them along the way. There’s so much of this sequence that can only mostly be shown and not told. Without a doubt, the highlight is Tom Hardy as British pilot Farrier, who delivers so little dialogue with a mask on and still manages to steal the movie from everyone else. It’ll make you think back to why you loved him in Mad Max: Fury Road, which isn’t a mistake considering that this movie feels like a huge debt to George Miller’s masterpiece.
Dunkirk, like Fury Road, is essentially a feature length sustained action scene. It’s the climax of a symphony that rings out for just over 100 minutes. Because of this some of Nolan’s calling cards are absent. There’s very little expository dialogue because everything we need to know is presented up front. There’s no puzzle to be solved, only payoffs from the crisscrossing and intersecting timelines. There’s not even room for a dead wife in the narrative! It’s about time and how these people don’t have nearly enough of it.
It’s also a film where the pulse and action are what drive and develop the characters. Much has been written about how the movie’s intensity leaves little room for fleshed out human beings, but I don’t buy into that sentiment. What the characters say and reveal about themselves is minimal but what they do when the heat is turned up speaks volumes. A moment that sticks in my head is the look in Tom Hardy’s eyes as he realizes how little fuel he has to offer his support to the stranded troops and his decision to journey forward anyway. It’s perfect distillation of what this movie’s aims are in one character choice.
Continuing to expand on his sound in Inception, Hans Zimmer’s welcomely anachronistic score is driven by the beat a ticking watch that feels on the nose until you hear it in practice. It established in the opening scene and pops up throughout the film but it’s so in sync with the visuals that you will swear you hear it in every second of the film. Hans Zimmer has become the modern day John Williams, but what Williams has in his ability to create the amazingly memorable themes, Zimmer has in his ability to translate visual tone to a musical one. You can’t always hum a Zimmer score but you’ll be left with the impression long after you leave the theater. Dunkirk is Zimmer’s maturation as a composer after years of defining the blockbuster sound.
Dunkirk feels like the best type of art or experience. One that’s a culmination of years of learning, experimentation, failure, and influence that comes together into something that feels so well visualized it could have only turned out this way. I’ve talked about how this film is a direct successor to Inception but it also serves as an exciting high point for a director whose seemingly accomplished what he set out to do cinematically over all these years. It’ll be even more exciting to see where he goes from here. I guess only time will tell.