Christopher Nolan is fascinated by mechanical precision—his movies radiate with the same formal fastidiousness and emotional remove that guided Kubrick. But he’s chillier than Kubrick; Nolan doesn’t make movies so much as he builds contraptions. And, as if he was unsure of his command of craft, Nolan demonstrates an uneasy reliance on razzle-dazzle chicanery over emotional resonance. If you think of Inception—still his best movie—is it the eternally doomed romance you remember or that spinning hallway?
Dunkirk may be the most ur-Nolan movie yet. It takes the director’s fixation with time to dizzying heights. Split into intersecting narratives covering each of the campaign’s three operational dimensions—land, sea, air—the movie opens with a countdown. We arrive at the mole (or “pier” in American English) at “one week;” the naval operation has “one day;” the Spitfire squadron swarming above is down to “one hour.” Whatever we’re counting down to is a mystery; from the prologue, we know that the blitzing Wehrmacht will arrive any second. Flyers fall like snowflakes over the French city; an Allied soldier catches one and turns it over. “We surround you,” it drums, with a map covered in sweeping red arrows to illustrate the gravity of its claim.
It’s a brief, dreadful moment. Within seconds, percussive gunfire shatters the calm, and for the rest of the movie’s 107 minutes, Dunkirk moves with manic velocity. Nolan wants to throw us into the ferocity of battle, impart the futility of even trying to guess where were are or why we’re there. But before long, the movie abandons any pretense to structural integrity. We see men running across beaches but not what they’re running toward. A pilot will turn his head to track the Messerschmitt buzzing overhead before we find ourselves in the belly of a battleship. If we move onto the vessel’s deck, we discover night has fallen. When a torpedo rips through the ship’s hull, we leap back into that cockpit. And just as the pilot has that Messerschmitt in his sights, we’re back on that beach.
Beneath all the formal acrobatics, Dunkirk appears to have been conceived as an intellectual exercise: the war epic stripped to its most basic elements. There’s no discernable narrative and any gestures toward character development are purely accidental. We never learn characters’ names. Dialogue—mostly grunts, expletives, or banal blather—is unintelligible. We rarely know where the action is occurring. Or even when.
The deconstruction extends to basic film grammar, where simple reverse-shot cuts are interrupted with dramatic leaps in chronology and distance—a technique that’s as inventive as it is distracting. Nolan has an extraordinary eye, and he can concoct an image that sears into the memory—think of the Joker as he sticks his head out of a car window to drink in the Gotham night, or Paris bending and folding into an MC Escher puzzle. Here, Nolan turns Dunkirk’s beaches into endless, almost abstract color fields dotted by silhouetted soldiers. Other moments twist the French coast into something like Mad Max’s wasteland. He sticks his camera at eye-level in a fighter cockpit so that we track the bobbing reticle and the Messerschmitt weaving in its sights.
Those moments are as visually striking as anything in Nolan’s work, but the movie’s bare-bones design exposes Nolan’s weakness as a stager of action. A sense of scale excused the impenetrable choreography in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight’s geographical inconsistencies, but Dunkirk’s spatial sensibility is as baffling as its chronology. The centerpiece chase between a Spitfire and a Heinkel bomber is a logistical blur. Near the end, Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot and his plane seem to become one with the movie and thwart a dive bomber attack by scrambling time and space. (In one ostensibly important beat, Hardy suffers a shot to his plane’s fuel tank and spends the movie gauging the remainder based on a mathematical calculation as indecipherable as the ferry sequence in The Dark Knight.)
Most confusing is Nolan’s justification for the movie’s structural framework. Formally, Dunkirk is hotshot stuff—a genre riff as boldly unorthodox as Memento—and its ticking-clock motif, in which rhythmic thwacks propel the movie’s countless setpieces, echoes through the movie’s repeated invocation of time as equal parts enemy and ally. But without the kind of hooky conceits that drive Nolan’s sci-fi visions, the whole things comes off as intellectually preening and needlessly obfuscating—as pointless as the child-prisoner reveal in The Dark Knight Rises.
I turned to my friend early in the movie and asked if she understood what was happening. After predicting its time-looping gimmick, she added, “It’s a dick move, but it’s awesome.” In theory, she was right—there’s something appealing about the fusion of David Lean’s scope and Christopher Nolan’s sleight-of-hand. That a movie like Dunkirk even exists is something of a wonder. But like Churchill said after the evacuation, “Thankfulness…must not blind us to the fact that what happened in France and Belgium is a spectacular military disaster.” 77 years on, Dunkirk remains just as spectacular, just as disastrous.
Dunkirk. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Jack Lowden. Opens in Kansas City July 21, 2017.