25 July 2017

Any (Large) Screen Will Do

Thoughts On Film Projection and a Review of Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk"

Remember about two weeks ago when there was literally no hype at all for Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk"? Then, all of a sudden, movie critics started getting to see it at the Lincoln Square IMAX in New York City, that huge 70mm film projection, and they made it clear that THIS was THE ONLY WAY to SEE IT.

I remember that. And I decided to drive three hours to Nashville, so I could see the closest IMAX 70mm print available to me.

And I enjoyed myself.

I enjoyed the drive with my wife. I enjoyed that I was able to do such a thing. I enjoyed hanging out with my best friend, who lives there and gave us a place to crash as always when we visit and who went with us. I enjoyed the visit to Fat Bottom Brewing for a beer and the Hattie B's Hot Chicken, all enjoyed before our 10 PM screening.

I didn't enjoy one thing though.I didn’t enjoy that I don't think whole feature films should be shot in that tall, constrictive IMAX format. It is lifelike and immersive. But it is majorly hard to deal with when we don’t usually see movies in such a way. And it’s much better when movies, like say Nolan’s "Interstellar," use it sparingly…and to great effect.

I mean, “Dunkirk” is quite a cinematic experience of a film, but being that close to something that large is disorienting, and made even more so by the fact that this film is deliberately meant to be disorienting, even punishing, without projection size as a factor.

True IMAX film projection is meant to be visually astounding, but it isn't necessarily the best for storytelling. Certain movies, films you might see on space or the natural world in a museum, are at their best in this format...

...World War II epics are really not, despite what "they" say.

The "they" up there are the people, film critics, who got us (me) all confused on how we should best see Nolan’s latest spectacle, which is in essence a survival epic recounting an episode during World War II in which civilians brought boats across the English Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of trapped British troops from the French battle stage the title suggests.

To be sure, Nolan is known for going big when most others are fine with the small. Starting with “The Dark Knight” in 2008, Nolan has made five feature films, all at least partially filmed with IMAX 70mm cameras and each one upping the previous one. With “Dunkirk,” he has truly gone for it. Nearly 75% of the final movie was shot in that massive full IMAX frame.

Both times I’ve seen it, however, what I saw was a visually perfect representation of the horrific nature of war. Cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema’s work is masterful both full and tall as well as cropped and wide.

Long story short: The regular 70mm film print I saw a few days later was the better movie experience for me. Because I could actually see it and even hear it. And therefore I could make more sense of what I love and don't love about it.

[Fitting Brief Review of Dunkirk starts now]

"Dunkirk" stars a few English actors you've seen (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh), but it keeps them nondescript, even nameless.

Dialogue is few and far between.

What little story there is focuses on a young British soldier trying to escape the beach (Fionn Whitehead), a RAF pilot (Hardy) providing coverage over the English Channel for the stranded troops and civilian and military ships below, a middle-aged father (Rylance) who volunteers his boat, himself, and his son, to come to aid and rescue, and the Navy Commander (Kenneth Branagh) in charge of the evacuation.

Bombs, planes, guns, bullets, sinking ships, death, survival, fear, triumph: THAT is what you get in a circular rotation for a scant 107 minutes. But what an hour and forty-seven minutes that is!

It weaves its three main threads of Land, Sea, and Air together in and out of time order, in usual Nolan fashion, as the film's characters and events exist at different periods within the film's time frame. It's one thing after another but not necessarily in order. The editing is ingenious, highlighting the disorientation and disengagement from time one must feel in the midst of such a terrifying experience.

There is a particular sequence where a pilot has been shot down, crashing into the Channel, and his escape from the aircraft is mirrored by a group of soldiers trapped in a ship while German bullets penetrate the hull at random, water rising, clock ticking.

It looks and sounds better than anything you'll likely see this year. Hans Zimmer's score is at once jarring and beautiful, playing nicely into the sound design that features this seemingly constant ticking clock alongside plane engines and gushing water and explosions and gun fire. So uninterested in dialogue is Nolan this time that it is sometimes inaudible (and this time it seems purposefully so).

It twists its own genre in ways I don't really want to hint at for that I hope you'll see this movie. But in twisting the war movie genre in such a way, it may very well turn you off in terms of storytelling. There are true triumphant moments in “Dunkirk,” but they don't feel the same as we're used to. But even that is not all bad.

What I mean to say is that I can't anticipate what or how you'll feel. This film is moving in a wholly unique way that I simply wasn't prepared for.

Most war movies, especially World War II movies, focus in on characters in such a way as we come to know them as people. Then, most die and some survive. (see Saving Private Ryan). Here, well, again, I don't want to spoil anything, but Dunkirk is a picture about survival. No Germans are even seen. No backstories are told. People die only at a distance. And, by the end, the war has only just begun.

Yet, there are heroes in this film. They simply aren’t delivered in the usual way. There are small details and moments that director Nolan hones in on that fully exemplify sacrifice and heroism on, ironically, a massively large scale. On a movie meant to be so big, meant to be seen on such a gigantic screen, I found that its smallest moments, the little unexpected moments of heroism, are the best it has to offer.

Any method of projection will give you that. Just don’t wait or the DVD.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Screened on IMAX 70mm film at Regal Opry Mills in Nashville, TN, on July 21, 2017.
Screened on standard 70mm film at Regal Pinnacle in Knoxville, TN, on July 24, 2017. 


  1. Great post! This is definitely not one to wait for a DVD release...you're absolutely right about that. And, again, you're absolutely right that there was such little initial buzz about this movie. I remember when I first saw the trailer, I was very unimpressed and questioned seeing it altogether. The trailers did NOT do that film justice, but maybe that's a good thing? Biggest surprise of the year thus far for me! My review will hopefully be up this week :)

    1. Right? The trailer was like...okay? I guess? The reviews had me sold on the visual spectacle, and I sort of wish I had just seen it in a traditional widescreen format first, then gone to the IMAX. Either way, this is one I'm glad I saw twice in the theater. Totally a great surprise of a film!

  2. Glad you liked it too! I didn't see it in IMAX. The closest one to me is 3 and a half hours away and I never really crave to see anything in that format, especially if 3D glasses are necessary.

    1. Well, no 3D on this one. Thank god! He really went for it with the full IMAX frame and it would be worth it, but 3 and a half is a stretch. My drive was 2 and a half and my best friend lives there, so it was worth it for the visit (and great Nashville food and drink!) as well.

  3. Nice review! To me, Dunkirk's marketing is some of the best film marketing I've seen in years. It used the clout of the filmmaker and the technical aspects as the main selling points. Like Courtney, I thought the first teaser was completely dull. But it is a Christopher Nolan movie, so I knew I was going to see it. And the way it crept up on us, hype free, is something far more movies could benefit from. Every time a new super hero movie is about to be released, I hear that it is "A game changer! One of the best super hero movies yet! The one we've been waiting for!" And then that movie turns out to be like every other super hero movie. So I definitely appreciate Dunkirk's marketing restraint. And I'm very glad you liked the film as much as you did. I agree, this is a big film about small details. Loved it.

    1. Thanks, man! I definitely didn't need any marketing to know I would see this, but you are so right about how downplayed it was. That superhero game changer line is just fucking dead. I have seen exactly 0 superhero movies this year, and I may end up keeping it that way. Though, I hear Waititi's Thor movies is under two hours and looks weird as fuck, so maybe...?

  4. Excellent review.

    Dunkirk, in my opinion, is the greatest war film ever made. Everything is excellent, but the direction, editing, cinematography & sound design were the high points of the film for me. (Also, I was surprised by Harry Styles's excellent performance. Considering I only know him from the awful group One Direction, I'm surprised. He gave the best performance in the film). The sound design made me feel like I was there with the soldiers because it was so loud & jarring.

    I couldn't see this in IMAX 70mm because the closest IMAX 70mm location would've been the Cineplex Cinemas IMAX in Mississauga, Ontario, 223 miles from my hometown of Warren, MI. Thankfully, there was a theater showing Dunkirk in regular 70mm near me: the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights, MI, just 7 miles away. Bad thing is that it was an AMC theater, & I absolutely despise AMC. I decided to suck it up & see it in 70mm because there aren't many films screened in 70mm anymore. And I loved it. I'll probably see it again, but on regular digital to see the actual difference between 70mm & DCP.

    Also, my best friend saw Dunkirk & loved it. (It's great to see that my best friend has a great taste in cinema like me). I also convinced her to see it again, but in 70mm. It needs to be see the way it was intended.

    Before seeing Dunkirk, I watched all of Christopher Nolan's films, since I hadn't seen any of them (except for The Dark Knight trilogy, which I didn't rewatch before seeing Dunkirk). Here's how I rank all of Christopher Nolan's films from best to worst (Note: I gave all of them 5 stars):

    Dunkirk; Inception; Interstellar; The Dark Knight; Memento; The Dark Knight Rises; The Prestige; Batman Begins; Insomnia; Following.

    My review of Dunkirk will be up before midnight.

    1. It would be a stretch for me to say this is the greatest war film ever made since Saving Private Ryan and Platoon still exist. But it is easily the most unique war movie since The Thin Red LIne, or even better, Full Metal Jacket (which is also a shorter one and way different than most).

      Styles was fine. In all honesty, I didn't know which one he was until I asked my wife after. That's how out of the loop I am on pop stars and what they look like.

      The 70mm projection was better for me than the IMAX actually. Both solid visual experiences though. Will head over to read your review soon.

      P.S. You are under-appreciating Insomnia, man. Movies like that are rare these days. It is maybe my number one of his for that reason alone.

    2. I felt more tense during this film than I did during Saving Private Ryan, even though Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece (my #2 film of 1998, & #35 of all time, behind The Big Lebowski & just above Pleasantville). Haven't seen Platoon, The Thin Red Line, or Full Metal Jacket, even though I own all of them.

      Even though I'm 16 & even though I should know who most of them are, I'm out of the loop on some of those pop stars, mainly since I listen to a lot of alternative music & loathe most pop singers these days.

      I'm still confused on the differences between IMAX 70mm & regular 70mm.

      I've thought about it, & I've switched Insomnia with The Prestige. You are right, though. Movies like Insomnia are rare.

  5. So glad u also liked it this much!

    I have nothing to add about the whole Imax thing. I go see movies in regular cinemas. No fuss. occasionally I will go see something in 3d but rarely. I dont have the time or energy or frankly a desire to make more of an effort than 15 minute walk to nearest cinema after work.

    I saw the film twice in 6 days time not because it is a technical marvel, which it is, but because it's a magnificent film. Characters Nolan along with his actors created were far more heroic and memorable than those of majority of recent conventional historical/biopic/war films. I consider it Nolan's most moving film and cant believe some people accuse it of being cold

    1. So sorry for my late response. Adulting sucks!!!

      I did like this film a great deal, while not making it all the way to loving it. But I'm the guy who thinks Nolan's masterpiece is Interstellar, which I know you hate with the passion of a thousand Hugh Jackmans.

      Given that I do have access to IMAX screens, I definitely go for it with certain films. Nolan is one of the few who actually shoots with IMAX and for IMAX. And this one is like 80% IMAX film, so I thought I owed it to myself to see it in IMAX 70. Not worth it. The regular 70mm film was indeed a better experience. (and I just broke the record for repeated IMAX in a paragraphs). IMAX.

      I saw it twice as well, obviously. Needed to. It was rewarding. I was incredibly moved as well, especially the second time.

  6. Excellent review. I dig all the intro stuff, too...as context, sometimes, is everything.

    I honestly can't imagine how this movie could have been better.

    1. Thanks, man. And sorry so long to reply.

      It's worth talking about all this IMAX stuff, especially since that became the line of every major critic. "You'd better go see this in IMAX 70!!!" I bought it...and preferred it in a standard widescreen. It's a great movie, if I'm still a bit conflicted about how great I think it really is.

  7. I'll say this about the IMAX 70mm thing: Either shoot the whole damn thing in IMAX, or don't. The constantly shifting aspect ratios (which were, admittedly, much worse in Interstellar) drives me batty and takes me out of the film, quite frankly. Is Dunkirk a stunning experience in IMAX 70mm? You betcha. I have no doubt that it's just as stunning on a huge true 70mm screen. I had some issues with the film, but they're mostly just nitpicks. Seeing it on the IMAX screen at Lincoln Square is definitely an experience I'll never forget even if I don't think it was perfect.