Tag Archives: Interstellar

Dunkirk (2017): A Well Crafted, but Forgettable Ride

In his first historical film, director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) brings his talents to recreating the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 300,000 Allied troops, surrounded by Germans, were saved by hundreds of private boats that crossed the English Channel to rescue their soldiers. Rather than work with a linear story, Nolan splits the film’s focus into three separate viewpoints: soldiers on the beach awaiting help, a civilian (Mark Rylance; Bridge of Spies) and his son taking their personal boat to assist in the evacuation, and a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy; Mad Max: Fury Road) providing cover to the trapped soldiers.

Nolan’s strength as a writer has always been structure. Films like Memento and Inception, exploited their setup for suspense and the same happens here. The characters may be in different locations, but any building intensity is meant to be shared between them. Working with his regular composer, Hans Zimmer, he uses an ever-accelerating ticking clock as a metronome for the film’s tension and audio bridge between the perspectives. As the film cuts between each set of characters, the danger they face is carried forward and builds with mostly fruitful results. There is an overreliance on raw decibel power to create a feeling of intensity, similar to the sound mixing in Interstellar, that is not as effective as desired, but the film succeeds in making each disparate scenario equally precarious.

In the past, Nolan’s greatest weakness has been exposition. Needless, forced exposition that talks down to the audience as if the director’s greatest fear is that the masses will not be able to keep up with his intelligence even though his films, despite their often deliberately convoluted structure, are fairly followable. In Dunkirk, he breaks away from his tendency to overexplain. The film features little dialogue, instead relying on images of warfare to propel the story. With a few exceptions, namely Rylance’s seemingly sedated performance, he refrains from undue exposition.

The scale of the action is the film’s greatest triumph.

The lack of exposition also extends into character development. These are people whose names you will not know, even during the course of the movie. Perhaps this is a willful commentary on the war itself, claiming that the characters have little individual identity because they are each one of many who experienced the same trauma in WWII, but that does nothing to connect the audience to them. For all of Nolan’s immense technical skills, emotions have always been a major shortcoming. Even the basic plot of many of his films can be reduced to men whose lives are disrupted by engaging with emotions. The missing attachment to the characters makes the film more appreciable for its technique rather than its heart.

Dunkirk is an amusement ride. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it does accurately depict the film’s effect. The characters and actual plot are either simple or deliberately downplayed. Instead, we are meant to take in the expertly realized period and effects in the moment. Nolan and his team have recreated the incredible scale of this moment in history. Countless troops appear to line the beaches without any suspicion of computer generated assistance. He continues his love of practical stunts by using multiple real Spitfire fighter jets and the same wing-side camera shots from the famous docking scene of Interstellar. While enjoyable, the emphasis on historical accuracy over feeling has the unintended consequence of making the film forgettable. Like even great rollercoasters, it entertains during its runtime then fades away as soon as the ride ends. Dunkirk is well-crafted experience, just not a particularly emotional or memorable one.

3/5 stars.

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature and his first attempt at a (comparatively) big budget film that might have some mainstream appeal. His previous films were small character dramas and that DNA is still present here. Like Take Shelter, the movie stars Michael Shannon dealing with a supernatural problem. This time however, the question isn’t “Is it real?” but rather “What does this mean?” and “How do we prevent others from destroying it?”. Shannon plays a dad hiding from the police with Joel Edgerton (The Gift) as he takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a special location. We soon learn that Alton has supernatural powers evidenced by the beams of blue light that shoot out of his eyes. He is able to tap into radio frequencies, pull down satellites, and cause earthquakes. Their mission is to get him to Florida before something happens and before the government, believing him to be a weapon, finds them.

The clear influence here is John Carpenter’s Starman. Like that movie, this is a chase that is more interested in sentiment than science. The film manages to convey the love Alton’s parents have for him by contrasting them with others who only view him as a messiah or future destruction. They care for Alton the boy, not the supernatural being. This also serves to increase the stakes and the tension throughout. Lieberher is particularly believable as Alton. He shows the unnaturally calm confidence of someone who fully understands the situation which makes his simple lines seem profound. Yet, he still betrays his youth in the way he needs his parents for support. The music also recalls Carpenter’s signature scores and a slow piano melody transitions the mood from frantic chase to solemn duty. Even the special effects are homage. The blue beams of light mimic the glows of the sliver spheres in Starman. This along with other flourishes are deliberately old fashioned but never become garish or distracting.

Family is at the heart of Midnight Special.

Nichols wisely chooses to obscure many details of the plot. Background information including how Alton was born, how he grew up, and the full scope of what his powers can do are either only hinted at or largely ignored. The audience, as well as the characters, are left wondering what led to his current state. The time period is muddled too. Shots prominently feature CRT televisions and few modern gadgets are shown to prevent dating the film. In doing so, Nichols has edited out the exposition that bogs down many other science fiction films (see Interstellar) and focuses on the heart of the story – a family trying to save their son. That is, until the ending.

How the film closes may leave viewers unsatisfied. Up to that point, the cryptic details heightened the intensity, but as the film reveals itself the suspense is quickly deflated. The ending may prove too literal for some wanting something closer to 2001 and noticeably undermines the mystery that preceded it. Still, the sense of wonder and hidden potential present in the film create ample tension and intrigue to entice.

4/5 stars.