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Not a single German face is shown in Dunkirk. Other than German planes, none of their war apparatuses appear on camera either. Torpedoes skim underwater from unseen U-boats. Artillery shells launch from unspecified locations. Bullets ring out from off-screen guns.
Dunkirk isn’t a story of victory, but of loss, and that loss comes from an enemy invisibly closing in on a beach filled with British and French soldiers. Other enemy troops circle in the sky, more from below in the water, cutting off all avenues of escape.
Director Christopher Nolan’s work is the antithesis of war cinema. Dunkirk doesn’t focus on heroics or spectacular gunfights. A single Allied soldier on the beach fires a handful of rounds. Gunners on a boat miss their aerial target after sending off a few shots. Anxiety and terror rule, along with a sense of defeat. All anyone wants to see is home. Nolan’s direction and script feed in this triptych story, interwoven as panic, solitude, peril.
Dunkirk is inherently simple, broken down to bare pieces, and then unloading this story of a pivotal historical event. At the outset, papers rain from the sky onto five British troopers. These German pamphlets, printed with bright red warning colors, use arrows to indicate how surrounded Dunkirk is. That’s the entirety of the set-up It’s a near silent scene, broken by a stream of piercing gunfire. That’s the motif, indifferent to dialog, using determined visual storytelling. It’s a series of looks and gestures, freed from exposition.
There’s a battle of scale within Dunkirk. 400,000 men awaited rescue from 800 boats. In terms of scope, that never comes across; it’s a pittance compared to reality. Nolan’s use of actual planes, boats, and miniatures adds a price tag unable to keep up. As rapidly as Dunkirk is able to grab on thematically, the shrunken sense of perspective – if certainly adding human-level drama – whittles Dunkirk’s story to essentials only.
What’s here though is often sensational. It’s as much a tribute to World War II as it is clever filmmaking. The sights and images captured – some from the wings of planes, others in near drowning situations – coalesce into a survival saga. What’s missing in true-to-life scale gains in plausible drama. Unknown Fionn Whitehead serves as an anchor, one of numerous soldiers, most without names, but Whitehead offers a means to the end. Whitehead’s numerous attempts at evacuation fail, a misfortune of unending circumstance, and enough to root for.
Video (4K UHD)
Over three quarters of Dunkirk were shot on 65/70mm IMAX cameras, using a 1.78:1 aspect ratio on Blu-ray. The handful of other scenes widen to 2.35:1 as Nolan’s output tends to do.
The obvious highlight comes from the IMAX footage, including the breathtaking views of Dunkirk’s beaches from above. Ripples in the water or ships in the distance show clearly. Well resolved and minor film grain preserves image detail. In close, especially where Tom Hardy is concerned, fidelity of his flight suit and cockpit offer astonishing textural qualities. Dizzying in-flight shots provide a perspective of dogfighting never captured with this level of definition.
Opening shots in town, with their vintage brick buildings, reach that same peak. Onto the beach, granular sand looks resolved for miles. The same goes for waves at the POV on the ground. Facial detail offers expected consistency. Non-IMAX scenes lose little, if giving the appearance of a slightly starved bitrate. Some shots of Cilian Murphy (for example) lack the textural clarity of others. That’s minor.
Rendered down to a muted palette of browns and blues (and some teal), Dunkirk uses the expanded color for density. Brown jackets of lower ranking soldiers and beautifully deep blues of officers come backed by a cloudy skyline. The mixture doesn’t have wow factor, but certainly creates the intended mood.
Reserved HDR effects hold back on range, made listless by the dry skyline. Post-production reduces black levels to varying shades of blue, which even at night holds back a typical sense of depth. The best contrast comes in the air, peering down at a glistening ocean. There, UHD shines with its possibilities, giving life to an otherwise monotone aesthetic.
Offering the same alternating aspect ratio, Dunkirk’s Blu-ray features exceptional detail throughout. Although given its own disc sans extras, Warner barely uses the additional space. That’s cause for minor artifacting in shadows. Aerial battles and expansive beach scenes feature outstanding depth. No aliasing creeps in during the downscale process.
Contrast flutters between story elements, flattened on the beach, strong in the air. Black levels rarely make themselves seen, the likely reason for the minimal artifacting. Color timing turns down the dial, receding into blues, browns, and teals. Dunkirk lacks weight in the traditional A/V sense.
Both the Blu-ray and UHD use DTS-HD 5.1, restrictive in this day of current gen home audio, if following Nolan’s catalog. The loss of object-based audio isn’t a total loss. From the outset, Dunkirk blasts gunshots from the rears, echoing deep into the subwoofer with each trigger pull. The intriguing soundtrack likewise hits the low-end forcefully, throbbing with each beat.
Bomb blasts suck air from the room, plus the ensuing debris splash – water or sand – falls between channels flawlessly. Stellar envelopment continues as Dunkirk moves into the air. Spitfire engines pan between channels, and gunfire heard from inside cockpits is exceptionally organic. High-grade dynamics make sure any piercing of silence is a jarring incidence, better placing viewers in the unexpected.
Warner gives the extra its own disc featuring a five-part making of, running a few minutes longer than Dunkirk itself. The 110-minute piece starts with a slightly self-congratulatory tone, but it’s worth it to see surviving soldiers tell some of their stories. From there, insight into production helps, including Nolan’s insistence on realism and often dangerous filmmaking methods.
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