Don’t be swayed by all of the hype surrounding Dunkirk. There are many reviews out there which proclaim it to be an absolute triumph, not only of war films, but of film-making in general. While the film certainly looks the part of something that deserves to be mentioned along other all-time great films, it lacks the substance to elevate it to such a level.
Visually, the film is spectacular. There are massive sets with shots that are able to encapsulate the breadth of the situation and put into perspective how desperate the situation was for the thousands of soldiers stuck on that beach. There are a few sequences that look a little too much like a Terrance Malick film which seem like they are arty for the sake of being arty.
The real weakness however, comes with the characters, or lack thereof. While there are many different players involved with what plays out on the screen, there is not a single one that is particularly memorable. What little dialogue is in the film is pretty standard and industrial; it serves to move the plot forward and that is about it. The characters don’t really grow or change throughout the film, and the audience is expected to care about them simply because of the situation they are in.
Christopher Nolan’s weakness has always been in character progression, compelling dialogue and plots that can lack coherence at times. He is able to escape none of those with this film, as alongside the at times nonexistent characters, the plot is structured non-linearly, yet there is not enough indication that a time change has occurred, or that the events take place in different times at all. There is one point where one sequence is taking place at night, while two other take place during the day. Instead of completing the night sequence and moving onto the day time sequences, they are all mixed together which only serves to create confusion. Overall, the plot is muddled by its nonlinear structure which doesn’t bring about enough value for it to overcome the confusion it creates.
Dunkirk is a visually spectacular film which tells a story around a very compelling event in world history, however, there is not enough within the film to make the audience care about what is actually happening outside of the fact that we are essentially is told that it is important. Even with important events taking place on the screen, without critical characters that the audience either roots for or against, those events end up being too shallow to be compelling.