"Dunkirk” opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces. Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in. The story unfolds on land, sea and air. RAF Spitfires engage the enemy in the skies above the Channel, trying to protect the defenseless men below. Meanwhile, hundreds of small boats manned by both military and civilians are mounting a desperate rescue effort, risking their lives in a race against time to save even a fraction of their army.
400,000 men trapped on a French beachhead. Surrounded by German artillery. Hunted by German pilots circling in the skies above. Hitler and his Nazi thugs have taken much of continental Europe and if they massacre the men stuck in Dunkirk, England will be next. That's when the British Navy launches an impossible rescue mission. Commandeering hundreds of small civilian boats capable of navigating shallow waters to rescue as many soldiers and sailors as they possibly can. Churchill hopes for 30,000 survivors.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is the story -- told from three distinct point-of-views and timelines -- of how the fight to save 30,000 grew into 300,000. The Mole, aka POV 1, takes place over the course of one week and follows two young soldiers who will do anything to escape Dunkirk, even if it means cheating and lying and sneaking. Kenneth Branagh is also featured in this POV as the highest-ranking British officer in Dunkirk, a man trapped deciding who lives and dies. The Sea, aka POV 2, takes place over the course of one day and follows a civilian fishing boat captain, his son, and his deckhand, as they race across the English Channel to rescue the men trapped at Dunkirk. The Air, aka POV 3, takes place over the course of one hour and follows two Air Force Pilots charged with protecting as many boats and aircraft as they can before they run low on fuel and have to return home. All of these POVs are a rollercoaster ride of perilous journeys and life-n-death moral quandaries.
With three interwoven timelines, edge-of-your-seat action set-pieces, and grand cinematography, Dunkirk is simultaneously one of the most classical and experimental blockbusters I've ever seen. In the classical sense, Nolan and his collaborators have produced a picture that lives and breathes on visual storytelling. There's dialog of course -- with the closing remarks wrapping up the film's emotions and themes beautifully -- but you could watch this story with the sound off and understand everything. Further, in an era where too many studio action sequences are bloated with weightless CGI and unclear geography, Nolan and crew stage sequences to tighten the screws of every single set-piece, making each moment more terrifying than the last. In these terms, Dunkirk offers up one of the most thrilling cinema experiences in years. In fact, its techniques are so spectacular and so dependent on the Big Screen, I feel sorry for anyone who tries to watch this on the smaller screen for the first time; even with a 100" projection setup, smaller details are harder to see.
On the other hand, I've never seen a war movie structured quite this way. As the three timelines intercut along punctuated moments of peril, the film folds in on itself again and again, revealing a narrative as complex those Nolan explored in Inception and Interstellar, but without the need of exposition or science fiction premises to explain what we're seeing. Dunkirk is a movie that foreshadows greater tensions as we return to single moments from different POVs, where there is an extra reward for watching over and over (though that's certainly not required).
Some will criticize Dunkirk because they claim the movie lacks story and character. These types of criticisms generally fall upon movies like Dunkirk, Gravity, The Grey, and Mad Mad Fury Road because we've been conditioned to tick off boxes for what qualifies as smart or great or nuanced. We've been conditioned to think that, if a character doesn't change in the movie, he/she has no demonstrable arc. We've been conditioned to think that, if a movie is (near) silent or lacks tangents, it's not complex. But, honestly, it's a mistake to write off movies like Dunkirk because there are no monologues and melodrama. I would personally argue that Dunkirk is stuffed with story and fascinating characters who each get a chance to grow/fail, live/die, run/fight and everything in between while we, as the audience, are asked to look at this cinematic world through our own reflection:
What would we do to get off a frozen beach to make it home to family and friends?
Would you risk your only son's life after his older brother was killed?
Would you stay and fight or turn around when you could no longer accurately judge your available fuel?
To be clear, I'm not saying folks who don't connect with this movie are wrong -- like/love/hate whatever you want -- but too many are quick to brush off survival thrillers by judging them for what they are not, rather than for whether or not they excel at what they're trying to do. To me, there's so much drama and emotion in Dunkirk to unpack and digest, and it all runs the gamut of terrifying and tragic to uplifting and inspirational.
Dunkirk, for its part, is simple and taught and elegant. A perfect, little glimpse into a horrifying world, like reading a short story from Richard Matheson or Stephen King. In that sense, it's a reminder of how wonderful movies can be where the narrative focus is wholly on the present, where we don't have to unpack endless mythology or set up a dozen sequels for the Cinematic Universe. I don't know if it'll come to be called a masterpiece, but, at the end of the day, Nolan and his creative partners have made a gripping and thrilling war movie that feels unique and experimental while representing visual storytelling craft at its finest.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dunkirk premieres on Blu- as part of a three-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital combo pack. Disc One is a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with the movie only. Disc Two is a standard Blu-ray with the movie only. And Disc Three is a second Blu-ray with all the Special Features. The included Digital Copy code is valid until 12/31/2018, redeems via wb.com/redeemdigital (which takes you into the Movies Anywhere ecosystem), and, in my case, unlocked the 4K UHD streaming option with Dolby Vision.
Dunkirk torpedos its way onto Blu-ray with a reference quality AVC MPEG4 transfer that also matches the shifting 1.78:1 & 2.20:1 aspect ratios of the film's IMAX presentation. As mentioned in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review (available HERE), Dunkirk's IMAX 15/70 and 65mm source material make for a striking home entertainment experience, regardless of format. In this case, we have one the sharpest, clearest, brightest, Blu-rays the format's ever seen and one that almost manages to keep up with its 4K counterpart on both a 100" Optoma UHZ65 projection setup and a 65" VIZIO M-Series.
While it doesn't offer the same level of fine detail seen in 4K -- and this is especially true with the 65mm footage -- the Dunkirk Blu-ray is crazy-good for an HD presentation. If you've enjoyed Blu-rays like The Dark Knight, Interstellar, or The Dark Knight Rises for the added clarity of IMAX footage, you're in for a treat. This is hands down the best-looking Christopher Nolan Blu-ray ever released. Plus, you won't find any signs of digital sharpening or unwanted edge enhancement. And, while there's a difference in overall sharpness and brightness when cutting between IMAX 15/70 and 65mm footage, the 65mm material holds up really well and the difference is far less noticeable than Nolan's IMAX 15/70 & 35mm intercutting that he used previously.
In addition to exemplary sharpness, this transfer wonderfully recreates the film's muted color palette of green, gray, blue, and black. Black levels are also quite strong while maintaining shadow details -- look at the sequence where the men are trapped in the sinking boat and swimming out on the inky black waters for proof.
In terms of flaws, there are a few blink-and-you-miss-them instances of banding, a few soft shots, some overexposed shots of burning fires at night. These are minor nitpicks, though, and do not warrant a full half-star score reduction.
For an SDR (standard dynamic range, Rec.709) grading, this Blu-ray preserves much of the film's theatrical dynamic range and color qualities. And, as noted in my 4K review, even some 4K HDR display owners might prefer this SDR version if their specific display underperforms in terms of brightness and contrast.
Overall, this Dunkirk Blu-ray offers reference quality picture that will be a delight for any home theater enthusiast to own.
Dunkirk explodes onto Blu-ray with an ultra-dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that will be a revelation for audiophiles who also like Hans Zimmer scores. For this review, I'm rocking the awesome 2017 KEF Q series (Q950 towers, Q650c center, Q350 & Q150 surrounds), so keep an eye out for that review -- highly, highly recommended for their price point.
Let's start with the obvious. Would I have preferred a DTS:X or Dolby Atmos track? You bet. Will this mix win any awards for its articulation of 360-degree surround sound? I doubt it, but who knows; I have heard better. Still, this track is very, very good, a true powerhouse of music and effects.
From the shrieking highs of dive-bombing planes strafing helpless soldiers to the thundering bombast of torpedoes sinking ships, Nolan, Zimmer, and their creative partners use sound to build tension and transition seamlessly between timelines. I know some of you are over Zimmer's heavy-handed musical style, but in here I'm impressed by how much anxiety he can bring to any moment with his ticking-clock orchestrations. The sound effects themselves are meaty and weighted, providing punch and gusto to everything from machine guns to tearing metal to airplane engines to splashing waves. There are moments of chaos and destruction, but my ears never felt fatigue. There are moments of quiet and calm, and they are just as clear as the louder moments. LFE performance is admirable as well.
Honestly, outside of Nolan's choice to stick with 5.1 which undercuts immersion, I have no complaints. The better your gear, the more you'll be able to recreate the theatrical experience so apologize to neighbors and family in advance, and enjoy this one LOUD. Oh, and if you're rocking a system with Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural:X, this track up-mixes wonderfully, creating the sense that your front speakers are much taller and bigger.
Revisiting the Miracle
Expanding the Frame
The In-Camera Approach
Rebuilding the Mole
The Army On the Beach
Taking to the Air
Inside the Cockpit
Assembling the Naval Fleet
Launching the Moonstone
Taking to the Sea
Sinking the Ships
The Little Ships
Turning Up the Tension
The Dunkirk Spirit
Christopher Nolan and his collaborators have crafted a masterclass in suspense-driven filmmaking with an experimental war film that stands out among Hollywood blockbusters for its tight storytelling, unique structure, and edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. Pure visual cinema at its finest. If you enjoy Nolan's previous efforts or movies like Mad Max Fury Road, Fury, and Gravity, then Dunkirk is probably for you.
As a Blu-ray, this packages boasts a reference quality HD transfer that mimics the IMAX theatrical experience, a dynamic/bombastic/audiophile-friendly 5.1 mix, a solid grouping of Special Features, and a Digital HD copy.
Dunkirk is Must Own for fans and Highly Recommended for action/war movie enthusiasts who have no impending 4K upgrade plans.
[Worth noting: since the 4K version offers superior picture quality for only a few dollars more, I've selected that set's Bottom Line as Must Own and this one's as Highly Recommended, but it really comes down to what display you have.}
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.