Might as well get right to it, then. At the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I did not love this film. Do I love elements of this? Yes. Is this a 5-star masterpiece? Unfortunately, no.
The cinematography here at least, is masterful. Director Christopher Nolan has, without a doubt, reached the pinnacle of on-screen spectacle here. The feats of practical effects in this film are breathtaking. The casting of nearly 6,000 extras, authentic WWII vehicles, and shooting on location in Dunkirk, France contribute to a great sense of scale here. There is ongoing trend of action films in recent years of relying on CGI, and thankfully Nolan bucks that trend.
Similar to War for the Planet of the Apes, much of the film plays out without much dialogue, leaning on just the score and sound design in most scenes. It almost goes without saying that Hans Zimmer delivers with another incredible score. The sound design is also extremely well crafted, which, paired with Nolan's great work behind the camera, truly transports you to the Battle of Dunkirk. The wailing of planes passing above, the drone of gunfire, and the roar of explosions all contribute to the complete immersion into the world these characters are trapped in. This results in some of the most immersive wartime action scenes since Saving Private Ryan.
This film has and will continue to be compared to World War II classic Saving Private Ryan. Both films are beautifully filmed WWII period pieces with casts that deliver great performances. The similarities end there. Whereas Saving Private Ryan was engrossing as a narrative due to it's characters with depth and arcs, Dunkirk instead leans on it's subject matter and spectacle.
And while the subject matter of Dunkirk is fascinating, as a film it lacks emotional firepower due to the absence of a strongly written protagonist. This is strangely uncharacteristic of a director of Nolan's caliber, especially when you recall the complex character work in his most acclaimed films: The Dark Knight, Memento, and The Prestige. Instead of focusing on a single character or single group of characters, the focus is spread across three protagonists in completely different situations. Showing the Dunkirk Evacuation through the three different perspectives of those on the beach, the sea, and the air is only an interesting proposition on paper. The narrative, due to this writing choice, is spread far too thin, with few characters getting enough screen time to develop even the mildest emotional connection.
While the characters in this film aren't written to even remotely be compelling, the great work from this cast is not to be overlooked. Harry Styles, known for being a member of English boy band One Direction, is surprisingly excellent here in his acting debut. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Fionn Whitehead also all give standout performances despite the limited screen time they are given.
I should love this film. Historical drama? WWII setting? My favorite director Christopher Nolan? Amazing cinematography? Superb performances from an ensemble cast? All of these elements made me sure I would love this going in. But, Dunkirk's lack of emotional connection severely detracts from the awe-inspiring scope and technical prowess displayed.
If I reviewed based on visuals alone, this is a slam-dunk, walk-off home run of a 5-star film. While a focus on grandeur and situation over character depth and emotion may work for some (it obviously worked for 98% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes), it did not work for this critic.
This is without a doubt a cinematic achievement, but without an emotional core, it's impossible for this film not to feel cold and empty. Despite being a technical masterpiece, this is Christopher Nolan's most disappointing film yet.