For those who’ve followed Christopher Nolan right from his early works including Following, his first feature, have always found it hard to pick Nolan’s worst film. Around the time Dark Knight Rises came out, some of these debates had settled. However, the fact that it was a part of trilogy, it’s criticism found occasional but relevant counters. Before I go ahead with this, I have to say, I think it’s almost impossible for Christopher Nolan to make a bad film. Dunkirk is a very good film. But personally, I think it’s Nolan’s worst so far.
In all of Nolan’s films, his characters have been built remarkably. It might have been out of pure intention, but the fact that he refuses to give it time in Dunkirk, is quite damaging to the entire project. The whole idea, I felt, was to build tension, in a short time frame, throwing us right in the middle of something. This is something that might have worked much better with more build up time. Think about the most gripping scenes from Inception. Take that one where Leonardo DiCaprio says “We are not prepared for this”. The tension in that sequence is at a stunning level but we feel it more because of the build up before. The Joker prison scene in The Dark Knight with that ringing cell phone as another example. Take the scenes from The Prestige or Interstellar or Memento or even Insomnia. Christopher Nolan is the master of building tension. Not in Dunkirk however. Yes we feel the tension pretty well but not as well as we are used to by Nolan.
The counter argument to this can be, this was the entire intention. It can also be that there’s a certain bar Nolan has hit with Interstellar and Inception and so on but he hasn’t lost his right to make a smaller film (scale and runtime wise). Both of these are true. But the impact one usually feels, was much lesser in this one. That is something so natural, you cannot come up with it. It’s what you feel.
It was visually stunning
“Visuals were great”. Well, yes. Name one Nolan film which didn’t have great visuals. Watch his 1997 short film Doodlebug.
Even that had great visuals. You can’t be praising things that are sort of a standard in a Nolan picture, can you? Christopher Nolan is deeply inspired by Stanley Kubrick and his works. Primarily, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Over the years, he has incorporated a lot of what he has learnt from his master extraordinarily well. Visuals in a Nolan film are always stunning.
The Insomnia argument
What has not only been gravely unfair and frankly quite disturbing, is the treatment Insomnia gets from most people. Only because the film doesn’t have the grandiose Nolan’s other films have, it is barely considered anywhere near his best. (Obviously, by those who discovered him recently and watched his previous films now) I beg to differ. Insomnia is a fantastic film. Also, it is what put Nolan on the level at which he is today. Most have always kept the film aside while speaking of Nolan’s great works. Those who are doing the same to Dunkirk are not necessarily doing it out of the same reason. I personally love Insomnia much more than Dunkirk. It’s a far superior film with a lot of layers.
Quentin Tarantino candidly confessed that he always wants to top his previous movie. When asked about Inglorious Basterds, he said he wanted to top that too. With Christopher Nolan, who reached a high point with Interstellar that was extremely hard to top, Dunkirk, came nowhere close. Dunkirk to Interstellar isn’t what Interstellar is to Inception. (Don’t mean to ignore Dark Knight Rises, but lets consider Nolan’s works outside the trilogy)
Summing it up
Christopher Nolan’s new film is always a massive event. It has been for quite a few years now. It will always be. After watching Dunkirk twice, I definitely feel it is far, far and extremely far from Nolan’s best. I think it is his worst movie. Probably after Dark Knight Rises, but his worst. Something quite frequent with Nolan’s movies is the fact that they grow on you. Interstellar did, Inception did, Prestige did, Memento did, Insomnia did, The Dark Knight did. A lot of this has to do with the score, the soul of most of these movies. Particularly Inception and Interstellar, both had this effect and a lot of it was because of the exceptional score by Hans Zimmer. In this film, of course, the score was fascinating. Just like Nolan, it’s impossible for Zimmer to produce something bad. But it all felt like scenes / segments from those films mentioned above at best! As a whole, it wasn’t nearly as effective as any of those movies.
It’s harder to label any of Nolan’s films as his best but easier to pick his worst because he’s barely ever had anything that would contend for the spot. Until now.