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Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

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Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

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With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

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Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

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Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

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Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

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This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

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I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

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Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

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Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

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After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

‘Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s moving war epic is an unparalleled directorial feat

Dunkirk is, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar.

The three threads of the story — land, sea and air — occur on different timelines. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing.

As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. Hans Zimmer’s score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time. And as they coalesce — after hours of viscerally immersive cinematography and practical effects, in the cockpits of real Spitfires, on the actual sand of the Dunkirk beaches, on the cramped decks of a civilian boat actually out in the waters, all toned by a bone-shakingly haunting soundscape — the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.

While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.

And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. The emotions that Nolan concerns himself with are the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. As the film rises from the terror, and as composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s Variation 15, a version of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, plays, Dunkirk proves its unbearably moving heart, a hear that renders survival as victory.

Grade: A+

Our full review of Dunkirk

 

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a structural masterpiece of tension, crafting emotion out of immersion — Full Review

*Warning* Spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.

As Dunkirk required three timelines to tell its story, I required three viewings before reviewing. One to plunge into the filth. A second to discover what I missed. The time inbetween to read up on more background and intricacies. And a third to absorb as close to an entirety as I can.

And yet, an ‘entirety’ is entirely out of reach. Even on the 5,000+ square feet of an IMAX 70mm screen, details are so ingrained within each frame that it becomes impossible. That’s the nature of movies, however. And specifically, that’s the nature of Dunkirk.

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We were never meant to receive each piece of experiential information. We must simply be aware of their presence because the film is as massive as it is intimate. As we run on, sail across and fly through the vastness of land, sea and air with these characters, we’re constantly stuck in suffocating spaces — the countless bodies lined up on the mole, the tight cabins of the Moonstone, the seemingly inescapable naval destroyer interiors and the rattling cockpit of a Spitfire.

That’s the contradiction that director Christopher Nolan must overcome. On their surface, land, sea and air are the most wide open of visual scapes. In Dunkirk, they’re the cell with no escape.

One of the most stunning shots of the entire film shows precisely how Nolan does it. As enemy planes dive bomb the beaches, the film cuts to a wide shot of the scrambling men in the sand, framed by two (prison) bars.

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These may be wide open plains, but there’s nowhere to hide. As 400,000 Allied forces find themselves surrounded by enemy troops on the beaches of France, one sense arises: we’re trapped. And only one sense comes next: we must survive.

As Christopher Nolan has said time and time again, Dunkirk is a suspense film before it’s a war film. Its main question is not of the politics of how the Allied troops got to where they were. It’s simply a response to the situation, a matter of the soldiers’ perspective: will they survive? The soldiers didn’t know the exact position of the enemy, the reason why the RAF weren’t showing up or anything another film may show. So, neither will we. We’re simply planted alongside the soldiers, improvising and panicking as one of them.

With such a goal, Dunkirk becomes, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar.

There’s a method here more polished than in any of Nolan’s previous work. Taking the film’s goals, the genre and Nolan’s affinity for practical effects and large format offers immersion on an unmatched level.

Most of Dunkirk’s aerial sequences were filmed in just that: the air. Retrofitting old planes and inventing rigs for IMAX cameras, as well as sending the actors up into the sky make for images that tap into unidentifiable aspects of our viewing minds, aspects that allow us to process when real physics — of planes executing meticulous turns in the sky’s true air — are at work. It’s a difference that just can’t be understated and it’s a difference that Nolan doesn’t waste, precisely because of how those fights are orchestrated.

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While X Wings are quick to down their targets, Spitfires, flown by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), are slow and methodical. It takes minutes for our pilots to line up their guns and, nine times out of ten, those bullets will miss. It takes fierce, dedicated evation to stay alive, and careful communication to execute the perfect shot. Dunkirk’s aerial battles are more so eerie and unnerving, yet gracefully beautiful dances, which makes for better battles.

But the fact of the matter is that these sequences, and the rest of the masterclass action, of which it feels egregious to simply brush over, are in service of a larger technical endeavor. This is a suspense film, built on tension. And thus, Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer design their respective work to build tension. With a score that feels more like an augmentation of an already vicious and grueling soundscape, Zimmer utilizes the musical illusion of the Shepard Tone.

In simple terms, the Shepard Tone is an illusion consisting of three layers of sound, all an octave apart. The top layer moves from loud to soft. The middle layer stays the same. And the bottom layer moves from soft to loud. The effect is a constant feeling of rising tension. So while there may be a constant ticking, one that is undoubtedly central to the idea of time running out and to a sense of tension, the true core of this score lies in its ghostly, unforgiving, oceanic orchestra.

But Nolan makes use of the same trick in his own work. His intention with his three part structure was to adapt the Shepard Tone, an initially musical phenomenon, to writing and, in turn, to a film.

How can that work though? The three threads occur on different timelines. When they cross, we jump backwards and forwards. There’s a disjointedness to its structure.

We’ll get to that last part. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing. If we’re jumping back to a moment we’ve seen before, it works because it’s a new moment in the thread we occupy.

For Dunkirk, one of the most massive and important events of the 20th century, such crafting of tension is the only way to approach this story.

And it works. As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. The score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time.

And as we reach it, and as The Oil, one of Zimmer’s most truly affecting pieces ever composed, begins to play, the built up pressure, the gravest of circumstances, the grimmest of violence and the senselessness of survival all coalesce into a feeling of cinematic immersion singular to itself.

A ship is bombed, oil spills and soldiers swim helplessly in the water as the Moonstone braves waves to save as many as it can. And by virtue of editor Lee Smith’s absolutely refined work in bringing the filmic version of the Shepard Tone to fruition, the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.

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There is truly no appropriate description for such a feat of cinema, of filmmaking, of storytelling, all with a purpose, a purpose that fits.

And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. It may seem cold to some at first. But upon reflection and return, Dunkirk’s idea of namelessness, near facelessness, all without much background, if any at all, is informed. And it comes in two shapes. Terror and togetherness, both crafted through perspective.

The terror of the situation is evident from the start. A surface swim into history will provide enough context to scare. But it’s in how Nolan crafts the scenario.

Bullets pierce without origin, without cinematic warning and with only an intention to kill. As hundreds of thousands of soldiers slowly rise after dive bombers sweep the beaches, hundreds, if not thousands remain motionless on the sand, built into the mise-en-scene as the cinematography lingers for long enough, but briefly enough to truly haunt.

The entire opening, filled with biting violin strikes as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) carry a man on a stretcher for what seems like miles across the beach and the mole to a hospital ship about to leave, simply results in the downing of that very ship, with tens of wounded men on board, via enemy bombing.

With only seconds to decide, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) yells at the top of his lungs that the ship must be pushed away from the mole as it sinks — if not, then the mole would be completely blocked as an escape route. These are the sacrifices that must be made, captured as the camera slowly tracks away from Bolton’s frozen fear as all he can do is watch men flail overboard.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the ship collides into the mole for a moment, and Alex (Harry Styles) is pulled away in the knick of time, a voice can be heard screaming as its body is crushed. The camera, of course, lingers.

While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment on the Moonstone, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.

In fact, this idea of terror, and its causes on the individual, can be traced back through Nolan’s career, most significantly to The Dark Knight — what many call a response to post-9/11 US society. In that seminal film, the terror truly manifests not when the events happens, but as those they could happen to anticipate them.

The same can be said with Dunkirk. Some call Harry Styles’ Alex a villain, but what he actually represents is one of the more obvious victims of terror.

In his anticipation of terror, Alex turns on Gibson, a man who saved Alex’s life when he opened the door for drowning soldiers within the destroyer sinking after a torpedo strike, and accuses him of being a “German spy” with “an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

The scene is the one that proves Styles as more than a serviceable actor — because, as Nolan has said, the scene contains a subtle truth dependent on him to deliver. These lines of dialogue hold one of the very few direct mentions of the Germans. Outside of this scene, they’ve simply been called “the enemy,” and are never shown — their villainy more an idea than a people. But as a man anticipates the worst of terror, his potential death, it is he, one of our heroes, who throws the name of the enemy at one of his own.

War evokes tribalism, primalism even. There is one goal: survival. And even in his most vulnerable and terrified state, Alex states a truth of the matter: “survival isn’t fair.”

The idea calls to mind George (Barry Keoghan), the 17 year old boy sailing with Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who is knocked down the stairs to below deck on the Moonstone by the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), bashing his head, incurring brain trauma and dying off screen.

His death is senseless. His death isn’t fair. The Shivering Soldier, a man consumed by his own fear, by his own anticipation of terror, causes George’s death. The burden of such an accident on someone who never intended harm isn’t fair.

But the deck of the Moonstone — where the Shivering Soldier, perhaps the most irredeemable character of Dunkirk, stands — is where we find that other aspect of humanity: togetherness.

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The Moonstone ‘little ship’ in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the climax of the filmic Shepard Tone reaches, the film slows down momentarily. At this point, George has fallen and revealed that he can’t see. Peter has attempted to comfort him as much as possible, but can’t do much more.

The Moonstone sails into the climactic battle, rescuing soldiers, Alex among them. Alex ventures below deck and discovers George. Peter frantically says, “Be careful with him.” But Alex replies, “He’s dead, mate.”

Peter pauses to process, and then says, “Well be bloody careful with him.”

Peter looks at his father at the ship’s wheel. The Shivering Soldier, having checked on the boy’s well-being before — to which Peter initially chided him — asks again if the boy will be okay. Peter stares at him. Then, despite just learning of George’s death, he nods.

The moment is among many. A togetherness marks the film with such powerful, purposeful quietude.

Near the beginning of the film, Gibson hands over a container of water, an implied scarcity, to thirsty stranger Tommy. Later on, as the naval destroyer is torpedoed and begins to sink, Gibson nearly jumps over board. But, after hearing the faceless screams of those trapped inside, risks his life to open the door to the interior, saving them. As Gibson gains a spot on a tiny departing boat, while Tommy and Alex are denied access, Gibson slips off a rope so that they may hold on as they row back to shore.

Farrier, low on fuel and turning around to head back to mainland, sees an enemy bomber in his rear mirror as it targets boats below. He’s right there. And no one else is. He turns around.

Tom Hardy Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Despite accusing Gibson of being a spy and nearly forcing him to walk into slaughter, Alex, as their temporary hideaway ship sinks, makes sure to make Gibson aware that they’re escaping. In tragic senselessness, the man who has saved the most lives drowns. But it’s the man who nearly had him killed who tries to help him in the end.

Perhaps the film’s most touching moment can only be recognized in hindsight. Throughout Dunkirk, Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and his son marvel at the sight of the RAF’s Spitfires.

At one point, Collins’ plane gets shot and he must make an emergency crash into the ocean. Mr. Dawson tracks the crash, steering intently at its site. As the plane downs, Peter tells his dad that there’s no use, that the engine cut and a parachute wasn’t pulled. Mr. Dawson ignores. Peter repeats. Mr. Dawson ignores again. Peter insists. And Rylance superbly delivers his following lines with a sense of desperate helplessness, touched by aching sadness. “I hear you Peter, I hear you,” he yells. He begins to trail off. “Maybe he’s alive.” Even more so. “Maybe we can help him.”

Mark Rylance Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

It’s not until the end of the film that we learn that Mr. Dawson’s oldest son, Peter’s brother, was an RAF pilot, but died three weeks into the war. And finally, the moment clicks. As Collins goes down, all Mr. Dawson can see is his oldest son. He wasn’t able to save his son. But maybe he can save Collins. Maybe that can mean something.

There are many more. They may be missed at first, but that’s simply because of the event within which they take place and the fact that they’re not forced.

But both togetherness and senselessness merge and unify. They both come back to the moment with Peter and the Shivering Soldier after George’s death, and the return to England when Peter gets George in the paper as a hero at Dunkirk. In this sense, as he has done so many times before, Nolan tackles the notion of truth, the value of truth. But while he may be questioning it in previous films, stating that, sometimes, truth isn’t for the best, it almost seems like, with Dunkirk, he’s positing that this grand idea of truth is simply impossible.

The film’s multiple perspectives and disjointed structure may never be fully figured out. It’s difficult to tell exactly where everything stands and when — its jaggedness purposeful in disorientation. But that sense evokes this idea that each perspective holds its own truth, its own reality. And like Inception, that may be valid in itself. For the men on the beaches, the RAF left them in the dust. For a pilot like Collins, he fought his own near deadly war. We empathize with the soldier who asks Collins, “Where were you?” But we also empathize with Collins through Mr. Dawson’s lines. Pointing to the Moonstone, he says, “They know where you were.”

The Shivering Soldier has suffered enough. He may be the cause, but he is not to blame for George’s death. His truth is not in George’s death, but rather in his overcoming of his self in the aftermath. And, with it being after his change, his sight of George’s body at the end will only help him come to terms with war.

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Cillian Murphy as the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

For George, he took one step that changed his life. While he may not have made it to Dunkirk, while he may not have been directly involved in saving anyone, that step is a bravery to be rewarded, especially with his death as a result of senselessness and the privilege of the living left behind. His name belongs in the paper because, in that moment, the truth doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is an idea of truth.

And it is the idea of truth that elevates the reading of Winston Churchill’s famous address by young Tommy.

The heroics of war are everywhere. In the leaders, sure. But history will be kind to accomplished leaders, to singular individuals easy to point out.

What Nolan concerns himself with is the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. Men who’ve gone through hell and come back. Men who blame themselves, feel ashamed of themselves as Alex does when he first boards the train. Tommy — who represents that merge of togetherness and terror, as he rejects tribalism, but shakes with deep panic beneath the water as bullets fly above — is the face of the faceless. It is all of these men who are deserving of the words of Churchill. It is for them for which they were spoken. So it is one of these men who must read them.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

What I’m always interested in with a film is the truth that the filmmaker brings to it. And the details of the truths that Christopher Nolan brings to Dunkirk are profound.

Nolan’s grandfather was a navigator on a Lancaster, a British plane from the Second World War. He didn’t make it out of the war, which calls to mind Tom Hardy’s Farrier. A pilot who, after indescribable, unquantifiable heroics, is captured as his plane crackles ablaze, defiant.

That nature and fate made Nolan’s father obsessively interested in planes and aviation. Nolan’s father passed away a few years ago. At his funeral played a variation of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, the musical piece which composer Benjamin Wallfisch scores his own variation of for the film’s final minutes.

While watching the film a third time, after I’d learned of Nolan’s father, the stunningly gorgeous shots of Farrier’s Spitfire gliding gracefully above the thousands of cheering soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk hold an unbearably moving truth, a truth that renders capture triumphant, a truth that turns survival into victory, a truth that crafts a heart at the center of Dunkirk and shapes the rest of its humanity throughout.

Grade: A+