Dunkirk, the latest film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, is best viewed in IMAX – and, if at all possible, IMAX 70mm. Nolan went out of his way to create a movie designed for the larger viewing format, shooting as many practical effects filmed on IMAX-specific cameras as possible, the ideal way to take in the wartime epic is to see it on the biggest, most well-equipped screen available.
The emphasis on IMAX screenings has stirred up some resentment, as it implicitly creates a divide in audience-members – those who can see the movie “properly,” and those who can’t because they don’t have easy access to an IMAX theater (IMAX 70mm screenings are particularly elusive, with only 31 locations across all of North America). There are certainly drawbacks to designing a film to be seen in IMAX, such as the limited access to IMAX theaters, and the fact that Dunkirk will be out of theaters altogether in a couple of months. However, Nolan’s steadfast dedication to making sure his film looks as good as possible, and wanting audiences to see it that way, is one that should be celebrated and encouraged within the world of studio-funded blockbusters.
It cannot be understated just how far the Interstellar director went to make sure Dunkirk would be genuine to its subject matter. Based on a harrowing true story of a miracle evacuation of Allied troops from the titular French beach in the relatively early days of World War II, the conditions those soldiers existed in are replicated about as closely as is feasible. The movie was shot on location, and more than just going against the elements, lengths were gone to in terms of research and authenticity. Land, sea, and air; no expense was spared in capturing the drama of the situation to the fullest extent.
In one of the more impressive anecdotes about the shoot, the plane Tom Hardy is piloting had an IMAX camera strapped to it for a crash sequence, to capture the impact from the pilot’s perspective. The incident, requiring very precise timing, happened almost as planned – except that Hardy’s aircraft hit the water slightly harder and sank slightly faster than intended, causing the camera’s casing to be damaged and its contents submerged. The footage, captured on celluloid, would have been lost but for an efficient restoration team who managed to salvage it. The result is a plane crash with tension and veracity far beyond what could be accomplished with standard effects.
Another story that’s been doing the rounds about bringing Dunkirk together is how the ships used in the evacuation on-screen are the same ships used in 1940. Not just the same models, manufactured around the same time – the same exact ships, seen here making the legendary voyage once more for everyone to behold. The ships were in the possession of many different owners, Nolan researched and tracked each one down to co-ordinate their use and involvement in the movie. This on top of him working with veterans and historians through-out preparation and shooting to get as legitimate a picture he could of what happened and how best to portray it.
This isn’t to merely aggrandize Nolan, but his dedication to authenticity and grand scale is something that should be admired. We live in the era of the blockbuster; almost every weekend a 100 million dollar-plus picture is hitting cineplexes, many of whom touting to be an “event” of some description. Most of these rely on the same standardized procedures and post-production for their special effects, with much of the film being made after filming has wrapped. Instances where the special effects are truly “special” are becoming relatively rare.
Nolan’s dedicated to making sure that every penny of the massive budget he’s been granted is used to the fullest extent. That every frame looks as good as it can, serving the story and the experience he wants the audience to connect with. It’s not dissimilar to Andy Serkis’ work in motion capture starting with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serkis is synonymous with the most cutting-edge in digital effects, his ability to capture human performance and transfer it into 3D effects has caused a push for the Oscars to do more to recognize effects-driven work in film. His turn as Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy – the third instalment of which, War for the Planet of Apes, is also currently playing, is seen as another new wave in the capabilities of performance capture technology and design. He’s a visionary who understands the medium and its potential and wants to push it forward.
Nolan and Serkis are two ends of the same spectrum. Whether it be battling the elements with state-of-the-art cameras to get the exact right shots in the exact right way, or investing in and researching the next evolution in computer generated imagery, the graft is the same. Every new production is an exciting prospect, to see what they’ve made and, often as enticingly, how they went about doing it. Their involvement in films is justification in itself to see them at the local theatre, rather than waiting for streaming or Blu-ray.
It is unfortunate that many may not get to see Dunkirk as Nolan intended. Magnificent as it is on any screen, an IMAX viewing is where the ‘real’ Dunkirk is, where the visuals are at their most imposing and the soundtrack its most captivating and booming. But it’s important to make sure when a director makes something with such an attention to detail that it’s rewarded. Studio pictures are so regularly cookie-cutter that innovation and originality can seem very scarce. Nolan is a filmmaker almost solely dedicated to being the opposite, and Dunkirk is his most ambitious work yet. It’s up to us to tell him and Hollywood that it’s been worth the effort.