No matter what else Christopher Nolan’s movies are about, they are also about time: how it passes slowly or quickly in different circumstances, how we value it or waste it, how we try to find ways to break its perpetual momentum. The only place on Earth where time doesn’t flow in just one direction is the movie theater, particularly during one of Nolan’s films, which bounce backwards and forwards in their complicated chronologies, and proceed at different rhythms for different characters.

Dunkirk, Nolan’s latest movie, includes one of his most fascinating uses of onscreen time. It follows three different groups involved in the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II; time flows at a different pace for each of the three storylines, which are blended together to interesting narrative effect. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) spends an entire week waiting for rescue on the beaches of Dunkirk. After the British government orders private ships to assist in the evacuation, a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan) spend a tumultuous day crossing the English Channel on their way to France. Meanwhile, in the skies above, a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) and two wingmen spend just one hour providing air support for the evacuation, carefully monitoring their fuel supplies while shooting down German planes.

That’s how the enemy is seen in Dunkirk: only at a great distance, if at all. The Nazis are ever-present thanks to the constant barrage of bullets, bombs, and torpedoes, but they are almost invisible. (Save for a couple of those Luftwaffe fighters, Nolan never shows who’s shooting at the protagonists.) The film is less of a typical war film than it is about a small group of underdogs struggling for survival.

Warner Bros.

Dunkirk’s unique time structure will delight fans of puzzle movies; video essays will be published from now until doomsday trying to figure out exactly where to place each of the events on a timeline, and maybe even recutting the whole film in chronological order. (Something Nolan himself did in the pre-YouTube days when he put out a restructured cut of Memento on DVD.) The cross-cutting between land, sea, and air yields some striking juxtapositions, and some clever surprises when recognizable faces from one narrative suddenly pop up in another. It also keeps the audience at an emotional remove from the people onscreen, many of whom remain nameless and personality-less amidst the chaos and carnage. There are thousands of men onscreen in Dunkirk, but less than a handful of three-dimensional characters. Only Rylance gets a part with any kind of substance, or a chance to deliver dialogue more complicated than a couple of words sputtered in terror between gunshots.

Perhaps that was what Nolan wanted. (Dunkirk is his first solo screenplay since Inception.) Certainly the film is designed to put you on the beach, in the cockpit, and aboard Rylance’s ship, to let you feel their fear and courage, and consider the choices you would make in their shoes. On that level, the cast make effective conduits for the audience. But the movie rarely invites you to feel much for these men, or to think about anything beyond the heart-pounding suspense that rarely lets up.

On a technical level, the movie is an undeniable achievement. It was shot in 65mm, and on a true IMAX screen the image almost fills your entire field of vision. The dogfight sequences are particularly impressive, with the camera both mimicking the pilots’ point-of-view, and swooping and spinning through the air high above the ocean; occasionally, the effect is so visceral that you feel momentarily weightless. Nolan supposedly avoided digital effects wherever possible, shooting with thousands of extras to simulate the British forces and using real planes and boats (including a few that actually took part in the real Dunkirk evacuation). The result is a film that never once looks fake or phony. And all that verisimilitude feeds back into making you feel like a witness to real, horrifying events of history.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Dunkirk would have been even better, though, if any of the characters seemed as fully realized as the aerial and naval warfare. Without that, it works best as pure sensory experience; incredible visuals, intense battles. In the rare quiet moments, we’re invited to observe an unusual instrument featured in Hans Zimmer’s score: The ticking of a clock, a reminder that while Nolan can change the march of time, his heroes cannot.

Additional Thoughts:

-Dunkirk features the ultimate Tom Hardy performance: He spends almost the entire film wearing a mask that covers his face and makes it impossible to understand anything he says.

-You will want to know this before you see Dunkirk: A “mole” is “a massive structure, usually of stone, used as a pier, breakwater, or a causeway between places separated by water.”

-Harry Styles appears in this film.


More From ScreenCrush