Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception) has been slowly teasing an extended 5-minute prologue for his next movie, Dunkirk, a World War II film that depicts Operation Dynamo, a risky mission that set out to save hundreds of British soldiers entrapped by the German army.
The footage was previously attached to select IMAX showings of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this past December, and now, Warner Bros. has placed it before IMAX screenings of Kong: Skull Island. The prologue is the same as it was in December, and it’s also spoiler-free, designed instead to convey the tone and sensibility of the film rather than specific plot details. In case you missed it, here’s a description of the footage and how I felt about it overall, as a Nolan fan trying to forget about the missteps I perceived in Interstellar.
Like any good Nolan feature (and story), the movie jumps right into the action with a riveting opening sequence. The entire prologue shifts perspective a few times, but we’re first shown two soldiers carrying a wounded comrade to a boat that’s preparing to depart a dock battered by artillery fire. The music by Hans Zimmer, as excellent as ever, is designed to orchestrate tension through a pronounced tick that says danger is imminent. You don’t have to be a historian to guess what these soldiers are about to go through, and not all of them will be able to evacuate.
The perspective then changes to Mark Rylance, a rich civilian who’s boarding other civilians on his yacht. He tells his hands to hurry departure so that they can avoid the onslaught of soldiers looking for passage. Intercut between these two perspectives is an aerial dogfight between Allied pilots (one played by Tom Hardy) and German bombers making their way to attack Dunkirk, as the other characters try to flee. The dogfight is the clear standout of the prologue in how it differs from many of the aerial battles you’ll have seen depicted in movies in the past.
The battle is measured and tense, rather than bombastic and momentous. There’s a definite dread coming through in the scene, telegraphing sheer doom for many involved in this horrific moment in time. There’s even a shift to first-person from the cockpit to directly transport the viewer into the seat of the protector, and it’s echoed in that helplessness the audience feels when Hardy runs out of gas and loses control of his plane.
As the prologue ends, we can hear a bomber making it through, and the reaction of the soldiers literally fills the large screen. It’s a brilliant, albeit haunting moment and technical feature of the film. We realize together that the bomber will soon unleash devastation upon the pier and everyone still trapped on land. It’s not often that a World War II film feels this much like a thriller, but that’s apparently what Nolan set out to create with Dunkirk. And he’s absolutely making the case now, rather than later, that audiences need to see this one in IMAX 70mm in order to get the full experience he intends. In addition to the larger-than-life picture quality those screenings provide, it all sounds big, which is a hidden touch Nolan has essentially mastered over the years.
Oddly, though, I’m not as excited about seeing Dunkirk as I was Interstellar, except based in what I believe this film will accomplish visually and thematically. The trailers for Interstellar provoked a sense of wonder that the finished product didn’t exactly fulfill for me, and though it turned out to be a slow, methodical exploration of the future, Nolan is going in an opposite direction with the urgent Dunkirk, which is set in the past. That’s probably for the better, because this is a filmmaker who thrives on genres he hasn’t previously attempted, and a historical epic seems right up his alley.
Dunkirk hits theaters on July 21st.