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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk Is Getting Truly Extraordinary Reviews

Dunkirk is receiving all kinds of accolades, with critics calling it one of the best war films ever made and director Christopher Nolan’s finest film. These are tall orders, so let’s dive deeper, shall we?

I’ll admit to being a little nervous about Dunkirk based on its trailers—of course, as a Nolan film, it looked absolutely stunning, but I wasn’t so sure how the movie would work as a whole. But considering the ecstatic reviews pouring in, my fears seem to be unfounded. Dunkirk currently has a 96% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Christopher Nolan is an innovative director long beloved by genre fans for his work creating mind-bending experiences and existential narratives, from Memento to The Dark Knight series to Inception and Interstellar. The story behind Dunkirk, which was a real event called the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II, would appear at first glance to be a departure for Nolan and his trippy oeuvre—but it seems Dunkirk holds true to the immersive Nolan aesthetic. Add in an all-star cast that includes Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, plus Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and One Direction‘s Harry Styles for the teens, and we can expect the movie to have compelling performances as well.

Here’s what the critics are saying:

The San Francisco Chronicle

It’s not enough to say that “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s best film. It’s one of the best war films ever made, distinct in its look, in its approach and in the effect it has on viewers. There are movies — they are rare — that lift you out of your present circumstances and immerse you so fully in another experience that you watch in a state of jaw-dropped awe. “Dunkirk” is that kind of movie.

The Seattle Times

Something curious happens to time in Christopher Nolan’s movies. On screen, it twists and dances and coils enticingly; off screen, it vanishes. His magnificent new film, “Dunkirk,” seems to be over in a flash — you disappear inside of it and it changes you, as all great movies do.

…“Dunkirk” succeeds spectacularly both emotionally and visually. (See it in large format if you possibly can; I saw it in IMAX, at Pacific Science Center, and am still reeling.

…Remarkable action sequences unfurl, particularly a breathtaking late scene in which flames from a sinking ship engulf the sea.

But it’s the quiet moments that linger with you after this film, and the aching sense of home — both as something we yearn for, and something that takes care of us — that pervades it.

BBC Culture

Nolan has said that the inspiring story of the little ships was something he, like many in Britain, grew up with in its ‘almost fairy-tale form’. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ may be more familiar in the UK than elsewhere, but that is no obstacle. The film resonates in purely human terms, as Nolan strips away the myth to reveal a complex reality, and many different forms of heroism and of fear.

…With relatively little dialogue, and characters who are not given histories, Nolan lets the action carry the story and build suspense. He allows the audience to feel the claustrophobia of entrapment in the hull of the bombed ship, and the immediate peril of being in the air as German fighter planes attack. The technical achievement here is extraordinary.

…watching Dunkirk becomes a stunning and genuine experience, enveloping viewers in a way few movies ever do.

Nolan wants us to feel it. He wants us to experience every gunshot, every explosion, and every moment of silence in between as these soldiers excruciatingly wait for a rescue that may never come. This is no clinical, cold examination of war. Dunkirk is alive, on the unsteady ground, the tempestuous seas, the turbulent air.

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s greatest cinematic achievement, a masterpiece on every level. This is a film for the ages, and it’s not often we get to see a genuine classic happen right in front of our eyes. Find it on the largest, biggest, loudest screen you can. As a snapshot of history, as an experience, as an exploration of humanity during war, Dunkirk is unforgettable.

The great majority of Dunkirk’s reviews read just like this, with critics in thrall and offering up ecstatic praise. There are a few dissenters who dislike the movie’s seeming “cool” and “emotionless” tone. Over at Slant Magazine, Jake Cole thinks that Nolan’s obsession with complicated productions is harming his impact: “In devoting so much time to the dull, counterproductive construction of its action sequences, Dunkirk dispenses with nearly all other elements of drama. … As with his recent spate of blockbusters…his fussy ambition ultimately results in aesthetic and thematic sloppiness.”

Kevin Carr of Fat Guys at the Movies calls the film a “masterpiece” but points out the problems that he sees, writing, “Like many of Nolan’s films, there is no emotional core. More over, with this film specifically, there’s very little emotion at all. … “Dunkirk” is a great last half of a movie, but alone is an emotionless vacuum.” Then Carr really makes it hurt: “Indeed, “Transformers: The Last Knight” had more emotional impact than this film does…and that movie was wretched.” Ouch.

Even Dunkirk‘s dissenters take pains to praise the astonishing cinematic accomplishment of the movie, however, and in this case, almost every review is glowing. I’m not generally persuaded by reviews, but I have to admit seeing this enthusiastic outpouring for Dunkirk has changed my opinion and put the movie squarely on my must-see list. I want to experience history in the making, too.

(Also I will see literally anything that features Cillian Murphy and his eyes.)

Will you be headed to Dunkirk?

(image: Warner Bros., BBC)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.