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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Dunkirk (Blu-ray)
Dunkirk (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // December 19, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted January 5, 2018 | E-mail the Author

It's hard to go anywhere but backwards in time after a film like Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's polarizing but hugely ambitious 2014 sci-fi opus about mankind leaving Earth for greener pastures, so that's just what the director did for his latest film Dunkirk (2017). Though this WWII historical drama is populated by fictional characters, features very little dialogue, avoids stuffy scenes of political strategy, and doesn't even show a single German soldier, Dunkirk still feels like one of the most authentic and emotionally gripping war films in recent memory. Perhaps the three main reasons for this are the lack of big-name actors (Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy are featured in supporting roles), its suspenseful depiction of combat (perhaps its closest cousin is Saving Private Ryan, though Dunkirk isn't nearly as graphic or numbing), and a strong commitment to historical accuracy and in-camera effects.

Like most war films, Dunkirk takes a multi-layered approach rather than relying on a single narrative. The three different perspectives---land (dubbed "The Mole", after a massive concrete breakwater on the English Channel), sea, and air---introduce us to specific characters that end up intersecting with one another on several occasions, with each providing a different level of emotional connection during the surprisingly successful evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers surrounded by German forces. Both the "land" and "sea" stories are largely populated by young and inexperienced British actors, as director Christopher Nolan was adamant in his desire to remind us how young most of these soldiers really were. We don't meet the lads---including Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles)---for long, as they make they to safety after being denied passage on board a hospital ship. Nor do we sail many kilometers with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) who, along with Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan), navigate treacherous waters in their small ship to rescue the thousands of stranded survivors. All told, more than 800 boats were used during the evacuation; for better or worse, we're only on board a few of them.

Somewhere in-between, the "air" perspective largely concerns Farrier (Hardy) and fellow pilot Collins (Jack Lowden): one's dangerously low on fuel as the combat wears on, while the other is forced to land in water before meeting a familiar face. So while the trio of perspectives in Dunkirk aren't necessarily all tied together in a neat bow, these occasional bursts of continuity work in its favor: most viewers naturally want to establish some sort of emotional connection to these very different characters (especially in the midst of such a brutal and harrowing conflict), and they'll be glad to know it's here in small amounts. Even so, the bulk of Dunkirk is a purely audio/visual experience: unsettling, kinetic cues by Hans Zimmer provide a perfect backdrop for the suspenseful action, while the first-rate visuals by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema easily make this the most ambitious-looking war film to date.

Like the majority of Nolan's films since The Dark Knight, many sequences in Dunkirk---nearly 75%, according to a behind-the-scenes documentary included on this Blu-ray---were shot in IMAX format, which proved to be a huge hurdle during production. Toting heavy, loud cameras around normal sets might be challenging enough, let alone mounting them to period-specific planes for aerial dogfights over the English Channel. Even the non-IMAX sequences were filmed in Panavision System 65, which results in a much more uniform appearance than his earlier films (many, including Interstellar, were a mixture of IMAX and 35mm) as Dunkirk boasts an outstanding amount of fine detail and texture. The film's ultra-smooth appearance is extremely lifelike and incredibly detailed, offering one more proof of Nolan's commitment to making Dunkirk (and his future films) an extremely tactile viewing experience.

Dunkirk is surprisingly brief at just 106 minutes; it's Nolan's shortest film since his directorial debut, 1998's Following, and most of his recent ones have flirted with run times approaching three hours. (This is doubly surprising for the genre, as war films usually lean much closer in lifespan to Saving Private Ryan and Patton than Paths of Glory.) Yet while I certainly wouldn't have minded another 30 minutes or more of Dunkirk, Nolan's film still manages to feel just about right at its existing speed and scope: this is but a small window into a huge event that concerned the lives of well over 300,000 soldiers, and one that could never be adequately summarized within the narrow boundaries of one feature-length film or even a limited TV series like Band of Brothers. While Dunkirk lasts, it stands tall as one of the most thoughtfully focused and fully-realized fictional stories about a non-fiction event in recent memory, and one whose story absolutely deserved to be a told in such an emotionally charged, visually stunning, and historically accurate manner. In fact, my only real complaint is that the slightly chopped-up timeline isn't really necessary and occasionally even works against it.

Not surprisingly, Warner Bros. serves up yet another outstanding home video package for Nolan's latest film: with few exceptions, we've been treated to great releases the first time around rather than made to wait for a deluxe edition. Dunkirk arrives as both a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack or a full-fledged 4K-UHD release; each pushes its respective format to the limit and includes a separate bonus disc with a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary covering almost every aspect of the production in modest detail.

Presented in a mixed aspect ratio (Panavision 65 scenes are framed at 2:20:1, while those shot in IMAX are opened to 1.78:1), Dunkirk shares a great deal with the video presentation of Interstellar; not surprising, since both films were lensed by the same cinematographer. Even if you haven't gone all-in with 4K at this point, Dunkirk is still a great-looking Blu-ray that frequently pushes the format to its limits more often than not. Fine detail and textures look fantastic here, with the carefully-graded color palette represented perfectly well from start to finish. Contrast levels and shadow detail are quite nice as well. This is an exceptionally clean image with no traces of dirt or debris, and with no digital tinkering (edge enhancement, noise reduction, etc.) or compression issues in sight; not surprising, as this 107-minute film gets an entire dual-layered disc to itself. Overall, it's simply a flawless presentation of a beautiful-looking production, and one that fans will certainly appreciate and enjoy...even if they were spoiled by IMAX the first time around.

DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the title under review.

Equally impressive, if not more so, is Dunkirk's default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix; it's also available as lossy French, Spanish, or Portuguese dubs, as well as an English Descriptive Video Service track for the visually impaired. As expecting, this serves up a room-rattling atmosphere with no shortage of automatic gunfire bursts, low-end explosions, and chaotic channel separation peppered with plenty of wide pans, other bits of surround activity, and a few claustrophobic moments that contrast extremely well. Dialogue is mostly clear despite the obvious background turmoil, although anyone not proficient in regional dialects may want to switch on the subtitles. Optional English, SDH, French, German, and Portuguese subtitles are included during the film and most of the extras.

Also much like Interstellar's Blu-ray, Dunkirk's's menu proves to be surprisingly dull and basic for such a visually ambitious film...but at least it's easy to navigate and free from excess clutter. This three-disc release (two overlapping Blu-rays, one DVD) is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase and includes a matching slipcover and a Digital Copy redemption code. No film cell this time around?

Divided into five main parts, the second Blu-ray in this set houses a multi-part behind-the-scenes documentary that details Dunkirk's inception, development, shooting, its three different stories, and lots more. "Creation" (22:19) is divided into four chapters: "Revisiting the Miracle", "Dunkurque", "Expanding the Frame", and "The In-Camera Approach". Meanwhile, "Land" (16:39) includes "Rebuilding the Mole", "The Army on the Beach", and "Uniform Approach", while "Air" (18:30) serves up "Taking to the Air" and "Inside the Cockpit". "Sea" (36:57) is the most well-rounded of the bunch and includes separate chapters for "Assembling the Naval Fleet", "Launching The Moonstone", "Taking to the Sea", "Sinking the Ships", and "The Little Ships". Finally, "Conclusion" (15:19) wraps up with "Turning Up the Tension" and "The Dunkirk Spirit". Most of these are self-explanatory, but they're very well done and include participation from Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, producer Emma Thomas, editor Lee Smith, Dunkirk veterans, production designer Nathan Crowley, DP Hoyte van Hoytema, historical consultant Joshua Levine, special effects supervisors Paul Corbould and Andrew Jackson, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, and many others. My only complaint is that the "Play All" option (handy as it is) does not identify separate chapters by name, so they kind of bleed together after a while.

The last remaining bonus feature is a short Coast Guard Promo (2:02) which quickly summarizes the USCG's unique participation in the film's production. Aside from the glaring absence of a trailer and marketing gallery, this is a very well rounded and informative selection of extras...especially considering the Blu-ray's short turnaround time. Again, very similar to Interstellar in scope and format.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a suspenseful, well-structured examination of an important turning point in WWII history; told from three intertwining perspectives, it offers a brief but potent trip back in time and maintains a convincing illusion from start to finish. Very few corners have been cut here: from the costume design to period props and the director's staunch refusal to shoot digitally or resort to green-screens---all the while toting around mammoth IMAX and Panavision 65mm cameras---Dunkirk feels like a thoughtful throwback to the big-budget blockbusters of yesteryear, albeit one without any big-name movie stars or excessive nationalism. It's also one of the few Nolan movies that could have been extended by another 30 minutes or so...but what's here is fantastic and should hold up to repeat viewings. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray of Dunkirk is only beaten by its 4K counterpart: featuring a top-tier A/V presentation and a second disc of extras, this is a well-rounded package that fans and first-timers should enjoy immensely. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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