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New films: Dunkirk, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

New films: Dunkirk, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is attracting plenty of praise, not least for his use of 70mm and IMAX cameras – and it’s certainly an impressive spectacle at times. The problem is that the scale of the subject matter doesn’t seem to come through even this largest scale of film formats.

In the late spring of 1940, a year and half before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II, approximately 400,000 British and French troops were trapped by the advancing German forces in the small French town of Dunkirk. The potential loss of that many personnel would likely have altered the course of the War and even prompted talk of surrender.

In other words, this was an extremely big deal and one of the pivotal episodes in the War. Unfortunately the film doesn’t capture that importance. It talks about it a fair amount but it doesn’t come across on screen. Granted, that’s a tall order but “Dunkirk” looks more like 4,000 trapped men than 400,000. Similarly, the evacuation of over 80% of those men was accomplished in part by the involvement of over 800 ships and boats of various sizes, with about half being small pleasure boats, yachts, and fishing trawlers rather than military vessels. The English Channel is a relatively narrow stretch of open sea but the boats were under heavy fire and attack, and almost a third of the smaller boats were sunk during the evacuation. Meanwhile, above them, hundreds of planes were shot down. Again, it’s a scale of magnitude problem.

“Dunkirk” takes the microcosm approach, focusing on the experience of a small number of soldiers, one flight of Royal Air Force Spitfires, and the crew of one of the smaller private boats. That personal perspective has worked in other films, such as 2014’s “Fury,” which considered the horrors of WWII through the eyes of one American tank crew. But here it seems to minimize rather than maximize the event.

It also seems to dilute much of the heroism involved by both military personnel and civilians by following the actions of individuals who attempt to jump the line to escape the beach. Not that that’s a hard thing to believe, but it seems like an odd focus for a film about an event so steeped in sacrifice. Then again, as the film depicts in its opening scenes, many (or most) of the men had already been through appalling circumstances that led to even being on that beach, and they were no strangers to death and chaos.

I realize that I’m in the minority opinion on this and I also recognize the technical and visual accomplishments of Nolan and his team, but I was disappointed by the film. Oddly, for a film that’s rated as 92% “Fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com, the remarks I heard from both critics and audience members at the screening I attended were quite negative. Many were bothered by the time lines of the film, with the word “confusing” being used repeatedly. The action on the ground, the water, and in the air all take place over different periods of time, with individually linear storylines that overlap for a less linear effect. In other words, what initially appears to be taking place at the same time, isn’t.

The timelines didn’t bother me, although there was a brief moment of disorientation the first time they were in conflict. But I didn’t feel the film did the event justice. If I was less aware of the historic details I might have enjoyed this depiction. By comparison, the recent film “Their Finest” is based around an attempt to explain and celebrate the evacuation of Dunkirk through the production of a wartime propaganda film and actually gave a better sense of what was at stake, despite obvious manipulations of the truth.

Perhaps, at some level, that’s the point of the film, that things seem smaller when you’re in the middle of them and before their significance can be assessed by historians. One of the characters in the film is convinced that they will return home to accusations of failure and loss, when history remembers the success of the evacuation and the heroism of those involved, rather than the unsuccessful strategy that put them there. But it’s hard to walk into a film about a historic event and leave behind those equally historic perspectives and expectations. I’m not sure if I should blame the film or all those history lessons – but I can also sense my own retrospective opinion starting to shift, even in writing this.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Luc Besson

I may be in the minority of this one as well, but I actually enjoyed “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” more than “Dunkirk.” As with the historical analysis described above, that may change as a result of time and retrospection, but that was my reality in the moment(s).

Luc Besson has wanted to make this film for 20 years, but reportedly felt that the necessary technology wasn’t available to do the subject matter justice, citing James Cameron’s “Avatar” among others as making it possible. That’s a film that many will be reminded of when watching this one, along with the “Star Wars” franchise and others – and many may think it derivative of them. But the source material for this is 50 years old, and pre-dates most of the films that will be recalled.

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delavingne) are space agents who stumble upon a genocidal cover-up on Alpha, a vast space city that has evolved over hundreds of years from Earth’s International Space Station. It’s a plot that seems timeless rather than futuristic – it’s sadly not hard to believe either war crimes or the attempt to hide them by those who commit them.

The visuals here are also pretty amazing and the story has a decent arc but it’s let down by somewhat flat acting. Delavingne (who seemed too lightweight for “Suicide Squad”) does better here than DeHaan, who was previously picked to portray the presence of James Dean in “Life” and who seems to do dark and brooding more memorably than he does light and flippant.

Still, it’s good fun and doesn’t carry the weight of Dunkirk (the event) on its shoulders. At least not for me. For those who’ve read all the source material and waited up to 50 years for the big screen adaptation, this might be their “Dunkirk” (the film).

New films: Dunkirk, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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