I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.
Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that a teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because it has One Direction’s Harry Styles in its cast.)
I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also started jerking around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its shots taken with steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.
Not a spectacle of combat, but an immense story of survival.
The enemy is faceless in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. We know who they are—but as our protagonists, the Allied troops, are gunned down on land, their ships sunk at sea, their planes shot down from the sky, all we see of the enemy are the bombs they let fall, the holes their bullets puncture, the war machines their air forces fly.
Clearly, this is not a war film where combat is the spectacle; it is a survival story. On land, the Allied armies are fighting for a shrinking patch of territory, against the vicious foe surrounding them. At the shore, the troops await evacuation and form lines, in defiance of the featureless, infinite beach, sky and sea. But neither is the water any refuge. The merciless enemy delivers setback after setback to our protagonists on the English Channel: bombed ships, flooded decks, burning oil. From the sky, they rain bullets, and propaganda.
The escape from Dunkirk took place in the early years of the Second World War. It saw the Allied armies rushing out to sea, a movement in reverse of what would happen on Normandy, on D-Day years later. Normandy would be an invasion: the soldiers would storm the beaches from the sea, with a mission to reconquer Europe. The soldiers who waded onto land on D-Day had a mission, and they were prepared for it. It was not easy, many men would fall; we have seen its brutality in films like Saving Private Ryan. But Normandy would not have been possible if not for the miracle at Dunkirk—where the escape from disaster was met with further disaster, where the weary soldiers had no mission but to survive.
I haven’t had the privilege of seeing a comet in the sky. It’s not a terrible misfortune, as comets that are bright enough to be seen by casual observation, the Great ones, are rare phenomenon. Yet I’d very much like to see these celestial objects because they embody astronomical wonder. Their fierce streak and brilliant tails have brought awe and terror to people throughout history: they have been seen as omens of the death of kings, or the conquest of countries.
But astronomers, beginning in the Middle Ages, looked up at these objects and decided to study them, patiently tracking them through the years and performing calculations on their appearances. They speculated, and made observations to support their theories. They explained the legendary appearances as natural fact. Centuries later, and we now have scientific organizations sending their instruments right to the hearts of such heavenly objects.