"Dunkirk” opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces. Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in. The story unfolds on land, sea and air. RAF Spitfires engage the enemy in the skies above the Channel, trying to protect the defenseless men below. Meanwhile, hundreds of small boats manned by both military and civilians are mounting a desperate rescue effort, risking their lives in a race against time to save even a fraction of their army.
400,000 men trapped on a French beachhead. Surrounded by German artillery. Hunted by German pilots circling in the skies above. Hitler and his Nazi thugs have taken much of continental Europe and if they massacre the men stuck in Dunkirk, England will be next. That's when the British Navy launches an impossible rescue mission. Commandeering hundreds of small civilian boats capable of navigating shallow waters to rescue as many soldiers and sailors as they possibly can. Churchill hopes for 30,000 survivors.
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is the story -- told from three distinct point-of-views and timelines -- of how the fight to save 30,000 grew into 300,000. The Mole, aka POV 1, takes place over the course of one week and follows two young soldiers who will do anything to escape Dunkirk, even if it means cheating and lying and sneaking. Kenneth Branagh is also featured in this POV as the highest-ranking British officer in Dunkirk, a man trapped deciding who lives and dies. The Sea, aka POV 2, takes place over the course of one day and follows a civilian fishing boat captain, his son, and his deckhand, as they race across the English Channel to rescue the men trapped at Dunkirk. The Air, aka POV 3, takes place over the course of one hour and follows two Air Force Pilots charged with protecting as many boats and aircraft as they can before they run low on fuel and have to return home. All of these POVs are a rollercoaster ride of perilous journeys and life-n-death moral quandaries.
With three interwoven timelines, edge-of-your-seat action set-pieces, and grand cinematography, Dunkirk is simultaneously one of the most classical and experimental blockbusters I've ever seen. In the classical sense, Nolan and his collaborators have produced a picture that lives and breathes on visual storytelling. There's dialog of course -- with the closing remarks wrapping up the film's emotions and themes beautifully -- but you could watch this story with the sound off and understand everything. Further, in an era where too many studio action sequences are bloated with weightless CGI and unclear geography, Nolan and crew stage sequences to tighten the screws of every single set-piece, making each moment more terrifying than the last. In these terms, Dunkirk offers up one of the most thrilling cinema experiences in years. In fact, its techniques are so spectacular and so dependent on the Big Screen, I feel sorry for anyone who tries to watch this on the smaller screen for the first time; even with a 100" projection setup, smaller details are harder to see.
On the other hand, I've never seen a war movie structured quite this way. As the three timelines intercut along punctuated moments of peril, the film folds in on itself again and again, revealing a narrative as complex those Nolan explored in Inception and Interstellar, but without the need of exposition or science fiction premises to explain what we're seeing. Dunkirk is a movie that foreshadows greater tensions as we return to single moments from different POVs, where there is an extra reward for watching over and over (though that's certainly not required).
Some will criticize Dunkirk because they claim the movie lacks story and character. These types of criticisms generally fall upon movies like Dunkirk, Gravity, The Grey, and Mad Mad Fury Road because we've been conditioned to tick off boxes for what qualifies as smart or great or nuanced. We've been conditioned to think that, if a character doesn't change in the movie, he/she has no demonstrable arc. We've been conditioned to think that, if a movie is (near) silent or lacks tangents, it's not complex. But, honestly, it's a mistake to write off movies like Dunkirk because there are no monologues and melodrama. I would personally argue that Dunkirk is stuffed with story and fascinating characters who each get a chance to grow/fail, live/die, run/fight and everything in between while we, as the audience, are asked to look at this cinematic world through our own reflection:
What would we do to get off a frozen beach to make it home to family and friends?
Would you risk your only son's life after his older brother was killed?
Would you stay and fight or turn around when you could no longer accurately judge your available fuel?
To be clear, I'm not saying folks who don't connect with this movie are wrong -- like/love/hate whatever you want -- but too many are quick to brush off survival thrillers by judging them for what they are not, rather than for whether or not they excel at what they're trying to do. To me, there's so much drama and emotion in Dunkirk and digest, and it all runs the gamut of terrifying and tragic to uplifting and inspirational.
Dunkirk, for its part, is simple and taught and elegant. A perfect, little glimpse into a horrifying world, like reading a short story from Richard Matheson or Stephen King. In that sense, it's a reminder of how wonderful movies can be where the narrative focus is wholly on the present, where we don't have to unpack endless mythology or set up a dozen sequels for the Cinematic Universe. I don't know if it'll come to be called a masterpiece, but, at the end of the day, Nolan and his creative partners have made a gripping and thrilling war movie that feels unique and experimental while representing visual storytelling craft at its finest.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Dunkirk premieres on 4K as part of a three-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital combo pack. Disc One is a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with the movie only. Disc Two is a standard Blu-ray with the movie only. And Disc Three is a second Blu-ray with all the Special Features. The included Digital Copy code is valid until 12/31/2018, redeems via wb.com/redeemdigital (which takes you into the Movies Anywhere ecosystem), and, in my case, unlocked the 4K UHD streaming option with Dolby Vision.
4K with HDR10
Dunkirk escapes onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a jaw-dropping HEVC encode that features HDR10 grading and shifting 1.78:1 & 2.20:1 aspect ratios that recreate the film's IMAX presentation. For this review, I watched the entire film via an Optoma UHZ65 4K projector & Silver Ticket Productions 100" screen as well as specific clips on 65" Sony A1E OLED and VIZIO M-Series displays. For demo purposes, I highly recommend Chapters 5 & 10, both of which feature a number of high-contrast scenarios that will challenge your HDR-capable display.
Shot on a combination of IMAX 15/70 and 65mm film, Dunkirk is one of the most highly resolved 4K Blu-rays in the history of the format. Outside of other documentaries, IMAX or otherwise, I've never seen the format's native resolution revealed in such an eye-popping way. From skin and costume textures to sandy beaches to blue oceans to infinite skies, almost everything is tack sharp. To be fair, there are a few soft shots (particularly in the airplanes), but for the most part, it's all strikingly clear. The film's overall color palette is quite muted -- limited to greens, blues, grays, and blacks -- but this faithfully reproduces the theatrical experience. Black levels are quite good with no sense of lost shadow details. Spectral highlights are another HDR10 benefit, though I wouldn't say the results are as dramatic as what we've seen from titles like Guardians Vol. 2, which completely outclassed its SDR counterpart.
In terms of the alternating aspect ratios and formats, the 1.78:1 IMAX 15/70 footage is the clear winner. It is the sharpest, clearest, brightest, and most colorful. The 2.20:1 65mm footage is also quite good, better than most 35mm transfers, but is darker (thanks mainly to the added letterboxing) and ever-so-slightly softer than the IMAX footage. This difference is much more noticeable on the Blu-ray, mind you, but the 65mm footage doesn't stick out as, say, the 35mm footage in The Dark Knight. Speaking of which, I don't see any unnecessary edge enhancement or digital sharpening on display here, nor did I detect any digital artifacts or dirt/debris.
In terms of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray vs the standard Blu-ray, the 4K version is not always leaps and bounds better (this will vary by display), mainly because the ultra high-res source material benefits both formats and because the film's color palette limits the UHD's wider color gamut capabilities. As such, don't expect huge jump between the formats like you would Guardians Vol. 2. Still, by doing a-to-b comparisons, you will notice striking differences in terms of fine details, particularly in wider shot compositions, which gives the 4K version a window-into-another-world effect. You will see more grains of sand, more ocean waves, more skin pores on faces.
As I noted above, I've seen parts of the film on three different displays and, while the improved resolution was apparently on the 4K Blu-ray, the SDR Blu-ray was far more consistent across the Optoma projector and VIZIO M Series displays. Like all HDR10 grades with static metadata, spectral highlights, contrast, and shadow details will depend on how well your display performs at its brightest capabilities. Meaning, for those with less-capable TVs, you might find the Blu-ray to be a better experience. This isn't the disc's fault, mind you, and hasn't affected my scoring here, but it's worth a mention for anyone who is looking at this movie and thinking to themselves, "hey, I think this looks darker than the Blu-ray, why is that?"
Overall, this Dunkirk 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is an impressive, reference quality disc, even if it doesn't always offer a gigantic leap forward over its Blu-ray counterpart like some may have expected. Here we have a scenario where the source material elevates the format, whatever that may be. In terms of the rating, I've checked off the 5-star box, but I'd probably rate this a 4.8 or 4.9 stars because it lacks the color pop we've seen on other 4K Blu-rays.
VUDU UHD with Dolby Vision
Dunkirk is also available in 4K Ultra High Definition courtesy of streaming services like VUDU and iTunes, where it is available in Dolby Vision HDR. This version plays back in widescreen only, matching the film's 2.20:1 70mm theatrical experience. After redeeming the code included with our screener copy, I was delighted to find that Warner included access to the 4K UHD copy with Dolby Vision, which I then demoed in VUDU via the VIZIO M-Series SmartCast TV app. I didn't watch enough to do a full review, but I will say this is the sharpest streaming title I've ever seen. Not the most colorful, of course, but so, so clear. The highlight and shadow details are also more accurate (on this particular display) when compared to the HDR10 grading on the physical media. I didn't get to do a-to-b comparisons versus the 4K disc, but I do prefer its IMAX-version alternating aspect ratios for the added brightness and sense of immersion during the aerial sequences.
Overall, though, cord cutters, constant-heigh enthusiasts, or those looking to casually stream the movie are going to be really happy with this 4K digital copy.
For full thoughts on the Blu-ray transfer, please click HERE.
Dunkirk explodes onto 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray with an ultra-dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that will be a revelation for audiophiles who also like Hans Zimmer scores. For this review, I'm rocking the awesome 2017 KEF Q series (Q950 towers, Q650c center, Q350 & Q150 surrounds), so keep an eye out for that review -- highly, highly recommended for their price point.
Let's start with the obvious. Would I have preferred a DTS:X or Dolby Atmos track? You bet. Will this mix win any awards for its articulation of 360-degree surround sound? I doubt it, but who knows; I have heard better. Still, this track is very, very good, a true powerhouse of music and effects.
From the shrieking highs of dive-bombing planes strafing helpless soldiers to the thundering bombast of torpedoes sinking ships, Nolan, Zimmer, and their creative partners use sound to build tension and transition seamlessly between timelines. I know some of you are over Zimmer's heavy-handed musical style, but in here I'm impressed by how much anxiety he can bring to any moment with his ticking-clock orchestrations. The sound effects themselves are meaty and weighted, providing punch and gusto to everything from machine guns to tearing metal to airplane engines to splashing waves. There are moments of chaos and destruction, but my ears never felt fatigue. There are moments of quiet and calm, and they are just as clear as the louder moments. LFE performance is admirable as well.
Honestly, outside of Nolan's choice to stick with 5.1 which undercuts immersion, I have no complaints. The better your gear, the more you'll be able to recreate the theatrical experience so apologize to neighbors and family in advance, and enjoy this one LOUD. Oh, and if you're rocking a system with Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural:X, this track up-mixes wonderfully, creating the sense that your front speakers are much taller and bigger.
Revisiting the Miracle
Expanding the Frame
The In-Camera Approach
Rebuilding the Mole
The Army On the Beach
Taking to the Air
Inside the Cockpit
Assembling the Naval Fleet
Launching the Moonstone
Taking to the Sea
Sinking the Ships
The Little Ships
Turning Up the Tension
The Dunkirk Spirit
Christopher Nolan and his collaborators have crafted a masterclass in suspense-driven filmmaking with an experimental war film that stands out among Hollywood blockbusters for its tight storytelling, unique structure, and edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. Pure visual cinema at its finest. If you enjoy Nolan's previous efforts or movies like Mad Max Fury Road, Fury, and Gravity, then Dunkirk is probably for you.
As a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, this disc features a reference quality 4K transfer that mimics the IMAX theatrical experience and is probably one of the sharpest releases this young format's ever seen. On the audio front, you won't find an ultra-immersive Dolby Atmos mix, but the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is dynamic, bombastic, and audiophile-friendly. The Bonus Materials are also informative. And, assuming Warners' policy doesn't change, you even get a 4K digital copy of the movie to enjoy!
Dunkirk is Must Own for fans and Highly Recommended for anyone who wants to show off their 4K HDR display. If you don't care about 4K, stick with the standard Blu-ray. If you're done with physical media, the VUDU or iTunes version look great, too.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.