Film Reviews

1917 IMAX review: Dir Sam Mendes (2020)

Awards Season is a time for gimmicks. A time where every major filmmaker and their mum clamours, campaigns or begs for a shot at that much-coveted Oscar or BAFTA, it can be difficult to stand out – you only have to look at the list of snubs each year to see how hard it is to get a look in but filmmaking methods and innovations are often a sure-fire way to get the voters’ attention. “We’ve made film using only natural lighting.” Great! “We’ve done a musical with live singing and no click tracks.” Yes, wonderful! “Hey, look, I’ve shot a film over 12 years – give me my Oscar!” Well then, come in my friend! Often then not though, these devices, whilst a demonstration of technical skill and achievement, do little to enhance the story or character within the narrative.

Thankfully, this isn’t the case with Sam Mendes‘ World War I epic 1917 – a film shot entirely as if it were one continuous take, yet as far away from just a cheap conceit as you’re ever likely to get. Unlike other films of a similar ilk, the director utilises the dramatic potential of such a technical contrivance to boost the emotion, tension and horror one should expect from such harrowing war drama. The result is one of the most innovative, powerful and cinematic experiences in years.

The film kicks off as it means to go on, as we literally follow two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), as they embark on a deadly mission to deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap set by the Germans. Traversing dangerous terrain and encountering all manner of threats and obstacles along the way, the film puts both characters through the wringer (emotionally and physically), and uses the ‘continuous-shot’ aspect to showcase both the extraordinary horrors of the war and the ordinary day-to-day lives of the men who fought it.

It’s no criticism to say how much like a video game this film feels – the continuous nature of the action and drama is paced as such so as to fully immerse the viewer, and the resulting action that our heroes encounter feel like organic set pieces within a game, delivering shocks and surprises throughout all he same. The film is unrelenting as a result, and rightly so.

In and amongst this unrelenting horror, Mendes and his collaborators capture and frame the war in moments of spellbinding yet harsh beauty. An understated theme of nature decimated by man’s conflict is presented early on and carries itself throughout the film, showcased in some truly remarkable shots that are beautiful and horrific in equal measure. And in one particular key sequence, the apocalyptic imagery is upped considerably, rendered in a blast of colour and light that is as powerful to look upon as it is terrifying to gaze upon.

It’s only after watching the film that the sheer technical achievement on display can be truly measured and appreciated – everything here is done with little fanfare, yet all in service of the larger story, and it truly is remarkable. From Roger Deakins‘ bleak cinematography and Dennis Gassner‘s genius production design to Lee Smith‘s skilful, subtle editing and Thomas Newman‘s haunting and emotional score, every element works to the benefit of the story, triumphing over the limitations the format undoubtedly poses.

However, it is the script (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and the performances that benefit most from all these elements. The nature of this sprawling journey and how it has been shot presents many a problem for dialogue, performance and pace, but the script and the perfectly pitched characterisation from Chapman and MacKay completely convince that everything here is happening in real time, whilst losing none of the intricacies or smaller moments in the mix.

1917 is both a visual masterpiece and a powerful, engrossing, tension-soaked story of heroism – one that avoids schmaltz and melodrama at any cost, instead perhaps the most realistic ‘slice of life’ war dramas in decades. Best enjoyed on an IMAX cinema screen, 1917 features an expanded aspect ratio for the entire film, crystal-clear images, coupled with IMAX’s customized theatre geometry and powerful digital audio, help further the immersive nature of the film, resulting in arguably one of the best big screen epics in a long time. It demands to be seen on the largest screen imaginable and IMAX certainly takes some beating in that regard.

So is 1917 just an aforementioned gimmick, designed to be shot in a way that turns the heads of a few Oscar voters? Hardly. A wonderful experiment in immersive filmmaking and a powerful tale of heroism in its own right, Sam Mendes has assembled a war film that is raw, revolutionary and, most importantly, feels real!

1917 is out now in IMAX and on general release in UK cinemas – for more information click here.

7 thoughts on “1917 IMAX review: Dir Sam Mendes (2020)

  1. That’s a great review Matt, very well put. I take a slightly different view though, particularly in regard to your comment about gimmicks. 1917 is *entirely* founded on the gimmick of the pretend ‘single shot’, in fact I felt it was significantly hamstrung by it. Undoubtedly, it works very well in the opening minutes, but it necessitates staying way too too tight in frame on the two young lads playing the soldier messengers. I know it’s the trenches, and cramped, but for me it led to the visual marvel soon wearing off and it becoming a game of ‘spot the join’. I thought the film was great, until just after the aeroplane bit, where, despite having been told this terrain was uncrossable, truckloads of soldiers appear out of nowhere. Why could not the message have been at least partially dispatched this way? The ‘blackout’ in the town might as well have served as an intermission – I half expected someone to show up in the cinema with a tray of Kia Oras and choc ices (showing my age a bit there!). The scene in the ruined building with the young French girl was beautiful, but from there to the close it lost any sense of reality. Via not one but two waterfalls, our hero miraculously finds himself at the front, and can skip past the virtually empty trenches to deliver his message, giving rise to one of the most unforgivably glib lines in cinema about slaughter and conflict; “There’s only one way this war ends…Last man standing.” Horrible – can you name a more patronising one? Mendes said this wasn’t supposed to be sentimental, and I suppose he deserves credit for not adding subtitles to the final scene with Richard Madden reading “This is sad. Cry now.” Deakins’ imagery and Newman’s score are huge plus points, but you could have bet on that going in. I felt this was an almost brilliant film, but ultimately bitterly disappointing. It could have been a *great* film along the lines of Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, or even Paths of Glory (in which there is only one battle scene) had it not been tied to the director’s slavish insistence on technical gimmickry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All valid points my friend, sorry to hear it didn’t quite do it for you as it did for me. I may need to watch it again now, having read your thoughts, but I can’t deny that I was completely swept up in it whilst watching the first time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On a tangent, and I know there’s no point in making a comparison, but I was put in mind of Dunkirk, which I think is a better film. If you have the chance, I’d recommend a podcast called The Rewatchables, of which there’s an episode with Quentin Tarantino as a guest where they go through Dunkirk fully, and made me watch that film with fresh eyes. Give that a listen / rewatch and I’d love to hear any appraisal of 1917 thereafter.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I found your review to match my feelings about the film. Hitchcock, of course used the idea of a single take for his ROPE and did a lot of the same for UNDER CAPICORN. Both of those films remain interesting but are certainly not considered to be his best work. 1917 worked on different level. It pulled me into the experience of the two young men as if I were there experience it with them. The terror and the horror of war became very real. How such a film could be orchestrated to appear to be continuous shot was a technical feat that is truly deserving of every Oscar nomination that it received. A gimmick? Maybe, but for me it paid off in a one of a kind film experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you E for your lovely comment. Agree 100% with you that it pulled me into the experience of the characters onscreen. I completely forgot about Rope and Under Capricorn. Two more for the rewatch pile!

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