Release Date(s)2017 (December 19, 2017)
Studio(s)Syncopy (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
In May of 1940, the British Expeditionary Force, assisted by elements of the French Army, attempted to counter the German invasion of France, but were driven back to the sea at the port of Dunkerque. There they were trapped on the beaches, unable to cross the English Channel for the safety of home, just 45 miles away. All they could do was hold their position and await surrender to the German Army. But rather than pressing the attack, the Germans halted their advance to consolidate their own forces, allowing time for Churchill to mobilize a fleet of small private craft from home to rescue more than 338,000 British and French soldiers to fight another day. It was an exercise of hope, snatched from certain defeat, with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance.
Director Christopher Nolan has been honing his craft methodically for years, building complexity into his nonlinear narratives, eschewing digital production for traditional photochemical film, and shooting ever more of his films in large format. All of these things are on display in Dunkirk, but what’s most striking here is the film’s simplicity. The story is still told with the use of time-dilation to weave three perspectives together, but the events are very straightforward. There’s little in the way of digital effects here. Instead, Nolan chooses to stage nearly all of the action for real, to capture it in the highest possible resolution with practical techniques, and to set it against an edgy-but-minimalist soundscape. The cast features a small ensemble of restrained performances by relative unknowns like Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Jack Lowden, as well as more familiar faces that include Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. There’s even a brilliant audio callback to Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain (1969) in the form of Michael Caine as the radio voice of the unseen Spitfire flight leader. Dunkirk also features – hands down – the finest and most realistic air combat footage that’s ever seen on the big screen. The culmination of all this, thanks to Nolan’s hard-won experience, is the purest piece of cinema he’s ever made, a relentless tension-builder that keeps you on the edge of your seat, right in the middle of the action, and that rewards you with both striking visuals and stirring victories.
Dunkirk was shot on film entirely in 65 mm using Panavision and IMAX cameras. It was finished as a full native 4K Digital Intermediate. For its Ultra HD release, that source was given an HDR10 color grade and the resulting image is presented in 2160p at a variable aspect ratio that shifts between 2.39:1 (about 25% of the film shot in 5-perf 65 mm) and 1.78:1 (the other 75% of the film shot in 15-perf IMAX 65 mm). Right off the bat, it would be hard to image a 4K image ever looking better than this. The large-format cinematography, by DP Hoyte van Hoytema, puts you front and center with the actors even in times and places you would never expect it to be able to, including underwater and in tiny Spitfire cockpits. The camera is sometimes handheld, sometimes mounted on dollies or cranes, and even bolted onto the side of aircraft in flight. There is so much detail captured in every frame that your eye hardly knows where to look. The effect is one of stunning depth and immediacy, a sense of space and place that is both epic and intimate at once. Texturing is exquisite. And the contrast and coloring in High Dynamic Range is reserved but perfect for this film. Blacks are inky, brights gleam naturally, and the range of colors is breathtaking – thousands of subtle shadings of tan, blue, green, gray, and brown. Every now and again you can see a slight flutter, a physical artifact of the large format camera in operation, but it’s never distracting. This is pure 4K eye-candy, an image so good looking that you sometimes feel as if you could fall into it.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is included in an equally impressive English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track that is all about subtle sensory immersion. The soundstage is big, wide, and smooth, surprising not for its surround gimmickry but for its near-perfect naturalism. Wind envelops you, explosions land with real weight around you, bullets ping and pass every which way, diving Stukas scream overhead. During the dogfights, you can hear the rattle of the airframe around you, hear the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines groaning for altitude. Dialogue has lovely clarity and is almost entirely recorded in the wild. Dynamic range is terrific from thunderous blasts to the simple whisper of airflow. Underlying it all is composer Hans Zimmer’s unique score, with combines edgy, second-hand ticking with ominously building tones and pulses, flavored occasionally with brass and strings for emphasis, all of it calibrated to keep ratcheting up the tension. It’s hard to imagine what an object-based mix could add to this experience beyond a little more lift in the height channels. This track is damn great. Additional audio options include 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, 5.1 Dolby Digital in French, Latin Spanish, Castilian Spanish, and Portuguese, and 5.1 German DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional subtitles in English (For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), French, German (for the Hearing Impaired), Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, and Portuguese.
The 4K Ultra HD disc is movie-only. The package includes the film on Blu-ray in 1080p HD as well, also a movie-only disc. There’s a Blu-ray bonus disc too that includes a feature-length documentary on the making of Dunkirk (1080p HD – 109:46). It’s broken into sixteen parts as follows:
- Creation: Revisiting the Miracle (7:49)
- Creation: Dunkerque (5:00)
- Creation: Expanding the Frame (3:36)
- Creation: The In-Camera Approach (5:52)
- Land: Rebuilding the Mole (5:59)
- Land: The Army on the Beach (5:18)
- Land: Uniform Approach (5:21)
- Air: Taking to the Air (12:31)
- Air: Inside the Cockpit (5:59)
- Sea: Assembling the Navel Fleet (3:50)
- Sea: Launching the Moonstone (5:55)
- Sea: Taking to the Sea (13:43)
- Sea: Sinking the Ships (7:29)
- Sea: The Little Ships (5:57)
- Conclusion: Turning Up the Tension (7:23)
- Conclusion: The Dunkirk Spirit (7:55)
- Coast Guard Promo (2:02)
The documentary content is superb, covering every aspect of the production you could hope to see, from planning and approach to casting, filming on land, sea, and in the air (often in the actual locations of the real historical events), working in the IMAX format, the sound design and music, and finally some closing thoughts. You can watch then individually or as one long program (with a “play all” option). Some of these clips have appeared online, but together they’re a terrifically engaging and comprehensive viewing experience with lots of fascinating details to be discovered. Optional subtitles are available for all these extras in English (for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), French, Latin Spanish, and Portuguese.
Note that the single film SKU of this 4K Ultra HD title also includes a Digital Copy code on a paper insert, but if you purchase the Christopher Nolan Collection in 4K, no Digital Copy is included – just the films in both 4K and BD with BD extras.
Christopher Nolan has finally made his masterpiece. Dunkirk is extraordinary, one of the greatest war films of all time. But it’s not a traditional one. If you’re looking for a computer-enhanced panorama featuring thousands of CG ships and hundreds of thousands of digitally-generated soldiers, you’ll be disappointed. So too will history buffs expecting perfect historical accuracy or a large ensemble cast of generals on all sides of the conflict pushing tiny models around on maps with sticks. No, this is the most unexpected cinematic experience of all: a large-format World War II art film. Dunkirk can summed up best in three simple words: You. Are. There. Whether you purchase it alone or in Warner’s Christopher Nolan Collection 4K box set, it’s a reference 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray that is not to be missed.
- Bill Hunt