1917 movie review: Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins' single-take war epic glosses over horrors of the battlefield
The hyper choreographed, carnival-ride style technical razzle-dazzle of 1917 is more interesting than the film itself, which lacks an emotional sincerity.
castDean-charles Chapman, George Mckay, Benedict Cumberbatch (cameo)
Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins, single take war epic. Right, you have already decided whether you are gonna watch the film so let us cut to the chase here. 1917 is the kind of polished bombs and trenches war thriller that depends entirely on the polish and the bombs and trenches having read the script in advance.
1917 functions well enough as an entertaining ride but make no mistake, the hyper choreographed, carnival-ride style technical razzle-dazzle here is more interesting than the film itself, which lacks an emotional sincerity.
We are introduced to the April of the titular year when British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are dragged into the war – they are handed a tricky mission to warn a battalion of thousands of men about a trap that the Germans have set. Blake and Schofield then wade through hellish terrains, battling waves of attacks from enemies as they race towards their destination.
We should thank Mendes and his writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns for attempting something truly unique. Having watched a ton of war epics in my lifetime, I was beginning to wonder if there was some secret war epic cinematic rule, dictating that all films in this genre must follow a redemptive arc for the protagonist with a final resolution apparently determined by a pyrrhic ending. In 1917, there is no such dedication to this rule.
There is, however, a singular attempt to recreate the thrills found in the Call of Duty games, where two characters move from one check point to the next as the game saves itself automatically. It does make for a series of competent and entertaining set pieces, where various machines and machinations of war spark off each other, but in the most straightforward possible way. This is not a meditative movie about the fact that war is hell. This is a distilled action thriller in the clothing of a war movie. Change some of the aesthetics, and it could exist in the same cinematic universe as Hardcore Henry.
With a minimum amount of blood and gore, and backed by cinematic trickery that holds our interest nicely, the large cast of recognisable faces gets a chance to shine, proving yet again that cameos still remain the best special effect in cinema. The leads, however, remain as charismatic as Call of Duty NPCs, existing solely as the hand holders of the audience, always ready with a presentation of the next slickly strategised sequence.
And every time Deakins’ camera goes overboard on the spectacle, it does beg to question whether it should all seem 'fun' to watch considering the gruesome implications of war. The duality is grating: on one hand, Mendes seems to bend over backwards, telling us the enemies committed acts of atrocity but in the very next scene, he is putting us through what seems like a Star Wars movie seen through the eyes of Captain Phasma. No amount of pained, muddy faces, and bodies lying on the ground seem earned instances of emotion because the ultimate takeaway from any scene here is the expectation to relish all this with popcorn and coke.
Unfortunately, you do not have to look all that close to identify flaws in this elaborately designed film. Anyone who has watched 'real' single take movies like Victoria and Russian Ark would also find it hard to swallow the obvious attempts at stitching shots together. The maintenance of a single take also means utilising a lot of CGI to keep the flow going, which results in one particularly jarring scene of a man jumping into a water body. If you have already fallen into the trap of identifying issues in the film, this moment will take you completely out of the immersion the film presents.
Normally, such defects could weigh heavily against any movie, but in the case of 1917, it is not a big deal because it is made quite clear the cinematic engineering here is rigged to simply entertain. The film makes light work of its moral dilemmas, and is way too much of a tech demo to stick in the mind for long, but of course, if the demo is so good, what is to stop you from enjoying the ride. Besides, if you find yourself disappointed you could always go back home and watch Come and See, the most terrifying movie about the horrors of war, although that would be overcompensating a little bit, and you would be in urgent need of therapy.
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