There’s no surer way to be reminded of the formulaic nature of even good Hollywood filmmaking these days, and the dearth of original ideas, than to sit through several consecutive previews for similar films. Naturally, whenever you go to a movie these days, the studios ensure that you see…several consecutive previews for similar films.
On Saturday, I went to see Rogue One for the second time with my father and my son on the big IMAX screen. We were treated to an array of previews for upcoming action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero films, some that will probably be better than others, but all of which looked pretty much alike when you run them together that quickly – Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Fast and Furious 8, the next Spider-Man movie, the next Transformers movie, the next Planet of the Apes movie. And wedged right in the middle was a heart-stopping 7-minute trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
The Dunkirk trailer was unusually long and revealing, but what jumped off the screen even more than that, compared to the other trailers, was the low-tech nature of the action, which succeeded in accentuating the stakes for the characters. There were no robots, no superheroes, no amazing cars, no miraculous tricks, no action slowed down or speeded up to hyper-speed. The men on the beaches struggled with the simple act of navigating a man on a stretcher across a shattered dock. The ordinary Englishmen set out over high seas in a simple family fishing boat. The aerial combat was between rattletrap propeller planes; Nolan made sure you could hear the bolts straining and the wind rattling the cockpit and feel the terror of watching the propeller stall out in mid-air when the gas gauge got too low.
I have nothing against the magic of modern filmmaking of the sort in the Star Wars or Marvel Avenger films, and it may well be that Dunkirk is not as gripping a film as the trailer. But in a marketplace crowded with world-destroying robots and lasers, it was really remarkable to be reminded how powerful it can be to strip down onscreen action to its most primal elements, and how courageous were the men who went to the first truly mechanized war with what now seem like such primitive implements.