Spotlight: Christopher Nolan storms box office with "Dunkirk"

By Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 8 (Xinhua) -- "Dunkirk", Christopher Nolan's epic war film, is showing gutsy staying power at box office, earning 133 million U.S. dollars in North America after just 17 days in theaters and already crossed the 300 million U.S. dollars mark worldwide.

"Dunkirk" tells the story of the harrowing struggle to survive of over 335,000 allied troops (British, French and Belgian) pinned down in the Spring of 1940 between the blistering advance of the German panzer tank division and the deep, unforgiving sea.

At a recent interview, Chris Nolan told Xinhua: "For me, it's always been about finding a story that hooks me, that I feel I can have an emotional connection with. Dunkirk is a story I've grown up with... it's one of the great human stories - a story about communal heroism - about the cumulative effect of small acts of human heroism and what we can achieve together, rather than individually."

"Dunkirk" brings us the gripping true story that prompted British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous speech, "We shall fight on the beaches...we shall fight on the landing grounds... We shall never surrender..."

Nolan said "Dunkirk" was inspired by his heart-stopping, tempestuous channel-crossing with his wife years back when they were tossed about in a fragile vessel. That left him in awe of the sheer, selfless courage of scores of ordinary, small-town Brits who braved not just turbulent seas to rescue their stranded countrymen, but a barrage of enemy fire and a deadly, aerial firestorm rained down from above by the ruthless German Luftwaffe.

This gave him the idea to create not just a historical drama, but an immersive, adrenaline-junky experience for viewers. Unusually light on dialogue and relying heavily on viewer empathy with the characters, the film virtually puts the viewers on the beachhead, in the air, under the water, to live or die vicariously with our on-screen heroes.

"This story is about suspense. Suspense is a cinematic language where you can't take your eyes of the screen," Nolan said, while discussing his intriguing decision to build the film around a complex matrix of tension-building sound (that might best be described as an Escher etching for the ear) that he used to hang his action visuals on.

Nolan explained, "the script is based on a type of musical effect that I've used in my other films... called a Shepherd Tone. What I did in the script was try to create a narrative equivalent of that where each storyline is compounding in its tension on the other and never finishing. So you're cycling a series of climaxes."

Though at times his soundtrack's deafening, sheer relentlessness is distracting, there is no doubt that, overall, its organ-pulping, Dolby-subwoofer vibrato is powerfully effective and builds a suffocating sense of suspense.

Just as San Francisco psychotherapist Tina Stromsted said, the film "can trigger an unconscious 'fight or flight' response in our brains" in a way that forces viewers to feel that they are there, trapped on a dwindling strip of blood-drenched sand beside their heroes.

Nolan also has a thing for time. "Time in any film is a very interesting tool for filmmakers to use," he told Xinhua.

Ever since his directorial debut 17 years ago, he has harnessed the entropic arrow of time in a myriad of ways.

In "Memento" he literally ran time backwards; in "Inception," he inverted and subverted it; and in "Interstellar," he created an emotionally-laden Mobius-strip of temporal co-existence that transcended time and space.

"Dunkirk" is no exception. In it, Nolan artfully portrays three converging plotlines with different time dilations: For Tom Hardy and the other pilots in the air, in accordance with the most ephemeral of the elements, time flashes by in an hour. For Mark Rylance and the civilian patriots on the sea, in tune with water's greater density, we wallow through an entire death-defying day. With Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles on land, weighed down by gravity and the angst of war, we are mired in a week of living hell.

Remarkably, though this risky gamble could have been as disastrous as crossing proton-pack energy streams, Nolan's weaving of time-streams works brilliantly and helps to create a powerful immersive experience that audiences all over the world can't help but respond to.

[ Editor: Wang Peiyao ]
 

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