In a famous put-down, Pauline Kael once referred to The Sound of Music as “The Sound of Money,” implying that the film’s expensive production values distracted from any of its virtues. I was reminded of her line when I watched a couple of recent releases, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. These are handsome, rousing movies that provide the biggest sense of spectacle that money can buy, and neither lets you forget how much was spent in the service of its spectacle. Dunkirk is a serious WWII film while Valerian is an unserious space opera, yet both encourage viewers to ooh and ah at the detailed, large-scale imagery, with characterization getting lost in the fray.
In Dunkirk the lack of three-dimensional characters is part of a grand artistic strategy, as Nolan presents war as a larger-than-life experience that swallows up individuals. The most memorable images are of masses of soldiers lining beaches and of giant ships that fill the wide-screen frames. Nolan shot Dunkirk with 70-millimeter IMAX cameras, and the images are at once tremendous and vivid. Textures of sand, uniforms, wood, and steel are brilliantly defined within sweeping vistas—the film has a tactile quality that helps to draw viewers into the action. Dunkirk cuts between three intersecting narrative strands. The first, which presents British ground soldiers on the coast of France, transpires across a week; the second, which considers an older man using his private boat to assist Allied troops, takes place in a day; and the third, which shows an RAF pilot in battle, takes place in just an hour. Nolan maintains a constant sense of forward momentum while juggling these timelines, his structural feat providing a cerebral counterpoint to the ambitious imagery and sound design.
In spite of all the intelligence and technical wizardry on display, I found something lacking in Dunkirk. I couldn’t help but regard it as a contraption, a collection of intricate parts that suggests an impressive diorama. Nolan dedicates Dunkirk to the people whose lives were affected by the battles depicted in the film, yet he fails to achieve a human element that makes their sacrifice and heroism register. Perhaps Dunkirk is too entertaining for its own good. In making World War II into the stuff of Hollywood spectacle, Nolan distracts from the tragedy of so many lost lives. Last week I wrote about another war movie, Zaradasht Ahmed’s documentary Nowhere to Hide, which presents how everyday Iraqis have been afflicted by ongoing sectarian violence. Nowhere to Hide might be described as Dunkirk’s opposite—it was made very cheaply, and it focuses on individuals rather than crowds. Yet I found that it had much more to teach me about the way war changes people. Dunkirk is, for better and for worse, an immediate experience—it encourages engagement but not reflection.
One thing I liked about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it fully acknowledges how superficial it is. Besson’s film is silly and proud of it—the plot comes across as a mere frame for outrageous visual ideas. It has something to do with a pair of intergalactic special operatives searching for a rare animal that’s coveted throughout inhabitable territories across the universe. They stop at a variety of eye-popping environments, including a sweeping marketplace that exists in a special dimension and requires visitors to wear special virtual-reality goggles in order to see it. The marketplace provides Valerian with its first and most memorable set piece; after that sequence, the movie becomes a little repetitive. There are battles in space and chases through vast space stations, but with only one major conflict to guide the action, the action sequences feel like variations on the same thing.
It doesn’t help that all the players in the film seem bored by their roles. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who play the leads, are especially wooden, failing to generate even the slightest chemistry. As a result, one appreciates Valerian for its incidental details, like the design of the alien races or the intergalactic tchotchkes that litter the various environments. These details—the product of countless production designers and digital artists—sustain one’s interest for a while, but not enough to keep the movie from feeling like a slog at two hours and 17 minutes. In the end, the spectacle feels oppressive, not unlike having Valerian‘s entire budget dumped on top of your head. Still, if you’re going to see Valerian at all, you should probably see it on a big screen in order to admire the intricate comic-book vistas. Perhaps the best approach is to watch it until you get tired of it, then sneak into whatever’s playing next door at the multiplex.