“If this is what war feels like, I’m frickin’ thankful I’ve never had to live through a real war,” I commented to my roommate, halfway through my first week of playing Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ). HvZ is an elaborate game that combines the terror of trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, armed with Nerf blasters and socks. It simulates, in some small way, the paranoia and adrenaline-fuelled drive for survival in war. While I enjoyed the rush of the game, it was extremely stressful and tiring, and I could not imagine being in an actual war zone. The movie Dunkirk does precisely that – it cinematically drops you right smack in the middle of a war zone, in the European theatre of World War II.
In May 1940, the Nazi regime was on the rise, and had pinned British and French armies on the beaches of Dunkirk. The movie traces the Allied soldiers’ escape from Dunkirk from three perspectives in differing “environments”: land, sea, and air. The movie begins by following a young English infantryman, trapped on the beach, as he unsuccessfully attempts to get on a boat back to England. He grows more desperate as he is stranded numerous times by boats filling to capacity or getting bombed. We then shift to the perspective of an old sailor who joins the civilian fleet of boats, determined to sail to Dunkirk and rescue as many countrymen as he can, in spite of the mortal danger. The last perspective, air, takes us to the skies with the Spitfire fighter pilots as they engage in perilous dogfights with German bombers.
Dunkirk’s strengths include its brutal, first-person depiction of war, with bombs exploding around you, ships sinking, and men gasping, drowning, and dying. The struggle for survival and the dangers of war pound away at the viewer incessantly. The movie also stirred my emotions with its displays of courage and sacrifice, especially from the English naval commander, the old captain, and the fighter pilots.
To me, one of its weaknesses was how little I connected with the young soldier escaping from land. While I understood his drive for survival, there was very little else I genuinely empathized with. I also found it jarring at times to shift from narrative to narrative; I often struggled to find a relevant link between the scenes.
In conclusion, Dunkirk succeeded in immersing its audience into how war feels, and the horrors and sacrifices laid side by side. Unfortunately, the flow of the story was jarring at times and left me emotionally disconnected from a few major characters.