Directed by Sam Mendes
1917 is meant to immerse you in the ultra-reality of the trenches of World War I. Cleverly edited together to simulate a single unbroken take (outside of one conscious cut), the film is remarkably simple and in a way restrained as it follows two men sent out on a dangerous mission to warn another band of troops of a coming trap.
The film is no doubt impressive, just from the technical accomplishment of how it’s filmed, but it might be because of that self-imposed restraint that it feels so artificial. It’s a tense, frightening movie, but parts of it feel too glossy, too perfect, and the style of filming becomes self-conscious at some point and detracts from the supposed realism of the story.
And that’s only a bad thing if you want the film to resemble reality. While the texture of the mud, swollen corpses, the dust from detonated explosives and of course the blood do cultivate a feeling of “being there,” the film as a whole reminded me of the dreamlike Long Day’s Journey Into Night from earlier this year. That film is notable for a nearly hour long single take (in 3-D no less) that takes its main character through a purposefully surreal/hyperreal world of dreams.
Maybe it’s that the refusal to cut forces us to spend time in moments of inaction that creates this strange sensation. It’s captivating in its own way, but it is hardly reality. If anything we’re paying more attention to the details of a story like this then we are to our own lives, in which our brains simply don’t record so many. of the small moments of any given day. We leave the. apartment and immediately forget if we’ve locked the front door, that kind of thing.
So because of this attention to detail in a film like 1917, the observation of these smaller moments feels just as distant from our own realities as any conventional form of movie editing. Then you have the fact that the movie insists upon being propulsive, so moments often feel charged with unexpected melodrama or a sense of tension that otherwise feels contrived.
Sure, the world of this movie was incredibly dangerous, and the whole idea is that you feel the danger around every corner (which I did), but because of the pacing and the commitment to the rhythms of a big budget action movie, these moments all felt a little off.
So it does make for an entertaining, riveting movie, and it pulls you down into some strange, well-lit hybrid between video game and nightmare. I think I would’ve responded much more to it if this was. the intension, to create something nightmarish and purposefully opaque, perhaps something that told you about the headspace of the characters involved. The only problem is that these two soldiers are so bland, and they are given moments to. flesh out their backstories that again feel. contrived, like in so many other war films. There’s action, then a moment of pause in which a character explains why you should are about them, then more action with raised stakes since we’re meant to more emotionally connect with our protagonists.
1917 feels like a movie that wants to be everything and is really just a couple things. It’s technically impressive and immersive, but as with something like Gravity, the spectacle far outshines any heart or core emotion driving the story. It’s a period piece horror film and an effective one at that.