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Intensity of ‘Dunkirk’ not enough to combat its empty emotional core

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When a Christopher Nolan movie comes out in theaters, it’s a big deal. And with good reason: the British writer/director has consistently wowed critics and audiences alike through the years with finely tuned blockbuster successes like “The Prestige,” the Batman trilogy and “Inception,” all visual treats featuring unique stories.

Nolan’s latest effort — “Dunkirk,” which is based on the incredible true events that occurred during the Battle of Dunkirk between the Allied Forces and Nazi Germany in World War II — is as convincing a showcase as ever of Nolan’s undeniable talent for dreaming up a grand vision and getting exactly what he wants, making you feel as though anything is possible on a movie screen.

But while “Dunkirk” serves as yet another visually stunning entry on Nolan’s résumé, it also features a startling lack of depth from a storytelling standpoint. These discordant elements result in the film playing out as a baffling oxymoron: an action-packed war film that somehow feels like it’s moving at a glacial pace; a thriller that at once feels like it won’t quit and yet feels like it never tried in the first place; and a drama almost entirely bereft of, well, drama.

With “Dunkirk,” Nolan ventures to tell a three-tiered story, as he follows the troops that were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of one week; a British father (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, whose performance here is one of only a handful that truly stand out) and son sailing to Dunkirk in hopes of providing relief in the form of transportation home for the troops throughout one day; and two Allied Forces fighter pilots (one of whom is portrayed by frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy) struggling to stay airborne in the timeframe of one hour.

This storytelling technique may sound cool on paper — and, indeed, when it’s introduced to you early on in the film, you’ll root for it to work. But in practice, it results in a wildly disjointed narrative. The crux of the problem here is that, in tracking these three story lines, Nolan foregoes exposition almost entirely; all we’re told is that the featured characters are “the good guys” and we really don’t learn much more than that along the way. “Dunkirk’s” inexplicable unwillingness to imbue its characters with relatability, or even accessibility for that matter, is its glaring Achilles’ heel, and it ultimately results in its demise.

No film with Nolan at the helm is without, at the very least, moments of sheer brilliance, and “Dunkirk” is certainly no exception. The sailing story line, for instance, often serves as a source of intrigue throughout the film, and it culminates in an earned, satisfying conclusion that rings true. But the scenes with the troops stranded in Dunkirk rarely do much more than go through the motions, as well choreographed as those motions might be. And a lion’s share of the fighter pilot scenes are so tediously repetitive, you’ll feel yourself stifling a groan whenever screen time is devoted to them.

Overall, “Dunkirk” (which is rated PG-13) is a passable and occasionally lively history lesson, but, unlike truly great war films, it never takes that extra step of elevating the proceedings from a recounting of events to a journey. It’s filled with enthralling sights and sounds, but, at its emotional core, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. On the heels of Nolan’s 2014 effort “Interstellar,” a visual wonder weighed down by a slog of a narrative, Nolan has, for the second consecutive time, given us a lot to marvel at, but little to contemplate.

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