War is a topic that has been examined at great length by a number of filmmakers from the dawn of the medium. Few topics allow stories to dive into bleak darkness, offering only shreds of hope that exist deep within battle-beaten souls of men forced to kill one another, oftentimes for reasons they barely understand. There are so many classic war movies, I could spend every word of this review just naming them. The war film, for lack of a more inventive metaphor, has been done to death.
Two things interest me about Sam Mendes’ new war movie, “1917”: First off, it pertains to World War I, a conflict not featured as frequently on film due to its depressing nature and, like its rain-soaked battlefields, the motivations were rather muddy. “The Great War,” as it’s called, lacks the easily defined parameters of WWII, where everyone wanted to punch Hitler and Hirohito in the mouth and call it a day. It was gruesome and horrifying. Secondly, the entirety of “1917” is a series of single takes strung together to make the movie appear like one continuous shot.
The story centers on two young British soldiers, tasked with getting a vital message across enemy lines, in order to stop 1,600 of their countrymen from being slaughtered in battle. Lance Corporal Black (Dean-Charles Chapman) is extremely motivated to succeed at this task since his brother is part of a division being lured into a trap. He haphazardly chooses his friend Will (George MacKay) for the suicide mission before knowing how dangerous a journey they’re about to undertake. Within minutes of the film starting, our heroes make their way through the bunkers and into the dreaded “no man’s land.” They will cross through rivers of dead bodies, dark corners where enemies lurk, and trap-laden areas where one wrong step could lead to disaster.
Like any film that leans heavily into a specific creative choice, opinions of it might end up being decided by one’s appreciation or lack thereof. The single-take aspect of “1917” is something that has been used in a number of excellent movies in recent years. Director Alfonso Cuaron successfully has utilized technology that allows separate shots to be connected in a way that make them appear continuous, as seen in films like “Gravity” and “Children of Men.” Alejandro Inarritu has used the technique as well, in compelling cinematic offerings like “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins and his team have created a vivid, battle-scarred landscape. The hellish visual nightmare feels incredibly immersive. War rarely has come across this lucid and starkly portrayed. Even after seeing hundreds of war movies, “1917” manages to be unique. It’s also strangely disconnected as a narrative. The film lives and dies by its central creative concept; therefore, it is both epic and slight. I liked it but it comes across ethereal at the expense of the main characters.
This can be an unfortunate side effect when a film relies too heavily on technical shenanigans. In spite of the effects being extremely appetizing to the eyes and ears, it ends up malnourishing the brain. To quote George Lucas: “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” If anyone knows about how special effects can ruin a movie, it’s the guy who made “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” To be fair, “1917” wasn’t ruined by them, but it was rendered dramatically inert.
In terms of performance, the movie suffers because the audience never gets to know much about the characters. Two young men guide audiences through the world, but never become three-dimensional, fully realized beings. There are amazing actors, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden, who pop up for 8 seconds and sear the screen with their talents. All too quickly though, the camera pans away and we never see them again. They’re like expository puppets who pop in and out of frame when the movie stops long enough to become deeper than the brackish, bloody puddles they walk through.
Because of the forward momentum of the movie, audiences never really get to know the characters. Everything is about motivating each character, from one scene to the next. There’s precious time for the audience to immerse itself emotionally into this frantically paced, horrible hell. It’s like a well-realized theme-park ride—a virtual tour of the mortifying experience that was World War I.
I enjoyed Sam Mendes’ vision, but I would never need to watch “1917’ again. It’s one hell of a ride, but there are no iconic performances or moments that stuck with me. The expediency of the creative direction ends up being a disservice to the emotional impact.
However, audiences definitely should check it out in a theater, where they can appreciate the depth and scope that’s been created. It’s a marvel of sight and sound that’s a little too thinly plotted to leave a lasting impact.