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Movie Review | 1917

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) cross No Man's Land in 1917

Movie summary: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldiers' brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap. (IMDb)

My first impression of 1917 came from its trailers and made me immediately think of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which I thought was a stunning display of cinematic technical wizardry and not much more. And this was before I found out that 1917's 'gimmick' of making the entire movie look like a single shot made me sure that this was going to be along those same lines.

Ultimately, that is exactly how it turned out for me. I recognise the talents of all the people involved to make something like this, and how hard it must've been to carry things through a story-line reaching almost two hours. However, while I can respect the creative brilliance to pull things off from a visual perspective, it feels a little like they forgot to add some meat to the bones.

That description above is pretty much it as far as the story goes. Yes, there are struggles and complications as you'd expect, but nothing of any great interest to give that brief synopsis any kind of sparkle. I get that 1917 wants you to follow these guys (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) as close as possible so you can feel as much a part of their lives as possible, but it just doesn't work.

My favourite scene in the movie is when the pair of them leave the British trenches to cross No Man's Land, for both what they and us see, their reactions to those sights, and the excellent score. Plus, I was still getting used to the 'single-take' approach and paying rapt attention to everything the movie was showing me.

Unfortunately, 1917 doesn't really have anywhere to go from there and long stretches of the movie feel like more of the same rather than anything new. It doesn't help that it all feels structured like a poor video-game, with various objectives and locations along with encounters with bigger-name actors in minor roles acting as checkpoints for the story.

It also doesn't help that the movie plays with distances and how long it takes to cover them, with small distances often taking an age to cover with the intention of increasing tension, and long distances being skipped over either in a truck or being dragged down a river and it all just completely lacking in internal consistency and logic.

Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) witnesses trench warfare in 1917

Normally, distances travelled wouldn't be an issue because the movie would just cut to the next scene of actual importance, but the 'one-take' set-up of 1917 and the inability to do so undermines this. Why even specify a set distance to be travelled at the beginning of the movie if you're then going to cheat it by warping the geography for the story later on?

Another downside to the otherwise brilliant camerawork for some to consider: this is not a movie for those who suffer from motion sickness. A couple of co-workers admitted to feeling a little ill while watching 1917 and I also felt a little nauseous at the start, before growing used to the camera's constant movement - immersive, but disorienting.

I don't want to sound too critical of 1917 as I did ultimately enjoy myself, even if it was almost entirely for the excellent visual work and fantastic score. I saw it in IMAX and would advise that anyone intending to watch this movie does the same if possible. You might as well get the best viewing experience out of watching it once, because I doubt many will go back for repeat viewings.

One last, fun (for me, at least) note: there is a moment where they encounter dead bodies floating face up in water that reminded me of the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Considering that Tolkien actually took part in World War I and trench warfare, it was nice to get a very real reminder of where he pulled that disturbingly memorable location from for his own story.

1917 is a brilliant technical display of movie-making, but doesn't have enough substance to match the visual style. Even then, the trick of making the movie appear as close as possible to a single shot can actually distract from the already paper-thin story and characterisation. I'd recommend seeing it at least once on the biggest screen you can, but there's nothing here I'm keen to revisit.


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