Spectacle is a difficult thing to accomplish in moviemaking today. Computer-driven special effects have made virtually anything the imagination can conjure possible, and as a result, the ‘wow’ factor of cinema is a rare emotional response for many moviegoers. That is what makes “1917,” — the newest effort from director Sam Mendes — all the more impressive. It’s an epic vision of the first world war on the big screen in a manner that’s never been done before and is mostly accomplished without the aid of fake sets or CGI.
The film is set during World War I and is built around the simple story of two British soldiers Corporals Schofield and Blake, who attempt to deliver a message to a nearby battalion in order to call off a misguided attack. Should they not get there in time, 16 hundred men will be butchered, including Blake’s older brother. With a premise this basic, some viewers may be disappointed that the journey takes center stage over the development of these characters. That being said, there’s just enough detail given so that you can latch onto them and knowing one of their actual brother’s lives is at stake gives the plot urgency.
As the two young men crawl, slip, walk, run, swim, and climb their way through no man’s land, they encounter danger everywhere. They’re pushed to their absolute limits and are constantly depicted running into corpses of humans and animals scattered across the landscape. The movie is structured around Schofield and Blake escaping one predicament or obstacle after another. While some of these are admittedly bypassed with seeming ease they’re not supermen. Both men suffer injuries, including one memorably painful moment when Schofield cut his hand on barbed wire — the entire audience gasped.
The notable performances by George MacKay as Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake successfully convey them as vulnerable and motivated to fulfill their mission. This is augmented by the environments they push through, almost all of which are shot in various outdoor locations and seamlessly stitched together as one.
Along with the inspired approach of presenting the narrative as one continuous take, it’s a very grounded movie, one where you can effortlessly project yourself into the protagonists’ shoes. If you pay close attention, you can see the points where the cuts occurred, nonetheless, it’s a well done effect which in turn renders their adventure genuinely suspenseful, and makes it look and feel real. The soldiers’ uniforms are filthy and often covered in mud while flies buzz everywhere, and the bomb explosions keep you on your toes as much as those in the film are.
It would be easy to write off the ‘one take’ treatment as a gimmick, yet it ceases to be one since it’s meant to subject you to the soldiers’ point of view. Of course, it may not have been as effective without the extraordinary cinematography by Academy Award winner Roger Deakins, and the musical score by Academy nominee Thomas Newman, both of whom are sure to be nominated again come February.
Simultaneously a technical eye opener, visual stunner, and moving tale of determination, “1917” reinvigorates the war movie genre with awe-inspiring sets and an inventive ‘one take’ shooting style. The destruction of war is on full display as it rips both people and buildings to shreds. The characters are always surrounded by death, so the suspense of them completing their mission builds effectively.
A few of their obstacles are overcome a little too easily, which unintentionally deflates some of the tension. But the movie is paced perfectly which allows moments for the script to breathe and presents picturesque landscapes for the viewers to absorb. With solid performances, as well as an accurate, dirty environment the characters are depicted in, this is a film that, to the surprise of no one who’s seen it, will be a top contender this awards season.
Star Rating: Four stars
- Gritty, realistic visuals.
- Inventive filming style.
- Solid acting.
- Extraordinary music.
- Story is highly simplistic.
- Hindrances in the journey are dispatched somewhat conveniently.
- Characters aren’t developed much in favor of spectacle.