How powerful is Christopher Nolan? He can lure sleepy journalists out of bed to watch a mere five minutes of his next movie. (There was a nice bagel spread, though.) And it wasn’t even the opening five minutes: The so-called “prologue” of Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” screened five full months before its July release, isn’t in fact the opening. It’s a grab bag of random bits, pasted artfully together into a glorified montage, beamed onto a giant IMAX screen.
Nothing particularly huge happens; it wasn’t like the “Heat”-style robbery that kicked off “The Dark Knight,” which was also released as a stand-alone tease ahead of release. We assume this overture (or whatever) was meant to convey the general tenor of the movie, about the storied World War II evacuation, and give reporters a general sense of what to tell Nolan-hungry viewers, who’ll surely be harassing critical critics over the summer.
Again, we assume! But whatever the “Dunkirk” “prologue” is meant to impart, it seems we’re due an unusually intense yet clinical war movie. It doesn’t look like “Saving Private Ryan”; there’s no gore or blood or vomit-y shakycam. This is, after all, a movie by Christopher Nolan, a very precise perfectionist — a brainiac who clearly does the crosswords every day, and probably even knocks out Saturday (the most difficult day, moreso than even Sunday) in the time it takes to boil tea water.
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And so these five random minutes of “Dunkirk” jump around: from land to air to sea, between the Allied soldiers awaiting rescue on the beaches of northern France to the pilots battling in the air. A score that resembles a ticking clock tightens the nerves. What it doesn’t tell us is what’s going on. It’s an example of craft, not clarity, which will come later. If you’re a historical ignoramus who saw these five minutes, you wouldn’t even know that the story is about an evacuation, not a traditional skirmish.
The biggest thing of all, literally: The prologue is 95% in IMAX. It’s a format Nolan has been using since “The Dark Knight,” and in a way that’s always been weird. He doesn’t shoot entire films in IMAX — that would be both difficult and expensive — so the shape of the image keeps shifting, from the old-school Academy ratio (i.e., box-shaped) to wider. This sliver of “Dunkirk,” though, mostly sticks with IMAX, giving it the look of a classic movie — albeit one with modern production values and deafening Dolby sound.
To be honest, we half-think this “prologue” would be a great, unusual way to actually start “Dunkirk.” We would be thrown into a situation in media res, forced to find our bearings as Nolan stitches it together. He’s always been the rare Hollywood player who likes to treat the audience like an intelligent person, not some knuckle-scraping popcorn-gobbler seeking brainless escape. But whatever shape it will take, “Dunkirk” does look a beaut. And how many war films get super-advance prologue screenings?
One thing we can say for sure, though: Tom Hardy, as a cucumber cool pilot, speaks most of his dialogue with a helmet cover over his mouth. We're assuming this is an in-joke: Did you take to the Internet to complain you couldn't understand a word he said in "The Dark Knight Rises"? Well, take this.
"Dunkirk" hits theaters on July 21. You can watch the two-month-old trailer below.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge