1917 puts technical wizardry above all else

Sam Mendes’ WWI movie comes from a real place, but the cinematography and camerawork is so flashy, it’s hard to focus on anything else.

Immersion, in the traditional sense, has never really been a defining facet of cinema. Most movies benefit from and play off the idea of a separation between the viewer and what they’re viewing; the very idea of a film being edited shatters the idea that this is happening in real time in front of our eyes. That’s why, I think, moving pictures have remained the most mainstream and widely accepted form of visual storytelling, even as more immersive forms like video games or virtual reality have come to the fore. Most of our understanding of visual language comes from movies to begin with, so any attempt to merge immersive techniques with that visual language will suffer from either being too close to a movie or not close enough. Video games can’t feel like you’re just watching something unfold, and movies can’t feel too much like you’re watching someone make decisions on the spot.

All this to say that Sam Mendes’s 1917 is both a marvel of technical immersion and a WWI movie that really feels like watching someone play a video game. A series of complex tracking shots stitched together to look like one unbroken, two-hour tracking shot, 1917 is primarily a triumph of style over substance, though that would also be simplifying what’s going on here. Alternately propulsive and weirdly alienating, 1917 works best as a kind of turbo-charged highlight reel for the seemingly endless talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are stationed in France, two average soldiers amongst thousands, when they’re tasked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to a battalion on the other side of No Man’s Land, the area between the two fronts. Blake and Schofield have been chosen partly because Blake’s older brother is part of the battalion that must call off an intended attack on the Germans. Though it appears the Germans have retreated, the British have it on good authority that it’s only a diversion that could lead to severe losses if it isn’t thwarted. Though the coast seems relatively clear for the two soldiers, their journey is nevertheless constantly thwarted by the unexpected.

Though pretty spartan from a storytelling point-of-view, 1917 nevertheless falls into a routine pretty early on. The goals are clear and the exposition is initially pretty minimal — two integral elements in the kind of immersive genre filmmaking Mendes is leaning on here. But it’s not too long before the film’s structure reveals itself as goal-oriented. In other words, it’s two dudes running across various backdrops to get orders from various famous British dudes, who almost always tell them that what they’re looking for is somewhere else. 

Of course, most stories can be broken down into such schematic sketches, but paired with its extravagant visual style, 1917 feels particularly slick and surface-level. Mendes and Roger Deakins favour a somewhat distant, roving camera that always keeps the characters at arm’s length. Since these are a series of tracking shots, the camera has to make long and deliberate moves even if all it wants to do is show a character’s face, which clashes somewhat with some of what Mendes wants to cover.

Indeed, there’s a sentimental streak to 1917, owing in large part to the fact that it’s partially based on stories told to Mendes by his WWI vet grandfather. Mendes offsets the more visceral action with sequences that are likely to be familiar to anyone who’s seen a war movie before: the stumbling upon an innocent civilian (it’s often a French woman, so why vary here), the tragic and easily preventable death, the calm before the storm (evidenced here by a scene of a soldier delivering an a capella rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”) and perhaps another half-dozen hoary clichés from the archives. The problem is not so much the nature of the clichés, which at this point you’d be hard-pressed to remove entirely from war movies; it’s how they come across in a movie that has commodified the language of war in such a specific way. At the risk of taking this videogame metaphor all the way to the end: scenes in a movie aren’t supposed to feel like cutscenes.

Still, it’s undeniable that the work that Deakins puts forth here is, at the very least, a massive flex. Though the illusion of the continuous take doesn’t necessarily stick past the first few sequences, it’s hard to argue that specific sequences aren’t supremely well-crafted and compelling. It reaches its apex about halfway through, in a nighttime sequence set amidst the flaming rubble of a bombed-out town that suddenly makes the French countryside look like the seventh level of Hell. 1917 is rarely if ever anything less than compelling from a purely plastic point of view, and Roger Deakins has a lot to do with that. ■

1917 opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 10. Watch the trailer here:

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