From Gotham City to the inner workings of the mind to the far reaches of space, Christopher Nolan has a knack for expanding the simplistic into the bombastic in his cinematic works. So, the concept of the auteur director tackling the events of Dunkirk is neither surprising nor unfathomable. Dunkirk, written by Nolan himself, is an ambitious triptych narrative that conveys the historical 1940 battle and evacuation of British troops from the land, sea, and air. It’s an epic battle with both the scope and depth befitting the Oscar-nominated filmmaker. As such, Nolan’s vision for a large-scale war production necessitated the use of what was once considered an outdated format: 70mm film.
The 70mm print (or 65mm with 5mm of perforated edges) was once a common format in the film industry, back when movie theaters were far more sparse and their screens were far more expansive. The resolution and width required to project images onto such screens demanded some hefty celluloid that could stretch images to the grand ratio of 2.20:1 to 2.28:1. The rich amount of detail in such a ratio is something that traditional film proponents claim the digital format hasn’t yet achieved. Population booms and the expansion of business meant shrinking screens; thus, the 70mm format went the way of the buffalo as the industry adapted 35mm as the standard. These days, 70mm releases are too expensive and cumbersome to justify. Not only are the reels nearly double the size of regular film (thus their transport and maintenance cost more), but the commercial shift to digital format has eliminated both the need for projectors and a trained staff to operate the equipment.
The format still has its loyalists, including Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Quentin Tarantino and the Weinstein Company released The Hateful Eight across over 100 70MM theater locations in 2016, to Phil Nobile, Jr.’s delight. Nolan has also decried home entertainment platform releases, making his preference for the theatrical experience known. With that ethos in mind, Nolan has gone to great lengths to make the audience experience a worthwhile one, going as far as shooting handheld with IMAX cameras, utilizing vessels from the actual battle for shooting, and hiring six thousand extras to avoid excessive computer-generated enhancements.
Shot on a combination of IMAX 70mm and 65mm large format film stock, Dunkirk joins the ranks of other notable 70mm releases like My Fair Lady, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia. Nolan has been a vocal proponent of the old-school format, and has walked the walk by filming Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises (in part) on 70mm as well. For Nolan, it’s “the gold standard” of filmmaking and worth the hassle. At CinemaCon 2014, he elaborated: ”I am not committed to film out of nostalgia. I am in favor of any kind of technical innovation but it needs to exceed what has gone before and so far nothing has exceeded anything that’s come before.”
According to Warner Bros. Pictures, Dunkirk will be screened in 125 70MM theaters, a breath of fresh air to film traditionalists everywhere. In an era rife with babies in R-rated screenings and texting in theaters, perhaps a bit of the throwback movie-going experience is what audiences need.
Dunkirk opens on July 21.