BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

By now it's clear Christopher Nolan has a specific concept in mind when he makes movies: Time. He's woven the idea into his stories, played with unorthodox editing techniques, and worked with Hans Zimmer to add a proverbial ticking clock to every film's score. It's 2017, and Nolan's latest — Dunkirk — has moved away from the proverbial ticking clocks; it's got a real one.

Set in World War II, Dunkirk chronicles the evacuation of 330,000 Allied soldiers from France. True to Nolan's filmography, Dunkirk plays with time; first, from a story perspective; second, from an editing perspective. How do both sides work together?

The movie's unique construction is the result of many years of experience, trial and error and success. Many of 's films experiment with time in a special way, and each played a part in shaping the next. Here's how Nolan's past works contributed to the visceral, emotional experience of watching Dunkirk.

Interstellar — Afraid Of Time

This science fiction epic isn't just about an agricultural apocalypse, space exploration and growing corn. Interstellar took the concept of time and applied it to the heart of the story. It's a movie about relationships and how they change. No matter the length of time, the light in which characters see each other shifts dramatically. The theory of relativity puts Matthew McConaughey on the same age track as his daughter, and he's forced to relate to her as if only two years have passed, not the 30 years Jessica Chastain experienced.

Thanks to a third act that takes a slightly contrived story leap, is not Nolan's shining star. However, Interstellar is the best example of time applied to characterization.

'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Bros.]
'Dunkirk' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

In Dunkirk, time is a character of its own. Every second weighs down on the soldiers, and, in turn, time changes them. They grow more tense. They turn on each other. They fight for a spot on the rescue boats because they understand that every hour they spend on the beach is an hour closer to death. Dunkirk uses time as a catalyst for each character's individual motivations. We have the trial and error of Interstellar to thank for this.

Inception — Time In The Toolbox

Many consider Inception as Christopher Nolan's most ambitious movie. After all, writing the script alone took 10 years. It pushed the limits of practical effects. When we're being honest, could we really live our lives without seeing the gravity-troubled hallway fight? In regards to time, is just another experiment.

'Inception' [Credit: Warner Bros.]
'Inception' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

The concept appears in the film when Leonardo DiCaprio and his heist team begin working through layers of a dream. Time slows as they push deeper into the layers. In an upper-level dream, a rolling van turns the dream below it into slow-motion gravity shift. Time is used as a weapon — a tool. The characters understand that the perception of time can be used to counteract the obstacles they face, and Dunkirk harnesses time in a similar way.

Spanning the course of a week, the story of Dunkirk is remarkably fast-paced. Time is essential to survival. It's best illustrated as the Nazi air force uses time to its advantage, attacking in intervals and allowing soldiers to regroup before the next wave.

Time is simultaneously used to:

  • Raise the stakes. There's a pervading sense of urgency in Dunkirk.
  • Release tension. When the attacks stop, we're allowed a moment to breathe.

Guns, bombs and airplanes aside, time is the most frightening weapon in Dunkirk.

Memento — Time Runs Both Ways

As one of Christopher Nolan's earliest works, Memento is one of the most unique. Instead of using the concept of time to influence the story, Memento uses time as an editing technique to influence the audience. The film is about a man with anterograde amnesia hunting his wife's killer. The first twist is the fact that Leonard (Guy Pearce) cannot create new memories, which makes investigating a challenge. The second is the fact that Memento plays backwards. The first scene is the last scene, and the last is the first.

'Memento' [Credit: Newmarket]
'Memento' [Credit: Newmarket]

Unlike Inception and Interstellar, time as a concept is best represented in the editing of Memento. The very structure of the film is so radically different that the simplicity of the plot isn't noticeable. The production engages us, not the story. Nolan took this technique from Memento and used it to enhance Dunkirk.

Dunkirk is told from three perspectives — land, sea, and air — but it is also told from three distinct timelines.

  • Land: One week.
  • Sea: One day.
  • Air: One hour.

Through the entire movie Dunkirk cuts between each perspective, creating a plot that loops over itself until the storylines converge in the third act. Why did this creative decision have such a big impact on the movie? Dunkirk owns the simplest plot of any Christopher Nolan film, but with a story split over three timelines, it doesn't matter; it's compelling, intense and memorable.

Dunkirk is different from other Nolan movies, but at the core, it stays focused on the shared theme of time. While Interstellar, Inception and Memento use the idea in vastly different ways, Dunkirk brings these elements together. It's a spectacular payoff born from years of trial and error. Even though Dunkirk is simple, it's a movie that begs multiple viewings to absorb the tricks and twists Nolan worked hard to perfect.

After all, to make a good movie, you need a lot of time.

What was your favorite moment in Dunkirk?


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