This summer, Christopher Nolan released his interpretation of the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk in France through his movie experience of Dunkirk. There is no shortage of war movies, and the Battle of Dunkirk itself has had numerous movies already, but Dunkirk shone through. In a summer that was a flop for many major studios, Dunkirk managed to be the 5th highest domestic grossing film of the summer. So, what makes this movie stand out from the others?
On the opening weekend of July 21, Dunkirk got $50.5 million in 3,720 domestic theatres. With only a budget of $100 million, Dunkirk made back its money domestically by the second weekend. Released mid-July, it was a surprise to many about Nolan’s choice of a mid-summer release, especially if Nolan wanted this movie to be considered for an Oscar, as many Academy Award contenders like to open in the winter months. This timing definitely did work in Dunkirk’s favor, as Dunkirk released before other movies that would be possible competition for theatre space, and the movie is still being shown in theatres 16 weeks after release.
Similarly it intrigued people that they would release such a heavy topic film for the summer, when most would think of summer movies as light and happy films. But Sue Kroll, the Warner Brothers President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution, explained that “By dating it in the summer, it’s declarative. It positions the movie as a big cinematic experience.” The combination of having a summer film, along with the fact that Nolan didn’t want this film to be a niche movie, made it so this movie appealed to more of the casual moviegoer. It wasn’t targeted as an award-winning movie; it was targeted to be a film for everyone to experience.
While Dunkirk was succeeding, and rising to the top in the United States, it also exploded globally. Distributed to 41 other countries, the total foreign gross was $337 million. It was expected to automatically do well in the United Kingdom, as the characters of the film were from the United Kingdom, and it was received very well there with a total of $73 million. Dunkirk also did very well in China with a gross of $51 million.
Another factor with Dunkirk that made it apply to a wider audience than most war movies is the way in which they told the story. The typical American way of storytelling, like in most war movies, usually involves an individual or group of people who bond together, go into a major fight, and come out the other side. There’s a distinct progression of problem and resolution.
Dunkirk morphed this aspect of storytelling by dividing the story into three sections that are happening at different times but are weaved together throughout the film. One section happens over the time of a month and follows a small group of soldiers on the land. Another section happens over the span of a day with civilians out on the sea trying to help the war in whatever way they can. And then finally there is a section that happens over the course of an hour in the air with a pilot.
This alone makes Dunkirk stand out from other movies, and I believe that this kind of telling a story has a more global appeal. Foreign films are typically more focused on the experience and emotion that a movie can make you feel, and especially with a topic such as war; there usually aren’t many happy, wrapped-up resolutions. You don’t even know one of the central character’s name, but throughout the movie, you feel the intensity and severity that this particular soldier is going through.
While many preemptively predicted that while this film would do fine due to the fact that it was a Nolan film, it was not expected to do great. But now many critics are predicting that Dunkirk will be up for a number of Oscars, including the possibility of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.
On the same note, Dunkirk was able to obtain a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, which not a lot of movies these days are able to hold. Nolan was able to fascinate both critics and audience members, and it is probably because he was able to make the movie simplistic and relatable while also not compromising the complex emotion of the film.
We will have to see in March next year if Dunkirk will be able to claim a couple major Academy Awards against its competition. But Dunkirk was able to understand the power of global distribution and harness the market worldwide in 42 countries, making a wonderful profit and impressing audiences everywhere with its original take on storytelling and war.