A One-Shot Film That Gets Almost Everything Right
1917 is one of those films that manages to feel both overly familiar yet refreshingly new and exciting. War films have been a staple of mainstream cinema for years now and whether it be Platoon, Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan, there’s always another spin or angle used to make this such a fascinating topic to come back to.
In a way, 1917’s biggest hook – it’s one camera single-take across its 2 hour run-time – is both the best and worst part of the film. If you can take to the style, it’s easy to become invested in the spectacle of it all and really revel in the tense atmosphere choking every part of this picture.
The story itself is very simple and holds few surprises or deviations from its path. Playing on the same story arc as the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan, two British soldiers, Corporal Blake and Corporal Schofield, are tasked with trekking across enemy territory to deliver a message to front-line troops in a bid to hold off an upcoming attack that’ll result in them walking into a German trap. Adding extra tension to proceedings is Blake’s brother, who happens to be part of this squadron on the eve of running headfirst into the gaping jaws of death. With no time to lose, the duo set off across No Man’s Land and deep into hostile territory, desperate to get there before it’s too late.
Aesthetically, 1917 looks fantastic and its stylistic use of a single camera does well to consciously pepper in as many varied locations as possible. Whether it be a burning, eerily lit village during the night or a lush, green stretch of grassland that goes on as far as the eye can see, there’s a really good use of colour to contrast the moody browns and greys that dominate a lot of the trench areas featured in the film.
The pacing is surprisingly steady too, and one may argue that the one-shot approach could so easily have led to a lot of mundanity and pointless scenes along the way. While there are a fair few shots of the duo walking and talking through the terrain, the way this is done as the landscape literally shifts and changes around them helps to keep things feeling aesthetically fresh. From isolated moments of solitude before walking into bustling, crowded trenches or silent marches through woodland that suddenly open up to green fields and pastures beyond, all of these scenes feel like you’re really moving through the story with these two characters and offer up a good sense of progression.
Having said that, there is a tendency for the film to play a little too heavily on the one-camera approach during specific moments of the film where a more intimate approach may have been appropriate. Given 1917’s overarching themes around journeying and loyalty, the camera never stops moving throughout the two hour run-time. The effect of this means we never really get to know these two characters on an intimate level and we never slow down enough to understand their woes and revel in the bleak reality of their situation beyond a couple of slowed segments dotted through the picture. It’s not until the final scenes of the film where we actually learn what Schofield is even fighting for.
The result is a film that feels technically impressive, with some big set-pieces throughout, but also one that feels like a very passive watch rather than an emotionally charged investment in the journey these two are taking. Its similarities to Saving Private Ryan don’t help either in terms of plot but unlike that film, the small band of characters here don’t actually share that much meaningful dialogue. Beyond some banter and jokes, there just isn’t a lot of depth to these characters.
Having said all of that though, 1917 is certainly a decent film. The one-shot trick will undoubtedly get people into the theaters to see this gimmick played out but at times it also limits the emotional response one may expect from a film like this. The early parts are incredibly tense though and the shocking turn during the midway point is unexpected and handled reasonably well. Aesthetically, everything looks very good and there’s a decent amount of tension clinging to large parts of this film to make for an impressive watch. Aside from a couple of niggling issues, 1917 is certainly a top contender for one of the best films this year and in terms of technicality, this one deserves a lot of praise for such an impressive feat.