When Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017) was first released in theatres, it was shown in three formats: 35mm standard, IMAX, and 70mm IMAX. In some areas, only one of the format options was available while others, like myself, got to experience all three. With the upgrading of each format, the film felt more and more intense. As the screen grew larger, more curved, and better formatted, it was as if the audience was transported right to the beaches of Dunkirk because of how enhanced each part of the film was.
As it’s unknown if Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2020…maybe) will actually come out this year, I want to re-examine how Dunkirk’s score interacts with the film’s use of time to get us excited for whenever Nolan’s time-bending film Tenet is (hopefully) released. The interaction gives us a true movie-going experience.
The film’s story is set up into three parts or, more accurately, points of view: The Land, focused on the soldiers on the beach, which starts one week ahead; The Sea, focused on the civilian boats heading to Dunkirk, which starts one day ahead; and The Air, focused on the British pilots going to Dunkirk, which starts one hour ahead. As each point of view has a different starting point, there are points in which events are foreshadowed. The pilots fly over some unassuming boats; later in the film, the civilians on the boats note the same planes flying overhead. The multiple points of view allow the audience to experience this moment in time at all angles, to really try to understand the fear and anxiety that drove these soldiers and civilians’ need to survive.
To really underscore that intense anxiety that the characters felt throughout their turns of the story, the film utilizes its score to the extreme.
Most war films are known for their incredible, dramatic, heroic scores. Dunkirk, in comparison, has an anxiety-inducing score. Composer Hans Zimmer creates a sort of audio illusion using what is called a “Shepherd tone.” (Vox, in the source article below, features a great video going into what a “Shepherd tone” is in great detail). Essentially, the different tones in a score are layered, with the high and low tones fading in and out. Zimmer, to a greater effect, uses the sound of ticking clocks for the “Shepherd tone.” The ticks, at points, could possibly mirror the heartbeat of the soldiers as they encounter different situations. However, the speed of the ticks vary based on the different point of view: The Land is slower, The Sea is a little faster, The Air is the fastest. As the film switches between these three views, the ticks get faster or slower, not allowing the audience to take a breath and give themselves the time to make this narrative switch. It further underlines the fear that the soldiers have, their desperate attempts for survival. It also signals to the audience that, as the ticks and the timing of the points of view begin to synchronize, something intense is going to happen.
The use of time and sound within the film work almost seamlessly with each other to create an experience for the audience, especially when viewed in a movie theatre. The ticks in the score are deafening inside the auditorium, keeping up with the time switches forces the audience to pay attention to the giant screen and builds anticipation for what will happen next, and when formatted in Nolan’s ideal 70mm IMAX, every sensation is more intense.
Maybe Christopher Nolan is right. Maybe watching films on the big screen in this ideal format is the best way to see films! The sound, the story, the screen, they all come together to help the audience fully immerse themselves in the film.
Here’s hoping that we can experience this collision of time and sound in a movie theatre sometime soon.