The familiarity of 1917

1917 feels familiar. Its set pieces, the rising and falling tension, the long moving shots are all in many ways evocative of Dunkirk. Even its famous conceit, appearing as if it were shot in a single take, hearkens back to the pitch perfect finale of Children of Men. 

The film is a technical achievement, no doubt, and it hits all the right notes, but I don’t feel the notes. I don’t feel them because I’ve heard them so many times before. I heard them in Dunkirk. I heard them in Children of Men. I heard them in Call of Duty. I heard them in Medal of Honor.

I don’t blame the film for my muted response. It does the best it can, but because the territory it explores is as well-trodden as the muddy trenches our protagonists walk through, it cannot help but feel like a song we’ve heard before. There was one conclusion for me at the end of the film: the cinematic language and thematic territory of war films have been so thoroughly explored that there might not be much left that is truly new.

Maybe there is some new paradigm out there, some new way of portraying the horrors of war, that we have not seen yet. It’s impossible to say for sure. The other question would be this: is there value then, in retreading old ground? Even if the visual language we use in new war films closely resemble war films of the past, is there value in them, in showing new generations the costs of war? In these uncertain times, it certainly feels like there is.

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