It is the Oscars night. Hence, it is topical to feature a piece on a movie that is a front runner for winning the best picture award – Sam Mendes’ World War I movie, 1917. The movie has rightly received accolades for bringing out the dark brutality of war with intensity and impact. However, this piece is on a technical aspect of movie making which in some way enhances the movie watching experience of the viewer – the fact that the movie is made to look as though it is a single continuous shot. This aspect makes the author of this piece, James Grebey to liken it to a video game. And as the author himself acknowledges that the comparison is meant more as a complement than a criticism.
“Sam Mendes’s new World War I epic 1917 (out tomorrow) uses impressively long takes and some clever editing to give the illusion of being one continuous shot; it puts viewers in the trenches with our two British soldier protagonists on a desperate mission to call off a doomed attack. At times, it feels like we’re watching a video game unfold onscreen. We follow the soldiers as the stealthily sneak through no-man’s land, hoping to avoid being shot by Germans who might not even be there; we flee with them as they try to escape a collapsing bunker, Tomb Raider-style; and we run with them as they avoid enemies in a frantic escape through the maze-like remnants of a bombed town, a somewhat odd mixture of Call of Duty and Pac-Man. Each extended set-piece feels like a level, free to adopt a totally new genre. In several instances, our heroes descend from the light of day into dark bunkers where superiors give them new missions. As the light adjusts, the screen fills with blackness that hides the cut between two takes; you’d be forgiven for expecting a spinning wheel and the word “LOADING…” to pop up in the corner of the frame.
… Sometimes, the gaming approach to filming hinders the action. A Pac-Man-esque escape sequence from a ruined city feels too high-octane, like it’s from a much more fun sort of game than the bulk of the movie that preceded it. It’s a shame, but largely forgivable, since 1917’s quieter, more suspenseful beats draw on a different genre—like a Silent Hill-style horror set in no-man’s land—while training the camera on our leads to really heighten our connection to the dangers they’re facing.
You could easily clock 1917’s faux “one-take” as gimmicky, and it definitely feels like that sometimes. But it’s also incredibly impressive, and Mendes deserves the accolades and nominations he’s sure to get. Ultimately, 1917 succeeds and clicks because Mendes imbues an old-world narrative with the essential spirit of a very new, modern form of entertainment. We’re used to a camera closely trailing characters onscreen, because with a controller in our hands, that’s us. That familiarity, not just with the aesthetic but also with the brave, frightened boys on the screen, thrusts us into a century-old war. In a way, 1917’s ultimate achievement here is how grippingly clear Mendes makes it that, no matter the filming technique, there’s no question about it: these soldiers don’t have any extra lives.”
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