A film tries to capture the grotesque sights and claustrophobia of the First World War.
On April 6, 1917, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. It seems that MacKenzie believes that the Germans are retreating from the current line and is trying to pursue them so that he can finish them off. Intelligence has revealed that the Germans were not running away, but instead retreating to the Hindenburg Line, an extremely fortified and heavily armed defensive position. If the Devonshire Regiment attacks, they’ll be massacred. Blake and Schofield are told to give a message directly from the General to MacKenzie calling off any attack, which would likely kill Blake’s brother (Richard Madden). Along the way, they meet a few other famous British actors (Mark Strong, Andrew Scott), because why not.
Alfred Hitchcock, the famed British Director, once attempted to make a film that appeared to only have one cut, despite the fact that cameras could only hold 20 minutes of film at a time. That film was called Rope, and I can only imagine that director Sam Mendes was a big fan of it, since this film, similarly, only has one noticeable cut. I cannot fully convey in words the effect that has upon the reader, because we are so used to action films, and films in general, having rapid cuts for most scenes to refocus the scene or allow for more action shots with the actor’s face (except for Saint Keanu). To put this in perspective, this film appears to have two shots of roughly fifty-five minutes each whereas the average shot length of a US film is 2.5 seconds. Now, it’s true that these are not genuinely 55 minutes, but really several 5-10 minute takes cut together expertly, but even that is amazing in modern cinema. Having only one scene playing out also means that we aren’t really given the typical moments to reset and adjust that we’re used to during a narrative. Basically, once the film starts, we’re never given a respite.
While Hitchcock used the long-takes as a way to heighten the tension of whether or not a murder was going to be uncovered, this film uses it to accentuate the subjective filming of the movie. 1917 is not presented in the way that war films are usually shot, even particularly gritty ones, because in 1917 the camera is supposed to be part of the cast. The film, pretty much from the beginning, is shot in such a way that it treats the camera as if it is a third, silent, invisible party drifting behind them.
Because of this, the film doesn’t feel the need to do any of the normal things that emotionally invest us in the characters, because most of the moments that films use to get those require extended shots or reactions that don’t fit into a film that’s in real time. I’ve been reading a number of reviews that criticize the film for this, but I feel like that’s based on a rubric that just doesn’t apply to what Sam Mendes was going for in this film. We don’t have to project ourselves onto the characters that we’re watching in order to get emotionally attached, because we’re just supposed to be part of it. That makes all of the grit and grime and gore simultaneously more tolerable because we’re not as attached to the characters, but also more visceral because it happens closer to us. In the trenches, we are right next to the actors and suddenly surprised by other parties entering frame from behind, giving us a feel of exactly how closely packed these people were in these conditions.
Thematically, the movie takes a strong anti-war position that tries to avoid the usual issues present in anti-war movies. For example, First Blood, a movie that contains a story about how veterans were mistreated and filled with PTSD, was loved instead for Rambo kicking ass with a machine gun and given several sequels that focused more on that. Apocalypse Now is anti-war, but its most quoted line is “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” This movie tried to subvert that by having the central mission in the movie to prevent an attack. They also play up the grotesque nature of the battlefields through horrific images and show even the typically positive-associated parts of the movie, like killing Germans, to be taking a toll on the characters. Still, I’m sure someone out there was watching it going “war is kickass,” but probably fewer than most.
Overall, it’s a really well-shot movie and a pretty good movie in general, but I do imagine that it’s not going to be a lot of peoples’ cup of tea.
Before I start, I’m gonna have to get personal for a second. I wasn’t supposed to see this movie. As those of you who have paid attention or read the “First Post” page know, I started doing these reviews because I was diagnosed with cancer. That was in 2012. One of the first things that, in retrospect, I should have known was a sign of my disease was that I had extreme pain during watching the original The Avengers film. Despite that, I didn’t get diagnosed for a few months. By then, the cancer went from my neck down to my pelvis. Even after successful chemotherapy and radiation, when this film was originally announced in 2014, I assumed I would never live to watch it. I don’t know if this gave me a form of closure on this chapter of my life, but I do know that it was an odd realization afterwards. Now to the movie.
SUMMARY OF A SUMMARY (Full Summary at the end due to length)
Thanos won. Thanos destroys the Infinity Stones. Avengers kill Thanos. Avengers go through time to find the stones before Thanos destroyed them. Past Thanos follows them to the present. Avengers undo the snap. Past Thanos tries to take the stones back. All Avengers Assemble. Thanos loses. Iron Man dies. Captain America gets old. Thor gets Lebowski.
END OF AN END OF A SUMMARY
Spectacle has always been a big part of cinema. A lot of critics will argue that the audiovisual medium enhances storytelling through reducing the distance between the audience and the material, and that’s true, but sometimes you just have to admit that reading about an epic battle scene will rarely be nearly as effective as watching one. That’s how it’s always been, too. The Lumiere Brothers famously marveled people by showing a train pulling into the station, something that previously had required going to a train station. Georges Méliès became acclaimed for showing people color films and a man in the moon. Let’s go more modern: Have you ever watched Ben-Hur? There are some good scenes in it, maybe 20 minutes worth of decent acting in the 212 minute runtime, but the main reason it’s regarded as a classic is just the chariot race. That scene has been ripped off repeatedly, but the actual size, grandeur, and just plain spectacle of the scene has never been duplicated. When I watch it now, even with all of the amazing cinematic advances that have happened in the 60 years since, I’m still amazed by it. The same is true of Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, The Lord of the Rings, or even Buster Keaton’s The General. These films all give you something that you can’t really get anywhere else. This film is another entry into this pantheon, although I know it will be much more controversial.
First, the negatives.
This movie truly is the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, meaning that you do actually have to have seen all of the films and remember a lot of elements of them for some of the scenes and plotlines in this to not feel out of nowhere. Captain America being able to wield Mjolnir, for example, is based on a less than 10 second scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film also has cameos from basically everyone who has appeared in a film that’s still alive, including Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, Taika Waititi’s Korg, and even James D’Arcy’s Jarvis from the TV Show Agent Carter. This movie, viewed in isolation, would probably just be noise. Now, is this inherently a negative? No, because this is a sequel, and sequels depend on the audience knowing previous information, but since this is a sequel to SO MANY films, it does make it tough on the audience to remember everything.
The first two acts of this movie are basically Marvel patting itself on the back and setting up the finales for many of the characters. I mean, the plot involves the characters visiting the first Avengers film all over again, even redoing some of the more iconic scenes and lines, as well as the iconic opening to Guardians of the Galaxy, and reconstruing some of the scenes from the worst-ranked MCU film Thor: The Dark World in such a way that it kind of redeems some of it. Then, it has an entire sequence that basically just gives Tony Stark closure and Captain America some incentive to try and regain his lost life. In any other film, these two things would be unworkable. It’s only because this film is so grandiose and has had so much build up that it feels somewhat natural. We’ve known this world better than any other fictional world in film, so we are a little more inclined to welcome nostalgia and character moments. Still, it does make it slow at the beginning.
Also, the first twenty minutes of the film, prior to the time-skip, probably should have been the end of Infinity War. It would have been really dark, given that it basically doubles down on Thanos being, as he puts it, “inevitable,” but I think it would have been the best place to split the films. Still, it would require introducing Captain Marvel outside of her film, so I guess it didn’t work economically.
Now the positives.
The third act of this film is basically everything I’ve ever wanted out of a superhero film. It starts with the three core Avengers fighting Thanos and, despite constantly pulling new and better tricks out, they keep losing. He’s just too strong for them. Then, when all looks lost, we get Falcon finally returning Cap’s great line “on your left.” When all of the sling ring portals opened, I basically squealed like an 8 year old girl in anticipation of what was going to happen. Then, finally, we get Captain America delivering the line that they’ve teased in multiple films before this “Avengers assemble.” He doesn’t even say it in a roar of defiance or a confident battle-cry, no, he says it simply and firmly, because they don’t need Captain America inspiring them, they just need to know it’s go time. What follows is a battle that is so grand in scale that it overwhelms almost anything in the history of film, but still gives all of the character cameos and interactions that we want, from Spider-Man using insta-kill mode to the female Avengers line-up aka A-Force. The pacing of the battle, too, is nearly perfect, with every attempt to actually end it being thwarted dramatically, until, finally, Tony Stark ends the threat by delivering the line that Robert Downey, Jr. improvised during the first MCU movie, erasing the concept of secret identities and changing the MCU forever: “I am Iron Man.”
All of the performances are great in the film, but let’s be honest, Robert Downey, Jr. always has a slight lead in that. Hemsworth, now that he’s allowed to be funny, is right behind him. The comedy in the film is exactly what you expect from the Russo brothers: It’s funny, it’s unexpected, it’s perfectly timed. The drama is also what you expect: When they want you to cry, you cry. The emotional depth in the film is really what surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t have. One big surprise plus is the way they handled Hawkeye. The scene of him losing his family is just ruthless and Renner’s portrayal of a man who’s just hurting people so he doesn’t hurt himself is great.
The thing is, if you’re asking me if I thought this was a “great” movie, I’d have to say that I don’t know. It’s so different than almost any film in history that it’s hard for me to say what metric I would even use. However, I think it’s fair to say that this film provides a spectacle that you can’t find anywhere else. The film aside from the third act is still good, don’t get me wrong, but the third act just has to be seen to be believed. This is the Great Wall. This is the Hoover Dam. This is the Grand Canyon. You can describe it, but you really don’t envision the sheer scale of it without seeing it. So, see it.
SUMMARY (Hero names in quotes because… I don’t know, I felt like it)
Thanos (Josh Brolin) won. Half of the universe is gone. The surviving Avengers, now with Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson) in tow and without Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), decide to try and mount an attack on Thanos’s new home. They quickly overwhelm the Titan, only to find out that he had almost killed himself destroying the infinity stones so that they could never be used to undo what he had done. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) beheads him.
Five years later, the world is still recovering from the snap. Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) is now a vigilante, hunting down criminals and executing them out of anger at losing his family. Tony Stark is now married to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and has a daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe). Thor has founded a New Asgard and has been drinking and wallowing in guilt. Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is serving as an organizer while Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) is acting as a grief counselor. Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark “The Man” Ruffalo) has managed to put his genius brain inside of the body of the Hulk, a form dubbed “Professor Hulk.”
Scott “Ant Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) escapes from the Quantum Realm following the events of Ant Man and the Wasp. Based on the fact that, for him, only five hours have passed, he believes that the Quantum Realm is the key to time travel. Banner, Lang, and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) work on it, but it fails until Tony Stark returns to help. They realize that they can send 3 teams into the past to collect the Infinity Stones while they still existed, travel to the present, and then undo the snap.
Banner, Rogers, Lang, and Stark travel to 2012 to the events of the first Avengers film. Rogers steals Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter containing the Mind Stone by pretending to be a member of Hydra, but Loki steals the Tesseract containing the Space Stone. Bruce Banner meets with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who gives him the Eye of Agamotto containing the Time Stone after telling him that they have to return all of the stones back to their places after they use them or reality will unravel. Stark and Rogers travel back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in 1970 where they steal Pym Particles from a young Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), retrieve an earlier version of the Tesseract being worked on by Howard Stark (John Slattery), Tony’s father, and avoid running into the love of Steve’s life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
Rocket and Thor travel to Asgard in the year 2013 during the events of Thor: The Dark World to retrieve the Aether which contains the Reality Stone from the body of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor speaks with his soon-to-die mother, Frigga (Rene Russo) and regains his confidence when he summons his original Mjolnir to himself, taking it with him back to the present while Rocket retrieves the Reality Stone.
Romanoff, Barton, James “Rhodey the War Machine” Rhodes (Don “I retweeted the Joker” Cheadle), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) travel to 2014, during the events of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Romanoff and Barton go to planet Vormir, where Natasha sacrifices herself to give Clint the Soul Stone guarded by the Red Skull (Ross Marquand). Nebula and Rhodey knock a young Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt) unconscious and take the power stone, however, Nebula is stopped from returning. It turns out that her cyborg consciousness interacts with a cosmic version of the internet which has been discovered by the Thanos of that time. 2014 Thanos discovers that he will win, but that the survivors will all fight to reclaim their lost loved ones. He captures the present Nebula and sends 2014 Nebula back to the future in her place.
After everyone returns to the present, Stark puts all of the gems into a gauntlet and Banner snaps it, injuring himself severely but bringing back all of the people that Thanos killed. At the same time, the Nebula from the past brings Thanos and his entire army through the time portal to reclaim the new Infinity Gauntlet. Thor, Stark, and Rogers battle Thanos, but even with Thor wielding two hammers, and eventually Captain America wielding the original Mjolnir, Thanos still wins the fight. Just as everything seems lost, a reborn Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict “Burmberderb Cabbagepunch” Cumberbatch) returns, opening gateways all around the galaxy, and allowing all of the reborn heroes to join the fight, as well as the armies of Wakanda, Asgard, and the Ravagers from Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos, realizing that he might be at a disadvantage, tells his ship to fire on the battle, but his ship is soon downed by the returning Carol Danvers. Everyone on the battlefield works to get the Infinity Stones into Scott Lang’s van which contains the portal to the Quantum Realm, but eventually Thanos reclaims it, only to find that Stark had stolen the stones and put them on another gauntlet. Stark snaps away all of the bad guys, but dies in the process.
After the funeral, Thor joins the Guardians of the Galaxy and Rogers goes back in time to return the stones, but ends up marrying Peggy Carter and living to old age. As an old man, he bequeaths his shield to Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie).