Hollywood famously has a curse involving “video game movies.” The history of the genre (if indeed you can call it a genre) is filled with misfires, and pundits wonder with each new adaptation whether a film can beat the odds. “Could ________ be the first good video game movie?” Fill in the blank with Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, World of Warcraft, and on and on. For whatever reason, it has proven exceptionally difficult to capture the essence of a great video game and stick it on film. One movie in 2019 managed to do it though, despite not being based on a video game at all. That movie is the Sam Mendes World War I epic 1917.
1917 is a movie that quite effectively translates the video game experience to cinema— one that is emotional, personal and, above all, immersive. That immersion comes into play in 1917’s impressive visual style from cinematographer Roger Deakins; the entire thing film takes place in a single “shot,” following the mission of two soldiers sent behind enemy lines (quotations around “shot” because it’s actually a series of digital tricks pulling off the effect). This element of the movie is more than just a technically impressive gimmick. It brings the viewer into the story in a way that is not-at-all common in movies but feels much more akin to something like, say, the Call of Duty franchise. Pair that with a number of absolutely stunning shots depicting both the grandeur of the French countryside and the horrors of war, and you come away with a film experience that is incredibly visually rewarding.
All of the technical aspects of the film are absolutely on point— the editing, the production design, the score, the complex staging— but 1917 also works because its creativity doesn’t stop at the technical level. Lance Corporal Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman, who seems all grown up to those of us who know him as Tommen from Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent deep into enemy territory on what is essentially a suicide mission to save hundreds of British soldiers, and this story, though it feels almost too simple at times, is powerful enough to carry the film for two hours. It stumbles here and there, mainly due to some timing that is far more convenient than it is believable, but overall it remains enthralling. It manages to include a handful of beautifully tender moments as well, including one especially memorable scene involving a civilian woman whom Schofield encounters when taking shelter in a war-torn French town.
In fact, this movie wouldn’t work half so well if it weren’t so emotionally moving throughout. That emotion, along with a handful of other directorial flourishes, really make this feel like a Sam Mendes film. There’s a scene that takes place in a small orchard and the white petals of the cherry trees become a topic of conversation for the two soldiers as well as a repeated visual motif. I couldn’t help but think back to the similar motif of bright red rose petals in Mendes’ earlier film American Beauty, though he thankfully employs a lot more restraint here, only breaking out the symbol a couple of times. Another nice visual touch is a repeated image of one soldier lifting another when they are unable to get up themselves; it doesn’t feel fully developed, but the theme of teamwork comes in at several moments and it’s not dialogue but action carrying this idea along.
This is also a movie that isn’t very narratively surprising as it builds to its end yet still manages to be incredibly affecting when we get there. There’s a particular running-along-the-battlefield shot near the end that ultimately serves as the climax of the entire film. Even though I had seen the shot several times in the film’s trailers, it still managed to combine visual mastery with emotional weight, making for a very satisfying movie moment in what is an exceptionally well-made film. When I first heard 1917’s description several months ago, I fully expected a somewhat dull, awards-bait war picture that might not contain a whole lot of artistic merit, and rolled my eyes at it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.