Dunkirk: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire, and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
Atomic Blonde: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.
Recently released films Dunkirk and Atomic Blonde took the basic notion of sound and used it to tell a greater story, but one was more effective than the other. The use of music and sound mixing play a role in most films, but there are certain films that take it to the next level and use it as one of the most contributing factors to the audiences’ viewing experience. This can be seen in films such as Guardians of the Galaxy where the soundtrack becomes an extension of the protagonist’s personality. If done right, the audience will walk away with an experience that cannot be mirrored by any other aspect of film-making. On the flip side, if you miss the mark, the experience becomes cheapened and awkward.
Instead of telling the story of Dunkirk through the actions and dialogue of the characters, the plot is told through sounds and jump cuts. Christopher Nolan is known for minimal, muffled dialogue that infuriates viewers like me who just want to know what they’re saying (see Inception), but he does this so that the dialogue isn’t the main contributing factor to the story. Instead, he uses aggressively loud and intimidating sounds coupled with jump cuts to draw the audience in to the story. The ear-shattering sound of bullets whirling past the fighter jets and the erupting rumbles of bombers coupled with sporadic cuts create a sense of urgency and terror that allows the audience to feel as if we too are in danger. There’s a reason why the theater was so loud, and no, it wasn’t a mistake made by the operators. It’s because you’ve heard these sounds before, but Christopher Nolan wanted you to actually feel them. How many times did the movie make you jump? How many moments did you feel the rumble of a plane, even though your seat remained still? The sounds within this film were too real to question and too emotionally jarring to dismiss.
While the sounds frightened the audience, the jump cuts, which may have seemed unnecessary at the time, were what kept everyone on the edge of their seat. There was an especially jarring scene when the men thought they were safe below deck, when suddenly all sound muffled and there was a jump cut to the flash flood that burst through the ships walls. This cut occurred at the exact moment a giant crack of water sounded out throughout the theater. Even though this wasn’t an explosion or enemy fire, I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience jumped. Christopher Nolan knows how to elicit sound and cinematography that makes dialogue take a backseat, and Dunkirk was the perfect example of this. The main critique I have is that he needs to be careful of overuse. It got to a point where the constant piercing sounds and rapid camera work became too overwhelming. Those moments of dialogue that Nolan downplays so much are supposed to allow the audience to come up for air, so without them my senses where heightened for way too long, thus taking the entertainment factor out of the viewing. The senses should only be stimulated to a point where it’s bearable. Anything beyond that and you lose the audience, because it’s no longer an entertaining film.
While Dunkirk replaced dialogue with sound, Atomic Blonde attempted to use music to create not just plot points, but a cult feeling. I once went to a screening of a documentary about the skateboarding culture in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin wall. It had a funky, underground vibe that Atomic Blonde seemed to try to muster as well. Unfortunately for Atomic Blonde, what should have been a great coupling of graphic novel style and the style of 1989 Berlin fell completely short because of the way the music was used. Now, I’m not saying it was a complete failure of a film. The action sequences were awesome and the acting was on point. Unfortunately, the use of music just made it feel like they were trying way too hard to be niche with very little success. During a scene when a Soviet spy beats up possible witnesses in order to get information out of them, an upbeat German 80’s anthem rings through. Normally, I love it when the music turns a fight scene into something playful, because it creates an interesting juxtaposition, sometimes referred to as soundtrack dissonance, but this felt more forced. The song faded in and out at the wrong moments and wasn’t coupled with the correct close-up shots, but instead mostly kept to medium shots. If you’re going to have an ‘artsy’ action moment, it needs to be mirrored by ‘artsy’ camera shots. This was not. For reference, the new Kingsman 2 trailer nails it. Unfortunately, the audience could easily see that this soundtrack dissonance throughout Atomic Blonde was used for a style that should have supplemented the storyline, but didn’t because it had awkward timing and awkward camera work to couple it. Even at the end, when Charlize Theron’s character is beating up a room full of hefty Russian spies in a hotel room while the classic German anti-war protest song 99 Balloons played, it still didn’t quite feel right. I wanted it to be an amazing moment. It should have been an amazing moment, but it felt cheapened because it didn’t feel organic, which was an unfortunate theme throughout the film.
In Dunkirk, Nolan gets away with muffled dialogue and unclear character plots because it was a well-known battle and when you hear the sound of a bullet, there isn’t a lot of interpretation necessary. For Atomic Blonde, though the fight scenes were cool and I loved the soundtrack and acting, the plot of this little-known graphic novel was blurred, and the music, while it helped create some ambiance, didn’t provide a stronger understanding of the story. Therefore, Dunkirk used its sound successfully, while the music of Atomic Blonde did little to add to the plot and ended up cheapening the film.