The Best Picture Oscar-nominated 1917 gets straight to its point: During WWI, the Germans have set a trap for a British battalion, and two men must deliver a message calling off the attack before it’s too late. There’s no reason not to mirror the film’s directness in this review: Watching 1917 is like watching a video game saturated in style and with enough story to pull it all together.
1917 looks like a video game, and that’s not an insult. But it’s not exactly a compliment either. The movie is made to look as though it was filmed in one shot. This effect definitely adds to the chaos of the environment. The film doesn’t give the characters or the audience a break; it’s nonstop action on a timer. The camera’s constant movement dictates the story. During behind-the-shoulder shots of men walking through trenches, the camera pans side-to-side as if the viewer is moving a joystick to explore their surroundings. Some of the walk-and-talk dialogue is more for general world-building than an essential part of the story. Some of the shots are incredible. At certain points, the camera is in the sky looking down on everything. At others, it is up close and personal. Not having the assistance of cutting to a different angle makes watching 1917 quite literally dizzying.
The few times the film does force the characters to stop, the camera falls back into its typical observing role. These slower moments contain most of the film's character development. While some of these moments land emotionally, others feel like a shallow attempt to heighten the stakes. The issue with a two-hour film that “doesn’t stop”? The obstacles start feeling not like pieces of the larger story but more like random obstacles instead. A lot of 1917’s runtime involves the characters having to cross rivers, push through trenches, or avoid enemy shots. The characters don’t have to make many choices, and this makes them less developed and complete than they could have been.
Sam Mendes, the director of 1917, has said that the “one shot” technique is meant to place the audience into the perspective of the characters. But the elaborate camera work ‒ although extremely impressive from a technical perspective ‒ makes the movie feel less authentic than modern critical success Dunkirk or classics such as Saving Private Ryan. Many of the shots are gorgeous, but unrealistically so. Hiding the presence of the camera through traditional movie editing actually might have made this film more intense. Still, the “one-shot” film was an impressive feat worthy of admiration. It makes the behind the scenes footage is a must see.
1917 is an incredible film in many ways, but it’s not an experience that everyone will connect to. It deserves a viewing from any film nerd as it is likely to go down as an influential and important film. It’s like a super classy video game that has fun gameplay, fun obstacles, and the characters aren’t bad! Although 1917 has its flaws, it always pushes forward and never slows enough to be dull.