“Skyfall” director Sam Mendes’ 2019 war drama “1917” is a sensory wonder, but the film’s absence of well-written characters and its failure to deliver an absorbing narrative leave the film empty of entertainment value.
Starring George MacKay (“Captain Fantastic,” “How I Live Now”) and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones,” “The King”) as Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake respectively, the film takes place in France during the peak of World War I. German troops have seemingly retreated from their trenches, and the 2nd Battalion of the British Army’s Devonshire Regiment is preparing to respond with an aggressive attack.
Elsewhere, Schofield and Blake are given orders to get to the 2nd Battalion and call the attack off. Aerial maps suggest that the Germans planned the retreat as an ambush, and the 2nd Battalion’s 1,600 men — including Blake’s older brother — will be slaughtered if they walk into the German trap. The duo set out immediately, knowing that thousands of lives are in their hands.
“1917,” which released on a limited basis on Christmas before opening wide Jan. 10, runs into narrative problems almost immediately. No sense of distance or direction is established for the heros’ journey, and their dynamic throughout is tiresome. As the mission brings German troops, fallen bridges and tripwires, Blake and Schofield run, scream and deliver the kind of insipid pre-war reflection dialogue found in the weaker “Call of Duty” video games from the mid-2010s.
MacKay and Chapman give it their all, but their corny dialogue has a rotting effect on even the film’s most riveting sequences. It’s hard to take Chapman’s scowling and screaming during action seriously when his character acts exactly how Paddington Bear would if deployed.
There’s nothing surprising or endearing about these characters, nothing unique in their conversations. It’s notable that Mendes and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) repeatedly rely on familial ties to solicit emotion, considering the film is partly based on stories told to Mendes by his WWI veteran grandfather.
Multitudes of innocent people and soldiers die constantly during wars, but Mendes seems to think audiences won’t find this sad unless they’re informed that the dead had relatives back home who miss them.
Despite these flaws, the film’s commitment to visual excellence does shine through, particularly in one nighttime scene lit entirely by gun and missile fire, as well as in a daytime dogfight in the French plains.
Ultimately, “1917” is a visual marvel with a number of scenes sure to rank among the best in war films, but the film’s incompetence elsewhere keeps it from being a satisfying experience.
“1917,” rated R, is playing in theaters nationwide.