Christopher Nolan has never shied away from bold decisions, creating unique cinematic effects like Inception‘s mind-bending hallway scene, casting oddball actors like Heath Ledger as The Joker, and telling stories in mostly non-linear and splintered fashions. In the past, his creative instincts have led him to great success both critically and financially. Now, he’s making another bold move, and no it’s not casting One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles (though, that is head scratching), it’s creating a PG-13 war movie.
Most war movies before the late 1960s have been given either a G or PG rating and the tone of many of those films instilled a sense of pride, honor, and glory of war. However, after the end of the Vietnam War, filmmakers embraced the anti-war film. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon revealed the ugliness, the brutality, and the inhumanity of war. Violence, gore, sex, and explicit language were the main vehicles to showcase that, resulting in the R rating, and setting a heavy standard for future war films.
Considered one of the greatest war films of all time, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan approached war with an anti-war fist, showing audiences the horrific brutality, but juxtaposing it with an honoring nod to the brave men that fought during World War II. The level of realistic violence easily gave it an R rating and lifted the bar even higher for war movies to come.
Within the last three decades, few war movies with a PG-13 rating have gone on to claim critical acclaim, financial success or a very long shelf life. Pearl Harbor (which is technically a romance), Red Tails, and Flyboys all have a PG-13 rating and all have been panned by critics. While War Horse was generally loved by critics, it didn’t achieve financial success or a very long shelf life (Have you ever heard anyone claim this to be their favorite war movie?). Violence does not make a great war movie, but audiences expect war movies to be violent and to represent what war actually looks like rather than candy coating it. So, why did Christopher Nolan decide to defy expectations and make a PG-13 war movie?
Don’t think for a second this wasn’t a conscious decision on his part. He wrote and directed Dunkirk. Prior to making any film the creator always aims for a certain rating and this is especially based upon genre. Deadpool is a prime example, defying audience expectations by consciously making an R-rated superhero movie rather than PG-13.
If you look at his film history, Nolan’s only R-rated movie is Memento. Afterward, he’s been a master at the PG-13 rating, crafting suspenseful and violent action while not taking it too far, and inviting more people to enjoy his stories. However, the genres of all his prior movies fit well there. The war genre doesn’t.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned by this bold move. Past movies have convinced audiences that war has weight, consequences, and high stakes, and by watering those stakes down, Nolan seriously risks alienating his audience and turning them off to his story. However, time and again, Nolan has defied expectations, setting new standards in storytelling, effects, and genre.
Perhaps he’ll do it again with Dunkirk.
Dunkirk releases in theaters on July 21st, 2017.
Photos courtesy of: Warner Bros. Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures.