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Movie Review

Movie Review: '1917' Turns War Into Distasteful Entertainment

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My colleague Sam McConnell spoke a little while back about how there haven’t been any good movies based on video games. And while most of this is due to actual poor quality, I wonder if some of it isn’t a branding or framing problem. Because if you didn’t know better, the newly minted 10-time Oscar nominee 1917 could easily be mistaken for such a movie. 

And if it were titled, I don’t know, Call of Duty: 1917, I think it would still be respected, but I’m curious if it would be quite the awards bait it is.

The film is the latest to try the “entire movie looks like it’s one continuous take” maneuver, and in a technical sense, it’s a success. Aside from a couple of obvious spots, it really does look like there are no cuts, and there’s a LOT happening—I can’t imagine how much work went into this. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is jaw-dropping as we follow two British World War I soldiers taking a message across no man’s land in an attempt to save a few thousand lives. I’m in awe of a couple of sequences, the degree of difficulty in shooting this must have been extreme, and I think the movie’s worth seeing just for this.

As for the rest? Certainly it’s got enough blood, and guts, and burned and bloated bodies to be able to check the box that indicates war is, indeed, hell. But this is not the same as actually taking that truth seriously. 1917 is so dedicated to its central conceit that it really is like watching someone play a video game, complete with exposition-dump cut scenes featuring recognizable faces. And rather than heighten our emotional connection to what’s happening, it removes us from it, and eventually becomes tedious. Worse, instead of making us feel the real horror of war, it turns it into spectacle—the movie doesn’t rejoice in death and destruction, it is disturbing, but it does make it entertainment, which I find distasteful at the least, and maybe even a bit reprehensible.