“I have seen the future of the cinema, and it is not digital. No matter what you've read, the movie theater of the future will not use digital video projectors, and it will not beam the signal down from satellites. It will use film, and the film will be right there in the theater with you.” - Roger Ebert, 1999
When filmmaking giants like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson are shooting their movies on 70mm film, they do it out of a quest of spectacle that only cinema can bring. 70mm came about in the mid-50s during Hollywood’s first major battle against what will always be its biggest rival—television. While families were huddling around their new TV sets, the movies tried to compensate with size. Promises of giant screens, with names like CinemaScope, VistaVision and Panavision advertised an experience that you simply couldn’t experience at home. (This is also the first period where Hollywood—with marginal success—tried to market films in 3D.) This era brought us The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and Lawrence of Arabia, amongst others. These were films that were meant to show that the personability of television’s family-friendly programming could not compete with the sheer epicness of cinema’s widescreen images, and changed the way films were shot and showcased going forward.
Nearly seventy years later, we are still having the same arguments regarding film versus television, and with this century’s much-heralded Television Renaissance, Hollywood finds itself back on its heels and offering audiences a multitude of options that can’t be found at home. Every major Summer release seems to have a 3D option, often a 3D IMAX option, and for $30.70 you can get the 4DX RealD 3D Experience that provides you with sights, feelings, and smells that put you directly into the film’s universe. Presumably somebody sprays you with a water bottle and farts in your face while you watch Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the third film in the last five years to come out in the 70mm format (when Paul Thomas Anderson released The Master in that format in 2012, he had been the first to do so since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996), and much like The Weinstein Company did with The Hateful Eight in 2015, Warner Bros has chosen to use the format as a marketing tool. 70mm screenings are being promoted on enormous posters at most local multiplexes, hinting at a profitability that coincides with the culture’s general return to analog—have you noticed the music industry’s recent boom in vinyl record sales?
Of course, 70mm and vinyl records are not apples-to-apples comparisons, and I’m dubious of 70mm’s reemergence and its staying power. Its mightiest supporters are filmmakers who would have made their films on film anyway (albeit the standard 35mm), and we still don’t see a huge emergence of young directors embracing the cumbersome process that shooting on 70mm requires, but 70mm promises a bigger, crisper image. More than anything, it promises this while still providing the cinematic purity of shadows and light, of film strips running through a projector, of the living, breathing actuality of film. It’s been over a decade since movie theaters unilaterally got rid of their film projectors, but 70mm brings it back with a vengeance, showcasing the awesomeness of movies without an IMAX screen or 3D glasses.
Christopher Nolan is one of today’s greatest commercial Hollywood directors. His broad tastes may get cinephiles to snide at his status as an auteur, but his films are usually testaments to the power that mainstream cinema can provide. Dunkirk is his least narratively ambitious film—gone are the byzantine plot constructions of Inception and Interstellar—but that is supplanted with a pointed precision in both shooting and editing. His film is a procedural on survival, and the many ways the men on the beach at Dunkirk go about achieving it. There’s not too much dialogue in the film, and what little there is is all economical—they speak only when it appears necessary for the film to have them speak. Nolan prefers to tell us this story with his camera. With cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan uses the vast space of 70mm to fill the screen with all the plot details that it needs.
Nolan, Anderson, and Tarantino see 70mm as more than a novelty, but an example of what the movies used to be, and still can be. Those guys are purists, and much like Roger Ebert at the end of the ‘90s, they may be naive about how movies will use film in the future. If Disney decides to shoot a Star Wars in 70mm then I might believe that film is having a vinyl-like recovery, but I don’t see that happening down the road. The Master was a box office failure, and despite a wide-ranging advertising campaign, The Hateful Eight’s commercial success was marginal, so it may be up to Dunkirk to show how feasible 70mm can be for the studios going forward. That said, we’ll always have the auteurs that know the history of film and its role in creating the industry. 70mm is a novelty, but it’s the one novelty Hollywood can provide that does not pervert the dialectic of cinema as art.
Great films look spectacular in any format, but in an era when studios will do whatever it takes to get you to leave your house and come into the theater, why not splurge on something that pays homage to the very best that the movies have to offer?