Review: One-shot WWI epic '1917' is a crazy-impressive technical masterpiece

(center) George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," co-written and directed by Sam Mendes.

(center) George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," co-written and directed by Sam Mendes. François Duhamel/Universal

It’s inevitable that a big-budget feature presented as a continuous shot will make headlines off its technical maneuvers alone. We moviegoers love a good party trick.

But 1917 isn’t just some cheap gimmick. Like Birdman before it, this World War I quest uses the psuedo-one-shot method to create an immersive and memorable adventure.

It’s a basic enough story: The German army has faked its retreat to lure a British battalion into an ambush. Some higher-ups get wise thanks to aerial photography, but because the Germans destroyed everything getting out of dodge, there’s no way to phone up the battalion. If the Brits don’t warn them, 1,600 men will be slaughtered, so General Erinmore (Colin Firth) dispatches soldiers Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) to deliver the message by foot.

Though the narrative isn’t bad, it admittedly borders on simplistic. 1917 won’t dazzle you with intrigue or leave you pondering the human condition—at least not any more than your average war movie. But a film’s success isn’t always predicated on the story’s complexity. 1917 proves there can be other takeaways.

What director Sam Mendes shoots for is a visceral exercise, a tinkering with the medium’s possibilities to create something more akin to a ride than an action-packed blockbuster. The lack of discernible cuts paired with the brutality of the Great War makes for a frantic, unrelenting experience. It’s an exhausting movie (in a good way). The only thing that could have made it more intense would be seeing it in, say, the old Mystery Mine Ride theater with the moving chairs (Camp Snoopy represent!). In lieu of that option, an IMAX screening is a must.

Of course, an undertaking this difficult requires a ton of planning and one hell of a cinematographer, which means Roger Deakins is the dude. While Birdman is undoubtedly a better movie overall, Deakins and company really up the one-shot ante here. The wartime backdrop supplements the technique’s inherent energy, and the fact that most of the movie takes place outside, in broad daylight, without easy places to hide edits, makes what Deakins does in 1917 a crazy-impressive feat.

What’s more, the blocking limitations imposed by a one-shot production meant the crew had to get extra crafty to create beautiful shots. It’d be one thing to figure out some safe and steady positions, but that would be boring. Instead, the camera is always circling, moving through trenches, inside buildings, down a river, you name it. The camerawork can call attention to itself at times—like when it moves out a second-story window and down to ground level—but it’s so spectacular that it doesn’t matter. Mendes and Deakins unapologetically swing for the fences.

At 1917’s close, Schofield sprints along a trench as bodies and earth explode around him. Given the added weight of the preceding two-hour journey, it becomes a standout shot in film history and phenomenal capstone to the movie. 1917 is probably the closest thing to real war we’ll ever get at the movies.

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now showing