Shouldn't we have got 1917 in 2017? Instead, you'll remember, we got Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, much-admired and widely seen at the time, but also a film to which absolutely no-one - not even your dad - has returned in the years since: once with that movie was quite enough. It tackles an earlier conflict, obviously, but Sam Mendes' 1917 is otherwise much the same kind of film: it finds an A-list Brit director using a combat narrative (in this case, drawing on Mendes's grandfather Alfred's memories of WWI, written up by the director with the Scottish screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns) as an opportunity to flex his technical and logistical muscles. If there's a key difference, it may be that 1917 simplifies what's gone before. Where Nolan, like a general standing over a tablemap of disputed territory, made WW2 subject to his signature narrative manoeuvring, Mendes remains at ground level and plots a single, straight line. A film shot to appear as one long, unbroken take, 1917 follows two British grunts (garrulous Dean-Charles Chapman and the more reserved George Mackay) as they're dispatched through the trenches and across no-man's-land to deliver a message on which the fate of several battalions - not to mention the Chapman character's older brother - hinges. The Nolan movie was conceived as a triptych, and we were meant to admire the way its panels finally connected up: it was clever, but - like so much else in its maker's back catalogue - a touch chilly. 1917, which sets its sights on being the Run Lola Run of war movies, wants to be immersive and experiential, an urgent 21st century update of All Quiet on the Western Front. It's men on a mission, on a deadline. Ready, set, go.
In almost all other respects, the two movies are brothers-in-arms. In both films, war is essentially reduced to the business of a videogame: these stories could only have been envisioned like this in an era where a proliferation of YouTube channels has normalised watching other people working their way through levels of Call of Duty. If I preferred 1917 to Dunkirk, that's only because it makes a more engaging videogame to watch than the tricksy, glitchy strategy game Nolansoft issued two years back, but watching Chapman and Mackay navigating a walkway in a collapsing bunker or tightrope-walking their way along the handrail of a partially submerged bridge really is indistinguishable from the experience of watching a pal or young relative take a pass at a stretch of Doom or Tomb Raider. Hollywood may finally have found a way to set antiquated global conflicts before middle-schoolers who'd comprehensively turn up their noses at textbooks; you can well imagine history teachers lowering the blinds and putting DVDs of Dunkirk and 1917 on at the start of term to prime their classes in what a World War was actually like on the ground. Yet the be-here-now immediacy these films trade in strikes me as a double-edged sword. For every youngster who'll come away from 1917 horrified (ew, gross, he put his hand through a dead German's decaying chest!), there'll be another - almost certainly a teenage boy, exactly who recruiters will be targeting when it all kicks off again in the Middle East - who'll find it cool and exciting, like a Bourne movie without all that boring national-security talk.
The reason for such a misreading would be that in focusing so exclusively on the present, both Dunkirk and 1917 allow the viewer to lose sight of any context or perspective. These are very much movies of this fraught, hyperaccelerated historical moment, when our aim is to push onwards, try and process a barrage of information before the next news alert breaks, and hopefully emerge intact; they're far less concerned with reflection than action (and reaction). On some level, it's as though Mendes has assembled his thespian crack troop - up ahead of the leads, familiar faces serving as course markers: Messrs. Firth, Scott, Cumberbatch and Strong - to work through the traumas of 2017 and beyond. Pushing combinations of buttons on his directorial joypad, Mendes gets Chapman and Mackay to duck, scurry and lurch as required, but the actors simply don't have the time, amid this most illustrious of Tough Mudders, to do anything more than a light sketch of these characters; the camera running behind or alongside them, meanwhile, barely has chance to capture these avatars' faces, let alone record the scared, plucky, flesh-and-blood individuals they might represent. Great, you might say (as many colleagues have): here's a motion picture in the truest of senses, stripped of all that baggy exposition, gunning hell for leather down the home straight. Yet these seem like strange failings in a film that intends to press upon us the grave consequences of war. I began to long for some form of peace, or at the very least some of those hard-earned pauses for thought directed into the great war movies; instead, Sergeant Mendes keeps blowing his whistle to send Chapman, Mackay and his indefatigable DP Roger Deakins back over the top.
That uncertain perpetual motion will yank you through 1917 as it did me, but the determination to turn the whole film into a setpiece squashes any real or lasting dramatic impact: it all comes at you thick and fast and as weightless as the camera itself, and so it's simply very easy to start shrugging much of it off. (Mendes has to overuse Thomas Newman's swelling strings to underline the pivotal moments.) Hot from last weekend's Golden Globes - where it won surprise Best Picture and Director gongs - it's bound to win more awards in the weeks ahead: its momentum is such that no-one's going to stop it galumphing all the way up the red carpet, and its achievements are very easily measured. (It does succeed in looking like a single, unbroken take, and that will be enough to wow the Academy voters who haven't seen Rope, Russian Ark or Victoria, which I'm willing to guess is quite the number.) Yet these will be awards for sporting excellence rather than creative endeavour - like hanging a medal around the neck of an endurance athlete who's just completed the 3,000-metre steeplechase on an especially uneven track. An anti-war statement drowned out amid the bombast of a blockbuster, 1917 is more likely to move you physically - it jolts you, shakes you up - than emotionally, and as with Dunkirk, that's because it covers a lot of ground without ever seeming to gain much in the way of the harsh, instructive life experience that was central to the war movies of old. As anybody who's reported for duty at the multiplex week in week out these past few years might tell you, the cinema may just be fighting a losing battle on that particular front.
1917 opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.