1917 Review: Technically a Masterpiece

author img
BY January 10, 2020

Whenever I talk about World War I, I usually refer to it as a “meat grinder.” While not as deadly as its sequel, WWI still killed at least 17 million men (not to mention civilians). Because they had better artillery, but not so great transportation yet, WWI soldiers largely relied on trench warfare. Essentially, they dug massive holes in the ground. Then they often turned them into graves. This is the world in which we find our main characters in 1917, a film which has received acclaim even before its wide release. Did it deserve it, though? Let’s talk about it in our review of 1917.

A Riot on the Western Front

1917 Review image via Universal Pictures

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know the story. In the thick of WWI, a British general, Erinmore (Colin Firth), chooses Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to deliver a message to another battalion. The message? They’re walking into a trap. A purported German retreat is actually a purposeful gathering. The Brits are heading out of the trenches, expecting to catch a small contingent of Germans while they’re on the run. Instead, they’re walking straight into a German meat grinder.

The top brass wants Blake for the job, because his brother Joe is a lieutenant with the battalion in question. (So presumably, Blake is highly motivated to get there on time.) They give Blake leeway to select someone else to accompany him, and he chooses William Schofield (George MacKay). Then it’s a race to reach the other men in time. Fail, and 1600 men die.

1917 Is Getting a Lot of Attention

1917 Review image via Universal Pictures

Just this week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded 1917 Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes. This probably came as a surprise to many folks, since the movie wasn’t even playing nationwide yet. But once you hear the hook–that the movie is written and filmed like it’s all one shot–then you understand the hype.

And in review, 1917 generally works well. From the start, the movie feels claustrophobic and chaotic, much like trench warfare in WWI. In addition, legendary cinematographer/thirst trap Roger Deakins hits it out of the park as usual. Although seemingly constrained (by the one-shot format), Deakins instead finds surprising ways to follow the characters. His camera follows Blake and Schofield through a rabbit warren of trenches, but it also separates from them, inching around corners like an enemy soldier to catch them off guard.

Above all else, this film is a technical achievement. Along with the camera work, the set pieces are ambitious and impressive. We feel like we’re right there with them, in the muck and the horror, surrounded by the stench of death. This feeling is only aided by MacKay, whose highly expressive face communicates multiple emotions at once. Schofield is a veteran of the brutal Battle of the Somme, so he knows how bad war can get. And that it can always get worse.

1917 in Review: The Weakest Points

1917 review image via Universal Pictures

MacKay’s expressiveness is a very good thing, by the way, because he doesn’t have a wealth of dialogue with which to communicate. That in itself is not necessarily a drawback. However, it is a symptom of the movie’s biggest issue: the story is awfully slight. In telling, it might remind you more than a little of Saving Private Ryan, also a technically impressive war film about a group of soldiers desperate to find another group. In practice, though, it’s markedly different. Throughout Ryan, for instance, we got to know those soldiers and we understood them to an extent. Personal information in 1917 is parceled out sparingly, though–so sparingly, that some of the emotional beats just don’t hit as hard as they could.

And the pace doesn’t help. The first half of the movie is paced well, but in the second half, it plays like one of those beat-the-clock action movies. Along with the intimate camera work, it can be exhausting. If we had more of an emotional tie to the goings-on on screen, then it wouldn’t be as noticeable. But it is, and it’s exactly the thing we shouldn’t be noticing. We should be drawn into the personal story–director Sam Mendes loosely based the movie on his grandfather Alfred’s wartime experiences–but instead, we’re watching all the smoke and mirrors. It’s sound and fury that could signify so much more.

featured image via Universal Pictures


Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

Leave a comment


MoviesPop Culture
Superhero Movies Aren’t Ruining Cinema, They Are Saving It

In my response to Martin Scorsese’s comments that Marvel Movies aren’t cinema, I focused too much on Scorsese’s own oeuvre. Or, as one Twitter user with Strong Opinions™ put it: I spent more time putting down Scorsese (not my intention) and not enough defending Superhero movies as cinema. In the aftermath of his initial comments, […]

BY Joshua M. Patton October 18, 2019
Jumanji: The Next Level – Box Office Success, But Is It Better Than the Last One?

A popular trend in reviews of Jumanji: The Next Level is giving props to the original reboot. When Welcome to the Jungle released in 2017, fans and critics were skeptical. On the one hand, the original cult favorite starred Robin Williams, who had only passed away a few years before the reboot. Nevertheless, a film starring […]

BY Taylor Bauer December 14, 2019
Zombieland: Double Tap Review: A Movie We Didn’t Need, But Are Happy To Have

When a great movie is released, it doesn’t take long for people to start whispering desires about a sequel. So, when Zombieland released in 2009, people assumed that a sequel may follow closely afterward. Well, after years of no news, fans gave up hope. To the surprise of plenty, the sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap was announced back in July […]

BY Meghan Hale October 19, 2019
Left 4 Dead 3 Rumors Ended in Valve Statement

It’s funny to think about the state of gaming rumors today. On the one hand, it’s wonderful having so many people looking into the latest news in gaming. Of course, this is going to come with a number of false rumors and unfounded speculations. Here at Comic Years, we try very hard to not report […]

BY Taylor Bauer January 18, 2020
The Witcher Voice Actor Joins Efforts of Gaming Mental Health Charity

There are a lot of perks to working in Hollywood, or at least the entertainment industry as a whole. In our society, wealth and fame are sort of like a superpower. If you have this power, then you can choose to use your powers for good, or keep them to yourself. In a world brimming […]

BY Taylor Bauer January 16, 2020
Bioshock Collection for Nintendo Switch is Likely Coming Soon

In what seems like a no-brainer, 2K is set to publish a fresh port of the Bioshock Collection for Nintendo Switch. The Bioshock series is one of the most popular franchises of the past 15 years. The games are timeless, heavy on narrative, and a ton of fun. I think I’ve purchased these games on […]

BY Taylor Bauer January 16, 2020
Final Fantasy VII Being Delayed One More Month

If there’s one thing gamers respond well to, it’s a meaningful delay. No sarcasm here at all: if a game gets delayed to make the game better, fans are cool with it. Last year, Doom Eternal got delayed months. Likewise, Nintendo regularly keeps an open dialogue with fans about the status of their games. Almost every […]

BY Taylor Bauer January 14, 2020


Oscar Isaac To Produce And Star In ‘The Great Machine’ An Adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina

An adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘Ex Machina’ series of graphic novels is in the works. The film will star Oscar Isaac, who will also produce the film. The title of the film will be The Great Machine. Legendary opted to change the title in order to avoid mixing it up with the sci-fi film Ex Machina […]

BY Emily O'Donnell January 18, 2020
Left 4 Dead 3 Rumors Ended in Valve Statement

It’s funny to think about the state of gaming rumors today. On the one hand, it’s wonderful having so many people looking into the latest news in gaming. Of course, this is going to come with a number of false rumors and unfounded speculations. Here at Comic Years, we try very hard to not report […]

BY Taylor Bauer January 18, 2020
Christopher Tolkien: Master of Middle-Earth

JRR Tolkien is often credited as the father of modern fantasy…because he is. There’s not a single fantasy book today that owes something The Lord of the Rings. Even the fantasy books that are “anti-Lord of the Rings” still can’t exist without what the former. Yet as much as JRR Tolkien’s stories changed the face […]

BY Roman Colombo January 18, 2020
Joe Manganiello Schools Patients in Dungeons and Dragons at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital

He’s been a sexy werewolf, a sexy dancer, and (arguably) a sexy Deathstroke in Justice League. Yet, Joe Manganiello is also a big-time fan of tabletop role-playing games, as well as a board member for hospital for children in his hometown. Last year, Joe Manganiello donated a bunch of Dungeons and Dragons starter kits to […]

BY Joshua M. Patton January 18, 2020