Dunkirk was shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, with whom Christopher Nolan first worked on Interstellar. As noted in the introduction, the movie was shot on film with a combination of IMAX 65 and Panavision 65 cameras, yielding a large-format negative, which has been scanned at 4K for this 2160p, HEVC/H.265-encoded UHD. Color correction and HDR grading were performed under Nolan's supervision, and the master went through numerous passes before he was satisfied with the image.
Dunkirk was released to theaters in multiple aspect ratios, including 2.39:1 for standard 35mm projection, 2.20:1 for 70mm exhibition and both 1.43:1 and 1.90:1 for IMAX venues. For the film's Blu-ray and UHD renditions, the director has chosen a shifting aspect ratio in which scenes filmed in IMAX appear at 1.78:1, while scenes filmed in Panavision 65 are framed at 2:20:1. Nolan has previously applied shifting aspect ratios to other films, including Dark Knight Trilogy, and the practice remains controversial. Some viewers find it unacceptably distracting, while others barely notice it. I fall somewhere in the middle, but the shifting aspect ratio has played no part in the disc's video or 4K scores.
Dunkirk's UHD image is stunningly vivid and refined, with a level of fine detail rarely seen on a home video display. Wherever one looks, the tiniest minutia are vivid and immediate, whether it's the fibers and strands in nautical ropes, the rivets of a Spitfire fusillage as it chases and evades German fighters or the understated patterns in the sweater vest worn by young George, as he tries to do his bit aboard the Moonstone. The large groups of soldiers on the beach remain distinct and separate even in the longest shots, and the effect of seeing all those individual helmets when the entire beach has to duck and cover against aerial attack is breathtaking. Dunkirk isn't a particularly colorful film, but the disc's HDR encoding has subtly differentiated its many shadings of blue and brown to provide a superior rendition of the chilly waters of the Channel, the sands of the beach, the brown bomber jackets of the Spitfire pilots, the worn khaki of the soldiers' uniforms and the civilian wardrobe of the Moonstone's crew. The dark blue of Kenneth Branagh's naval overcoat stands out against the pier on which his commander is standing, contemplating disaster. Every color and highlight in Dunkirk's frame appears to have been carefully tweaked for maximum impact.
Leaving aside my concerns about the film itself, the UHD of Dunkirk immediately leaps to the top of Warner's growing list of 4K presentations that fully deliver on the promise of the latest home video format. I don't know whether it will prove to be the 4K "killer app" for which the studio is hoping, but it certainly belongs in every UHD enthusiast's collection.
In addition to the shifting aspect ratio controversy discussed in "Video", Dunkirk's UHD and Blu-ray presentations have also attracted comment for their omission of a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. I have been advised by reliable sources that the decision to present the film's soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 was made by Christopher Nolan and reflects the director's choice of how he wants the film to be heard in the home theater. Rather than wade into this debate, I will simply report that the soundtrack is exceptionally detailed and powerful. Both the power and the detail are instantly in evidence as Dunkirk opens on a French village street, with the sounds of German propaganda leaflets gently swirling down from above and landing on the pavement. These modest effects are suddenly overwhelmed by thunderous rifle and machine gun fire, as the soldiers in the frame hightail it toward a French-manned barricade. Dunkirk's soundtrack offers a continual alternation of quiet and thunderous effects, but the soundtrack is also continuously loud and punishing, because Hans Zimmer's atonal score quickly takes over, weaving its mournful and foreboding strains so thoroughly into the mix, especially at the low end, that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the effects and the score. The bass extension of the music is often lower than the roar of armament or the hum of plane engines, subjecting the viewer to a continuous barrage that is presumably meant to induce a state of fear and anxiety, accentuated by the ticking of a disembodied clock. The elaborate sound design of individual set pieces like aerial fights and a particularly inventive sequence inside a beached trawler are rendered with precision. Regardless of any format considerations, this is a reference soundtrack that will challenge even the most capable systems.
4K Bluray details
Codec: HEVC / H.265
Resolution: Native 4K (2160p)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1, 2.20:1
Original aspect ratio: 2.20:1
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French (Canada): Dolby Digital 5.1
German: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps)
English SDH, French, German SDH, Portuguese, Spanish
4K Ultra HD
Three-disc set (1 BD-66, 1 BD-25, 1 BD-50)
Digital copy expired
Slipcover in original pressing