Why 'Dunkirk' Is Under Two Hours

Once, movie run times that stretched more than two hours were only reserved for Biblical epics or adaptations of Russian novels — and occasionally, a musical starring Julie Andrews. But those were anomalies, and even featured short intermissions for audiences to take a break at the theater or change the VHS tape. But nowadays, blockbuster run times are becoming so bloated that audiences barely blink an eye when a Transformers movie is over three hours long.

Some of the blame can be laid on Christopher Nolan, whose epic Dark Knight films were on the vanguard of increasingly dense superhero and action films. For Nolan's films, they made sense — his intellectual blockbusters required plenty of information and plot twists. But now Nolan returns to the movie scene packed with franchise films that have an average run time of more than two hours with one of his shortest films yet.

Dunkirk clocks in at a mere 107 minutes, which is 1 hour and 47 minutes long. That makes Dunkirk Nolan's shortest film since his 1998 directorial debut Following — which was really more of a short film at barely more than an hour long — and a huge 180 from his last film, 2014's Interstellar, which ran a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes.

But Dunkirk's short run time isn't just a reaction to the bloated blockbusters crowding the theaters. Nolan explained in an interview with Fox 5 DC that Dunkirk had to be as short as it is to uniquely portray his visceral vision of war.

"I wanted it to be as intense an experience as possible, and therefore as lean and stripped down and short an experience as possible. You can only sustain the degree of suspense and tension of the war from the film for so long before you exhaust the audience. People who were hearing that I was doing a film about Dunkirk, particularly British people who know the story already, were thinking big historical epic that was a three-hour film with a lot of talk and all that. What I did was I wrote a script for the film that was only 76 pages — really half the length of a screenplay. Because I didn't want to tell a story in words. I didn't want the theatrics of people telling the audience why you should care about them, I wanted them to care just because of the physical situation that they were under."

Nolan has consistently claimed that he wants Dunkirk to be an "experience" rather than just a film, emphasizing the movie's use of IMAX technology to show the horrors of war.

A photo of the IMAX reels of InterstellarThe Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk shows a stark difference in the sizes of the reels between Dunkirk and the other Nolan films. Dunkirk is nearly three-quarters the size of the other films.

Here is a breakdown of the run times of Nolan's movies for comparison:

  • Following – 70 minutes
  • Memento – 113 minutes
  • Insomnia – 118 minutes
  • Batman Begins – 140 minutes
  • The Prestige – 130 minutes
  • The Dark Knight – 152 minutes
  • Inception – 148 minutes
  • The Dark Knight Rises – 164 minutes
  • Interstellar – 169 minutes
  • Dunkirk – 107 minutes
  • I am beyond grateful that we'll be getting a blockbuster film that will be less than two hours long. Even films that I've enjoyed this year like Wonder Woman and War for the Planet of the Apes have felt far too long at times, and could have benefited from a bit more editing. That the latest Transformers is over three hours long is an abomination — blockbusters need to be reined in. There are extended versions on Blu-rays for a reason!

    Having seen a short IMAX preview for Dunkirk however, I'm not sure if I could even handle 107 minutes of the intensity and anxiety that the film produces. From what I've seen, it's indeed the visceral experience that Nolan promises and could easily get exhausting fast. Either way, Dunkirk promises to be a different and refreshing film at the theater, and hopefully an indicator that Nolan is also stepping back from massive run times.

    Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy. It follows the evacuation of 400,000 Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II. Dunkirk hits theaters July 20.