Of all the modern directors who are artistic descendants of Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the two most notable are Christopher Nolan and David Fincher.
Both partake of Kubrick's chilly brilliance to some extent. But, for my money, David Fincher is the better and more interesting film maker. Because his movies have humour and passion.
Whereas Christopher Nolan's pictures tend to be intellectual puzzles — Memento, Inception, Interstellar — and now Dunkirk.
Although it's theoretically a straightforward story of an historical event, Dunkirk has a complex flashback structure that I didn't really grasp until the second time I saw the movie.
(There are onscreen titles to explain the structure, but they just confused me further.)
In fact, in an interview, Nolan says, "It's the most experimental structure, or radical structure, I've taken on since Memento."
To go back to the comparison with Fincher for a moment, even at their most ferocious, Nolan's movies (for example, the Batman franchise) don't match the harrowing impact of Fincher at his best (Seven, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl).
But there is plenty of ferocity on display in Dunkirk. The combat scenes are painfully suspenseful and very powerful. Indeed the movie shocks and seizes you in its opening moments and never lets go.
We wince and flinch at the perpetual assaults from an unseen enemy. And they are actually called 'the enemy' throughout, not 'the Germans'. Similarly the heroes don't talk about getting back to England — they always speak of 'home.'
Was this a cynical ploy by Nolan to simplify the story for young American audiences who know nothing about geography and even less about history?
If so, it worked, because the movie is an enormous hit in the States.
Or was it an attempt to raise the conflict to something emblematic, universal, mythical?
(When he first pitched the idea of Dunkirk to Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan
emphasised the "potentially universal appeal. The simplicity of the
story, the primal nature of the situation.")
If so, it worked too. Because Dunkirk is certainly a masterpiece which will reach out to any audience, anywhere, and perhaps in any time.
It has its flaws, though. Since they're all wearing uniforms, most of the actors look so similar it's impossible to tell them apart.
The early section of the movie seems to be the adventures of a pair of identical twins. And this is before their faces get covered with oil.
Nolan praises Alfred Hitchcock for his ability to engage us emotionally. "Nobody was better than Hitchcock at manipulating an audience's sympathies." But the confusing similarity of the leading men is not a mistake Hitchcock would ever have made.
And then there's Hans Zimmer's score. It incorporates the sound of a pocket watch of Nolan's which has "a particularly insistent ticking." The resulting music delivers such unremitting harrowing tension that it eventually becomes a nuisance.
And when it finally breaks into a big rhapsodic climax — to welcome the arrival of the rescue boats — the music fails to measure up, conjuring soupy synthesiser schmaltz.
But the beautiful colour photography is simply stunning. Nolan has spoken of the superiority of real film ("photochemical film") over digital photography. "Digital is never going to be like film... I think it has a very unique impact."
And Dunkirk certainly supports his thesis. The brilliant cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also did Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of my favourite films of all time.
And taken in its entirety Dunkirk is a remarkable success, both artistically and commercially. You should certainly see it, and see it on the biggest and best screen you have access to. (It was shot in IMAX).
Yet when I walked out of the cinema I didn't feel elated or uplifted — or that I'd seen a great movie. I just felt numb.
In the end, perhaps Dunkirk's greatest achievement is to make me look forward keenly not to Christopher Nolan's next movie, but David Fincher's.
(The Christopher Nolan quotes are either taken from the Radio 4 program which I've linked to above, or Sight & Sound Magazine. Image credits: A surprising plethora of posters at good old Imp Awards.)