For a movie full of sky-shrieking aircraft, cacophonous bomb blasts, and a relentless tick-tocking score, it’s notable just how quietly Dunkirk snuck up on movie audiences. There were no major film festival premieres or fan-targeting convention campaigns in the months before the film’s release, and its biggest name—Mad Max bruiser Tom Hardy—shunned the usual promotional tour of duties (even his face was all but obscured in the movie’s trailers). The posters for Dunkirk, meanwhile, were relatively subdued, focusing not on the movie’s cast and combat scenes, but on its most important behind-the-scenes name: Writer-director Christopher Nolan.
Yet that relatively restrained approach (along with euphoricreviews) was enough to earn Dunkirk more than $50 million in the U.S., making it the weekend’s number one movie—and essentially vaporizing Luc Besson’s mega-expensive sci-fi adventure Valerian the City of a Thousand Planets. It was the latest weird-turn weekend in a year that’s been full of them, with conventional box-office rules being tested seemingly every month. And it’s a sign that the big studios, which have been locked in a predictable release-date rhythm for at least a decade now, might want to reconsider their calendars.
To be clear, the mid-year success of Dunkirk would be impossible to replicate: Few directors have the above-the-title recognition enjoyed by Nolan, and even fewer have the skill set to turn a sensory-assaulting, often dialogue-devoid foreign-war epic into must-see escapism. And, for what it’s worth, it’s not even the first modern World War II drama to become a summer breakout, as both 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and 2009’s Inglourious Basterds were smashes from the get-go.
But in a year that’s been dominated like no other by franchise-fattening sequels and IP-plundering remakes—nearly 30 so far!—the success of Dunkirk feels like both a rebuke and a reality check. Audiences still love comic-book adaptations and ludicrous Vin Diesel smash-’em-ups, but those relationships have been burning out more and more quickly. Many of this summer’s high-profile releases have turned out to be one-and-done affairs, experiencing a big opening weekend, and then quickly sliding out of view, at least in the US: that’s the shared fate of such heavily promoted sequels as Transformers: The Last Knight; Alien: Covenant; and Pirates of the Caribbean: Johnny Depp Mutters Two Lines, Then Goes Back to His Trailer to Noodle on His Strat and Bid on a Basquiat.
At least they fared better than Baywatch or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which were just two examples of how even the most aggressively marketed potential tentpoles can now be killed before opening night arrives. Blame the growing prominence of Rotten Tomatoes, or the wealth of TV offerings, or the wildfire-like spread of social-media chatter, but whatever the reason, 2017 has become the year in which moviegoers can’t get too fired up about anything too dumbed-down.
What has emerged this year, though, is a series of long-players that have found not just critical and commercial recognition, but also sparked the sort of can-we-please-talk-about this? affection and/or curiosity that will keep them in theaters for months on end: Wonder Woman,The Big Sick,Baby Driver,Spider-Man: Homecoming, and this weekend’s other big smash, Malcolm Lee’s Girls Trip, an R-rated comedy that upended almost every estimate by scoring more than $30 million and excellent reviews. They’re part of an inadvertent movie movement that got started back in February, thanks a certain Jordan Peele-created horror-thriller that will likely go down as the most exciting, most conversation-stirring smash of 2017 (What’s that, you say? Some ding-dong once predicted movies would stop mattering? Get out!)
Dunkirk fits in that same category: A culturally vital, commercially viable summer hit, and one that will bring people to the theater well into the fall. Its victory likely won’t force studio execs to rethink their summer strategies—next year is already clogged with follow-ups and redos—but it does provide a sense of hope that, even in the low-stakes, often lowbrow theater of war that is the summer season, there’s always room for a surprise attack.