'Dunkirk' is a beautiful movie, but even IMAX won't do it justice—here's the best way to watch it

Christopher Nolan's newest movie was meant to be seen in a certain way.

A still from Dunkirk (2017) Credit: Warner Bros.

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As predicted, Christopher Nolan’s latest movie is enjoying heaps of critical praise and box office success. But unlike most Summer blockbusters, deciding where to watch Dunkirk isn’t that simple—it’s screening in more than one format on different-sized movie screens.

Let’s examine each possible format and determine which is right for you. To start, here’s a quick primer in the form of an infographic made by Anton Volkov:

Should I see Dunkirk on IMAX?

Since the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, Christopher Nolan’s been steadily increasing the amount of his movies’ sequences shot on IMAX film stock. A few years ago, Interstellar featured a little over an hour’s worth of IMAX footage for the entire 169-minute runtime. This time around, a whopping 70% of Dunkirk’s 107-minute runtime was shot on IMAX film stock.

If you’ve ever experienced a movie in a true IMAX theater, you’re no doubt already aware of the benefits of the format. The towering screen is designed to take up your entire field of vision, so any time the movie cuts to a sequence shot on the large format, your eyes will surely take notice.

A whopping 70% of Dunkirk’s 107-minute runtime was shot on IMAX film stock.

Because so much of Dunkirk is about the scope of aerial and naval combat, seeing the film in this large format is essential. In addition to having your senses obliterated by sounds and visuals, you’ll also have a better grasp on the distance between objects and their relationship with the film’s timeline.

That being said, there’s still an overwhelming amount of movie theaters that’ve slapped the IMAX logo onto a slightly bigger-than-average screen, which remains one of the biggest cinematic crimes in recent years. If you’re hoping to experience the format in its ideal state, make sure you’re buying tickets for an actual, honest-to-goodness IMAX screen. You know: the ones usually attached to aquariums, museums, or giant furniture stores.

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Should I see Dunkirk in 70mm? What are the benefits of 70mm?

Though popular in decades past, 70mm film is making something of a comeback in recent years, thanks to filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan.

Most movies shot on film are shot in 35mm. Because 70mm film stock is twice as big as 35mm, you’re able to cram twice as much information on the screen at once. Seeing a 70mm movie projected on film is somewhat of an ephemeral experience, but its benefits are immediately apparent, especially if you’re used to seeing digital projections at your local garden-variety AMC theater.

It's hard to overstate just how much more robust 70mm film stock is compared to digital projection. Characters and scenery look richer and there’s a romantic quality to the way the images flicker as they pass through the projector. Having seen Dunkirk in 70mm a few days ago, I was particularly awed by the appearance of the ocean at night. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what it is about nighttime water in 70mm that really knocked my socks off, but just trust me on this one.

Seeing a movie in 70mm awakens something inside you.

Seeing a movie in 70mm awakens something inside you that you haven’t felt since the days before digital projection. You might even notice the circular reel-change cues in the top right corner of the screen—a vestige of an old art form.

Since 70mm film stock is twice as heavy as its smaller, 35mm counterpart, not all theaters are equipped to screen Dunkirk in its native format. Check out this list of participating theaters (courtesy of our friends at Indiewire) to see if you’re lucky enough to live near a theater that supports 70mm.

What about 70mm in IMAX?

Finally, we arrive at the gold standard. 70mm film in an IMAX theater is the absolute ideal format for seeing Dunkirk. It combines the scope of seeing Nolan’s latest on an IMAX screen with all the benefits of 70mm. Unfortunately, only a handful of theaters in the United States are screening Dunkirk in this format.

If you live near one of these theaters, do not second guess yourself: This is how you should see Dunkirk.

70mm film in an IMAX theater is the absolute ideal format for seeing Dunkirk.

What if I have to choose between 70mm and non-70mm IMAX?

This, unfortunately, is not a straightforward decision to make.

Some might argue that IMAX’s large format is the clincher in this scenario. After all, the whole reason behind shooting 70% of the movie with IMAX cameras was to deliver this larger-than-life experience.

But me? I’m a film purist. I love the richness of 70mm film stock enough that I leap at the opportunity to experience it whenever possible. Like I said, there’s a romantic quality to 70mm that just can’t be replicated with a digital projection.

The easy answer, I suppose, is to see it twice—once in each format.

Christopher Nolan with IMAX Camera
Credit: Warner Bros.

Not many filmmakers have the clout to release a film like Dunkirk in 70mm. You owe it to yourself to check it out in this format.

Standard 35mm/DCP projection

You could, if you’re so inclined, just follow your usual routine and see the film in a standard movie theater without all of the bells and whistles.

But allow me to be the obnoxious movie guy for a second and issue this plea: Don’t do this unless you really have to.

There are very few filmmakers with the clout to release a movie in 70mm, let alone 70mm on IMAX. It’s an experience that’s growing rarer by the day, and an opportunity to see something truly spectacular at a movie theater.

In short, make the effort for 70mm, IMAX, or both. It’s well worth your time and money.

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