Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

by Julien Faddoul

**   2 stars

d – Christopher Nolan
w – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer   (Based on the Comic Book by Bob Kane)
ph – Wally Pfister
pd – Nathan Crowley, Kevin Kavanaugh
m – Hans Zimmer
ed – Lee Smith
cos – Lindy Hemming

p – Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven

Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman

Filmmakers from all walks of life have found aesthetic comfort in The Trilogy. And I say “aesthetic” because it has never necessarily been through storyline, whether its Bergman or Antonioni or Cocteau (whose Orphic trilogy did follow the same characters). Recently, separating a story into three different films has become just as much a marketing ploy as a directing choice. It has just been teased of late that Peter Jackson might be making three Hobbit movies, a thought that made me feel faint. To constantly follow and keep track of movies this way is more like studying for an exam than an evening of artistic insight. But there have been great works of art in this form of late, including Mr Jackson’s own The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pixar’s Toy Story films. The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is a satisfying and honourable finale with some affecting moments, but all those moments come from the mindset of seeing the trilogy as a whole. The film itself is a bit of a mess. Batman Begins was an intelligent breath of fresh air, The Dark Knight was a haunting and exhilarating rollercoaster, this new film, at 165 minutes, is a fat and heavy cake that may feel pleasant but probably isn’t good for you.

The film opens with an excellently executed plane sequence (shot in IMAX) that does not factor into the narrative in any significant or substantial way. This, to me, is the perfect correspondence for how this entire picture feels when one is following it. We enter the story eight years after the previous film ended in which Gotham City is experiencing an incredibly low crime rate and Batman (Christian Bale) has disappeared. Both of these happenings are a result of Harvey Dent’s death in various ways that I won’t get into. That is, until a terrorist muscle-man with a face muzzle named Bane (Tom Hardy) – who is a character who only speaks in long, inspirational speeches – comes along to “set Gotham free” from its aristocratic way of life. He, in a sense, is here to complete the dream of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows in the first film.

What follows is a serious, heavy laundry list of action set-pieces and frenzied plot-threads, most of which begin before the previous one has even ended. The amount of characters we are required to follow is daunting: Mr Oldman, Mr Freeman, Mr Caine and even Cillian Murphy all reprise their roles from the previous films. Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, a cat burglar who wants to start a new life for herself (she is never referred to as Catwoman). Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a philanthropist who is very interested in what Wayne enterprises is up to, of which she is a board member. Ben Mendelsohn plays John Daggett, Bruce Wayne’s business rival. Matthew Modine plays Gotham’s Deputy Commissioner with loyalty issues. And lastly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, an intelligent young cop whose connections to the story I found laughable. I understand the idea of the quantity of characters because this picture is striving for grand themes on a grand scale. In fact, a better title for this film would have been The People of Gotham, especially since Bruce Wayne is somewhat sidelined in the middle act. The Gotham of the previous film was a visual parallel to Chicago, in this film its New York City (although it was apparently shot in Pittsburgh).

The picture is trying to be about everything under the sun: terrorism, fascism, rich vs. poor, government stability, physical stability, child abuse, anarchy, patriotism and yet never feels deep, an issue the first two pictures never had. Mr Nolan from the beginning has always been interested in complex narratives, but this one is arbitrarily complex. It’s plotted to within an inch of its life.

My main problem with the movie, and this is very pivotal to Mr Nolan’s approach as a filmmaker, is that it is a very symphonic one. His films operate in movements rather than pieces, huddling all over the place, galvanized by Hans Zimmer’s score. But here, everything is so normalised that many of the significant set-pieces or passages – which include the blowing up of Heinz Field, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Gotham, the destruction of a city bridge, a sewer rescue, a prison escape, and a big final confrontation between Batman and Bane – have no greater emotional or narrative weight than anything else in the movie. Having the audience keep track of all these characters in all these schemes in such a scattered manner, somehow, both complements and undermines Mr Nolan’s central endeavour.

Of the three films, this one is the most about the Batman mythology even though Batman himself is not as prevalent. The Dark Knight was much more about Batman as a figure, while The Dark Knight Rises is more about Bruce Wayne as a person. Mr Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is about this: individual responsibility and agency and assuming your own obligations require doing the good that is within your power to do. The film’s richest character financially is the one who has to ultimately “rise” to the occasion and do the greatest and most glaring moral good, which is obviously an observation on the state of America currently. I feel this works; it’s rare that an allegory so serious is tackled within the limits of the superhero genre. Even though this character totem probably would not work as well without Mr Nolan’s scattered vision.

By far the best scene takes place down in a sewer, where Batman and Bane first meet, that is an exercise in brilliant brutality. And the reason that scene works so well is because we are seeing it through the point-of-view of a third character; a character who has just done something very wrong. Therefore, by weaving in and out of these tense moments – all of which are serious and none of which can be sacrificed – the picture is walking on a tightrope of quality that I feel has nothing to do with expectations but rather the film itself.

I wish the other characters worked better. For me, Selina Kyle’s account in the film was the most silly and mishandled. I love the idea that Selina’s interest is as rooted in identity and starting afresh as Bruce Wayne’s introspective, but the whole device that demonstrates her wiping her slate clean is very silly.  Mr Gordon-Levitt is a fine performer but in this movie he is wasted. He knows the identity of Batman for downright stupid reasons, he’s promoted from lackey cop to head detective for stupid reasons, and moreover, he is never seen doing actual police work; he just always happens to be in the right place at the right time. He’s only value as a character is to service the last five minutes. And as for Bane, his motivation is never easy to pinpoint. It is revealed grandly near the end of the film what his emotional motivation is, but his actual plan makes very little sense. The Joker’s dream of destruction and chaos was much clearer.

I have always given Mr Nolan credit; he is one of the few directors who mainstream people are familiar with and he has earned that status not through showboating, but sheer talent and expertise. But in trying to make his best film he has ultimately made his least interesting. Once again, The Dark Knight Rises is an honourable film because it completes the trilogy satisfactorily without denigrating the first two, both of which are exceptional in my eyes. But for me (and I never thought I’d say this) the best superhero blockbuster of 2012 is Marvel’s The Avengers.

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