Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Burst of Light in the Darkness: A Review of "The Dark Knight Rises"


This review is free of revealing spoilers. A film synopsis is provided and some specific scenes are mentioned, but they are not very pivotal scenes and would not spoil the film's premise (unless you are a downright purist who does not even like to watch film trailers, but then what are you doing reading a film review in the first place?). A second section follows this review and includes a reflection on the film's ending, so naturally that has spoilers, but there is a clear warning for that section, so don't worry. 

Four years after the release of The Dark Knight, the film is still considered one of the greatest feats in cinema. Its sweeping—and incredibly lucrative—success was not limited to Batman fans; even the tongues of highfalutin critics savored the film's delicate melange of thrilling action, drama, and a refreshingly un-blockbustery rumination on the depths of insanity and the power of unleashed anarchy and chaos in a structured world. The film was raised to a level of sophistication and esteem that was previously unthinkable in the comic-book/superhero genre. But director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan's Gotham City is not a comic book. It is a dark, brooding city whose order is held up in the soiled hands of the government and the police by fraying strings rooted in the corruption and lies of the upper echelons.

The Dark Knight, and its subsequent success, hinged on the complex, gripping, and utterly impeccable performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. He is irreplaceable and immutable, and sans him, The Dark Knight Rises had to prove the worth and apparent necessity of its creation: Nolan said that he would not make a third movie unless a story arose that was truly worth being told. He was very aware of the untouchable quality of Ledger's performance, and indeed everyone was. And so, the most-anticipated film of the year could only succeed if it did not try to somehow outdo its antecedent, but instead could fashion its own legs and stand up on them proudly and freely. 

Perhaps such an undertaking could be a shade easier if the film's title weren't so similar to its predecessor, which unconsciously suggests a buildup on The Dark Knight rather than a complete, standalone film. The beauty of the first two titles, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, is how simple yet individual they are, whereas The Dark Knight Rises is an exceptionally banal title for such an ambitious picture. But alas, this is a negligible quibble in the face of it all.

THE STORY

The Dark Knight Rises finds Gotham City eight years after Batman took the fall for the death of Harvey Dent, who is now mendaciously idolized as a herohe even has a holiday named after him. Afraid to rupture the long-awaited peace that now holds the darkness of Gotham at bay, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) keeps the truth buriedthe truth that would pull the rug from underneath the city that rests so shakily on the great lie of Dent's precipitous fall from grace. 

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has chosen to sequester himself indefinitely in his manor. His hair is shaggy, his face unshaven, and he leans heavily against a cane. It is hard to imagine the robust, agile hero of the first two films who is now degenerated to a weak shell of his former self, atrophied in both body and spirit. Even his butler and caretaker, Alfred (Michael Caine), finds it impossible to provide Bruce with a renewed desire to live after the legion of suffering Bruce endured, including the loss of his—and Harvey's—one love.

But when the masked villain Bane, played by Tom Hardy, mobilizes his ambition for a full-fledged revolution against not only the government but all of Gotham's financially-fortunate citizens, Bruce is shaken out of his stupor and forced to make the ultimate choice: safely remain a recluse or don the dusty cowl that is now revered only by Gotham's earnest, wide-eyed children who desperately pray for the return of the hero who has become no more than an elusive legend.

THE PERFORMANCES

Christian Bale's portrayal of the Caped Crusader is identical to those of the first two installments—and the weight of such an observation is qualitatively different depending on how big of a Bale fan you are. If you liked his performances in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, then you will like him in The Dark Knight Rises too. If you didn't like him then, you probably won't love him now. Bale is a superb actor and has a many roles under his belt to prove it, but there is a disconnect between his talent as Bruce Wayne and his talent as Batman. When the cape and mask come on, he strips himself of emotion in such a way that he ends up stripping himself of any likable heroism, leaving behind a slightly awkward man in a suit. His eyes move as expressionlessly as his voice grumbles, a voice that is so laughably trite it is destined to live on in parody (as in the memorable SNL skit with Steve Buscemi and Andy Samberg). When the mask is off, however, Bale balances with dexterous skill all the aged worry and silent chagrin that characterizes a dispirited Bruce Wayne who has been sucked of any marrow of life.

Batman-veterans Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman are naturally exceptional, most notably Caine. Alfred is no longer the passive butler who carries out every one of Bruce's wishes. Weathered with age and distress, he arguably suffers the most as he helplessly observes the desperation and depression of the man for whom he has cared for since Bruce's birth. In one scene, Alfred bursts into tears when Bruce divulges his choice to put the black costume on again after eight years. Alfred wants nothing but for Bruce to put the Batman alter-ego to rest once and for all and live on happily elsewhere, desperately exclaiming that he has "buried enough members of the Wayne family" as it is. Alfred is perhaps the true heart of this trilogy, serving as the mouthpiece for all of the audience's concerns and emotional catharses. 

The lack of the powerful and bewitching Joker left a distinct void that needed to be filled in this final epic tale, and this naturally called for fresh blood, including three Inception-alumni, along with their own subplots. Marion Cotillard plays an executive for Wayne Enterprises with the intent of convincing Bruce to invest in a sustainable energy source that she believes would revive the failing company. Cotillard is, as always, brilliant, gracefully exercising a coy sensuality laced with a finesse that reinforces the unquestionable merit of her previous Oscar win. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is John Blake, a hotheaded police officer who stands apart from the injustice of the other officers with his desperate desire to uphold traditional probity in a force that has otherwise lost any trace of honor and dependability. Blake's moody visage darkened by childhood tragedy fits well with the lugubrious city that he serves, making Gordon-Levitt a natural and likable addition to the cast.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle
Much anticipated is Anne Hathaway's portrayal of Selina Kyle—a smart, nimble burglar who is tastefully never referred to by the expectantly looming alias of "Catwoman." Many of her previous performances were marked with a strange, off-putting awkwardness where she seems constantly conscious of the fact that she is an actress and that she must act, giving off the sense that she is trying very hard to fit in with the rest of the crowd. Her practiced, coquettish snarls, her contrived ease, her forced sensuality, and at times her cringeworthy delivery of wisecracks render her Gotham debut as a calculated, tawdry acting-school audition at times. This is not always her fault: she seems to have been allotted the maximum quota of cheesy dialogue compared to the rest of the cast. 

There are, however, some scenes in which Hathaway shines, most notably in a bar during a dealing with a fellow criminal. Selina puts forth her end of the bargain and the man attempts to leave her empty-handed; but Selina does not tolerate working for free. The scene quickly establishes itself as Hathaway's crowning moment in which she showcases a wide range of relevant emotions with surprising skill that will force you to smile at how well she carries out this memorable scene—albeit that it takes place quite early in the film and thus makes the rest of her performance feel consequently lukewarm. However, a second viewing of the film did in fact make the cat seem a little more likeable, so perhaps it's a matter of acclimation.

Tom Hardy as Bane
And then, of course, there is Bane, played by Tom Hardy, who has the highest stakes of them all and is forced to shoulder the weight of the film's mercilessly heavy expectations. This is not merely because he is the central villain of the film, but because filmgoers will automatically pit every one of his actions and every one of his words against the potency of Ledger's Joker. Moreover, Hardy has another hindrance: his face is entirely covered, save for his eyes, for the duration of the film. He could not rely on any subtle facial expressions—like the crazed lip-licking of Ledger—and instead had to focus on his voice and his gaze to fashion a villain who is menacing and dark and evil enough to achieve his self-proclaimed reputation as Gotham's reckoning.

And indeed, Bane is something to be reckoned with: Hardy does not merely overcome such glaring impediments, but he breaks through them and radiates phenomenally. Of course his sizable build, attained specifically for the role of Bane, could potentially be enough to manifest the monstrous and murderous puissance of the villain, but what makes Hardy's portrayal so simultaneously frightening and intoxicating is something much subtler—the dichotomy between appearance and expression, and his supreme control of the latter. His singsong elocution and melodic inflections, mediated by his enchanting panache, is so dissonant from his brutish physique and thus generates the uneasiness that makes Hardy so terrifyingly thrilling to watch. His eyes can twinkle with a soft, even charming curiosity, only to swing suddenly to the slaughtering coldness that reminds you of just how unstoppably sinister Bane truly is.  

So how does Bane outperform the Joker? Well, that's the reason why Bane, and by extension the whole film, succeeds: Bane is not trying to outperform the Joker, and there is no insinuation of their equality or disparity. They are both anarchic villains, but are otherwise quite antithetical in their treatments of malefaction. While the Joker was a chaotic, unplanned force of destruction bent on uncovering the true identity of Batman, Bane is calculated and orderly, spreading his terror through his reserved verbosity. You won't hear maniacal laughter from Bane or see him hanging upside down on a rope by his leg. He is cold, he is calm, and he is eloquent, and while Batman was for the Joker a target of personal vendetta, he is treated by Bane with almost insouciant brutality. Sure, Batman is a flame that needs to be extinguished, but Bane's terrorism is not a direct attack on Batman. It is something extending over all of Gotham, now several shades bleaker and more desolate than ever. It is no longer a game of one crazy man against Batman. It is, as Batman declares, "war"and all the social, political, and moral quandaries therein.

THE BAT SOARS (BUT SOMETIMES MISSES THE MARK)

In one of the best scenes of the film, a young boy sings the national anthem at a football game in Gotham's stadium. His pitch-perfect, prepubescent voice resounds in the otherwise stark silence as the camera cuts from scenes of the crowd to the silhouette of Bane marching ominously with his long coat and plush, billowing collar in the dark depths of the stadium leading up to its entrance. He stops walking, still unseen as he is shrouded in shadow, and marvels to himself: "That's a lovely, lovely voice." His own voice, harsh and chilling, is the only interruption to the boy's continued song, and the scene serves as not just a brilliant example of superb editing and sound-mixing, but a quaint epitome of the film itself, the core of the overarching conflictthe dichotomous coexistence of innocence and corruption, order and chaos, poverty and wealth, morality and criminality, and ultimately hero and villain, in an overwhelmingly polarized city.

The relevance to the present only amplifies the significance of the film's contention: the fight between Bane's forces and Gotham's authorities is like a prognostication of Occupy Wall Street if it were drawn out to the most radical insurgence. In fact, the scene was even filmed on Wall Street, further reifying what is in fact merely an eerie coincidence, since the script was written before the OWS movement began.

The exploration of a city's ethical compass gone awry is one of the most fascinating threads that Nolan weaves.  At one point, the police are fervently chasing Bane and a couple of his cronies when Batman intervenes in an effort to catch Bane himself. The police suddenly change course and zoom after Batman, to the indignation of John Blakeintent on capturing the hero whom they consider a villain with the malicious intent of aiding Bane. The camera sweeps over a street along which tens of police cars with flashing lights and wailing sirens hone in on a lone Batpod, and it becomes startlingly clear how Gotham's police force has been reduced to a myopic herd of swellheads with skewed, dishonorable priorities. Heroes have become villains, and true villains are foolishly pushed aside.

That is what makes The Dark Knight Rises prosper. The stakes of its predecessor, high enough as they were, have been raised to a much greater level on a much greater scale. Whereas The Dark Knight was the Joker's frivolous and personal attack on Batman, The Dark Knight Rises aggrandizes the conflict into a matter of life and death for every single citizen of Gotham. During an early hand-to-hand combat between Batman and Bane, Batman throws a small gadget that releases puffs of smoke, to which Bane stands immobile and unaffected as he inflects: "Theatricality and deception—powerful agents to the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren't we, Bruce?" This it not a childish game of cat and mouse, and all of Batman's previous tricks look like ridiculous toys in the face of a ruthless brute. It is time for pure, unmitigated war between not just Batman and Bane, but everything that each character stands for. (Neither can live while the other survives, √† la Harry Potter.)

Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan
The fire rises and roars, but at times it sizzles embarrassingly, seeming more heavy-handed than usual for Nolan. When Bruce climbs up a deep hole that resembles the well in which he fell as a young boy in Batman Begins, a flurry of bats fly suddenly out of a crevice, reminding us quite needlessly of Bruce's conquest of his fears. But a much greater weakness of the film lies quite unfortunately with the writing. Nolan's script is chockfull of snarky quips and back-and-forth dialogue that drips with quasi-clever cheesiness. You could walk into the theater at any time at all during the movie—twenty, fifty, seventy-five minutes in—and you will undoubtedly hear a oneliner so cheeky that it feels like it was written for the sole purpose of being included in the film's trailer. This gimmicky quality dulls the story's luster, especially when a character throws out a "witty" punchline at a time when comedy is wildly inappropriate, like a crude joke told at a funeral. The gravity of certain scenes is diminished with Nolan's forceful desire to prove his ability to be funny and witty, and instead this desire comes across as Nolan showcasing a repertoire of immature facetiousness. It will make you roll your eyes and sigh heavily, but most audience members will probably let out the laugh that Nolan seeks.

But the Batman films are not feats of literary genius, rather of epic, cinematic experience. Nolan knows how to make movies, and make them big. He knows how to make a theater tremble, make you rise with the musical crescendos, make your heart wrench when Alfred cries (and make you shed a tear with him, perhaps). He knows how to envelop you with his world so thoroughly and captivatingly that you are cast into a daze of visual and auditory wonder that makes you forget the world around you. This sounds clich√©, but that is the key to Nolan's widespread success: his films are so theatrical and so richly dramatic, and he honorably maintains an integrity to old-school methods of film production. Nothing beats sweeping vistas of mountainous landscapes with two planes flying high in an overcast sky, and when you look at the screen, you know it's real. The CGI gymnastics are limited to the bare necessity, like Batman's flying vehicle. A fight on Wall Street with over a thousand extras? No CGI there. 

His films, The Dark Knight Rises included, are so entertaining that it's easy to forget logic and forget mistakes. Nolan creates that feeling of dazed euphoria you experience right after walking out of the theater of a good film, only he makes the feeling last long enough so that it isn't just a fleeting, post-viewing experience. His films last, timelessly and unforgettably. Nolan weaves intricate, gripping plots and knows how to attract viewers. He knows that people might become bored of cocktail party conversations between tertiary characters, and so he sandwiches necessary expositions between sequences of gripping action. A perfect example of this is the beginning scene of The Dark Knight Rises, which, suffice it to say, serves as a hearty prologue that demonstrates Nolan's flair for splendid, large-scale action scenes. This scene is followed by a much quieter one dedicated to conversation, and Nolan times his scenes so precisely so that the adrenaline from the previous action continues to rush long enough for younger viewers to endure the quieter scenes and keep them from potentially falling into a state of restless ennui. He knows how to pace his films, and he knows how to throw in plot twists that will raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw. The Dark Knight Rises is yet another testament to Nolan's magic.

THE MUSIC

One of the most crucial elements of the Nolan's Batman trilogy is the music. The score for Batman Begins established the motifs, atmospheres, and moods that would remain throughout all the films. The Dark Knight took this to incredible heights, with composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard creating a beautiful melange of orchestral and electronic instruments and sounds, like the memorable, droning, one-note theme of the Joker. The Dark Knight Rises saw to the exit of James Newton Howard, and while Hans Zimmer is a good composer on his own, the score is a rung lower than its groundbreaking predecessor.

The reason the music for The Dark Knight is exponentially more impressive than Batman Begins is because of Zimmer and Howard's ability to retain old themes and interweave them with new sounds of artful complexity. Such instances, however, are rare on the score for The Dark Knight Rises, with Zimmer often repeating previous themes sans alteration, or else adding brash electronic riffs that quickly lose their musical authority in the wake of their redundancy and a lack of fresh, interesting sound. The motifs from The Dark Knight remain, and there are glimmers of hope here and there: in one track, "On Thin Ice," Zimmer takes the sweeping two-note Batman theme from the first two installments and adds just one other note after them, creating a palindromic effect that is in essence very simple but adds a rich, emotional depth, serving as the perfect example of what the musical mood of The Dark Knight Rises should have been. In "Gotham's Reckoning," Zimmer translates the "Deshi Basara" chant of Bane's followers into a brooding, haunting instrumental build-up that plays during the first action scene of the film, escalating to loud, antagonistic percussion and finally to the chant itself. But otherwise, the music is merely a rehash of The Dark Knight. 

For filmgoers, this will mean that the music fits quite well with the scenes in the film, and indeed Zimmer has always been successful at adding the right musical tone and quality to a scene. But this also means that the music is essentially just good enough. Not revolutionary, but it does the job and like most of Zimmer's scores, it's hard not to listen to the album on repeat.

(ALMOST) FINAL WORDS

Is The Dark Knight Rises perfect? No, of course not, especially not after its superlative predecessor. The Dark Knight was not just a brilliant Batman movie but a brilliant film on its own. That sort of reputation almost forces The Dark Knight Rises to feel like the necessary denouement that it is. The subplots are intricate (sometimes too sinuous), the action is booming (sometimes too ostentatious), and the underlying political and social implications are humming (sometimes too sophomorically). It is evident that Nolan wanted to yank out all the stops and go out with the bang, and the movie even has surprising twists that will naturally remain undiscussed here, but know that The Dark Knight Rises is not a predictable hodgepodge of mindless action. Nothing about Nolan's work is mindless, and that's why nothing ever feels superfluous, even with a bloated runtime. It is hard enough to make a good film without the enormous expectations this film had to meet, and any other filmmaker would've fumbled under such an albatross of a production. But Nolan pulled through and created a conclusion to one of the best, most operatic, most brutal, and most electrifying trilogies in cinema. It's not perfect, but when a movie packs two hours and forty-five minutes of relentless punch, it doesn't have to be.

THE GREAT FLAW

A disappointingly major drawback still exists that keeps The Dark Knight Rises from realizing its full potential, and an analysis of the problem necessitates a reflection on the film's conclusion. Therefore, the following section will have spoilers galore. Read at your own risk.




* * * * * s p o i l e r s   b e l o w  * * * * *


Nolan has undoubtedly made a fine film, and a fine trilogy, but the crux of The Dark Knight Rises's problem is the same as that of the The Dark Knight. Nolan expertly raises thought-provoking questions that are often ignored in other popular blockbusters: The Dark Knight explored the effects of deep chaos, the blur between what defines a hero and what defines a villain, and how easily a solid structure can crumble in the face of one single anarchist. Yet the film ends with an unfittingly anticlimactic, upsettingly cheesy speech by Gordon, who calmly tells his son that Batman needs to be chased, that Batman is the "watchful protector" of Gotham, the "dark knight." In other words, Gotham needs Batman.

The issue with this is that it subverts the entire philosophy that Nolan builds up in the trilogy—the idea that anyone can be a hero, and that you don't need to be Batman to save the day. This idea was thankfully rekindled in The Dark Knight Rises: in one of the final scenes, just before Batman climbs into the Bat to fly the nuclear weapon far away from Gotham, Gordon vocalizes his idea that Batman should reveal his identity so that he could be immortally praised for his heroism, to which Batman replies that anyone can be a hero. Somewhat earlier, Bruce tells John Blake that "anyone could be Batman. That was the point." Indeed, the whole point of the mask, the alter-ego, the anonymity, is to serve as a symbol that anyone can be a hero. This is the underlying thread that stitches together all of Nolan's Batman films, and this is Batman's own philosophy, echoed in the previous films and epitomized in this final one. 

Yet just as the ending of The Dark Knight undid such an excellent meditation on heroism in the real world, such was the underwhelming conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan creates a Gotham that is so overcome with terror and chaos, but when the nuclear bomb explodes in a rite of presumed self-sacrifice, all is suddenly good in the world again. A statue of Batman is erected, and Gotham is presumed to be restored to order and peace. But we don't know how that happened. Nolan carries the trilogy to the perfect breaking point: he severs the heart of Gotham (the bridges connecting Gotham to mainland are literally destroyed) with such intensity and we watch it bleed, wondering how the damage can ever be repaired, and then suddenly he makes you look away until everything is better again and the gruesome healing process over. He gives far little attention, care, and weight to the resolution than to the follow-through of the destruction. What happened to Gotham after the bomb? What happened to all the prisoners who were released by Bane? How could Gotham possibly be resorted to any state of peace when there are thousands of rebels still alive, with the same weaponry and terrorist mindsets as Bane himself? In fact, what happened to Bane? Just like the Joker, his demise is left implied. When Batman solves the problem, who cares what happened to the mastermind behind it? 

The film no longer becomes a story of the restoration of Gotham and instead refocuses its attention to the restoration of Batman. The beauty of Nolan's trilogy is how the films push the limits of what defines the superhero genre, but the endings of both The Dark Knight, and especially that of The Dark Knight Rises, fall into cheap conventionality. How could Gotham be fixed after years and years of total corruption and destruction? Well, we don't know, and The Dark Knight Rises seems to suggest that as long as there is a Batman who can fly a nuclear bomb far enough so that it doesn't reach everyone else, then it doesn't matter (and such a conclusion is not even very original, if you have seen that other relatively new and epically successful superhero film). Gotham needed a hero, and this was the reason for the lie of Harvey Dent. When the truth came out, Dent could no longer function as a beacon of bravery and selfless benevolence. But of course, Batman becomes the new, immortal hero, the savior--and the seemingly necessary one.

The point was that anyone can be a hero, and Nolan forgets this, or at least concerns himself instead with simpler ends, bringing viewers halfway into fascinating ethical and political plains only to leave them ultimately uncharted. Nolan's decision to make the ending a quaint resolution for Wayne, Alfred, and Selina is incongruously selfish and evasive of the deeper, more universal explorations of politics and terrorism and chaos and the collapse of order and the fickleness of morality and the difficulty to adhere to an ethical code in a muddled and decaying world. This would not be a problem if Nolan did not introduce such complexities in the first place, and quite deftly at that. In fact, this is why the films are of such great caliber. But the problem rests in his circumvention of these questions, and it isn't because he is out of ideas: running at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it's clear that The Dark Knight Rises was not short of material. The problem seems to lie a little deeper, at the heart of Nolan's entire body of work and his aptitude at creating films. It is hard to deny the power he possesses in making a brilliantly gripping film, yet he often just nearly misses the mark. He layers his films with beautiful complications and dilemmas, but never drives them home completely and instead masks irresolution in bombastic and cinematic wonder or instead answers rich, thorny questions with unsatisfying, even cheesy answers. The Dark Knight would have been a perfect film, but it missed the mark by a hair. The Dark Knight Rises shares the same fate and owes it to the same, unfortunate reason.

But you still can't help love what Nolan has created. You could watch a Nolan film in Chinese, not understand a single word, and still love it. The Dark Knight Rises is still worth the all-encompassing thrill, and it has definite re-watch value. It just would have been nice to explore the implications of all of Bane's bedlam and a postbellum Gotham City. But hey, it sure was a surprising delight to see Alfred's dream come true, the dream of Bruce relaxing far away from his hometown in a summery location with an out-of-focus but nonetheless identifiable woman, namely Selina, a.k.a. Catwoman. And, after all, we might still have Robin to look forward to, right? 

2 comments:

  1. This was absolutely wonderful! I read every single word and I couldn't have said it better myself!

    ReplyDelete