Saturday, 21 July 2012
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
(Christopher Nolan, 2012) It is worth establishing one thing straight away: Christopher Nolan makes blockbuster cinema on a level beyond most filmmakers. Not just a financial level - though the film in question cost a rumoured $250 Million to make - but in terms of the epic scale of his vision, the relative intelligence and complexity of his material, and his unquestionable command of the cinematic medium. That obviously doesn't mean he makes flawless films, and indeed all of the films in his Batman trilogy have their problems. But overall, they are quite a remarkable achievement: tonally and thematically consistent, beautifully made and performed, and somehow combining Nolan's personal preoccupations with a mass popular appeal. A big part of that is down to the character at their heart. Batman is for me the great fictional creation of the 20th Century, a character who has gone beyond fiction to become a mythic archetype, which is why so many utterly different interpretations of the basic template all work across so many different formats and media, from video-games to comic books to cartoons and novels. Nolan's vision of the character retains most of the obviously iconic elements and locates him in a gritty, superficially "realist" universe where many of the issues he faces are very topical; terrorism, economic turmoil threatening law and order, political corruption. The Dark Knight Rises takes on all of these themes at once, but it suffers from Nolan's greatest weakness as a serious filmmaker (and he evidently sees himself as a very serious filmmaker indeed) - he gestures at his themes rather than actually investigating them in any meaningful way. So this film is "about" terrorism in that it works as a function of the plot and characters actually discuss it in a few heavy-handed scenes foregrounding the directors ideas, but it never actually burrows into that theme or really says anything about it. If anything, while the film explicitly comes down on the side of its hero Batman (Christian Bale), Nolan seems more interested in and excited by the actions of its villain, the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). Finally, while Nolan may condone certain fascistic tendencies evident in the best treatment of Batman as a character - there is much discussion here, as in The Dark Knight, the second and best film in this trilogy, about what a man must do when the law is not enough anymore - it may be best to ignore the films simplistic politics and instead concentrate upon its worth as a Super-hero film, which is great. But Nolan does his best to make that impossible, making politics and a resonant echo of the "Occupy" movement so central to his films story. While Batman Begins stole much from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's superb "Year One", the Batman comic he cribs from most recurrently here is Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". Several key plot points come direct from that source - Gotham as a virtually lawless battleground, Batman's return after an absence - and even a few of the smaller, better moments innthis story are lifted from Miller, such as the moment a senior police officer realises Batman is back and remarks to his partner "You are in for a show tonight!" That story unfolds eight years after the end of The Dark Knight. Batman has been dormant for that long, Bruce Wayne a recluse, lurking in the East Wing of Wayne Manor. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been eaten away by the lie he and Batman perpetuated at the end of the previous film, even if that lie has ensured no organised crime in Gotham for most of the previous decade. Meanwhile, Bane is planning to destroy the City piece-by-piece, physically isolating it, depriving it of a Police Force, crippling its infrastructure and financial Market, and a devious cat-burglar, Selina Kyle(Anne Hathaway) has entered Wayne's life, luring him back out into public after so long, where a member of his company's board (Marion Cotillard) attempts to revive a dormant but dangerous clean energy project he dropped some years before. From there the plot only grows more complicated - and occasionally silly - over the two and a half hours of running time, but it rises to a superbly orchestrated final act of more or less ceaseless action. The ending is satisfying and even a little moving for a lover of the Batman character. Batman fans may feel a little shortchanged - there is not all that much Batman in this film. It is more firmly Bruce Wayne's story. But what Batman there is is far more assured than he has been in the previous two films; Nolan seems to have finally realised how best to use his hero when he is in costume and in action. Action is a strange weakness for a director of action blockbusters to have, but it has long been Nolan's major technical flaw; while he creates imaginative, impressively scaled action sequences, his direction of them is flat and relatively uninspired, and his editing has been - at times - downright bad. Not here. The Dark Knight Rises contains the best fight scenes in the trilogy in Batman's two brutal face-offs with Bane, and the scenes of outright warfare on the streets of Gotham are massive, exhilarating and full of the sort of iconic shot-making for which this director has always had a particular gift. This film has also learned from The Dark Knight and there are fewer instances where everything stops while the characters discuss the themes, while those instances are more seamlessly integrated into the action. Nolan has the happy ability to maintain a sense of tension and dread throughout his films - they never ever feel boring, even when nothing of note is really happening onscreen - which is down to his intelligent use of the camera, strong editing decisions and the constant prodding from Hans Zimmer's score, here based around a primal pounding and tribal chanting which are repetitive but also somewhat hypnotic. The cast are generally strong; Bale knows this character by now, finding both the rage and sadness in him to great effect, while Hathaway makes her Selina Kyle an attractively morally ambivalent figure until her conscience is stirred by Batman's example. If their relationship is paradoxically sexless, well that is down to another of Nolan's blind spots as a filmmaker. He doesn't really do humour, and he doesn't really do sex. They're just not part of his worldview, making the scenes here of an attractive man and woman clad in rubber entirely serious and chaste (in stark contrast to Tim Burton's take on the same scenario). The veterans in the cast are all superb - Michael Caine carries much ofnthe films emotional weight, and he is as good here as he has been in anything for years, but Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman (as Batman's Q, Lucius Fox) are almost as good. Joseph Gordon Levitt is solid as John Blake, a conscientious young cop who is largely more of a function of the plot than a character, while Cotillard is good in a similarly limited role. Hardy, his face mostly hidden by Bane's mask, is great as a physical presence, but most of the rest comes down to his eyes - memorably flashing in a few scenes - and the oddly supercilious voice he has created for his villain, which works only some of the time. This film suffers from the absence of a villain as iconic and well-defined as Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. It suffers in few other regards. Wally Pfister's cinematography is truly remarkable here. He carries off Nolan's magisterial, muscular style with ease, conjuring up a series of beautiful images but always keeping the storytelling tight and fluid. The combination of the IMAX compositions with Hans Zimmer's thunderous, often ludicrously bombastic score is viscerally shaking; this is what spectacle cinema can be, this film seems to say, as it leaves you pinned to your seat. The cast is filled out with recognisable faces in virtually every role, giving some indication of how highly Nolan is regarded in Hollywood these days. And really, it's easy to see why. He has taken a moribund Super-hero franchise and made it into something interesting and provocative without ever sacrificing any commercial appeal.