July 25, 2012

Batman’s Three-Hour Blitz Into the Sunset

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A record 70 minutes of footage from The Dark Knight Rises was shot using IMAX cameras. IMAX theaters stand about five stories tall and used to only screen movies about mountains and sea turtles. Since Christopher Nolan’s Batman predecessor The Dark Knight pioneered Hollywood’s use of these cameras with 30 minutes of IMAX in 2008, these giant theaters now rattle with punches and machinegun fire. Because IMAX cameras emit loud buzzes or whirs or whatever sound they make while operating, the scenes they shoot are often limited to such loud bouts of action. The equipment deafens dialogue to the point that actors dub over their lines in post-production. Layering heavy, percussive score over the soundtrack sounds like the other solution, at least the one these audio mixers devised.

I list these facts and observations because, for all the moments The Dark Knight Rises fills the screen and sonic space with intricate, thundering shoot-outs and fistfights, the more apparent it becomes that noise rules over silence, brawn over wisdom and text over subtext. Naturally — but not effortlessly — the last entry in Batman’s War on Terror trilogy boasts immaculate production familiar to Nolan’s prior masterworks like Memento and Inception. Many talented Nolan collaborators return, such as cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley and editor Lee Smith. The two hour, 45 minute film keeps pace but its energy does not sustain from fresh set pieces or inspired ideas as much as a maximalist take on terrorism that oversteps The Dark Knight’s tasteful balance.

Before the obligatory plot outline, I must mention one exception to that thesis above. Batman’s foil, Bane (Tom Hardy), makes a spectacular entrance. We meet Bane hooded and handcuffed on a CIA plane. When help arrives, he not only escapes but destroys the aircraft and all in it. His soldiers rappel from a bomber above, tearing apart the plane with wires and aerodynamics, and descend into the vertical fuselage to retrieve Bane and a nuclear scientist (guess what the scientist will do). As per his style, Nolan inserts a bizarre detail in the middle of the action — transfusing the scientist’s blood into a lookalike corpse — that, while biologically and forensically infeasible, leaves a brutal signature. This prologue was screened before IMAX showings of last year’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and stands alone, then and now, as a thrilling and appropriately terrifying assemblage of creative stunt work and computer effects.

From here, the plot picks up eight years after Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders in collusion with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who continues to perpetuate the lie despite a clawing conscience. Meanwhile, Batman’s alter ego, the once-billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), holes up in Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes recluse, hobbling around with a cane, atrophying legs and dwindling financial assets. He entrusts Wayne Enterprises to alternative energy innovator Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and dons the cape once again beside Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), called “Catwoman” in the comics but not in the film. Being women, the two serve as love interests to Bruce Wayne/Batman. I would accept the inclusion of romance if there was any.

That is not to say that Selina Kyle does not belong in the film, as Hathaway brings out the mischief of a character that moves the plot forward from an intriguing vantage point. The other worthy addition is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Officer Blake, an idealistic detective whose investigations on the streets correctly predict Gotham City’s impending attack. Batman could have filled that role, but the following list of characters stood in the way: scheming suit John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), his slimy assistant Stryver (Burn Gorman) and spineless Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine). Others simply waste time like Selina’s accomplice Holly (Juno Temple), who puts Batman in pursuit of the “clean slate” program, a MacGuffin that only leads to significant plot holes. I felt nothing for any of these characters, except disdain for the aforementioned Miranda Tate and not the deliberate kind. Every one of them could have been coalesced with another or deleted outright, only granting more time to those we already care about. No one would complain to see more of the old man trifecta of Gordon, Wayne engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine, who multiplies the numerator of blubbery acting per second on screen).

By virtue of screen time, Bane matters more than all of these supporting and minor parts. By all other indicators, he matters very little. When the movie ends, his irrelevance to the overarching plot and lack of standout moments stick out. With that gnarly mask draining all emotion — Nolan could have at least shot close-ups of his eyes, the only human element on his face — and his faux-genteel Vocoder speak, Bane incites populist rage in the denizens of Gotham. His soldiers — how many are there, who are they, what is their motivation? — assault the stock exchange, demolish the bridges and imprison the police officers, leaving the rich penniless or dead and this anarchic city-state under mob rule. The hand of the people hovers over the trigger of a nuclear bomb, set to blow if any interfere. That is what Bane tells the people, at least.

Echoes of “We are the 99-percent” are felt, if not heard. The obvious interpretation is that Christopher Nolan and co-writers David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan are critiquing the “class warfare” of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the hostility to the revolutionaries also extends to the fat cats themselves, as Deputy Foley rolls his eyes at a panicked stockbroker and tells him, “I’m not risking my men for your money.” When viewed from afar, the financial grandstanding so prominent for the film’s first two-thirds reduces to complete nonsense. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad plot twist at the end trivializes Bane’s ideology and sweeps the motives of the entire attack under the rug. With the bomb’s countdown ticking away, big ideas flatten under the crunch of the final battle.

Under threat, the innocent hide in their homes or join the outlaws to loot the streets. On the other hand, the trapped police officers band together to dismantle the opposition. There is an underlying, and I believe unintentional, cynicism in having only those who formally swear to protect their city actually do anything to save it. For a director so eager to employ sensitive imagery of the terrorism we know — urban destruction, dead cops — does Nolan forget the good we see in the masses? The outpouring of grief and determination to pick a stranger up after evil attacks stands resilient. You need not look farther back than a week to the tragedy associated with this very film.

Nolan hammers this false depiction of terrorism for most of the film’s duration. The middle act in particular suffers through overbearing sinister acts without any break for humor or hope. Pfister’s cinematography beautifully captures this carnage, but Gotham’s snow-swept, smoldering streets look like Warsaw Ghetto filtered through 9/11 more because they can than because they have something to say. The Dark Knight built comic relief into the madness itself, with Joker as both the chaos and the jester. I don’t think Bane has cracked a joke in his life, and there are times when you would think none of these characters have.

Audiences love this movie; at press time, user votes have placed this Batman at number nine on IMDB’s greatest movie list, one behind The Dark Knight. The ranking will eventually settle downwards and the site’s polling is notoriously skewed young, male and partial to comic book adaptations. Nolan sure knows how to end a movie, as the suitably epic closing hits all the right notes to send fans hollering. While I may not join in, I do admire the simple and profound core storyline — that of the Dark Knight rising. Often the clutter of Gotham’s revolution engulfs the film’s most important narrative. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman are reborn as “more than just a man,” approaching a Christ-like symbol of incorruptible strength. Bruce must climb out of hell — in this case, a deep, open pit used as a stone prison — to vanquish the demon born in it.

There is a beauty in The Dark Knight Rises struggling for recognition. When Batman returns from exile, there is a striking shot of him walking through the streets toward Bane. The police officers in Batman’s way drift to the sides, as does a cloud of mist that no longer obscures his body. The cameramen and lighting technicians must have toiled for that shot. What accompanies this potent image? Composer Han Zimmer’s relentless timpanis and a quick cut to Bane pummeling a random nobody. Imagine if the editors slowed down the action, extended the shot and silenced the soundtrack save for Batman’s footsteps and a few pretty choral or string measures. Enough time to ponder that no matter what happens, good has risen and evil will lose. After all, there is no such thing as a subtle approach when projected on a five-story IMAX screen.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos