Monday, July 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Why Do We Fall?

Needless to say, I was looking forward to seeing The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan being my favorite living director and all. I was unable to make the opening weekend (see previous post). I caught it in IMAX this past Sunday. Before I get into my review let's quickly skip through all the hype.

Of course, a shadow was cast over the opening weekend due to the tragic Aurora, Colorado theater shooting that killed or wounded about 70 people. Nolan condemned the horrible incident in a lengthy response. Still, the film set a record for the opening, even though the total haul was less than expected, perhaps due to the shooting. Before the incident in Colorado scalpers were apparently able to demand $100 for opening weekend tickets.

There was much debate about the film before the shooting. Prior to release, things got really ugly over on Rotten Tomatoes. Some early critics found the film lacking and this prompted a flaming response from defenders who had not even seen the motion picture yet. Critics were initially mixed about the film, though gradually more favorable reviews began to outweigh the more negative ones.

There were wide-ranging perspectives about what the film represented and about its tone. Some saw a Dickensian influence in Nolan's work. Others found the film advocating "responsible capitalism." Still, others saw the film as "fascist and nihilistic." Maybe it was an "assault on corporate America." Certainly, Nolan managed to stir up a vigorous political debate, at least online. It is usually a sign of good art when so many different perspectives are read into a given work.

So, the film premiered in a perfect storm of intense debate, extremely high expectations, a strong news cycle, and large demand - though somewhat lessened by tragedy. Enough of the hype, however, and on to my thoughts about the film.

First of all, I am impressed with Christopher Nolan's vision of making The Dark Knight Rises with 72 minutes of footage actually shot with IMAX cameras, the most ever for a Hollywood feature film. This made the already slow and tedious process of film-making even slower due to the bulky cameras and the much shorter shoot times between reloading. If there was ever a feature motion picture meant to be seen in IMAX this is it.

But, Nolan didn't just use the IMAX technology for technology's sake. He made the deliberate choice of not creating the film in 3-D. In that regard this film is like Nolan's Inception last summer; a big format but without the unnecessary 3-D gimmick presentation. Nolan is selective about the technology he uses (he doesn't use a cell phone, for example) and, therefore, he is the master of it, not the other way around as is so often the case. I applaud his independence and control of his creative process, without regard to trends and cultural expectations.

Although Nolan did not originally conceive of his "Batman trilogy" as one continuous film, ultimately each film is woven tightly with the other two. You simply cannot watch The Dark Knight Rises on its own without missing out on a much richer experience when considered with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Both of the previous films feature a complexity managed and well-handled by Nolan, showing his presently unmatched directorial prowess. Altogether, the trilogy is now one long film much like, say, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Jennifer, my daughter, and I recently re-watched the first two installments. It had been several years since I last saw Batman Begins. That film features a very complex story with a relatively straightforward plot. That all the many layers of story elements are coherently handled is not an easy task. I am even more impressed with this film upon my most recent viewing. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, is more a film with a straightforward story but a complex plot. The two films mirror each other in this respect and are both superb, with The Dark Knight being something artistically close to brilliant.

As Sunday arrived and we traveled to the theater, I wondered if the third film could possibly live up to the high standards of the first two. This one did not disappoint me. The Dark Knight Rises lives up to most of my expectations, it certainly justifies repeat viewings, and clearly reiterates that Nolan is a top-notch director. Given the integrated nature of the final film with the first two, however, I will focus more on the entire body of work rather than on just the final installment.

Throughout the trilogy, Nolan never shied away from pulling in more important characters, more complex story elements, more twists and turns, and posing more questions. Through it all each added ingredient enriches and informs. Nolan skillfully manages all these complications so that the viewer can savor an ever-opening tapestry of action, emotion, and suspense. Each film could have easily become a jumbled mess but Nolan succeeds in creating specific sophisticated labyrinths that might puzzle or confound but never disorient or confuse. You have to pay attention to a lot of details, however. This is not a mindless spectacle.

The Dark Knight Rises might not be quite as great a film as The Dark Knight but that is merely to say it is yet another fantastic film masterly directed by Christopher Nolan. The difference is a matter of a few degrees.  For me, The Joker is a far more perverse, methodical, and terrifying menace than the brutish Bane, and that makes for one meaningful distinction between the two films. It is a solid 10 in my book, one of the best films so far in this young century. The Dark Knight Rises is a solid 9 and most certainly a worthy conclusion to this terrific three film set.

Seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX was an awesome experience. The sound score is terrific. The action sequences are HUGE and LOUD. They deserve the IMAX treatment. But they are not frivolous or simply eye candy for summertime "wow" factor. Sure there are plenty of things to wow about but Nolan isn't excessive or wasteful. Everything that happens in The Dark Knight Rises happens purposefully and serves to propel the exciting story. And the story is more than a match for the special effects.

The experience of The Dark Knight Rises is not just visual nor it it just a rationally complex but satisfyingly rich story. It is an emotional film. The trilogy as whole is a human (not superhuman) story. Perhaps there is no better example of this than when the "true" back story of Bane is finally told. Bane and The Batman have just had an exhausting fight and both are wounded. The action slows down as Bane's daughter tells her father's story to The Dark Knight. Bane actually tears up, reflecting a human being underneath all that rage and wicked strength. The heartless brute is revealed to be something more. If only for an instant.

No review of the trilogy would be complete without a nod to Gary Oldman who portrayed Jim Gordon throughout the films. For me, watching his development was the most satisfying of any character in the film. Oldman did a wonderful job of remaining even-keeled and subtle while expressing frustration and doubt and intense commitment to whatever the situation demanded. Nolan's Commissioner Gordon is every much a "hero" in this film as The Batman.

The primary emotions Nolan explores in the trilogy are fear and anger, love and hope. In the third film, fear and anger become more pronounced whereas love and hope (in the form of personal relations and in the form of the basic human need for the symbolic) are more prevalent in the other films. Yet, each film contains all four emotions to some extent (The Batman literally becomes his most symbolic in the final film). The central emotional statement Nolan seems to make in The Dark Knight Rises is that anger is most dangerous when it represses fear and that you can only truly find your freedom if you let go of your anger and embrace your fears. That's rather profound and is a great example how the story really does trump the spectacular effects.

There are at least three overarching themes throughout this great trilogy. First, you don't need superhuman powers to be hero. Nolan has a personal interest in The Dark Knight as a comic book superhero precisely because he is the most human. What powers he has are harnessed through his intelligence, his intensity, and his use (and occasional abuse) of technology. As The Dark Knight says to Commissioner Gordon near the end of the final film, "Anybody can be a hero."

Secondly, master yourself and make the most of who you become (a very Nietzschean concept I might add). The Dark Knight constantly fights to save Gotham City against several enemies throughout the trilogy but he experiences (most clearly in Batman Begins but through the other two films as well) an inward journey. This journey is one to which we can all relate and it is here that the trilogy might be most accessible.

These two meta-narratives make the trilogy relevant to our time and afford an intimate link with the complex story of The Dark Knight. But, a third theme is even more important and elemental. The Dark Knight often fails, he makes mistakes, he casts himself as a criminal so that he appears to be the enemy and thereby makes others look heroic.

With each obstacle in his personal journey there is triumph and tragedy and, more often than not, it is the tragic that is the most prevalent and powerful influence in his life. But no one who thoroughly considers these three films can miss their most fundamental message, one that is more relevant than anything I can think of given our present global circumstances and the likelihood of difficult political and economic times ahead. The Dark Knight Trilogy poses and answers this critical question...

Why do we fall? If you have seen Batman Begins you know the answer. But you must see the entire trilogy to know what that answer means.

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