Sunday, 22 July 2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan & David S. Goyer
Stars: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard

The most anticipated film of the year. It’s a lot of pressure to deliver to all audiences expecting so much from just one picture; the scrutiny for The Dark Knight Rises is unlike anything most films will ever be put under and the hype means it will undoubtedly divide some audiences’ opinion after their 4 year wait since the modern classic and genre-defining piece that was The Dark Knight.

I am one such person. I had to watch the film twice before I could write this review; once at the BFI IMAX on opening morning and then again on a standard screen the following day. The difference in screen size, projection, and surround sound made little difference to my enjoyment of the film; the problems I have still remain, but my appreciation of what director Christopher Nolan has done with this, the third part of the his Batman trilogy, has heightened tremendously.

The most important achievement of the film is that it feels purposely created to complete a trilogy, not just another Part III made on the back of the money raked in by the previous two (although that is inextricably linked, as is the production of any sequel). Nolan not only re-invented Batman and the comic-book genre, but along with Inception his Batman trilogy has given audiences intelligent, character-led blockbusters which deliver $200 million spectacles with stories worth investing in and repeated viewings which reward with additional layers of plot and narrative so rarely seen by pictures of their size and magnitude. The film starts eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and in doing so, Nolan creates an environment darker and more foreboding than when The Joker was running riot on the streets of Gotham; Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a tormented soul who locks himself away in Wayne Manor after retiring Batman from the public and wallowing in the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes. Alfred (Michael Caine), as always, remains his only true confidant and even he doesn’t want Wayne to remain in Gotham any longer. The scene is set for a very different film than parts I and II both tonally, and as it turns out, structurally. This is not a comic-book film; it is a story of people, society, class, and redemption. It is a Bruce Wayne film and Batman is nothing more than a mask. As Alfred says, the people don’t need Batman, they need Bruce Wayne.

The most impressive part of the film is the relationships between the characters not wearing masks and their relationship with Wayne and with each other. This film sees Christian Bale at his best in the Batman series because most of his best work is done without the Batsuit on. The scene when he speaks to Alfred about the loss of Rachel and how he blames himself is the best individual piece of acting in the trilogy from any one. It might be the most memorable scenes in this film. The film isn’t all about Wayne however; the introduction of Blake, (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a police officer and understudy to Commissioner Gordon is fleshed out well, and by the finale he is a pivotal part of the Gotham world. Moreover, he is essential to the continuation of the Batman franchise. However, I didn’t feel the same about Celina Kyle, I didn’t buy into her story and her role in the criminal underworld, nor did I like her skin-tight costume which made her look like the character we know as Catwoman (although she is never actually referred to as such). The look was far too perfect for a woman who has very little and hates the upper classes. As I said, it’s the non-costumed characters which make this film work and she added nothing to the film’s intrigue in my opinion.

As are all of Nolan’s films, The Dark Knight Rises looks stunning and is perfectly shot, edited, framed, and lit. It looks as good as any big budget film you’ll ever see; from the sets of the Batcave to the wide shots of the city, the film never looks anything other than stunning but crucially, never overwrought as it could so easily have been in the hands of someone else. On a first viewing, I thought the film was too big to take in but a second viewing proves it’s not as epic as it might seem from the trailers and promotions, but is rather quite contained within the core group of characters and story arcs and this is a very important part of its success in the excellent first two hours.

However, the film is 164 minutes in length, and this is where the problem lies. Not in the film’s length, but in the final 45 minutes when the film moves into its ‘blockbuster’ phase and the all-action finale begins. Simply put, it is not exciting or thrilling. The film, up until this point, has worked so well as a drama and brooding conclusion to the Bruce Wayne/Batman story that the film’s antagonist is sorely overlooked. Bane (Tom Hardy) undeniably strikes a menacing figure and his confrontations with Batman proved the Caped Crusader has met his physical match, but his plot to destroy Gotham could be carried out by anyone with a master plan, regardless of strength and size. Yes, he looks great in posters and trailers, but he comes into the film as just another bad guy; that is what made The Joker such a pivotal part of The Dark Knight’s success. Batman didn’t engage in physical fights with him because, when he attempts it, it proves futile. Batman could kill The Joker with his bare hands but never does because The Joker always has something going on to keep him alive. With Bane, all we get are fights which soon tire after a short while; a good film is only as strong as its villain, as the saying goes. Bane may challenge Batman, but he doesn’t challenge the audience.

Also, the film is not spectacular or even really exciting when it needs to be. The threat to Gotham is almost too great to be believable and I honestly thought this trilogy wouldn’t end with a literal ticking bomb; surely the quality of the output before it lent to a better conclusion than what we’re left with. Batman’s first appearance in the film does not thrill and is a pale imitation of the excellent chase scenes in the previous film; after a long wait to see the character, it is a very tame entrance. The same must be said for the concluding battles; mass fights between nameless people is not exciting or thrilling and sadly, neither is another fist fight between masked men/women. The Bat (or Batwing as it’s better known) is revealed far too early and, despite offering the film’s single best visual scene (3-D can suck it) it doesn’t offer the same thrill as when we first saw the Tumber or Bat Pod. Ultimately it was brought in to up the ante, but it does not do so.

There are several other issues with the film’s final third which are difficult to explain as part of a spoiler-free review, something which all of my reviews aim to be. There is terrible continuity with the ticking clock; a ridiculously short time frame for a journey which would take untold time to travel; entrance to a city which is securely locked down is never explained; the ‘death or exile’ is instant for one disposable character but significantly delayed without reason for the important ones; there is a needless twist which is far too contrived for a film series of this quality; and the conclusion of what happens to Bane is the biggest anti-climax you could have expected. For all those fights, menace, speeches, and destruction, the audience deserves a LOT more than what we were given. Nothing in the film comes close to the Hong Kong or lorry chase sequences in The Dark Knight and the train sequence which concludes Batman Begins is also much more preferable to anything attempted here.

The major flaw of the film is in its attempts to be exciting, fast paced, and adventurous. It never works and is a true shame that it attempted to be so big and epic and the need to out-do anything we’ve seen before. The mistake was to get all of Gotham knowingly involved rather than keeping the battle within the main characters; yes, the people need to know who it is that saves them but it could have been a lot more exciting whilst maintaining the same pathos.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy will be remembered as one of the great film series and rightly and deservedly so. None of the three films are perfect and they all have third act problems due to the brilliance and intelligence of what has happened leading up to those points. They are, however, genre-defining, iconic, and magnificent examples of what came be achieved when money and a clear understanding of storytelling, character, and cinema are combined.

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