Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Dark Knight Rises" Review

(95% SPOILER FREE)

The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie.

The Dark Knight Rises is not an amazing movie.  It is, indeed, the latest victim of Empire Syndrome*.  And for those who hoped Christopher Nolan would finally get his due come oscar time, you will be sadly disappointed (unless the academy has a GIGANTIC crisis of conscience and insists on retroactively awarding him to make penance for the indefensible snub of its predecessor).

It's been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight.  Batman is long retired, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is living the life of a hermit.  He has been hard at work feeling sorry for himself and losing all of Wayne Enterprise's money investing in a clean energy project with fellow board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).  Under the false guise of the Harvey Dent tragedy, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's legislators are able to pass a series of strict laws that completely eradicate organized crime.  Gotham has finally reached peace time, but the guilt of the truth haunts Gordon, eating away at him like a cancer.  Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious mercenary who seems hell bent on Gotham's destruction, for reasons I will not divulge here.  Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar and associate of Bane, pursues a device that can help her clear her name and expunge her record, giving her a clean slate.  When Bane's true presence becomes known, Gordon enlists the help of the young John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an idealist beat cop who is determined to fight for what's true in Gotham.

Let me get the good out of the way first.  The cinematography here is fantastic, its cold palette helping to foreshadow and exacerbate the character gloom and horrors that await for Gotham City. The acting is Oscar caliber, with Hathaway earning the part every minute and Christian Bale giving his best performance of the series.  He's so good, he finally treads some water against the collective stance that Batman is the least interesting thing in everything he does.  His performance would've held even more weight had their been some serious subtext and pathos to aid the script, but I'll get to that in a sec.

The actions scenes are also a big standout.  I always admire directors that are willing to dive head first into practical effects, while keeping CG as a last resort.  Nolan has done this the entire series, which really helps to give a sense of realism to the action, which only gets you more invested in the story, and the sheer scope of Nolan's vision in unparalleled in this installment.  This scope serves the overarching story very well, which is another high point of the film.

The problems start with not the story itself, but how the story is told.  The first third of the film, from a strictly structural standpoint, is an absolute mess, to the point where i felt I was watching a truncated version of episodic television with the amount of prologues, new characters, and scene disconnect.  I get that it was meant to bring us up to speed and to set up the story, but the way its presented just comes off as a confusing exposition dump for a needlessly overcomplicated first act. Once it starts to get moving, however, such complaints become very few and far between, as the pacing improves considerably.

My biggest issue with the film, and the one issue that hangs over every aspect of the production from FADE IN to FADE OUT, is its lack of thematic depth and cohesion, which completely surprised me.  Philosophizing on the nature of crime and the human condition was one of the things that the first two movies did so well, and indeed encompassed much of the reason they existed in the first place.  Begins was about fear and the consequences of letting it govern our lives.  Knight was about escalation.  About what happens when you tell terrorists to "bring it on", the moral dilemma in becoming the monsters you fight, and the very nature of society through a nihilistic prism.  In Rises, things just kind of move along from plot point to plot point in a very superficial way.  It always has the opportunity to be deep, but it never takes it.  With the amount of talking in the film, theres not much sense of insight into the things they're talking about.  This is such a big problem because it hampers character growth, the mystique and menace of the central villain, and the level of investment in the plot.

This movie, as being the last, is supposed to finally have Batman get over the death of his loved ones and learn to live again.  And he does, one way or another, but it just kind of happens.  There is no grand revelation, epiphany, or character defining situations that allow him to move on.  He just kind of decides to, which makes the epilogue at the end feel very rushed and ultimately unsatisfying.  The closest thing we get to any character introspection is some surface level conversation from some rando about survival instinct that goes nowhere.  While functioning properly as a nice "aha, I know the villain's weakness here comes act three" moment, it does nothing for Bruce as a character, because it is not the central issue behind his emotional pain, or at least it doesn't feel like it, especially the way it's glossed over in the film.

Bruce never really realizes anything about himself and the nature of his all-consuming grief, and therefore he's never able to confront his personal conflicts head on.  Without that, it's hard to feel truly cathartic about anything that happens in the film's final act, because none of it feels earned.

The Joker was the perfect foil for Batman, highlighting each character's similarities and differences as they examined who they were from both extremes of the moral spectrum.  His philosophies about the human race gave meaning to his seemingly random and chaotic actions.  Bane, while definitely an effective villain, gets less interesting as the film progresses.  He's an interesting brute, don't get me wrong, but a brute nonetheless.  It's not Tom Hardy's fault, as he gives a fantastic performance, doing more with his eyes than I could with my whole face, and I enjoyed his weird, disconnected, mad-scientist-y vocal work.

The problem with Bane (and with Selina Kyle, to a lesser extent), again, comes from lack of thematic depth.  It doesn't help that his "Occupy Gotham" plan, which could provide for endless meaningful social commentary, is flat out admitted to be a ruse, and since the film amounts to basically a revenge story, it brings the weight of his presence crashing down like a meteor to earth. When you are trying to build an enemy as terrifying as the Joker, one's motivations cannot be based solely on petty human feelings, because it takes away the mystique of the villain and makes him, in a way, more ordinary.  Let's just say the more I found out about him, the more I realized I didn't want to know.

Instead, a lot of the character subtlety is in Selina Kyle... exactly where it didn't need to be.  If we want a character for which we can project ourselves as an audience onto, we have Alfred for that. If we want a femme fatale, I'd like a bit more characterization.  Selina wants what she wants, and instead of getting a real look into the inner workings of her past and what really makes her tick, we don't get much to chew on at all.  Instead, we get a character who devolves into a cookie-cutter love interest, which isn't necessarily bad by any stretch, but it could've been more.  If her and Bane's character treatments were reversed, I can't help but think we'd be watching a better movie.

Most of the story with Bane feels designed to make the series feel like it's coming full circle, when it really just makes the film feel like a bigger, less interesting version of the first.

This movie, while overall providing a solid and fitting conclusion, just didn't stay with me like the other films did.  There seemed to be much more of a "popcorn quality".  There's still plenty to love about it, and I do still highly recommend it, but given what we know Nolan is capable of, and what this series meant to the ascension of pulp material into the realms of prestige, I can't help but be slightly disappointed.  Something tells me that years down the road, when discussions of this movie come up, the word "apologist" will be flung around like monkey shit.

79% = *** = "Good"

-VMA


*  Empire Syndrome - A condition which is endemic, though not exclusive, to trilogies, where the second film is of notably higher quality than its surrounding counterparts.  This most likely results from the second film's freedom from both exposition and closure.  Without needing to flesh out a setting or universe, while also not bound by the constraints of providing a definitive ending, the second film in a trilogy can take the ideas introduced by the first, which still remain fresh in the eyes of the collective consciousness (and won't lose luster until film three), and use them as a springboard, experimenting with their formula, and taking them to heights not capable of being reached before.  It's independence from the need to quickly drive an overarching plot allows it to slow down and focus on deep, meaningful characters that the audience truly cares for and identifies with, making the inevitable climax it builds to all the more satisfying -- and it is satisfying, because its abandonment of closure allows it to end on a wild, ponderous cliffhanger which leaves hope and anticipation for the final installment at a fever pitch, leaving a sense of expectation that is virtually impossible to meet.

Examples of Empire Syndrome include:

1) Every trilogy ever made, ever.

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