The Dark Knight Rises.
On the afternoon of Saturday, 17th July 2010, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception at the cinema, for the first time. Even before it finished, it was already immortalized in my brain as my clear favourite film of all time – and still is. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I don’t think that will ever change for the rest of my life – more to the point, I don’t think it ever should. It’s an experience I have a profoundly fond and personal connection with, and forever will.
It was evident early on that this was blockbuster-filmmaking on an entirely different level – infinite in it’s thematic complexities, visually lush, cinematographically faultless, and so much more emotionally resonant than any other example in the ‘summer-actioner’ cannon that had gone before it. Epic in every single sense.
Five years before in 2005, Nolan had of course reinvigorated the Batman phenomenon – to stunning effect with Batman Begins. This was so much more than just: ‘a darker take’. It was a completely immersive reimagining – utterly grounded in a contemporary reality. Intelligently written, economical and stirring – all simultaneously.
Then of course, in 2008, he followed it up with the groundbreaking The Dark Knight – which dared to delve even further into the murky depths of the extremity of criminality. It was certainly a comment for our times – iconic, uncompromising and the most ambitious and impressive blockbuster of its time. Its genius was also due to the chilling brilliance of the tragically late Heath Ledger’s spine-tinglingly amoral Joker, certainly the best cinematic incarnation of a comic-book villain there will ever be.
Now, with Nolan’s third and defiantly final chapter, he continues to take the blockbuster so much further than infinity, into a completely different stratosphere of exceptional, unequal-able directorial aplomb. With Begins, Prestige, Knight, Inception and now Rises, as well as Memento and Insomnia preceding them, there isn’t an adjective in the entire history of the lexicon, I can use in order to bestow a high enough compliment to his work. These films go well beyond cinematic experience, trans-morphing into communal events – further catalyzed presently be a vast viral campaigning.
Like the invention of sound, colour, Dogma or French New-Wave, Nolan’s projects are radical, leaps forward in the medium - all of their own, choosing to venture into some of the most iconic, enduring sequences ever existing in a film camera, to produce seminally, existentially exhilarant results.
Like Ben Hur, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, Goldfinger, Jaws, Alien, Die Hard or The Godfather Trilogy, he simply creates landmark cinema – classic staple examples of perfection in a particular genre - that’s every bit exceptional, as it is exceptionally rare.
My favourite touchstone he employs to accomplish this, is often beginning the very first shot, right in the middle of the action – stipulating in its mutual, filmic criteria, that the audience must maintain their concentration in order to retrace and ultimately decode the contextual relevance behind the initial intrigue. A classic instance would be any number of case-in-points in Inception – namely the opening, or the ‘So how did we end up here?’ speed-ramped Parisian café scenario. The thematically mind-blowing conceptual ideas it explores or mirrored in its visual techniques of unequivocal ingenuity. Accentuated by repeatedly drawing on motifs of the iconography. Dreams (Inception), magic (The Prestige), memory, (Memento) or the power of accusation and paranoia (as explored in the darkly captivating Al Pacino and Robin Williams cat-and-mouse thriller Insomnia).
The convoluted, unbreakably cyclic structure, which the zeitgeist’s of his films are each encapsulated within – just think of the spinally shocking reveal at the end of rival magician saga The Prestige – demonstrate just how exquisitely constructed they really are. Magically executed techniques to serve magical content. Every single conceivable piece fits together flawlessly – identical to the structural composition to that of a rubrics-cube.
If, purely from a personal perspective, I was to examine the cannon of the winged avenger’s cinematic catalogue, I feel very strongly that it’s more a question of difference in tonality than it is of ‘better or not’. For instance, Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton’s 1989 to 1992 style was very much taken from the doomy, gothic, non-specifically-located edge of the nourish and comic-book-esque fantastical hyperbole, that has now become his stamp, a trademark which continues to be the distinguished trademark of his idiosyncratic career.
In 1995, Joel Schumacher took over with Val Kilmer, all brooding lips and tortured resentment, with the CGI-laden Batman Forever - where pop-art preceded in being the aesthetically bold trend, with all variety of angled-camera shots, mighty soundstages, fluorescent colours, and no-expense-spared production-values. This may have tipped over into slight over-indulgence with the extravaganza of 1997’s Batman and Robin, with none-other than a certain George Clooney in the cape, but, as a seven-year-old, I really enjoyed all the powerhouse fodder of implausibility about both chapters in the Schumacher era! Batman Forever certainly had a major impact on my childhood film-viewing – up to that point I’d just never seen a live-action film being made with such verve, colour and general sense of ‘Hollywood-back-lot’ grandiosity.
With Batman Begins, as already mentioned, Nolan not only took it all back to basics, but also to a whole new level. After the seminal, record-breaking success of the follow up: The Dark Knight, the finale, Rises marks perhaps the most highly-anticipated film conclusion of all time in the modern history of the cinematic medium – with a level hype to match and even surpass the Bond franchise; the phrase ‘eagerly-awaited’ doesn’t even come close.
Nolan himself has even said this third and final installment in his trilogy is the largest-scale he’s ever directed, and you can certainly see why. This is the film in which we see the city of Gotham at it’s most multi-faceted: icy snow, pitch-black twilit cityscapes, and under the fierce, repeated threat of being blown to smithereens…
Rises is my personal favourite not only in Nolan’s trilogy, but of any Batman film. It raises not only the Batman franchise to new heights, but Nolan also takes the very medium of cinema far beyond the filmic stratosphere, with results that produce possibly some of the most epic and striking sequences ever committed to celluloid.
So, this film opens in typically spectacular fashion, aboard a hijacked plane no-less, as hooded civilians are captured under the petrifying tyranny of the masked figure Bane – a one-man juggernaut of hulk, bulk and harm. He’ll frequently shoot, punch or snap the necks of his innocent victims to bone-crunching effect without even looking. Most intriguingly, this is the fist time that Bruce Wayne (now an aged recluse, never leaving the confines of Wayne Manor, hobbling around it on a walking stick), has ever come up against a lethal adversary who far surpasses him physically. Physically that is…
Tom Hardy has an impossible task in following the seminal genius of a true personal hero of mine: Heath Ledger. His astoundingly acidic, utterly amoral characterization of The Joker is one of the most stunning performances ever captured on film, and fully deservedly, won Heath a posthumous Golden-Globe, BAFTA and Academy-Award respectively.
The whole tone of Bane as a character was wisely chosen to be constructed in total antithesis to Heath’s Joker. Where he was sardonic, self-contradictory and had a certain wit as razor-sharp as his weapon of choice, Bane, although arguably scarier in terms of sheer intimidation, lacks the unique quirk and intelligence to equal Heath’s performance. Bane’s make-up is vastly simpler: a titanic, unstoppable compendium of physical endurance.
When early preview footage was released of the blistering aforementioned opening sequence of the plane-hijacking was released, the whole issue of Hardy’s vocal clarity - behind elaborate, monstrous cranial apparatus – was overblown.
It is quite difficult to fully understand his gruffly tones at times, but that’s not to say at all that it detracts from Hardy’s performance. In fact, it only adds to his menace. He’ll dispense with an almost inaudible remark just as quick as he’ll dispense someone’s body from a plane, or their neck from their spine. He’s definitely the most lethal, purely shocking nemesis in the trilogy. I don’t think there are any lengths he won’t go to in annihilating Gotham and everyone in it – including breaking Mr. Wayne and his now (seldom) suited alter-ego – literally. ‘What will break first – your spirit? Or your body?’ ‘When Gotham is ashes…you have my permission to die’… It does make you genuinely anxious for our broodingly reluctant hero’s future. Hardy meanwhile, perfectly embodies – again literally – Bane’s striking physical prowess to chilling effect, representing a machine of optimum agility and speed.
At the completely opposite end of the spectrum, we have a Nolan first: a prevalent action heroine – and of course – this being Batman, not just any action heroine… Who else but the hugely anticipated introduction of none other than Catwoman. The initially surprising casting choice of Anne Hathaway in the role of Selina Kyle is now totally rest-assured. She’s absolutely terrific. Her transcendent interpretation of an icon starts off with a deceptively meek cover identity as a jittery, worldly-naïve and apologetic maid at Wayne Manor… The moment she is caught out be a bemused and frail Bruce, her magic lies in literally transforming before our eyes, into a quixotic, lithe little minx, all through the sheer economy of a flick of the hair, mischievous flash of the eyes, and one single syllable: ‘Oops’… Acerbic, threatening and supremely confident. It’s one of the most rewarding, revelatory moments I’ve ever had as a viewer in the cinema. One of my favourite scenes in the film in fact takes place in a gritty, deserted downtown bar where Selina is engaging in some morally ambiguous double-dealing. ‘It’ll liven up in a minute – trust me’ …
Sure enough, an armed S.W.A.T team scrambles in, and our vixen becomes a petrified screaming flurry of hysteria, only to flash a dismissive smirk as soon as the coast is clear…
‘Cat got your tongue?’ she asks provocatively at one point, pinning her latest victim to the wall. ‘Do those heels make it tough to walk?’ another asks. ‘I don’t know’…she replies ‘- …do they?’ – before landing the base of a glossy stiletto straight through his leg…
Among the other new characters for this concluding chapter is John Blake. An eager young police officer – he’s the most identifiable, honest, earnest, well-crafted character than Nolan’s Batman franchise has ever produced. This is due to the casting of the fantastic Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Re-uniting with Nolan after his movie-stealing turn (a full 360 degrees in zero-gravity no less), as Arthur in Inception, Joseph’s talent is endless. Through the very slightest of gestures as John – an empathetic tilt of the eyes or a knowing remark: ‘Are you sure it was him?’ he asks as the flying equivalent of The Batmobile – simply known as ‘The Bat’ makes its daring escape. Or after being told every cop has already been dispatched: ‘Not every cop…’ John’s a very opportunistic, resourceful character, and a personification of truth, morality and a heroic goodness, striving for the right choices that re-optimize the hope of Gotham.
Joseph’s one of those actors who displays this amazing sense of effortlessness in every role he immerses himself in, with this wonderful economical skill of obtaining the absolute integrity of a range of extremely versatile characters constantly. As with Inception, he walks away with the best performance in the film completely – entirely through subtlety. He’s my favourite ever actor, the best of both mine and his same generation – and a true inspiration.
Being very careful not to give too much away, with Nolan stating that this is his final Batman film, John’s secret in the film’s electrifying final, revelatory moments provide a fascinating clue as to where Joseph may be able to take his character in the future – for a possible, brilliant, very exciting continuation of the franchise…
Also new this time around is Marion Cotillard, again reuniting with Nolan after Inception, here playing the elusive new love interest for Bruce Wayne: Miranda Tate – essentially the catalyst for re-boost a bruised Bruce after eight years of seclusion, piquing his interest in a new energy project. Again, it’s not giving too much away to say that every character has a big secret, and, particularly with Miranda, on repeated viewings it’ll become more obvious that, even in tiny split-second shots – that there’s far more to her than initially meets the eye, and all is certainly not what it seems…
I would have liked to have seen Morgan Freeman have a little more screen time as the dryly witty Lucius Fox, the weapon division’s master of gadgetry, but there’s always a pressure of time and space with a leviathan film on this scale, particularly with a big ensemble cast.
Gary Oldman’s earthy Commissioner Gordon is given a huge moral dilemma to contend with – all to with moral judgments. Oldman’s always such a powerful, intense screen presence.
Micheal Caine once again remains the emotional centre of the film, and here is given some genuinely emotionally affecting moments – particularly between himself and Christian Bale.
In his duel interpretation of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, it’s a real testament to Bale that while all these elaborate situations are escalating, he always retains keeping his performance utterly grounded, which in turn means, that the audience can always relate to the man behind that inimitable mask. Here he makes us witness Bruce in a state of heartbreaking fragility – around midway through, locked in the bowels of Bane’s birthplace – a hellish underground prison. His soul is almost as broken as the fragmented mask that’s ripped from his face… Bale is, I feel, another brilliant, very underrated actor, and will be much missed in the very difficult, iconic role of Batman, and like all the actors before him – has completed made the role his own.
My expectations were far exceeded throughout, especially during the innumerable, blistering and impossibly ambitious array of stratospheric action set pieces.
I had the privilege of seeing this seminal milestone of landmark filmmaking twice, once in the truly spectacular IMAX format. A gargantuan, huge-scale, gigantic screen. At times it’s vertigo-inducing, but it’s such a richly rewarding experience – that only serves to make the action, clarity and visual invention even more stunning – by tenfold.
The second time, I enjoyed it even more, noticing even more of Nolan’s ingeniously employed techniques. I also experienced it in the relatively new D-BOX for the first time, basically a seat which shudders and reacts with your choice and degree of its intensity - to any form of diegetic pressure involved in the physical impact of the film – such as a punch, gunshot or explosion. Never more have a felt more purely immersed in the milieu of the film.
Bane hijacks both the plane at the very beginning, and Gotham’s Stock Exchange in a chillingly ruthless manner (New York’s Stock Exchange on Wall Street, actually doubled for Gotham’s – completely seamlessly).
This leads to an amazing, nerve-jangling chase, (‘Time to go mobile’ Bane commands), as a band of motorcycles zoom out, as petrified bankers are strapped to the back of their captors.
Cabwoman’s instrumental in leaving an already deeply scarred Bruce at the mercy of Bane at one stage on, ironically a prison catwalk – as a particularly violent fight ensues. In D-BOX, every brutal punch from Bane is registered – we feel Bruce’s pain right along with him.
Bane’s reign of terror also includes blowing up the three bridges – the people’s only means of escape from the city, and a superb homage to the storming of the Bastille, as Gotham’s criminals are unleashed from their prisons. But the highlight for me was our arch-villains peerlessly staged infiltration of a football stadium. ‘LET THE GAMES BEGIN’ he announces, as charges are set off, ripping a whole in the very foundation of the field…
Of course, Nolan never allows the spectacle to overshadow his film’s central themes. It’s unarguable that the tension in Gotham has never been higher. Nolan’s utterly fearless. No theme, idea, or thematic conceit of a commentary on the zeitgeist is left unexplored. From exploitation, the class-divide to facing financial cataclysmia in the credit-crunch – no opportunistic stone is left unturned.
Particularly in the multi-stranded, epic forty-five minute finale, production designer Nathan Crowley has employed the collaboration of unbelievable feats of design: three camouflaged Batmobile Tumblers, Catwoman’s new Batpod, and the striking aerial vehicle ‘The Bat’ come together to unforgettable effect.
I always really admire how Nolan reteams with much of the same cast and particularly crew on many of his projects. It helps create a fluidity, an economy, and also a useful shorthand on set for the actors, but also rewards viewers in acknowledging the trademark of a particular sense of distinctive artistic vision and style. I’m referring namely to the wonderful Director Of Photography Wally Pfister – the crisp, sheer sharpness and clarity of his images is unparalleled, particularly here – with the transition into the medium of digital, when around an hour of footage (mainly action sequences) are shot in the IMAX camera. The balance between a glossy, deeply cinematic sheen and clean immediacy is always perfectly struck. This daring style, combined with seeing it on an IMAX screen or in a D-BOX seat, put you as a viewer directly in the milieu of the film.
I think that the score is the single most underrated, vital element in filmmaking. The score is the resonating soul of a film. It’s critical in establishing a specific atmosphere – and in terms of adrenaline-inducing, bombastic blockbuster scoring – it really doesn’t get any better than Hans Zimmer. His central motif throughout this trilogy, is to continually ramp up the tension with five ominous strums on the violin: ‘dum, dum, dum, dum-dum’. His skill lies in planting the smallest of low one-note seeds rising gradually to reach huge orchestral crescendos, of brass, string and electronic – with stirringly memorable, rousing results.
However huge the spectacle, Nolan always establishes that the movie’s characters are its heart. For over a decade, he’s made all his films, including this massive franchise a shining example of how of blockbusters can have brains as well as brawn. He’s a pioneer – the first of his kind to do so. It’s an epic, deeply moving conclusion, with visual flair, rich entertainment and grippingly captivating innovation. Seminal. One of the finest films of the year. The blockbuster of all blockbusters – and so much more…
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