***½/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras A-
starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway
screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw For all its overreaching (and what's perilously close to a training montage), Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is fascinating, engaging, and aggressively present. It's a wonderfully-performed melodrama about the sad, intractable state of our sorry state, painted in broad strokes in a muted palette. It's what many would think impossible despite the evidence of its predecessor: a comic book for grown-ups. And it accomplishes what it sets out to do without much in the way of action sequences or hero moments--the irony being, of course, that The Dark Knight Rises is fated to become the best-reviewed and most-lucrative release of 2012 for having the very same qualities for which the deeply-underappreciated Superman Returns was lambasted. I would argue that a wide swath of the people who will adore it will have difficulty articulating exactly why.
Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises is hardly an action movie at all, but a three-hour social satire that takes on the Occupy Movement, the crimes of the 1%, the crimes of the 99%, and, in no particular order, capitalism, socialism, anarchy, and the desire for principled individuals to wipe their personal slate clean and start over fresh somewhere new. How else to take a film that dangles the possibility of renewable energy, transforms that possibility into a Nobel nightmare of weaponization, then wipes its hands of the whole mess with an implicit declaration that one should only save a world worth saving? The Dark Knight Rises isn't about the Left or the Right--it's about the futility of vengeance, of drawing those lines in the first place. It's about wearing masks to lubricate social commerce, to hide from scrutiny, to disguise true intent if you're a villain and exaggerate it if you're a hero. It identifies the superhero genre as identical in that way to Japanese Noh, or the roots of Roman dramaturgy: as a caricature of large emotions, projected on archetypal masks, engaged in ritualized plots. And at the end, it defines heroism as martyrdom to an imperfect ideal. It's the Edmund Burke maxim of "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men stand by and do nothing" presented as viable, maybe the only life choice that makes sense. Also, the batwing is badass.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been in seclusion for eight years, mourning the death of his girlfriend on the night that sainted DA Harvey Dent was brutally murdered by masked vigilante The Batman. When he's robbed of his mother's pearl necklace at a charity ball on the grounds of Wayne Manor by comely cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), Bruce's interest in the larger world outside is, shall we say, aroused. Selina, it seems, has fallen in with a bad crowd--she's beholden to a masked terrorist called Bane (Tom Hardy), the last remnant of Ra's al Ghul's (Liam Neeson) band of ne'er-do-wells. This sets up the intrigue of Batman and Bane being products of the same father-figure/mentor, as well as a moment (one of a couple that are a little too on-the-nose) where the picture compares Bruce with Christ, though The Dark Knight Rises has more interesting things than father issues to explore. What Bane wants, see, is to deliver Gotham City (New York stands in for it this time; it was Chicago last) into a state of martial law by wresting power away from the 1% and returning it, as it were, to the 99. This results in a raid on the Stock Exchange, the murder/rape/expulsion of all those brownstones along City Park, the burial of three-thousand uniformed police officers, the erection of a frightening kangaroo court (presided over by Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who else?), and, most unforgivably, the desecration of a professional football game. In other words, it takes on every institution of order that still holds currency in 2012. In the 1950s-into-'60s, the institutions under attack were family, law, and church. In the new millennium, more often than not, it's the banks and the government--whether it's possible anymore to distinguish the two.
But it's not so tidy. It's not that Bane is right with his hippie-dippy, freak-flag communal concept, and it's not that representation-of-order Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his upholding of laws based on lies and the denial of parole (possibly due process) is right. It's not that Selina (we know her better as "Catwoman," though no one refers to her by that name) is right when she warns Bruce that a populist storm is on the horizon to punish the power brokers for their decadence, and it's not that Batman is right that Gotham is worth saving in the end. He's told, in perhaps the film's most effective exchange, that the notion of "innocence" is a broad, inexact idea that Batman would be wise not to use so loosely. It seems to hold fast to the idea that the only rational thing left to do is run and leave the world to its own zero-sum devices. What's fascinating about The Dark Knight Rises is that, like The Dark Knight before it, it's interested in asking big, sloppy questions but finally content to land on the idea that there are no absolute definitions for concepts like morality, truth, identity, or innocence, and that the way these things persist is through a belief in stories, legends, heroes who give selflessly and become statues in public places. (If you think symbols aren't important, why is there a fight over a statue of Joe Paterno on the campus of State College?) I love the character of Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and how he's held up as the emblem of purity; I love his conversations with Bruce, and how by the end it's clear that the film is actually about him.
Most of all, I love that The Dark Knight Rises is pretentious, grandiose, and smart. It's what Prometheus aspired to be: large, popular genre entertainment, expertly done and, however imperfect, carefully reasoned through. The villain has a purpose, the femme fatale has a purpose, the hero has a purpose, and none of them are without complication or nuance. There are layers of interpretation possible for the film, and watching it twice, once in 35mm and again in definitive IMAX, showed not only that the large format is essential, but also that the film withstands repeat viewings. The clues to its many reveals prove themselves to be there from the beginning; Michael Caine's bit part as long-suffering butler Alfred is still tremendous; and Hathaway ends up as the character who resonates for her complexity (does she have a girlfriend?) and, ultimately, for the surprising sweetness of her aspirations. Even more marvellous is that in this thunderous, epic summer flick, what lingers for me are the scenes that don't involve explosions and gunfire. Nolan's Batman movies are time capsules of our zeitgeist, and while I hope their nihilism and hopelessness are misplaced, they feel just right.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Breathe a sigh of relief: Warner hasn't transferred The Dark Knight Rises to Blu-ray the way they did The Dark Knight, which is to say that an IMAX blowup did not serve as the source print for the 35mm footage this time around. As with The Dark Knight, however, the 1080p image toggles between 2.40:1 and 1.78:1, the latter slightly cropping the native IMAX dimensions of 1.66:1 to better simulate the format's screen-filling aspect. Downconverted from an 8k scan, the IMAX material (some of it in fact lower-resolution VistaVision, because it was impractical to shoot certain F/X in IMAX) looks tremendous, obviously--naturally, abundantly sharp and just plain rich. The one thing I will say against it is that it can get a little "velvety." There's probably a depth of contrast there that current HD simply can't replicate. The 2/3rds that were shot in 35mm* pale in comparison but really only in comparison, although faint traces of edge-enhancement crop up now and again, and the colours seem oversaturated in the earlygoing, perhaps all in a hopeless effort to equalize the two disparate stocks. As for the audio, the biggest difference between the film in theatres and at home is that Bane sounds crystal clear on this 5.1 DTS-HD MA track. Still vocoder-like and bassy as hell, mind, but crystal clear, and often more audible than some of the quieter characters. (His voice is also decentralized, a practical consideration that takes the onus off Tom Hardy to project through the mask.) The mix itself is like Bane: brutal, punishing, relentless. But strangely eloquent, too, boasting fluid sidewall pans and a crisp reproduction of Hans Zimmer's experimental score.
The only extra on the first platter of this combo pack is a "Second Screen" app that sends "exclusive" content to your smartphone, laptop, or tablet in synch with the film; it wasn't live yet when I tried to demo it. Disc 2, likewise a BD, begins with "The Batmobile" (58 mins., HD). Director Roko Belic leaves no incarnation of the eponymous vehicle unexplored in a piece that fosters new appreciation for the Joel Schumacher versions of the Batmobile. Schumacher actually contracted H.R. Giger to design the car for Batman Forever, and though that (predictably) didn't work out, the spirit of Giger's concepts informed the final product. Tim Burton and the late Anton Furst discuss their take on the Batmobile in archival footage, while Adam West appears to have adopted the senility of his loony toons "Family Guy" alter ego in a lengthy monologue about how so many fatherless "Batman" fans consider him their dad or something. The ending's a bit of a tearjerker, as Andy Smith--builder of various Batmobiles over the years, as well as a cancer survivor--takes the Tumbler on a tour of children's hospitals. He's a good egg.
Next is a feature-length making-of (111 mins., HD) divided into three sections--"Production," "Characters," "Reflections"--and several subsections within. Maddeningly, there is no Play All function, and if you want to turn on ProLogic, prepare to have to do so at the start of each segment. Those quibbles out of the way, this is an exhaustive and ultimately fulfilling documentary that breaks the film down by its set-pieces before taking a few increasingly transparent but not undeserved victory laps in honour of the Dark Knight trilogy. We learn that "The Bat" (a.k.a. the Batwing) didn't really fly (duh) but was towed around the streets on a gimbal erased in post, thus creating the floating effect. All part of Christopher Nolan's fondness for realism, the sense of mass that can't be faked digitally, which is why when it came time to dangle an airplane from another airplane he chose to composite a toy into the shot rather than resort to CGI. (And, presumably, why real NFL players were cast as the Gotham Rogues. The signage in that football scene is lingered on a bit in the applicable featurette, by the way, and it's cheese of that rare "Mutant Cure Here" variety.) The surprise of these featurettes for me personally was not the proof of Nolan's DeMille-ian grandeur but hearing Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan speak in a voice that does not match his brother's British accent--well, that and costume designer Lindy Hemming's declaration that Anne Hathaway's Catwoman outfit is "not sexual." Try telling that to my penis, especially during an IMAX screening.
Rounding out the set is a batch of trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, in HD and DD 5.1. The second one, new to me, is most effective, even after you've seen the movie a couple of times. A DVD copy of The Dark Knight Rises comes bundled with the Blu-ray.
*Why not shoot the whole thing in IMAX? According to Nolan in the supplementals, the noisy cameras can interfere with performance. And we know what happens when you distract Christian Bale with camera nonsense.