Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises
The Godfather…trilogy. The Lord of the Rings…trilogy. In the words of another trilogy that will not be uttered in the same breath as the two former, ‘everything that has a beginning has an end’. Even considering the source of this particular quote, it could not ring more true than when in reference to one of the most iconic characters ever to grace the screen. Christopher Nolan’s Batman.
Even before the film went into production, The Dark Knight Rises was always going to be Nolan’s grand finale. The most loyal fans of the franchise would agree that (especially in the current, sequel-heavy climate) going out with a strong third installment is ultimately preferable to a seemingly never ending series. This opinion would be for a number of reasons, but namely because Nolan is an extremely gifted filmmaker of whom film fans will crave original material, adored though his take on the Batman story is. Exciting as his future prospects may be, there’s no denying a certain sadness that comes with the end of such a breathtaking era. Over the last seven years, Nolan has given Batman back to the people and created two thrilling takes on the continuing story of the billionaire playboy who became a masked vigilante.
The question on everyone’s lips since the Batman disappeared on the Batpod hasn’t even been ‘Can Nolan deliver a strong final film?’ as much as ‘Just how strong will The Dark Knight Rises prove to be?’ Having proven over the course of two films that Batman was in the most capable of hands, the expectations began to soar to astronomical heights. Heights that perhaps were a tad unrealistic. How do you raise the bar after a film like The Dark Knight, and if you like, Inception? Is it even possible?
Those who worship The Dark Knight may be slightly disappointed, though they shouldn’t be. Comparison in terms of quality will more than likely be the first topic of conversation upon exiting the theatre, but it shouldn’t be. The Dark Knight is The Dark Knight. And The Joker is The Joker. Why continue to dwell on a glorious past when there is the prospect of such a contrasting and exciting future? Were fans of the series really hopeful of a final sequel that was variably the same as its predecessor? From this day forward, to appreciate what Nolan has done with Batman should be to appreciate the complete trilogy as they are three entirely different types of films tonally, narratively, the list goes on.
What’s instantly striking about The Dark Knight Rises is its focus on story rather than plot. Plot heavy as it may be, there’s no denying that on this third occasion, as an audience we are invited (for the first time) to honestly care for these characters that we already know so well. This is all thanks to an overwhelming sense of widespread threat across the board. For the majority of the film, the city of Gotham is being held hostage in almost every way, suddenly helpless without its masked saviour after an eight-year period of peacetime during which organised crime has become almost entirely non-existent. This newfound Gotham-wide helplessness is realised through a number of outstanding performances (rather than just the one in the case of The Dark Knight) that leave you feeling like you’re part of something far larger than simply effective plot execution; the definitive conclusion of every characters’ individual story as dictated by a single overseer. A man who has planned your fate before you’ve had a chance to figure it out for yourself.
As a villain, Bane makes Batman’s challenge from The Joker look like afternoon tea. If The Joker was a mosquito buzzing around Batman’s head, occasionally drawing the slightest bit of blood, Bane is a lion that tears the body limb from limb. He is the antithesis of fear. As intellectually sound as he is physically dominant, Batman is simply no match for him, especially in his ageing state that is far from the peak fitness you would expect from Bruce Wayne who is forced to prove (to Gotham and to himself) that overcoming evil involves far more than physicality.
As the playfully savage, prison-born mercenary, Tom Hardy is outstanding. Big things were expected from him upon his casting, and he has more than risen to the challenge to create a character that is stomach-turning in his intimidation, and profoundly chilling in every scene. As his face is covered by a mask for the entire film and his fascist musings partially distorted as a result, Hardy’s performance relies as much on his physical presence and body language as it does his delivery of dialogue. He stands and delivers on all fronts and disappears within his role the same way that Heath Ledger did, but on a completely different plain that should do well to avoid any direct comparisons with The Dark Knight’s iconic Joker altogether. Apples and oranges, you might say.
Where Hardy’s performance was expected, Anne Hathaway’s was not. Hathaway has always had her critics, and her casting as cat-burgler Selina Kyle was the only definitive loose end as far as most fans of the franchise were concerned. Although the majority had full faith in Nolan and his ability to concisely cast a ‘cat woman’, there was no way any of us would have been able to foretell just what a knockout Hathaway would prove to be. Her character is mysterious and challenging, sexy yet deadly; the perfect yang to Batman/Bruce Wayne’s ying. While her reason for being is never revealed, it only adds to the mystery of Kyle as she toes the line between friend and foe from first minute to last. Hathaway will certainly win over the doubters within seconds of appearing on screen, and by the end of the film, most viewers will be kicking themselves for ever doubting Nolan in the first place.
Familiar characters aside, Nolan has never been adverse to introducing new characters to the Batman universe (see Rachel Dawes). In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, it is the turn of John Blake, a young Gotham City Police officer. Blake is portrayed by Inception-veteran Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and in some style. Whereas the public has long been aware that Bane and Kyle would feature prominently in the film’s narrative, Blake’s relevance has proved to be much more of an enigma. All we knew was that he was going to be somewhat of a student to Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon (who is hospitalised for a large chunk of the film as evidenced in the initial teaser trailer). The depth of Blake’s impact, as dictated by Nolan, was to be in no way felt through any of the feature trailers or additional promotion. Why? Because his character is as integral to the rise of the Dark Knight as Gordon, Lucius Fox, or even Alfred. The latter portrayed once more by the wonderful Michael Caine who provides the most honest and emotional performance in the film. Gordon-Levitt’s role though is that of subtlety and persistence. He calmly lays the groundwork for the film’s climax, yet expects no recognition for it. No doubt, fans will exit screenings praising Blake’s good name.
Also underplaying their importance to the story is another Inception survivor, Marion Cotillard in the form of Wayne Enterprises partner and philanthropist, Miranda Tate. Like Blake, her involvement in the story was kept well under wraps, and for good reason. She is tipped as important to the titled ‘rise’ throughout the film, but to an extent that is not proven until the wildly stranded third act.
Finally, as far as performances go, it is important to hold Christian Bale as high as any of his supporting cast. For the first time in the trilogy, Bale delivers on a soulful level that many thought impossible for his troubled character. Over the course of the film’s 164-minute running time, his physical presence is wilfully adapted in a way that only Bale and his trademark methods are capable of. From bearded, withered cripple to hardened warrior, Bale ticks all the boxes. And in a memorable exchange at the bottom of a stairwell with Caine’s Alfred, Bale reveals everything we always knew Wayne had the capability to feel. Determined and selfless, Bale can sleep soundly in the knowledge that he has done the Bruce Wayne name as proud as could have ever been expected.
This heart-stopping anthology of performances drive the film past the thrilling and into the world of the deeply dramatic all thanks to a fine script from Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. It is politically current, and not without message as the themes of social and economic struggle run rich throughout. Some may call it overzealous content, while others will simply find it to be everything they ever wanted from a bleakly relevant superhero story. As for complaints about its bloatedness, criticism is welcome if unwarranted. The Dark Knight Rises is certainly a long sit, but Nolan gives the fans what they want; endless action and interweaving narrative threads that incorporate every last facet of the existing Nolan Batverse, and then some. The people who are complaining about the film’s length are the exact same people who would be complaining of ‘endless loose ends’ and ‘lack of character depth’ were the film to be 45 minutes shorter. The Dark Knight Rises is the final epic chapter of one of the most successful film franchises of all time, and has been ridiculously anticipated as such. Why shouldn’t we take as much time as is necessary to conclude the story of Bruce Wayne and his ever evolving journey as the Batman?
The only major flaw (and one that many will pick up on) as far as can be told after one or two viewings is the character of Gordon’s Deputy Commissioner Foley, portrayed ever so flatly by Matthew Modine. His nothing performance isn’t helped by the fact that the character, and every part he plays in his various plot line appearances is entirely forgettable. His frustrating presence doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the film as a whole, but it certainly would have thrived more so than it already does without his questionable inclusion in an already character-rich tale. This outstanding grief aside, there are some strange edits and transitions between scenes that may slightly shock you if you’re a fan of Nolan’s attention to detail. On more than one occasion, the audience is invited to emotionally invest themselves in a scene only to be sharply stopped in their tracks. This doesn’t really affect the overall pace of the film as much as it does the narrative flow. Still, it’s only a minor concern, and nobody’s perfect.
Predictably technically superior, The Dark Knight Rises succeeds on an unprecedented scale of majesty for many reasons. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is visceral without feeling cluttered, and as inventive as Chris Corbould’s visual effects which are (in true Nolan style) as physical and CGI-less as humanly possible. What CGI set pieces the film does possess are woven in seamlessly and provide some of the more visual spectacles that the film has to offer. And there are many. It is most impressive though, to know that Nolan was passionate from the outset about using CGI as a last resort when constructing many of the film’s action sequences. Actual rubble always trounces computer rubble, after all.
These elements coupled with a surreal aural design of Bane’s expectedly menacing voice and a score from Hans Zimmer than can simply be described as potentially his pulsing best mean that your first viewing of The Dark Knight Rises MUST be in the IMAX format. Sure, 70 minutes of the film were filmed on IMAX cameras, but it’s the deafening sound of it all that turns it into an actual, physical experience. Prepare to feel your seat rattle from the word go. Without an ounce of exagerration, you will feel as if you are on board a doomed aircraft alongside Bane and Dr. Pavel. A true cinematic treat if ever there was one. And that’s just the opening five minutes.