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From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
Films at sea have the potential to be immersive but run the risk of being soggy. For the most part, Ron Howard’s latest effort succeeds in being the former, as Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) records the experiences of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson/Tom Holland) aboard the whaling vessel Essex, the “true” story that inspired Moby Dick. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay balances Dickerson’s confession with the voyage of the Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who frequently clashes with First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as they sail in search of whales. The framing story raises interesting ideas about storytelling, although these are not developed because the emphasis is upon confession of “deep truth,” which at times becomes somewhat trite. But the spectacle of sailors battling the elements make up for this with rich visual detail and visceral rushes as waves crash against the Essex and men grapple with ropes and sails. The whaling sequences are also well handled for conservation-conscious eyes, as close-ups of both the whales and the whalers convey a sense of melancholy over the slaughter of these creatures. Later, the sailors’ voyage becomes a fight for survival, and this is the film’s greatest strength, as it focuses upon the relationship between humanity and nature, both elements and animals. This focus aligns In The Heart of the Sea with other recent films such as Godzilla and The Grey that explore the place of humanity in relation to untamed nature, arrogance, obsession and humility vying for prominence among the crew, as well as their employers back on land. This gives the film an interesting depth to go with its visual spectacle and, at times, palatable suffering. While not a perfect cruise, Howard’s oceanic adventure is still an enjoyable voyage.
Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.
Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.
This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.
Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?
The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.
For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.
Transcendence does what the best science fiction stories do – gives big ideas the big treatment. This is both the great strength and the great pitfall of the genre: if the dramatisation of these ideas is effective, extraordinary cinema can be created (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix). If it is ineffective, you can be left with little more than tedious, pseudo-philosophical, techno-babble (see The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions). Transcendence falls somewhere inbetween, as it engages with its grand ideas with conviction and creativity, director Wally Pfister showing a keen eye for the tiniest details, both of nature and technology. At times, the overall scale of the events is not made clear, while several of the characters are essentially cyphers, and these features can undermine the drama. Overall though, the film’s conviction wins out, as Transcendence pursues its questions about humanity, identity, mortality and the dangers of good intention to their logical and, at times, unsettling, conclusion.
Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.
Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.
Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.
The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.
For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.
The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.
Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death.
Danny Boyle is one of Britain’s hottest directors right now, with the double whammy of winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and the small matter of directing the Olympics opening ceremony. Whereas other high profile Brits often make the jump to Hollywood (yes, Christopher Nolan, I mean you), Boyle has continued to make home-grown films, shooting on location in London and at such venues as 3 Mills Studios. Furthermore, Boyle has maintained his distinctive approach to filmmaking, despite the grandeur of the Oscars and the Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, is a psychological thriller which focuses upon three characters, and looks to have the same visceral, gritty approach that he established in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Boyle is a particular advocate of digital film, used to great effect in his Boyle’s foray into horror with 28 Days Later…. Shot on DV, 28 Days Later… tells the story of a Britain devastated by a virus that turns people into savage beasts, presented in a grainy image with an immediate, snatched quality. In the early scenes as Jim (Cillian Murphy) searches the eerie, deserted streets of London, the image has a tactile quality, drawing us further into Jim’s situation, feeling as well as seeing and hearing what he encounters. The processing of the image also feels underdone (though it almost certainly is not), which adds to the sense of immediacy.
The immediacy of the digital image expresses the down-to-earth level of the film as a whole. Although the film does not technically feature zombies, because the “Infected” are not dead, the post-apocalyptic tone of survivors holding onto existence owes much to the zombie film tradition, best demonstrated in the films of George A. Romero. Like Romero, Boyle’s non-zombie zombie film has political undertones, beginning with the opening shots that consist of news footage of violent acts: riots, police brutality, war. Presented on a series of screens before a laboratory chimpanzee, these initial images express humanity’s inhumanity, in contrast to the passive ape that is unaffected by the violence. This conceit runs through the whole film, as we are repeatedly shown the savagery and inhumanity of humans in a variety of forms.
The most obvious form of this inhumanity is, of course, the Infected, transformed by the Rage virus into rampaging beasts. Another form is the survivors, especially Selena (Naomie Harris), who has abandoned sympathy and compassion in favour of a ruthless survival wish, which she describes as willing to kill anyone infected “in a heartbeat”. Although initially dazed and confused, Jim eventually morphs into a savage creature himself, brutally killing an opponent (who is not Infected) by driving his thumbs into the other man’s eyes. Savagery is intrinsic in humans, the film suggests, all it takes is a little push.
Most interesting are the soldiers that Jim, Selena, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) travel north to reach. Commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone), the soldiers imprison Selena and Hannah as concubines to repopulate the human race, believing that they are the last survivors. Just as the Infected are reduced to basic animal ferocity, so have the soldiers reverted to reproductive desire. Major West describes their situation in clinical terms, saying that his men feared they would simply die and that would be the end of humanity, so he “promised them women”. What is more revealing, though, is what West says about all the killing:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
In other words, the Rage has not made any major difference. His perspective indicates that whether Infected or not, people kill people. The film plays out this belief, as almost everyone kills at least once. The exception is the teenage Hannah, the innocent child, who Selena will do anything to protect, even drugging Hannah so that she is oblivious to the impending rape. 28 Days Later… is post-apocalyptic in the sense of being post-civilisation – as the Joker said: “When the chips are down, these ‘civilised’ people, they’ll eat each other”.
The first time I saw 28 Days Later…, I thought the depravity of the soldiers was the first appearance of humanity’s inhumanity beyond the Infected, but on a second viewing I realised that the theme is there from the beginning (I missed the very opening first time around). The activists who break into the laboratory in the first scene see themselves as humanitarian by ending animal research that they view as torture. Equally, the scientists performing the experiments see their research as humanitarian. Nonetheless, the scientists have still harmed the chimps by infecting them with Rage, and the activists cause harm by ignoring the warnings the chimps. The scientist (David Schneider) urges the activists to kill the woman who is infected and then tries himself, demonstrating the swiftness with which “civilisation” is dropped. It is hardly surprising that civilisation becomes anarchy in just four weeks, if human savagery is awakened so easily. All that is left are random acts of kindness, such as Selena and Mark (Noah Huntley) rescuing Jim, Frank protecting Jim and Selena, Jim returning to the military headquarters to save Selena and Hannah.
What is especially interesting about the humanity that is left after the spread of Infection is where it is not found – as indicated in the title of this post, salvation is searched for in the wrong places. I use the term salvation deliberately, because the broadcast put out by Major West emphasises salvation, and his base turns out to be anything but. During Jim’s initial search of London, he goes into a church, presumably in search of salvation. Instead he finds the building filled with people, who initially seem dead (indeed, I wondered if there had been a mass suicide). But when he calls to them, they reveal themselves to be Infected. A priest emerges from a doorway and staggers towards Jim, who backs away before knocking the priest to the floor and running away. A church and an army base promising salvation prove to be dangerous, and there are various scenes that feature choral music reminiscent of church choirs. During the survivors’ journey from London to Manchester, they stop to rest at an old monastery, in one of the film’s few peaceful moments. There is little in the way of peace or mercy in Boyle’s blood-stained Britain, but a spiritual element nonetheless runs throughout 28 Days Later…
What we see in 28 Days Later… is a loss of the soul, humanity’s soul consumed by the Rage, reducing most of the population to bloodthirsty animals. For those who survive, the soul is ignored in the battle for survival. Selena’s lack of sympathy and compassion suggests a containment of her soul, which is weakened over the course of the film. Not that a weakening of her soul’s containment means Selena herself weakens – she remains strong and assertive throughout, if anything gaining further strength in her desire to protect Hannah and save Jim after he is shot. Jim never becomes as cold as her, providing the film’s only comic relief with blackly humorous comments about their situation. His discovery of West’s plans for Selena and Hannah leads to complete rejection of the soldiers, and West orders his death as well as that of Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell clings to some form of faith which prompts West to ask why Farrell joined the army in the first place, which Farrell does not answer. What place does faith have when we are abandoned? Although Jim does maintain sympathy in his compassionate quest to rescue the women, he still resorts to complete savagery in order to do so. Does he lose his soul as well, or is the soul somehow compatible with savagery? This is one of several spiritual questions the film poses.
Horror cinema is often used to express political, social and moral issues, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, male fear of pregnancy in Alien, infection in Nosferatu. 28 Days Later… explores spiritual questions relating to the durability of the soul and where to find salvation. Institutions like the church and the army prove to be as savage as the world around them, salvation found only in individual compassion and sympathy. It is perhaps fitting that the message our heroes stretch over the grass at the end of the film says “HELLO” rather than “HELP” – Jim, Selena and Hannah are connected to each other, and reach out to make further connections with others.
A little late, I complete my ruminations on the cinematic excursions of the Caped Crusader, with consideration of how Christopher Nolan and his collaborators re-constituted Batman after the quality vacuum that was Batman & Robin, as well as offering my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises.
When I read that the reboot of the Batman franchise was to be directed by the man behind Memento and Insomnia, I was pleased because those films impressed me (indeed, Memento clarified that my favourite type of film is a good thriller and I haven’t gone wrong with that approach yet). Just how impressive Batman Begins turned out to be took me (as well as others) quite by surprise. Not only did Nolan (along with brother/co-writer Jonathan, as well as David S. Goyer, DoP Wally Pfister and producer/wife Emma Thomas) deliver a detailed, consistent and plausible reboot and reinterpretation of the Batman mythos, they also created the best superhero movie made up until that point. The superhero sub-genre had been growing since Blade in 1998, got better with X-Men in 2000 and really exploded with Spider-Man in 2002. Blade II, X-2, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man 2 followed in quick succession, so when Batman Begins arrived in 2005 (along with Fantastic Four), the superhero stage was already crowded.
What Batman Begins managed to do was delve deep into the psychology of a superhero figure, and strike a balance between character interplay and thematic exploration with spectacular action. Not that others had not done this as well – Spider-Man 2 and X-2 especially have plenty of action and plenty of character – but Batman Begins actually made the action sequences the least interesting parts of the film. Which is not to say they were bad: the explosive escape from the League of Shadows’ lair; Batman’s first appearance at the docks; the attack on Wayne Manor; Batman’s rescue of Rachel Dawes and the finale in the Narrows and aboard Gotham’s elevated train are all masterfully handled set pieces. In a year when Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was more Run of the Mill, and Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith went too far into CGI flamboyance, it was most refreshing to see a relatively new director stake such a claim in the blockbuster field. Yet despite the impressive set pieces, the inter-personal dramas between Bruce and Alfred, Jim Gordon, Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow, as well as the careful development of the Batman persona, make Batman Begins a remarkable investigation into identity, in relation to one’s own ideology, family background and social position, not to mention a varied exploration of the theme of fear. No other superhero film managed to accomplish so much and so efficiently.
With the superhero genre effectively deconstructed and reconstructed, Nolan could go to strange new places with the sequel, which is why The Dark Knight feels like something different and special. It is a superhero film only by virtue of having names, costumes and a few gadgets; otherwise, it is effectively a straight crime thriller. Except it is also more than that, as crime thrillers seldom have a criminal as malevolent and uncontrollable as the Joker. The Joker truly is the trump card in The Dark Knight, as discussions of motivations and objectives go out the window: as Alfred tells Bruce (and as we were warned in the teaser trailer), “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Nolan shows us the world burn in The Dark Knight – rather than Batman being a resource for law and order, Gotham becomes more violent and chaotic than ever. Much of the Joker’s power has been credited to Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance, but both as a character and an element within the plot the Joker serves to elevate the film into a thought-provoking philosophical discussion on chaos and order. The most dramatic sequences are, again, dialogue scenes such as the confrontation between Batman and the Joker in a police interview room, which infamously turns into a torture sequence, as well as the final stand-off between Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent. That these sequences stand out despite the tremendous opening bank robbery, the gripping battle between massive truck and Batmobile/Pod, and the high rise assaults in Hong Kong and Gotham, is testament to Nolan’s mastery of the cinematic craft, blending high octane thrills with serious themes and characters that can explore these themes in uncompromising ways. More than the best superhero film ever, The Dark Knight is a true genre-blender, merging elements of crime and political thrillers into a potent and compelling cocktail.
It would be fair to say that my reaction at the end of The Dark Knight Rises was one of relief: relief that it managed to live up to expectations. It did not supersede them – I think after the extraordinary nature of The Dark Knight, the expectation that it would be topped was unreasonably high. However, being aware of this, my hope was simply not to be disappointed, so I was relieved not to be. Earlier this year, my local world of ciné were nice enough to screen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in a single programme, so I got to see both on the big screen again before The Dark Knight Rises. Therefore I was well prepared to compare Christopher Nolan’s trilogy climax to his previous instalments.
The Dark Knight Rises succeeds as a trilogy closer because it builds upon yet does not deviate from what came before. We have much of the same: Alfred being regretful, Bruce being committed, Lucius being supportive, Gordon being fretful, and we have much that is new: Selina being deceitful, Bane menacing, Blake simultaneously idealistic and realistic, and Miranda being vengeful. I also expected Nolan’s remarkable ability to deliver superb action sequences, yet make these sequences the tip of the iceberg, two characters talking being even more dramatic than attack vehicles shooting at each other. Combining the two is effective as well: Bane and Batman taunting each other while they fight helps to draw the viewer in, feel the emotional as well as physical blows. Speaking of emotional blows, it was on the second viewing that I actually welled up during Alfred’s final speech, as he grieved for the Waynes and told Bruce’s parents how sorry he was that he failed to protect their son. Clearly, the film was powerful.
A key part of this power, like the previous installments, are the ideas that feature so heavily (but not heavy-handedly) in The Dark Knight Rises. Slavoj Zizek gives a very interesting discussion on the politics of the film, concluding that it is in some ways impressive and in others ham-fisted. Other reviews comment on the film’s engagement with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the potentially disturbing politics the film suggests. For me, a great element of the trilogy as a whole and its finale in particular, is the presentation and engagement with a debate over a type of heroism that is surprisingly egalitarian.
In my last post, I discussed the failures of the previous Batman movies to deliver a truly compelling take on the Dark Knight. I think a key reason was a specific failure to explore the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne in much depth. Crucially, this was what Nolan indicated he would be doing with his reboot of the franchise, so that was another reason I had high hopes for this re-interpretation.
When first conceiving of his vigilante persona in Batman Begins, Bruce describes an incorruptible symbol. Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight what the “point” of Batman is: “He can be the outcast, no one else can”. For Nolan/Bale’s Batman, that is indeed the point of Batman, he can be and do what no one else can. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce explains to John Blake and Jim Gordon that Batman is a demonstration that anyone can be a hero. I think this may be the reason Batman has always resonated with me, and why my work on the character thus far has focused upon discussions of heroism. Nolan’s trilogy is distinguished from the previous interpretations of the Dark Knight through its emphasis on “realistic” feats and devices rather than more outlandish events in such franchises as Spider-Man (Raimi and Webb) and The Avengers. Critics have pointed out the implausibility of such features as the Bat, Bruce’s trip from wherever the prison was back to Gotham without passport or money, and Selina Kyle’s heels, but nonetheless the films still take place in a world far-removed from genetic mutations into lizard creatures and devices that open portals to distant parts of the galaxy. However, being closer to our reality extends beyond the gadgets and the vehicles.
In my previous post, I argued that Batman Forever impresses me the most of the earlier Batman films, because we have an internal and external struggle for Bruce Wayne. This dramatic tension is played out on a far wider scale across Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend, as we focus upon Bruce’s attempts to deal with his past, present and future. Batman is a form of therapy, but ultimately lacks catharsis: he can make a start of helping the people of Gotham, but when it all goes horribly wrong in The Dark Knight, he gets stuck, as Alfred identifies, he never moved on. Yet by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he has moved on, “rising” out of the pit of depression that made him a recluse by the start of the film.
Bruce’s rise is only one of a number of appearances of the trope of rising in the film. Once imprisoned by Bane, Bruce literally rises out of the hole in which he is imprisoned, as did the previous inmate of the prison, whom both viewer and protagonist believe to be Bane, but turns out to be Talia/Miranda. The components of Bruce’s lair rise out of the water in the Batcave, a walkway rising under Alfred’s feet as he approaches his master/charge. In his final act of sacrifice, Batman rises out of Gotham in order to carry the bomb out of harm’s way. This final rise is also Bruce’s way of moving on, as he effectively “kills” Batman. The film’s finale might have benefitted from the ambiguity of not seeing the reverse shot of Alfred’s POV in Florence, when he sees Bruce and Selina, free of Gotham, but I choose to believe it is what he sees, allowing us the viewers to share in the catharsis of all three characters: all have risen from the darkness, the anguish and the pain that we have spent three movies sharing with them. How fitting that we share their rise as well.
Metaphorically, not only does Bruce rise out of isolation, but Batman rises from the state of pariah, and Gotham must rise above the state of martial law imposed upon it by Bane. Selina rises from cat burglar to freedom fighter, James Gordon rises from the depressed and injured state that he has fallen into, while John Blake rises from the rank of uniformed cop to something more distinguished. Indeed, the final shot of the film both presents and expresses rising, as it is filled by the platforms of the Batcave, rising with Robin Blake (the new Dark Knight?) upon them, literal and metaphorical rising encapsulated in a shot that both ends this legend, yet allows us to imagine what more could happen.
This, perhaps, is the final point of Batman: we can all be heroes in one way or another. We need not put on costumes or fight crime, but “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” So perhaps that is the message we can take from The Dark Knight Legend – whomsoever, in whatever circumstances, helps out fellow people, is a hero. That is the power of the Dark Knight Legend, taking the idea of heroism seriously, both as a dramatic device, and as an in-depth thematic exploration. To that height, Nolan rose, and certainly delivered me the Batman I always wanted.