REVIEW: Ambitious, Thrilling 'Dark Knight Rises' Undermined By Hollow Vision

Movieline Score:

The Batman brand is in the toilet at the outset of The Dark Knight Rises, the third and most self-consciously ornate pillar of Christopher Nolan’s caped crusader resurrection trilogy. The four years since The Dark Knight have passed as eight within the city state of Gotham — one of the neater doublings in a movie inlaid with prismatic tiling — and even the mayor condemns Batman as “a murderous thug.”

The late Harvey Dent, by contrast, has been canonized as a civic hero; something called the “Dent Act” has ushered in an era of safe streets and soft despotism. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), meanwhile, is still heartbroken over the murder of Rachel Dawes and said to be peeing in Mason jars and polishing his curly fingernails in some shuttered wing of Wayne Manor. As a memorial for Dent drones and tinkles smugly on, the movie’s animating question flickers across Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) face: Batman died for this?

The this at the heart of The Dark Knight Rises is a city whose predicament is conceived broadly enough to accommodate any number of thematic readings, but too hedged to explore any one of them well. In winding up at casual cross-purposes, the film’s perspective on governing power structures and mass psychology (to name only two) feel like Nolan playing ideological peek-a-boo. Despite heavy provocation, it’s a movie that can only supply embarrassment to those who look beyond the gleaming chaos and heroic suffering for meaning. What it amounts to is a frantic set of distractions from an uncommonly thrilling ride on the old Gotham express.

Bruce Wayne’s first warning of what’s to come, and what’s happening beyond the manor gates — the Catwoman in the coalmine — arrives in the figure of a burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, tart but sexless). Selina draws Bruce out of hiding — something a philanthropist on the clean energy tip played by Marion Cotillard couldn’t manage — and warns him of a coming storm that will level the elite and the commoner. When the faithful Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) implores him to focus on deploying his dwindling resources and building a better (or any) personal life, Wayne takes it as a challenge to his alter ego’s honor and his failing body.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon is paying more attention to his gut than the crime statistics, and it’s telling him something is rotten in Gotham. What that might be is considered from several angles — computer chaos, corporate greed, social inequality, nuclear threat, economic terrorism—and we wait to see which will prevail. Nolan never quite chooses, though, opting for a little bit of each whenever it’s convenient. Bending over all of them, in an arc extended from The Dark Knight (there are even more direct connections to Batman Begins), is the obsessive pursuit of Batman’s “true” identity. “The idea was to be a symbol,” Wayne sighs to a hotfooted cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But there’s no place for symbols in a search-engined society; nothing so delicate can survive in cold, data-based climes. The city clamors for Batman, wanted for the death of their hero, on a plate: This Gotham seems destined for slow-motion self-destruction; our villain’s arrival is framed as more of a helping hand.

They may have forsaken Batman, but the city’s need for viable symbols is borne out in the heavily spackled image of Dent, and, from his first appearance in the bravura prologue, the intransigent evil embodied by Tom Hardy’s Bane. “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” Bane gurgles (not true Tom Hardy! Not true!) in vocoder tones I’d put somewhere between Yoda post-testosterone patch and Sean Connery on appletinis. Batman’s comeback is hamstrung at every turn — by his vicious new opponent, by the police (led by Matthew Modine’s canine would-be commissioner), and by an app-loading tablet that the superhero considers in the universal stance of tech-befuddlement. Consigned, after a colossal ass-whipping, to a vaguely Arab hellmouth with handy cable news access, Wayne spends the middle chunk of the movie striving for the spiritual strength to escape in time to keep Bane from his plan to “feed the people hope to poison their souls” before blowing the whole city to pieces. A sub-tangle with nuclear power, which is framed as both the savior of the world and its destroyer, provides the movie’s ultimate double.

But Bane’s motives are obscured too long and too provocatively to succeed in drawing us into the wildly nettled political revolution he comes to represent. We’re told his power derives from his fanatical belief — something a privileged playboy can’t buy — but in what? His is a psychology of convenience and comic-book dogma, which is only a problem insofar as the film insists he have a psychology at all. Bane’s proselytizing about social equality and death by moral complacency inspires real dread, but again Nolan isn’t prepared to stand behind the incendiary postures he strikes. There’s always an out, in this case the fact that Bane’s politics are just a theatrical prelude to less complicated darkness.

Undeniable is Hardy’s menace: Less a man than a masculine experiment gone awry, he seems to be strutting naked even in boots and crust punk combat gear. What Bane is most clearly is a terrorist, from his vaguely plotted assault on Gotham’s stock exchange, to the fondness for human shields and Taliban-tinged sports stadium executions, to the plan not to rule or capture the city with a grand gesture but to wipe it out.

Though it was filmed in several locations, including Pittsburgh, in this installment that island city is most obviously New York, from the glimpse of the scaffolded Freedom Tower to the crippled Brooklyn Bridge to the richies dragged out of their Fifth Avenue penthouses. If anything the pretense of Gotham adds a certain gratuitousness to the clear references — symbols pulled out of their context for sheer, emotion-zapping effect. Beyond that a scrappy city all its own emerges, where Batman is just another part of the steeply vertical landscape and it wouldn’t be all that odd to find him slugging it out in the streets, as in his climactic, cleanly drawn confrontation with Bane. Beginning with a thrilling underground, multi-vehicle chase and through a series of old fashioned brawls, Nolan, director of photography Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith restore a baseline of coherence to the action that in some instances has the feeling of a many-paneled page, with levels and layers of action — a ka-pow over here, a thwack over there.

If New York is Gotham’s most obvious touchstone this time out, the Windy City asserts itself in Nolan’s script (co-written with his brother Jonathan, working from a story by Nolan and David S. Goyer). The dialogue is inflated to regulation turgidity and then some. Hathaway does her best, but without Heath Ledger’s Joker there’s no one to let the air out now and then, which makes this week’s cinematic rendering of the apocalypse more terribly earnest but also more genuinely terrifying than most. Along with making the most prominent case for the continued relevance of the auteur theory, with this trilogy the British director reminds us that well-built brands never really die. Certainly one elegiac current running under the The Dark Knight Rises is that they don’t make them like Batman anymore, either in Gotham City or your local cineplex. During its more didactic lapses, episodes of shocking darkness and overwhelming density, you can practically make out the silhouette of Nolan looming behind the screen, appraising us with folded arms: Do they deserve this movie? Are we worthy of it?

The Dark Knight aspires to the epic and reaches it on a number of impressive and less impressive levels. That it is a frequently, unnervingly glorious triumph of brawn over brains is not despite but in spite of Nolan’s admirably stubborn — if persistently, risibly serious — insistence that the modern superhero can have it all.

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  • Cameron says:

    A really good review Miss Orange. Thank you.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    I'm afraid the risibility overwhelmed the grandeur for me. In that first hour there are several painful - and I mean *painful* - introductions to characters where they basically stop, prop, and deliver a long-winded manifesto about their most deeply-held beliefs. Apropos of, y'know, nothing at all.

    I'd be more forgiving if the dialogue were non-realistic to some greater purpose - if it were forging a new, exciting graphic-novel-to-screen pathway - but it's just hoary old Hollywood hokum, by and large. For every nice monologue (like Selina Kyle's about the storm coming) there are ten of the creakiest 1940s-style exchanges. They fatally compromise Nolan's efforts to evoke any sense of modernity and danger - it's hard to shiver when you're scoffing.

    Michael Caine really does some good work here, especially given some of the lines he's saddled with. Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost gets away clean. Everyone else comes a cropper at one stage or another, no fault of their own. (Bale does what he needs to and stays out of the way when not required, which is about all anyone playing Wayne/Batman's been able to do.)

    The effects are great (though the football-field one on the trailers is probably the most spectacular and should've been held back). The plot has to overcome some inbuilt problems - the rubberband of belief, stretched to breaking point already on "Begins" when the citizens of Gotham were unable to connect the return of a high-profile billionaire tech playboy with the appearance of a high-profile high-budget-tech crimefighter, snaps when they fail again to do so as Wayne and Batman come out of hiding after eight years - but then that's par for the course in superhero movies. It's not par for the course in great movies, which find a decent explanation and don't just point the other way and hope nobody notices, but then this isn't a great movie.

    It is, however, an alright one. Problems with dialogue clarity are there, but don't really interfere with the film. It isn't really a complex story, and certainly not a subtle one - even the literary and historical allusions are hammered out relentlessly and brassily by the screenplay - though it is pretty overloaded. There isn't really any character development, but then I know most folks don't go to these movies for character development. It is coherent, in the sense of actually having a beginning, a middle and an end - and that alone distinguishes it among the usual multiplex fodder, and ain't that sad. By and large the tech specs are good. It gets a little flabby in Act 2 - one trial takes waaaaay to long to get to its resolution, by which time the audience are well ahead of it - but eventually it gets there. If I were flicking through channels and found it, I'd probably linger. But the less funny Nolan attempts to make his world, the more patently ridiculous it is. (Echoes of Lucas' prequels - you quash the disbelievers, and the audience takes their place.)

    One glaring (mind-boggling, really) literal: really, does nobody in the production office know how to spell "HEIST"? You'd think Nolan had filmed enough of 'em for the word to be familiar.

  • Artist-hating Charles says:

    What gives? I looked forward to reading Stephanie Zacharek's usual trashing of these awful Batman movies, and yet not only did she not review the latest installment, her name isn't even on the masthead. Is she still working here?

  • StephanieZacharekFan says:

    Wanted to read Stephanie Zacharek's review! Not this.

  • tp says:

    I disagree with most of this review. Plus , Anne Hathaway was one of the highlights and she was very sexy in this movie.

  • Artist-hating Charles says:

    Can anyone comment on whether Stephanie Zacharek is still working for Movieline? Thanks.

  • Artist-hating Charles says:

    Man, that is some lame farewell. Well, I'm sorry to see her go. Although, truth be told, lately I hadn't been agreeing with her as much as I once did. Thanks, S.T.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Stephanie should have made this her last review, and we should have gotten both hers and Michelle's -- who one had good reason to believe would be more sympathetic to its spirit than Stephanie would be. As this went down, with her dropping out just before a review many very evidently were waiting for, one which would test her and this site's mettle, it near works to define her as good ... until tested. There seems a lot in play right now in society, and here was someone who could say something helpful, hopeful -- needed -- about perhaps the most socially significant film of the year, and the look is that she wanted no part of that! -- all she wants to do is write reviews, be clever, and then off to dinner, drinks, and friends. Here was her escape into more obscurity, away from the current conversation, and so no review at all about a film it seemed her near duty to write about. Whoevers to blame -- and it may just be the site -- with this there's a little bit less hope in the world.

    • The Cantankerist says:

      Or: "Bummer."

      Given that her position was "eliminated", it's a bit rough to invoke dereliction of duty, eh?

    • Stephanie Zacharek says:

      "Off to dinner, drinks, and friends"? I was laid off.

      • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

        Though I think now that there wouldn't have been much -- most people are just happy to have reviewers/people who complicate their preferred dour world-view off the scene, even if it means vile enemies escaping before accounts squared -- both the site and you expected some awesome tumult after the next Dark Knight review. Not to besmirch the considerable true involvement you put into all your writing, but there's a sense that the last two years of work here have been about passing time until this moment. It didn't happen, and though you were sure to be gone anyway (would someone remove this unfortunate flower from our preferred field of dirt! Care for it if you must, but please God just take it away!), we have every reason to suspect that the actual timing had everything to do with the immediate release of Dark Knight. And I'm sorry, but it is true that my sense of you is that it was possible that the timing was something negotiated. The site gets spared losing its fan base, and you get spared the grief of another mass troll attack, likely picked up, after a period of "here I am, dispossessed as much as anyone," en-totale by some highbrow mag/institution, packed into a lovely case for prized relics, mostly for being at least once in a powerfully reverberant, perhaps historic, moment, an obvious conduit of clear God-inspired removal and people disdain.

        Your biggest problem for the future is that a lot of people are going to want to use you to show how idiotic the public is, whatever your true blue collar, un-optimate roots. You'll get praise and position, but you'll get less engagement from your supporters than your work deserves, because your instinct is write something true enough about what you see and feel for it to be timeless, potentially forever true, while everyone -- most definitely including most I hear complimenting your work (does anyone do this without simultaneously besmirching the rest of the staff at Movieline, for instance? where does their true interest lie?) -- isn't really for anything as remote as that, getting rather instead full steam ahead into our increasingly excited collective psychodrama.

        If I were you, I would write the Dark Knight Rises review anyway, even if just a long blog post. What you had to say about Dark Knight was important. Gyllenhaal did stick out like a sour thumb, and we should prefer to explore whatever universe would actually suit people like her -- those who evidently actually expect a world better suited for play, adventure and love, that is -- than to go further into a dark world that can handle only dreaming of something hopeful -- and this time absent her obstruction.

  • CarrollJoHummer says:

    Unless you are somehow privy to the inner workings of PMC, you have nothing on which to make this claim: "but it is true that my sense of you is that it was possible that the timing was something negotiated." Your ego inflates as your name gets longer.

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