The first frames of “The Dark Knight Rises,” my eyes tear up: It’s film. It’s celluloid. It’s huge.
This is one of the marvels of Christopher Nolan’s 164-minute conclusion to his Batman trilogy: You’ll believe a man can shoot in and finish on celluloid. So many practical locations, massing of people and machinery, flying and falling, the rushing of water, the creasing and uncreasing of sly smiles, all on film. There is one particular shot in profile in full IMAX ratio of Marion Cotillard in profile, her skin shown razor-sharp, peachy, perfect: doesn’t look the same in digital 3-D. Even the visual-effects-heavy scenes are a real world away from a digital superhero movie.
It’s a massive investment that pays off in nearly every way. To say the hard-hearted, almost merciless Christopher Nolan is bombastic is a description, not a true critical judgment. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” there is grandiloquence and grandeur: bluster and punches of dramatic eloquence. Synopsis be gone: the plot’s so dense, to the point of indecipherability, that the moment is all that matters. Until the next and the next and the next moment. Of the small irritations among the raft of characters and incident and on-the-nose dialogue etched into the canvas, most would give away too many immediate pleasures. The greatest complaint I would offer is Nolan’s adoration of gruff and gravel, of rasp and timbre: at least three characters are invested in hoarseplay as the story rolls on.
There are so many characters and so many incidents: Nolan treats past as preamble and barrels into empathic, iconic shots and scenes with propulsive abandon. Close-ups in the seventy or so minutes of scenes in IMAX tend to have too much headroom, and Nolan still doesn’t bother to cut for spatial integrity inside his action scenes, whether vehicles in motion or fist-to-fist combat. But, aided by Hans Zimmer’s punch-punch of a score, which motors the movie along but likely sounds awful on its own, the movie has a caffeinated tattoo of a pulse.
The screenplay signposts the politics of billionaires and their grabs for ultimate power, juxtaposed against tent communities pitched in the city’s sewer underworld. Bad guy Bane (Tom Hardy) calls them his “underground army” and the threat of economic collapse is as pungent as a ticking nuclear clock. “I don’t stand on the shoulders of those with less,” a good/bad guy says; a bad guy doesn’t believe in “myths of opportunity.” “Yes, we started the fire. The fire rises.” This is less political philosophy than screenwriting telegraphese, which can rise to poetry or punch.
This was all plotted and written and in production before the inception of the Occupy movement. Still, some who haven’t seen the movie have taken a conspiracy under wing: On Tuesday afternoon, noted political analyst Rush Limbaugh described the movie as Obama propaganda, an attack on Romney and his unknown number of years at Bain Capital, perhaps unaware of the decades-long history of the Bane character in Batman comics.
A scarier refrain that parallels the real world is a notion of the need “to restore balance in the world,” as damaging as congressmen of both parties and enabling journalists conspiring to do deleterious things under the mantel of “bipartisanship.” “This is a stock exchange, there’s no money to steal,” a trader says. Bane, already described as evil, replies, “Not while you people are here.” C’mon, it’s pop, gnomic and suggestive: plug ‘n’ play your personal politics here. Some writers have offered interpretations that Nolan’s perspective tends to the fascist, yet the device in the movie of the “Dent Act,” passed and invoked against organized crime eight years earlier under false pretenses, does echo the PATRIOT Act and a city prison filled with a thousand men in orange jumpsuits and described as being held without recourse despite their guilt or innocence is simply a Gotham Gitmo. And when Batman’s collection of secret military ordnance falls into the wrong hands for “urban pacification,” you realize the Nolan team is… informed… and perhaps just a little angry about similar issues in the world outside.
A neat “Trouble in Paradise”-style opening introduces Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and the dance of identities is toothsome. Anne Hathaway’s wily, teasing performance and long-legged kick-kinetics are a tasty surprise, as are her accouterments that suggest a passing acquaintance with the moves of Feuillade’s “Les Vampires” serials from back in the 1910s: ah, when she throws her shoulder-length hair like an unbroken blade and in black cocktail dress up to there.
There’s a shameless rush of sentiment and sensation that evokes high points of 1990s Hong Kong filmmaking alongside Nolan’s fondness for the glamour of glum, the adrenaline of potential extinction. (A couple of action setpieces with hundreds of men parallel the work in “The Raid,” but on a gargantuan scale.) As for plot complications suggested by the arc of the three films, by surmise, by lines scattered through the story, hero shots of characters at telling moments (as well as the stories of several series of comics), all I can say is Nolan goes there. And there. And there. Oh, does he go there. There’s so much too-muchness: Nolan’s ambition is epic.
“The Dark Knight Rises” opens Friday. Reviewed in IMAX.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.