Monday, October 11, 2010

Batman Begins (Nolan Theme Week)

This is Nolan Theme Week, where we'll be breaking down Christopher Nolan's five most popular writing-directing efforts in hopes of learning something about how he crafts a story.  Yesterday Roger reviewed The Dark Knight.  Today, I review its prequel, Batman Begins. 

Genre: Crime/Superhero
Premise: Tiring of the way his city has catered to crime, billionaire Bruce Wayne creates a super-hero-like persona to fight crime himself.
About: This is the first film in the rebooted Batman Franchise for Warner Brothers. Christopher Nolan was a trendy but unproven choice as writer-director. His dark and realistic approach to the material made the film a solid success, and changed the way the entire industry approached their superhero franchises.
Writers: David Goyer & Christopher Nolan

I’m not a huge Comic Book Guy. Blah blah blah and everything that goes with that. But I do enjoy the spectacle of Hollywood popping off on all cylinders, watching millions of dollars go into a single shot, seeing how directors handle the challenge of creating a film that the entire company’s fiscal year is depending on. Batman movies are Warner Brothers’ Super Bowl, just like Spider-Man is Sony’s Super Bowl and James Bond is MGM’s Super Bowl. Seeing how those pressures play into the finished product, particularly the writing, is fascinating to me, as usually you have so many people with so much on the line that everyone’s desperate to get “their thing” into the final film, regardless of whether it’s right for the screenplay or not.

Batman Begins was Nolan’s first foray into the comic book universe, and believe it or not, there were plenty of people who wondered if he could handle the load. His big achievement at the time was a film called Memento, a surprise hit on the indie circuit, but far from mainstream stuff. This was followed up by Insomnia, a misdirected mess of a film that had Al Pacino struggling through endless days searching for what I now realize was a story. He never found it.

Nolan learned his lesson after that, figuring that if he was going to fully realize his vision, he would need to direct AND write his films. Insomnia remains the only film Nolan’s directed that he didn’t write.

Enter Warner Brothers, who recognized that despite Insomnia’s ironic ability to have the exact opposite effect of its title on the audience, Nolan was doing something different, enough so to entrust him with their cherished franchise reboot. He wanted to be edgier, darker, and approach the superhero film in a way it had never been done before on this level – realistically. Nolan was given an invitation to the biggest ball in town. The question was, what would he do with it?

Because everyone’s seen Batman Begins already, I’ll keep the synopsis short. The film is an origin story that follows billionaire Bruce Wayne being exiled from America (hmm, sound familiar?) where he travels the world, learning the ways of criminals everywhere. Eventually he’s invited into and taught how to be a warrior by a man who works for a shadowy organization.

When he comes back to his crime-ridden town, Gotham, he decides to use his skills to create an alternate persona, known as Batman, to take down the criminals Gotham’s corrupt police force refuses to. Eventually a crazy psychiatrist known as The Scarecrow emerges onto the scene, threatening to poison the city’s water supply, turn everyone crazy, in hopes that they’ll all kill each other.

The first thing I was looking for when I started this week was a connection. All five of the films we’re reviewing were successful. Was there a story element or a device that could be found in all of them? Might that device be a key to why his movies were so successful? Or, on a slightly less ambitious note, help the rest of us become better writers?

It didn’t take long to find one.

Nolan likes to deliberately confuse his audiences at the beginning of his movies. Here, we’re actually following three separate storylines in completely random order. The first is the most confusing, with Bruce Wayne in some sort of foreign prison. What is he doing here? Why is Batman in a foreign prison? And who is this mysterious man who wants to recruit him?

This is juxtaposed against the most familiar element of Bruce Wayne’s life, watching his parents get shot and killed in an alley.

We’re juxtaposing those against a third storyline, which is located between the first two, with Bruce just out of college, confused about his future, and dealing with the possibility of his parents’ killer about to be set free.

For someone like me, who’s never read a Batman comic book, this is a ton of information to process, and the fact that it’s coming at me so haphazardly forces me to pay attention out of fear I’ll be left behind.

In that sense, it’s a trick, a device. By forcing us, the viewer, to stay on our toes, to watch closely so we don’t miss anything, we’re actively engaged in the story. We’re participating in it instead of having it spoonfed to us. Because you eventually piece it all together yourself, you feel like you’ve earned the information. This form of accomplishment, feeling like you’ve solved a puzzle, feels good as a viewer, and because you feel good, you’re eager to keep participating.

Strangely, this flies in the face of conventional screenwriting practices. Usually, when you write a first act, you want to be clear. If you’re too confusing, readers with short attention spans (aka all of them) start to check out. That’s not to say you can’t be mysterious, but cutting between three separate storylines in random order is usually not an enjoyable reading experience.

Of course in this case, Nolan does benefit from the audience’s familiarity with the material. We’re not totally in the dark because everyone knows the basics of Batman. However, I found that Nolan does this regardless of the material he's writing, which you can see in The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige, and Inception.

Despite this clever approach to opening a film, Batman Begins suffers from some story mechanics that I think we can all agree are lacking, particularly the “Origin Story Blues.”

The choice to spend the first half of the movie cutting between three different timelines, the cumination of which results in Bruce Wayne creating Batman, leaves little time to actually develop a plot when that sequence climaxes.

Indeed, The Scarecrow shows up almost incidentally and his inclusion in the story is as artificial as the original Batman’s set pieces. Remember, in most movies, we get about a page of backstory on our main character. Everything else we learn about him is shown through action (Indiana Jones runs into an ancient cave to steal a gold monkey – we know everything about that character from that 7 minute sequence).  So to take 60 full minutes of a movie to develop a backstory and motivation for a main character just isn’t done anywhere else in movies.

And because it isn’t, when The Scarecrow pops up and starts yammering on about making everyone crazy so they’ll all kill each other, we’re scratching our heads going, “Wait a minute, huh?”

When you think about it, Batman Begins is two completely independent movies. The first 1 hour movie is Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. The second 1 hour movie is Batman trying to take down Scarecrow and save the city. The script tries to tie these two movies together, with a late twist of Ra’s Al Ghul still being alive, but it’s a bit of a desperate move, as the script would’ve worked just fine if it was The Scarecrow driving the train into the Wayne Building and not Ra’s.

I’m not saying the second half of the script is bad. It’s just so rushed that it doesn’t have time to breathe, to be believable. Information’s being thrown at us machine-gun style and we’re having to buy it at face value. A secret weapon water ionizer floating off the coast? Uh, okay. It needs to be delivered into the Wayne Building cause then and only then can it spread to the whole city? Uh, okay. The Scarecrow wants the city to destroy itself because…why again?

These are the kind of subtle plot problems that need time to be massaged into the plot, and the origin story taking up a full half of the movie just doesn’t allow that. I think in its current form it barely works, but there’s no doubt it could’ve been smoother.

Another thing I noticed about Nolan’s films is Nolan’s love for putting two characters in a scene and just having them talk about the theme of the movie for 20 minutes (or what seems like 20 minutes). He’s even more guilty of this in The Dark Knight, which is a full half hour longer for possibly this reason, but even here Nolan seems to create scenes for no other story purpose than to have his characters discuss theme. Take the scene where, just out of college, Bruce heads to Falcone’s bar and talks to him about crime. Or any scene with him and Rachel. These Bruce-Rachel scenes are particularly bizarre as Nolan refuses to touch on any relationship-related or emotional issues whatsoever between them, preferring instead to have each ricochet thematic opinions off one another until your head gets dizzy.

I think using these scenes to attack the theme and not the interpersonal relationships is a big reason why Nolan is accused of creating such cold emotionless films. Either way, Nolan’s obsession with theme is one to note. If one of the Top 3 filmmakers in the world is obsessed with theme in his screenplays, chances are you should be too.

Overall, watching this was a bit of revelation. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and to be honest, I never really gave it much credit. Part of that was due to me checking out once things got too complicated. While it’s safe to say Nolan packs more story into his stories than he probably should, if you commit to the full ride, it’s a pretty rich experience.

Batman Begins is a flawed but fun film.

Script link: Batman Begins (Older Goyer draft)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I’m still nervous about endorsing this confusing cross-cutting setup to open a script. It works for Nolan, so it can’t be discounted, but remember, Nolan’s boss when he’s writing is himself. There aren’t too many scenarios where you know your boss is going to understand exactly what you're doing 100% of time. With Nolan being the director, this is one of those scenarios. So when you think about it, Nolan is able to get away with his confusing cross-cutting openings in part because there’s no one there to challenge him on them. I’d say it’s okay to use Nolan’s method of challenging the reader early on, but don’t go overboard with it. There’s a fine line between complex and complicated.