Monday, July 23, 2012

Film Review - The Dark Knight Rises

Genre: Superhero
Premise: (from IMDB) Eight years on, a new terrorist leader, Bane, overwhelms Gotham's finest, and the Dark Knight resurfaces to protect a city that has branded him an enemy.
About: The final film in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  Last year, I did a "Nolan Theme Week," breaking down Inception, Memento, The Prestige, and Batman Begins.  I also had Roger break down The Dark Knight.  Check out those reviews for my feelings on Nolan's writing.
Writers: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer) (characters by Bob Kane)
Details: 164 minutes

I'm just going to say it: Nolan, you're getting sloppy.

And who can blame the guy really?  Nolan didn't want to make this film.  At least that's what I derived from his interviews after The Dark Knight.  However these days, you can't just make two of a franchise.  That word "trilogy" has changed all that.  Once that word became popularized there was no such thing as a sequel without another sequel.  And hence we have The Dark Knight Rises.

Why is this important?  Because when you're not 100% passionate about something, it shows.  And Nolan's lack of passion is on display here.  I mean, how do you follow up one of the Top 5 villains in cinema history?  Sure, you try your best.  But deep down you know you're not going to top The Joker.  It's like trying to get yourself up for the Cincinnati Open after you've won Wimbledon.

Now, to Nolan's credit, he doesn't go all George Lucas on us.  He doesn't bust out one draft and say "This is it."  But there's no question what we see in this Batman entry could've benefitted from another draft or five.  The Dark Knight Rises has occasional high points, but as a screenplay, it's an occupational hazard.

"Rises" starts off eight years after "Knight" with our favorite billionaire hobbled by a bad leg and a really long game of hide and seek.  No one's seen Bruce Wayne OR Batman in all this time and a lot of that has to do with Batman being blamed for Harvey Dent's murder.  Commissioner Gordon knows the truth, of course, but for whatever reason (read: story convenience) he keeps it to himself.

Batman's absence allows Scottish misfit and air filtration advocate Bane (who operates in the sewers of Gotham) to pick up where the Joker left off and make a play for the city, first through its finances, then through a football game with two pretend teams, and finally via a nuclear bomb.  After blowing up all the bridges to Gotham, he lets the world know that if so much as a shoe from the good guys reaches his city, he's blowing it sky-high.

He can do this because he's already taken out a hobbled Batman, sending him back to the prison cave he himself spent the majority of his life in, and is the only person to have escaped from.  This giant hole then becomes a test for Batman to "get his mojo back," as he must climb up an impossibly high cave cliff to get out, and gosh darnnit if the final jump to freedom isn't Matrix-like difficult.  Now if I were Bane, I probably would've, you know, KILLED Batman jusssst innnn caaaase he turned out to be the SECOND person to escape the cave.  But where's the fun in that?

As you'd expect, Batman gets out of the prison to the excited chants of his fellow inmates, who he's since become BFFs with, and races back to Gotham just in time to save the day!  Or does he?  Turns out Batty Bruce will have to make a choice involving saving Gotham or saving himself.  And since we know how cool of a guy Batman is, it's looking like our winged crusader ain't going to be saving himself.  Does that mean The Batman dies?  Well if Batman's armor can't even stop a kitchen knife from puncturing it, I doubt it can stop a nuclear bomb.  But who knows?  Stranger things have happened.

The Dark Knight is big and grand and epic and annoyingly confusing.  I mean, I understood the broad strokes of the plot, but that was it.  The rest of the script was as muddled as a first grader's recollection of his day.

One of my big problems with Inception, as you all know, was the 16 hours of exposition needed before we got to the actual story.  Nolan makes a similar mistake here, but with character introductions instead of exposition.  We have four key characters introduced, only one of which I had even the vaguest understanding of what he wanted, that being Bane.  And to be honest, I'm even a little unclear on him.  Bane wanted to take over Gotham because.....because why again?  Because he wears a mask?  Because he's bad?  Because bad people do bad things?

Who knows?  But hey, as Batman fans are quick to point out, The Joker didn't exactly have a solid motivation either.  He made life miserable for The Batman because he's twisted and sick and has nothing better to do.  And that seemed to work.  However, the Joker was incredibly charismatic - impossible to look away from - which covered up a lot of his plot-related shortcomings.  Bane just wears a mask.  A cool mask - don't get me wrong - but that's all I remember about the guy. That and he sounded exactly like Sean Connery.

That brings us to our other three characters - Cat Woman, Sleuthy McSleuthems, and Marion Cotillard. I still have absolutely zero understanding of what any of these characters had to do with the story.  The sad thing was that Cat Woman was probably the most memorable character in the film.  She was the only one with energy, the only one who brought life to scenes.  But if you took her character out, the movie would be EXACTLY THE SAME.  That's Screenwriting 101 there.  If a character isn't needed to tell the story, get rid of them.

That leads us to Sleuthy mcSluethems, aka Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.  Nooooooo idea who this character was.  He just seemed to pop up every once in awhile looking concerned and distrusting, which was perfect, cause that's exactly how I felt!  (Spoiler) Clearly, the only reason for this character's inclusion was his big reveal at the end, which was admittedly cool.  But this is another basic screenwriting tenant.  Don't make us suffer through a "nothing" storyline JUST for a twist.  The storyline itself has to be interesting, twist or not.  And there was NOTHING about this character that was interesting or even relevant.  Again, had you taken him out, nothing about the story would've changed.

Finally, that brings us to Marion Cotillard, the most confusing of all the confusing characters. Who was she?  No idea.  I think she was rich?  Influential?  Owned a company that made the sharpest knives in the universe?  This character was easily the biggest misstep as she had nothing to do with the anything outside of her own twist at the end, which of course had zero impact on us since we didn't understand who she was anyway.

So after the introduction of all these characters (as well as the re-introduction to Bruce Wayne), we finally got to the actual plot, halfway through the 164 minute running time!  And you know what?  When we did, "Rises" actually started to resemble a movie!  Bane takes over Gotham.  There's a ticking time bomb (literally).  And Batman has to escape his prison and save the day.  The second half of the film, for that reason, was actually pretty solid.  But I kept asking myself - why did we have to suffer through all that nonsense to get here?  Did we really need to meet all those characters?  Did we really need to set up all those story lines?

It's no secret that I like streamlined narratives, so I'm hard-wired to dislike this kind of script.  I resisted Dark Knight on the first few viewings for the same reason.  Eventually, however, I learned to like it.  An argument can be made for Nolan pushing the screenwriting medium - to not giving us the obvious "Fast and Furious" formula, but rather layering his stories with multiple character through-lines and heavier thought-provoking themes.  I get that.  But why do I feel like it was all done so clumsily?

Maybe further viewings will change my mind.  But right now, I thought this screenplay was a bloated mess.

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

What I haven't learned:  Batman may be the most popular character in movie history.  I walk down the street and hear 50 year old men saying they can't wait to see this movie.  40 year old women saying they can't wait to see this movie.  I hear black, hispanic, and asians saying they can't wait to see this movie.  More than any other film, this character seems to capture people's imaginations.  People LOVE Batman.  So my question is, "Why?"  I ask because as screenwriters, our most important job is coming up with a main character audiences will love.  If we can do that, we can sell screenplays by the dozen.  So what is it specifically about Batman that makes him so likable by so many people?  I feel that if we can figure that out, it will help us with our own protagonists.