The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Dark Knight Rises

Reviewed by James Zborowski.

Director Christopher Nolan
Length 165 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

Anyone who has seen the first two parts of Christopher Nolan’s now-complete Batman trilogy will find little in the ingredients of The Dark Knight Rises to surprise them. There is a running time of well over two hours (with the final instalment in fact being the longest of them all). During that time, we are led along a winding path. Layers of motivation and villainy are gradually revealed. The storytelling screw is turned as Nolan and his collaborators (David S. Goyer and brother Jonathan Nolan) ratchet through their set-up before delivering a big pay-off - breaking up the journey, of course, with spectacular set-pieces. The childhood traumas of the films’ heroes and villains provide the ultimate explanations for their actions. The question of what the population at large require from their heroes, super or otherwise, is explored. A tone of seriousness is lightened by wisecracks but never punctured (unlike other recent comic book franchises).

Another way of putting this would be to say that anyone who disliked Batman Begins (2005) or - especially - The Dark Knight (2008) will not like this film. It is just as po-faced. Like its predecessor, it contains a parade of characters armed with well-turned soundbites queueing up to tell Bruce Wayne what ails him. It could be accused of wallowing in the melodrama of a man having to live the double life of a playboy billionaire and techno-enhanced crimefighter. It is only due to a couple of fleeting and inconsequential scenes that the The Dark Knight Rises avoids a Bechdel Test score of one. Surveying Nolan’s body of work as a whole, in fact, one frequently encounters two female character types. The first is the woman who is good and dead (if not at the beginning then by the end), and thus available as a conveniently silent symbol of purity for the careworn and often morally compromised male protagonist. The second is the duplicitous female. Both types are present in The Dark Knight Rises, and although Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle complicates the typology to some extent, she does not elude it. Inception’s (2010) Ellen Page and (especially) Insomnia’s (2002) Hilary Swank remain the director’s benchmark female characters who manage - again, to some extent - to avoid being defined in relation to the male protagonist.

But against these problems must be set a range of impressive achievements. It almost goes without saying that a film which has enjoyed the production conditions The Dark Knight Rises has offers a great deal of visual pleasure: in the range of locations and their photography, in details of set design (including gadgets and gizmos), and of course, in the realms of fight choreography and things that explode. For this reviewer, though, the central achievement of Nolan and company is their ability to set up, sustain and pay off a scenario that is both dramatically taut and philosophically interesting. There are admittedly occasions where one might wonder how the pieces on Nolan’s chess board have been manoeuvred into such dramatically expedient configurations (specifically, Wayne [Christian Bale] and new character Blake [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] possess a preternatural ability to locate others), but aside from these relatively minor details, the cat’s cradle that this film (like The Dark Knight) weaves and then proceeds to disentangle is satisfying at the level of character motivation as well as audience desire. We understand why characters do what they do, what prevents them from doing things they want to do, and how they try to negotiate those restrictions.

The Dark Knight Rises, like its immediate predecessor, employs a very particular division between its presentation of the main characters’ own personal psychodramas on the one hand and, on the other, of those characters’ statuses as symbols in the lives of Gotham’s ordinary citizens. That is, The Dark Knight Rises trades in psychology of both the (pop-) Freudian and political varieties. It is the latter rather than the former, I will argue in my Alternate Take, that makes the film worth our while.

Alternate Take to follow soon…

This review was published on July 18, 2012.

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