Monday, 15 December 2008

The Dark Knight

Lowdown: Batman’s answer to the eternal question of whether the good are entitled to do bad things in order to achieve their noble cause.
Christopher Nolan and I do not seem to see eye to eye. With the exception of Batman Begins I did not particularly like his films. Sadly, despite The Dark Knight being the most hyped film of the year, Nolan does not make amends with it: In my opinion, The Dark Knight is too compromised to be considered a good film.
Taking us from where Batmen Begins left us, Dark Knight pits us once again with Christian Bale as Batman. Gotham City is engulfed by crime again, but with Batman in the hood the criminals are becoming more and more desperate. It’s not just Batman, though: Gary Oldman as a high ranking policeman and Aaron Eckhart is the district attorney aided by Batman’s ex girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are all doing their best to vanquish evil from the streets.
Enters Heath Ledger as The Joker, a pathological liar, an anarchist, a deceptive guy with an agenda of setting evil loose throughout Gotham. Against a guy as resourceful as The Joker the law seems unable to do much and even Batman has a very hard time. The Dark Knight is the complex story of these hard times.
But Dark Knight is not about its plot. It is about the philosophical question at its core: Are the good people allowed to use evil means in order to achieve their good goal? What is the difference between “us and them” if we’re all using the same means to achieve our ends, then? In a way, Dark Knight reminded me of American Gangster, another forgettable film dealing with the similarities between good and evil and how close these two opposite poles are.
These are all very interesting questions, but The Dark Knight fails to deliver in the answer department. Or rather, it does deliver, but its delivery is too full of deliberations and tokens. In my book, The Dark Knight, like Nolan’s predecessor The Prestige, is quite decisively erring into the side of deliberations for the sake of deliberating rather than providing us with anything meaningful. It’s the sort of stuff that will probably appeal to those heavily in touch with their so called spirituality, whereas I have nothing but contempt for such pseudo science bullshit. Perhaps the best example for what I am trying to say is provided by The Dark Knight’s final scene, where Batman takes upon him the evils of everyone else so that the world can move onwards. The analogy with Jesus who supposedly died for our scenes is unmistakable, which leaves The Dark Knight wide open to a wide range of criticism I won’t even start specifying here; suffice to say the idea of atonement is inherently ridiculous. My point is simple: The Dark Knights goes way too far to the realm of the bullshit and does so under a serious pretense.
Once you turn a blind eye to the philosophical elements of the film, The Dark Knight becomes a case of the naked king: an overlong film at two and a half hours that tries to pack too much plot and too many characters (but doesn’t really succeed). There are some interesting action scenes but nothing that will truly blow you away and there is some suspense but nothing to really captivate.
In its favor, Dark Knight does host an excellent line of actors. You have to wonder, though, if the talents of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are not wasted on the minor roles they have here just because of Batman Begins’ legacy. On the other hand, Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as always – she is really something that directors should use more of, ten times better than Katie Holmes who played the same character in Batman Begins. Most credit, however, should go to Heath Ledger’s joker: For a start, it’s a Ledger first (and sadly last) where he’s not mumbling his role through. There’s more to it, though: Ledger is the one that keeps the screen interesting through his portrayal of the demented Joker. I am wondering, though, if his acting is so successful because he portrays the deformed character the way Hoffman did in Rain Man or Charlize Theron did in Monster.
Most annoying scene: As I have already said, Dark Knight has too much plot for its own good. To help navigate the film in the right direction the plot often suffers some major black holes, as in the case of passengers on two ferries finding themselves stranded mid-water when the Joker claims to have placed bombs on the ships. Everyone on the boats sits and waits for some sort of an elusive salvation and for some reason no one is doing anything about the circumstances: No rescue operation is taking place; no one even plans for one. Hell, if I was on one of those boats I would just jump in the water and swim for safety. The way the film shows it, the swim to the shore would have been irresistibly short...
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray title delivers consistently good picture and the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack delivers immense dynamic range: while most of the film is quiet but very well articulated, the action scenes really sound bombastic.
Overall: I’m sorry to say it but while the Dark Knight is not a bad film it fails to justify all the hype surrounding it. 3 out of 5 stars.


Mike said...

All due respect Moshe, I don't think you really get this film. It's about escalation.....what will Batman have to do to truly break the mob and liberate Gotham? What kind of response will his "theatricality" elicit? I think delving into questionable methods is secondary to the plot, practically inconsequential. The film shows Batman's continual growth and refining of his methods. Also, I think you're way, way off in the Jesus analogy. Batman isn't a Christ figure by any stretch of the imagination, and in this film, the big thing he sacrifices is his reputation. Taking murders under his name hardly strikes me as setting up for a Jesus comparison.

Mike said...

And as far as the boat thing goes, they adress that very clearly in the film: The Joker says that he will blow up both boats if anybody tries to escape. I guess it's a little unrealistic that nobody outright panics and tries to jump off, but it's a film, and not supposed to be completely realistic, so I can buy it. It's not as if it's a gaping polt hole, though.

I think you're reading into it too much. Batman's taking on Harvey's murders is more about setting up an edgy and less-explored status quo for the next film, and him being a different kind of hero than the likes of Superman and Spider-Man.

So, given your issues with the script, how would you have touched it up?

Moshe Reuveni said...

*** Warning – the following comment is full of spoilers ***

First, thanks for not respecting my opinion; it’s a good way to create an interesting discussion. Second, I apologize for the late reply: we went away for Xmas and for a change I didn’t have internet access.
And now to business.

I’ll start with the boat scene and an explanation on why it annoyed me. And I’ll start by explaining the scene’s setup, something I didn’t do before because I wanted to avoid spoiling too much of the film.
As the criminals create mayhem in Gotham, people are being evacuated by boats. There are only two ferries, though, so one is filled with lucky people and the other with prisoners being evacuated (a source of discontent for the majority of law abiding people). Then, however, it turns out The Joker has rigged the two boats with explosives that will go off at midnight. However, each boat is provided with a trigger that will blow the other boat off and spare theirs. What will the people do, especially the criminals? Will they be selfishly evil or will they be good?
Any my point is that this entire scenario is very, very artificial. First, police everywhere would not pay attention to terrorist demands and start the evacuation regardless of threats; since when can you start trusting a terrorist to keep to their word anyway?
Second, and most importantly (and the reason why the scene annoyed me so much): If I was on one of these boats I would never even dream of blowing the other boat up; intentionally killing someone is not something I would be able to live with. However, I won’t stay doing nothing either: I will either rescue myself or create a discussion on how to best rescue the people in the boat I’m in. Neither of these two actions, which seem so perfectly natural to me, take place in the film.
My point? It’s all too artificial, too contrived. A film doesn’t have to be realistic, but it needs to suspend my disbelief enough for me to like it; this scene fails miserably because it touches my very basic values. It attempts to discuss good vs. evil while ignoring basic values that make “good” and “altruistic” what it is.

Moving on, I do accept your criticism that I might have misread the film. I often make mistakes, so one more wouldn’t up the ante much.
However, I do think there is room for my interpretation just as there is room for yours. I think the idea of covering up for murderers and their likes is much like Jesus’ concept of atonement; after all, him “dying for our sins” is exactly that – him taking the blame for all the crap that we’re doing, murders included. I see the film’s closing scene, with Batman proclaimed as “The Dark Knight” through his sacrifice, as the film’s lead to my interpretation.
While I think your interpretation is just as viable, I also think the two can coexist. This exposes the main problem I have with Dark Knight: It’s fuzzy. It’s the sort of thing that no one can really pinpoint but a lot of people will tell you that “it’s deep, man” just because no one is really capable of figuring it out (and not because they’re incapable, but rather because the source material is lacking). You can argue this is art and it’s all to do with what the viewer does with it, but I despise such arty-farty nature.
You also seem to give the film some slack because of the groundwork it does for the next sequel whereas I don’t care about the sequel at all; I just want to have myself a wholesome film experience without having to wait three more years.

To conclude: I will disappoint you by saying I am not going to go into the bottomless pit of arguing what I will change to repair The Dark Knight. For two reasons: First, as far as I’m concerned the film is rotten from its core concept; if I was to rework it I would get rid of anything but The Joker and Batman. Second, The Dark Knight has failed to involve me and has disappointed me so much that I don’t think it’s worth the effort.

Mike said...

I'm not giving the film any slack because of any exciting new status quo for sequels....I feel that both Batman Begins do a nice job of remaining self-contained, while acknowledging what could come. The point that I think you're missing is that the Christ metaphor gets tossed out the window for the most part with superheroes, even "mundane" ones like Batman or Moon Knight. Superman? "Last Son" of a dying planet, who devotes most of his life to protecting Earth and it's citizens. Spider-Man? Made a selfish mistake that cost the life of his uncle, and is generally viewed with some suspicion by the public (no thanks to the Daily Bugle). X-Men? Protecting a world that hates and fears them. Virtually every superhero/antihero fits into the above Last Son/Victim of Tragedy/Mistrusted mold, so they're all Christ figures to a lesser (Wolverine_ or greater (Superman) degree. So, Batman isn't a Christ figure....just another superhero. But Batman isn't covering up for a mere murderer. He's preserving the name of somebody he viewed as a hero, who could have rendered him unnecessary. Somebody who was driven insane, and was a victim of what Batman viewed as his own, personal failure. He's not "dying for his sins"; he's making amends for "failing" Harvey, by taking the burden of the murders Harvey committed for the greater good....."because he can". Gotham CAN'T endure the knowledge of Harvey Dent and what he did as Two-Face, so Batman has to.

But to address another of your points:

"since when can you start trusting a terrorist to keep to their word anyway?" DO they have a choice? The Joker's consistently been one step ahead of them, and they probably figure that the risk wouldn't be worth it considering the mayhem the Joker's already caused. I guess you're right in that the setup's a tad artificial, but again, film. It shouldn't necessarily be 100% realistic, and we need something that shows us what the people of Gotham think. But I can kinda see where you're coming from. I do think that the people of Gotham are so traumatized by the Joker's reign of terror that rational thought isn't the first think that occurs to them.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You did a good job convincing me with your arguments there. Thanks.
I guess some of the problems I have with your interpretation (which I now accept as better than my own) is to do with me living under the impression that in virtually all cases honesty is the best policy and cover-ups are doomed to fail. This prevents me from identifying with the film, the same way the boat scenario did.
What I'm trying to say is that I still don't think Dark Knight is a particularly good film; Nolan and I don't seem to work on matching wave lengths.