Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is perhaps the best superhero movie ever. It's better than Batman Begins and the X-Men and Spider-Man films and it's better than Iron Man. The Incredibles is the only film I think that can compare to it, though they are very different films. The Incredibles is more fun, but The Dark Knight has way better villains.

The Dark Knight is not a kids film. It has similar themes to No Country for Old Men. There is a lot of violence though they usually cut away just before showing blood or gore. At least up to a point. When they do get to gore, it's even more effective (and it reminded me of An American Werewolf in London). There's nothing funny about the violent acts, in fact in many ways they are terrifying. A couple of times I thought of 9/11, this Joker is really a terrorist. There is nothing campy in this film and few if any one-liners, certainly there are no cheap ones.

At two and half hours long, I still thought it was too short. One of the (few) things I liked about The Godfather (really!) is how well it helped you keep track of dozens of character and their involvement in a complex story. It's not an easy thing to do and in a theater, unlike a book (or DVD), the audience can't turn back a page to reread something. The Dark Knight has an enormous amount of plot and does a great job at helping us follow it. That is up until the third act where I think things are a little rushed and the film could have used a few more minutes. I could follow the current situation, but I was misremembering some of the motivations and setup which are important to every scene. There are some big action sequences but honestly I found them to be the least interesting scenes. This film is about characters and morality, and several of the conversations had me on the edge of my seat.

Batman and Lt Gordon continue to fight crime and corruption in Gotham City, one within the law and one outside of it. The Dark Knight brings in two new characters to explore two different dimensions to their limits. The Joker in this film is a truly frightening and brilliant sociopath who wants chaos to win rather than the rule of law, or in fact, any rule. Harvey Dent is the District Attorney of Gotham City and has been winning a war against organized crime. Unlike Batman, he operates during the day and publicly. He is Gotham's white knight and compared to the Joker, he is good to evil and sanity to insanity. On that last point, there are questions raised of the relationship of the Joker and Batman. Are they both are insane? Can one exist without the other? Batman and Gordon do what they can to help Harvey (and therefore Gotham) and the Joker wants to take down Batman and let the criminals win.

Other supporting characters have major roles. Rachel Dawes returns and is dating Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne still has feelings for his ex and it might be mutual. Alfred is still his loyal butler and Lucius Fox is now CEO of Wayne Enterprises and supplies Batman with his gadgets. Both also provide a moral compass.

All the performances were good. Heath Ledger's Joker is the showiest and while he's greatly aided by the characterization in the script, his performance is extraordinary. He uses his whole body and voice and makeup and costume. He made Hannibal Lecter look sane and sedate and reminded me of Alex in A Clockwork Orange and Jack Torrance in The Shining. Ledger's performance shows the Joker will risk anything else to achieve his ends and doesn't care about anything else at all. The Joker would be thrilled if Batman killed him, just so he could get Batman to break one of his rules.

Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent is perhaps just as strong but not as obvious. Harvey has the most extensive arc and Eckhart has to show the greatest range of any of the roles. Ledger is bat-shit crazy scary (I couldn't resist) but Eckhart has to show strength, confidence, love, determination, anger, fear, pain, hate, and more.

Gary Oldman's Gordon knows and does the right thing, and while brave, he does have his inner doubts. Christian Bale does fine as Bruce Wayne. As Batman there isn't as much for him to do but move around in the suit. He speaks in a gruffy voice that's supposed to hide his identity and cause fear, but it goes a little too far. Honestly, he has less to do than the above three.

Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox are their always competent selves. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes from Batman Begins. She's a competent assistant DA and I mostly believed her interrogating a suspect and being strong in dangerous situations. I also believed her as a love interest for both Harvey and Bruce.

There are some flaws, which I discuss below. Mostly I had problems following some of the action sequences and felt a few situations were a little contrived. Over all those are minor points in an otherwise stunning achievement. Go out and see this film. At this point it's my second favorite film of the year next to WALL*E but only because that film had fewer flaws.

I saw it in IMAX. I think three of the action scenes were shot in IMAX. It provides a richly detailed image and they use it for shots of the city to give you sense of scale. The opening scene is in IMAX and gives you real sense of being at the scene, in the room. The seats also rumbled which wasn't as gimmicky as it sounds. I've heard that seeing it in a regular theater it doesn't lose anything, but if possible, give the IMAX a try. I have one friend who doesn't like having to pan a large screen but I found I could see the whole screen and just outside it with my peripheral vision. Again, it helped to put you into the scene and make Gotham City another character. There were other things about the sets that helped this. E.g., the mayor has a corner office with large windows overlooking a plaza. That's probably more realistic, but when was the last time you saw that in a movie?


I'm surprised I got as far as I did without spoilers, but to talk about things I didn't like, I have to give some stuff away.

For a film so concerned with plot and motivation, there were some things that didn't make sense. At the fund raiser, Batman leaps out a window to save Rachel and leaves the Joker at the event with all the guests. What happened? Did he just leave? Wouldn't he have taken hostages? Now that he had no goons, would the guests have overpowered him?

A couple of the scenes were depended on the Gotham Police (and Gordon's unit in particular) having really bad standard operating procedures. No one sees a fire engine burning in the street and reports it so the information could forwarded to the motorcade? They don't have scouts up ahead making sure the way is clear? The don't have alternate routes planned? The streets seemed empty, why did they have to go below ground?

In the building at the end it seemed dumb to me that Batman found out the hostages were disguised as the bad guys and he had no way to communicate with any of the police. He has a sonar receiver in his helmet and can talk to Lucius but can't talk to gordon or on a police frequency? He could have just yelled. The first police to notice the hostages don't communicate with any of the comrades.

The ruse at the end works because the police units keep a perimeter with absolutely no one even looking at the scene of the action. Maybe those were Gordon's orders, but it seems dumb, and just a contrivance for the story.

I was also annoyed that the action sequences were sometimes hard to follow. It was always clear what the situation was, but where the characters were and how they moved wasn't clear. Batman's fights were just a montage of quick punches. I'm sure it was on purpose to add to the mystique of the Batman, but after seeing the Bourne movies and even Wanted I want to understand what it is I'm seeing; particularly when so much effort is put into making sure I understand the motivations of all the scenes. Also I found the Joker's actions very easy to follow, in spite of their often shocking suddenness.

The action situations weren't mindless, so the action scenes shouldn't have been. The hardest for me was the car chase through the tunnel. I knew the Joker was in a truck next to the police van, but I didn't know why it didn't just stop or turn or exactly where Batman was. And again, did that van have no radios in it?

I liked the Prisoner's Dilemma at the end with the boats, but thought it ridiculous that both captains would stand there holding the detonator in an open box in front of the passengers (particularly on the prison ship). What the conclusion said about humanity was the only bright spot of the film.

My last complaint is that I would have liked to have seen Batman be more of a detective. That is supposed to be his greatest strength.

I think the Bank robbery worked very well and I liked the sequence in Hong Kong. I was also thrilled that Batman torturing the Joker to get information out of him did not work. In fact I loved all the Joker scenes, particularly the interrogation and the pencil. I also liked how Rachel's death happened and how Alfred didn't give Bruce the letter.

The world also was bigger than just the main characters. Seeing the Scarecrow in the beginning and the copycat batmen and the accountant that figured out Bruce Wayne was Batman made me feel like this was a real world with lots of random stuff going on.


Anonymous said...

Starch said -

I thought the driver of the van turned off the radio, and walked into the Jokers trap on purpose. Hoping for a showdown between the Joker and the Batman.

I also think the driver knew the Joker knew the real batman was not in the van, so he had to really sell the act to keep the Joker from running away.

The Follow Spot said...

Nice review - well said

Howard said...

Thanks. :)

Richard said...

I thought the movie was excellent for many of the reasons you cited. Heath Ledger was indescribably creepy as the Joker. I especially liked the multiple reasons for his scars and his desire to tell everyone how he got them. I also agree with you about the many shortcomings in police procedure that unfortunately were integral to some of the movie's scenes. As I get older and every movie trick has been tried I have a higher threshold (like a drug addict) to getting to that willing suspension of disbelief that makes movies enjoyable. This movie failed in a few moments to maintain that high.

One thing that surprised me after seeing the film was the PG-13 rating. It is perhaps possible that because violence is less objectionable than sex to the people that make the ratings, this movie squeaked through with a PG-13. I felt that the Joker's extremely senseless violence and brutality (the pencil is an example) should have made this an R-rated movie.

I thought each violent act was made more so by the psychological aspect of the violence even more than the immediate and banal physical aspects of it. Perhaps I am just a shrinking violet.

Howard said...

I like the idea of a greater threshold for suspension of disbelief. I usually just describe it as wanting to see something new and unique.

I've seen a couple of interviews that say the film is deliberately pushing the bounds of PG-13. There is consciously no blood in the film and as I said they cut away just before the violence. But you do know what's going on. There has to be a line somewhere and the film benefits from having the Joker being genuinely scary, so I don't think it's gratuitous.

I saw Excalibur at 15 and maybe Apocalypse Now at 13, so I think the rating is probably right. I believe Watchmen is going to be an R.