Well here’s the biggie. Well at least until Friday. The Dark Knight is, by quite some margin, THE most successful Batman film both financially and critically. Well unless you count Under The Red Hood’s 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but that’s only from 7 reviews. Great film though. The Dark knight managed to gross over $1billion in worldwide takings, the only Batman film to do so. Some would argue that it only reached that point because of the fact that one of it’s leads, Heath Ledger, died a few months before release thus creating extra hype around the film. Fact is, if the film sucked then no amount of Heath Ledger hype would have made it take even half that money. Unless it had Transformers in it. They seem to be immune to quality. Anyway, click the link for my review!!
The Dark knight picks up around a year after the events of Batman Begins. Gotham has started to become a brighter place. People aren’t as afraid of the criminal underworld anymore and they have a new white knight in the form of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Meanwhile a slightly unhinged mad man with his face painted like a clown’s is rattling the nerves of the criminals of Gotham and is about to turn his attention to the city itself. Obviously Batman might have to do something about him. What follows is 2 and a half hours of a city getting shaken to it’s core by a terrorist in the form of The Joker (Heath Ledger), Harvey Dent trying his hardest to be the hero Gotham needs and Batman finding out just what place he needs to take in the city.
Free of the trappings of the origin story Nolan has managed to focus entirely on crafting a full blown, large scale crime thriller. It’s almost like an ode to Michael Mann’s Heat at times, except for the fact that the main character dresses up as a bat. At the end of Batman Begins Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) talks about escalation and what the effect of Batman being a presence in Gotham will have on the criminals. If the cops start wearing bulletproof vests then the criminals buy armour piercing bullets, and when a man dresses as a bat to fight crime bad guys get desperate and crazy.
Nolan presents a new form of The Joker not seen in quite this way before. He’s scruffy, his smile is the result of scars of unknown origin and white face comes from make-up, not from being bleached by chemicals. But it’s only the exterior that’s different. Underneath he’s very much the Crown Prince Of Crime. What makes Joker who he is is largely down to two things, unpredictability and a sadistic streak a mile wide. Nolan manages to get both of those across in one magic trick. Ledger gives a hell of a performance here managing to hit a sweet spot where the Joker is both terrifying and humorous. The humour is always a fun aspect of The Joker. When he does something funny we’ll laugh sure, but then we may wonder if we should have laughed seeing as something horrible has likely just happened. Ledger fills the role with ticks, lip smacking oddness and a sentence structure that’s generally quite calm and contemplated. He’s making sure that even when he’s at his most evil and insane that you get every word he says across to the point where he’s so calm he may not even be insane. And then he lashes out or laughs and suddenly you’re not sure again. This Joker is not one you’d ever want to come across in a dark… well… anywhere really. Even a well lit room.
Of all of Nolan’s film I’d say this is the only one that really nails getting emotional moments across. A set piece in the middle that ends very badly manages to shake every character to it’s core and the pain of their loss echoes throughout the rest of the film. It’s actually always surprised me that this was always rated PG-13 in the US and a 12 here in the UK because The Dark Knight is a really death heavy film. It’s not often that a mainstream tent-pole production such as this will actually have a strong sense of danger in terms of who lives and who dies. I’m not saying it’s daring because of that, it’s just doing what a good film should do. It’s being very very effective at selling the dangers of the story.
A mention should go to the films score. The Hans Zimmer score here has barely a note of traditional hero musicality to it at all. It raises tension with high strings to accompany The Joker and the acts he accomplishes whilst using a more driven rhythmic piece for Batman and his determination. It’s mood setting and very much in key with the crime thriller tone the film maintains throughout.
The film is shot on a combination of traditional 35mm film and, for four major sequences and a few aerial shots, with IMAX cameras. Not many film makers had attempted using IMAX for feature films before this. It’s a tricky format to use due to the small loads of film they can carry (Between 30 seconds to two minutes in general as opposed to a regular film cameras 10 minutes) and the sheer noise they make which means dialogue cannot be recorded live easily. You’ll notice the only scene shot in IMAX that uses the most dialogue is the opening bank heist sequence where the majority of the characters involved are wearing masks. If you see the blu-ray version of this film the ratio shifts from the traditional 2.40:1 ratio to the more IMAX friendly 1.78:1 ratio meaning that from time to time the size of the image on your screen changes. What this will show you is the increase in quality the IMAX image can possess. It’s still way ahead of the best digital cameras, as it regular 35 and 75mm film. Although I have been impressed with the quality of the RED EPIC cameras used on Amazing Spider-man. What’s with these cameras all having their spelt in all-caps?
Effects wise The Dark Knight pulls off some amazing stuff. Truck trailers get flipped, Batman glides over Gotham and Hong Kong and a whole actual building gets blown up. Not a model. A whole full size real building. Nolan loves doing as much as he can in camera and it makes what he shoots just look better than a lot of stuff done by other directors. They’re cottoning on to this now which is a good thing. Even Transformers 3 had practical damage effects and model shots. Although I suppose you couldn’t stop Michael Bay blowing shit up. There’s a car chase in the centre of the film that’s a combination of real vehicles racing down tunnels and model shots and I would honestly struggle to tell you which are which on many of the shots. Consider the train crashing at the end of Batman Begins and how obvious it was a model shot and then watch this chase scene. Nolan and his cinematographer the legend that is Wally Pfister really show their skill in these sequences. There’s a few digital effects, a crashing helicopter stands out a little, but generally the digital is there as an aid rather than a crutch. The CGI work to create the heavily scarred and burned face of Two Face Harvey Dent may be clearly digital but it’s also, to be fair, a damn impressive and quite gruesome effect. It’s quite an extreme look too, one that’s been mimicked since in the comics and the recent Arkham City game.
This is large scale, high quality film making at Hollywood’s best. This film represents the sort of effort and craftsmanship we should expect when we’re being asked to throw down the expense that is a cinema ticket these days, especially when they expect us to pay and extra £2.50 for the benefit of a headache brought on by 3D. Thankfully Nolan is dead set against 3D in it’s current form. Image is king for him and you can see that in every frame of The Dark Knight. It has a few iffy spots of editing, especially in the Bat-pod chase sequence which was likely down to how difficult it was to ride that thing. Bale’s bat-voice has been well documented as being a bit too much gravel not enough clarity. There’s also the slight plot hole of what happened with The Joker after Batman dives out a window to save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes)), he’s just kinda left upstairs with the party guests and we never see him leave. Other than those issues the film is pretty much spot on. It’s pace never feels like the 153 minutes it takes up. The story is multi-layered with a strong sense of character progression. The plot threads are woven very well too. Of all the live action Batman films this is the benchmark The Dark Knight Rises is going up against. In Nolan we trust as the fanboys say. Probably.