Thursday, December 20, 2007

4 Color Cinema

BATMAN BEGINS
Batman Begins

By now you no doubt have seen the trailer for the new Bat-flick The Dark Knight. So I figured now would be a good time to look at the film which spawned that sequel, the re-Bat-boot known as Batman Begins. To be fair, I had been thinking about writing up this post for a few weeks now, ever since my wife suggested popping BB into the DVD player one night. We had seen it in the theater, but had not watched it since, so I was interested in seeing how the film held up to a second viewing.

As many of you remember, BB was appropriately released to a lot of hype and hoopla, since Christoper Nolan was reinventing the entire franchise by going back to the basics after the disasterous overindulgence of Joel Schumacher nearly a decade earlier (To be fair, I liked and still like Batman Forever, but Batman And Robin was just too much, as my wife likes to say). Ditching the colorful and over-the-top art design and costumes, along with gimmicky casting jobs, Nolan and his crew set out to make a Batman film for the Blade Runner set. And to that end, it's an unmitigated success.

The plot, for those who don't know it, revolves around young Bruce Wayne, fresh from getting his crap handed to him in an Asian prison camp, coming under the tutelage of Henri Ducard and his master, the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul. Things don't go so well, though, as Ghul wants Wayne to join his League of Shadows, and the whole thing ends with Ghul's compound in flames and Ducard near death. Wayne returns to the decaying Gotham City and, with the help of his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne Corp. R&D guru Lucius Fox, ADA (and childhood friend) Rachel Dawes, and Detective Jim Gordon of the Gotham PD, begins a crusade against crime and corruption. Things get interesting when psychiatrist Jonathon Crane is thrown into the mix, and a dangerous prototype microwave emitter is stolen.

One of the major components of this film is the art design and overall visual look. Moving away from both Schumaker's garish glam and Burton's somberly grand gothica, Nolan pushes towards a gritty urban look, with harsh cityscapes and filthy back alleys. There's very little glamour in Gotham City anymore, giving the town a sort of Rust Belt aesthetic which works very well on the big screen. Even the technology is given an overhaul, most famously with the tank-like "Tumbler" replacing previous sleek Batmobiles. It's a change of pace which finds it's own distinct appeal -- a car chase involving Batman being pursued by the police is handled in a manner no previous cinematic Batmobile could have hoped for. This grimy basis sets the tone for the proceedings, and establishes Nolan's visual vocabulary in such a way that the viewer is almost hardwired into the Bat-mythos (this also provides an interesting contrast to Bryan Singer's depiction of Metropolis in Superman Returns, but that's another post).

The majority of the film involves Wayne's personal journey of discovery and self-actualization. He starts out trying to ignore his own history, and escape his parents' death, moving then to an unfocused, angry young man, before finally embracing the concept of justice instead of vengeance. It's a pretty basic framework, but Nolan, along with co-screenwriter David Goyer, does an admirable job of investing the audience's emotion in Wayne's growth and development. By surrounding him with likeable characters who provide a contrast to his darkness, we can feel more for his outsider (no pun intended) mindset and become vested in his self-improvement. This is coupled with a rock-solid cast who turn in a round of top flight performances. Christian Bale shines as the young hero, and Michael Caine nails Alfred (and his relationship to Bruce) in such a way that it's hard to picture anyone else in the role (save maybe Efram Zimbalist Jr.). Morgan Freeman's knowing portrayl of Lucius Fox makes the character interesting to me for the first time ever, and Gary Oldham's turn as the "one good cop" in the Gotham PD is endearing. Katie Holmes takes a lot of flak for her role, but honestly, it's not her fault that Rachel has so little to do. For Maggie Gyllenhal's sake I hope the part is expanded in the sequel. And, not forgetting the baddies, Cillian Murphy has an appropriately errie affectation as the Scarecrow, a nightmare inducing sociopath who lives up to his rep, and Liam Neeson (who's "geek cred" simply continues to grow) is equally effective as both mentor and nemesis.

Therein, however, lies the film's main flaw. I'm going into spoiler territory here, but at this point I am going to assume that anyone reading this post has either seen the film or just doesn't care about spoilers. The switcheroo with Ducard really being Ra's al Ghul in the final reel is unnecessary and is more of a twist for twist's sake than anything really connected to the plot. Is anything really chnaged by having it be Ghul operating in Gotham instead of Ducard -- for anyone other than the hardcore Bat-fans who are simply marking out for the fact that Ghul is in the movie in the first place? The answer is a pretty simple "no." The fact that the microwave emitter is only vaporizing the water specifically in the water lines doesn't make a lot of sense, but I suppose one could argue that it was operating a certain wavelength which only effected that water. Or something. Frankly, I'd have been just as happy if the main plot of the film involved Scarecrow dumping fear toxins in the water and driving everyone in the Narrow insane.

Still, that's nitpicking. This is easily the best Bat-film since the Burton opus in '89 changed the way we think about superhero movies. It's a brooding and dark piece of fiction, bathed in shadows and darkness like it's titular hero. Things start to come off the rails a little bit (again, no pun intended) towards the end, but for the majority of the running length, it's a hugely entertaining spectacle which doesn't forget that it's the human element which has made Batman so enduring a character. Given this pedigree, I'm very much looking forward to see what Nolan, Bale, and company have in store for the followup.