Dunkirk – unresolved tensions

There’s a climactic scene in Dunkirk (Warner Bros, 2017) where some of the exhausted British soldiers are pulling in to station on a train. Suddenly one of them worries: will they be reviled as cowards? The retreat from Dunkirk feels like a massive failure. They fear they have let their country down. There are knocks on the window. The fists of an angry mob? No, a grateful crowd of cheering men and women, handing bottles of beers to the soldiers. They are welcomed as heroes.

There’s emotional content here, and a sense of relief, for sure. But whatever feeling Nolan is trying to wring from this scene, I don’t really feel he’s done much to earn it. For the length of the preceding film, we’ve seen and heard virtually nothing of the English homeland; if any of the characters had families, we weren’t told about it (heck, none of them are even given names); and the abstract ideas of heroism or cowardice, which could have made a nice structural opposition for the film’s framework, have never even been alluded to. Why should we care if they are heroes or cowards? What is at stake?

It would have been easy enough to set up an opening scene or two, to give a little context to the lives of the soldiers; establish a home, a family, a loved one. Once planted, these dramatic elements could have been revisited in the final scenes, and given far more resonance, far more emotional truth, than the perfunctory scene described above. Further, the director could have begun early on with a clue that he intended to address a real human conflict (are we cowards, or are we heroes?), and give us some resolution at the end.

But there! That’s just me being stuffy and old-fashioned, hoping for conventional structure, narrative closure, emotional honesty in a film. Nolan has largely dispensed with all of these conventional elements in Dunkirk (and indeed his other movies, where he frequently plays with temporal structure), because he clearly regards them as corny, trite, clichéd. How can he make a truly modern war movie instead? By studiously avoiding the narrative traps, as he would see them, that get in the way of the statement he wishes to make. No tedious set-ups for him; we’re plunged into the action immediately. Instead of resolution, Nolan gives us perpetual unresolved tensions.

There’s a lot to be said for his confrontational, “you-are-there” styled approach to his take on the Dunkirk story. But in following his chosen path, I feel he sacrifices the context that might give the struggle some meaning that the viewer can identify with. And he doesn’t leave himself time to explore the themes that his station scene is trying to capitalise on; which is why the scene is such an empty payoff. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say it’s “unearned” emotion.

Guest blog post by Ed Pinsent

Interstellar: a rather ordinary film dominated and spoiled by a deterministic and hermetic viewpoint

Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” (2014)

“Interstellar” managed to hold my attention for most of its 169-minute duration which was quite a feat as the plot is quite straightforward for a film helmed (and co-scripted as well) by Christopher Nolan, he who is famous for movie plots boasting multiple possibilities and ambiguous endings that can be interpreted in different ways. “Interstellar” is really no different from “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” in this respect; it even boasts the presence of Michael Caine in yet another supporting role where he plays a mentor and father figure. Nolan must be praying that Caine gets access to a revitalising or age-reversing elixir from Merck or Pfizer for his own directing career to continue.

Before seeing “Interstellar”, viewers might be advised to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” first to anticipate the younger film’s plot and narrative arc, its characters and some of its visual story-telling devices. The film begins as a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the Earth can no longer sustain humanity: crops are failing, dust storms ravage the US Midwest with increasing regularity and Western civilisation is basically whatever people are able to remember and conserve. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey) lives with his father-in-law and two children on a farm: his older child Tom looks forward to inheriting the family cornfields and daughter Murphy (or Murph for short) believes a ghost is hiding in her bedroom trying to communicate with her. Cooper eggs the girl on to use her knowledge of science to solve the mystery of the identity of the ghost and both discover that the ghost is a mysterious intelligence sending messages in binary code via gravitational anomalities in the red dust. One of these messages tells Cooper to contact Professor Brand (Michael Caine) at a secret NASA facility.

Cooper and Murph meet Brand and his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) who advise that a wormhole has opened up near Saturn. The scientists at the NASA facility believe fifth-dimensional beings exist in a universe beyond this wormhole. Cooper agrees to be pilot for Amelia’s team as part of the Lazarus Project series. Already a series of manned capsules has already used this wormhole and data sent back from these capsules indicate there are three habitable planets, named Miller, Edmonds and Mann after the astronauts who led the teams there.

Cooper’s decision estranges him from his daughter and the two part on very bad speaking terms. The plot jumps from Cooper’s departure from the farm to the launch of his spacecraft the Endurance, in a sequence that mimicks the famous sequence in the Kubrick film in which a bone flung up into the air becomes an orbiting space station. Thereafter the Endurance crew (which includes a HAL-like robot called TARS) follows the path set by Mann’s team, travelling through the wormhole and landing on Miller’s planet, close to the black hole Gargantua. The crew loses a member and is forced to scramble back, wasting 23 Earth years in what appears to be an hour. After wasting more crucial Earth time arguing about whether to visit Edmonds’ planet or Mann’s planet, the crew opt to visit Mann’s planet and in double-quick time – which amounts to another several Earth years – find Mann (Matt Damon), apparently the sole survivor of his team. Mann has an unpleasant surprise in store for Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Gyasi) and TARS which jeopardises not only their mission but the future of humankind.

In a parallel story, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then Jessica Chastain) is taken in by Professor Brand as a daughter substitute and becomes an astro-physicist and assistant to Brand. Brand’s personal mission is to solve the problem of how humans can escape Earth’s gravity but to do this properly, he requires information from a singularity behind a black hole. Part of the Endurance’s mission was to supply this data. Unfortunately much of this data was forged by Mann who wanted a spacecraft to rescue him. Brand dies, believing that he has failed, and Murph must pick up where he left off and solve the equations. In the meantime, the dust storms afflicting America worsen and her brother’s family is in danger of dying from a tuberculosis-like disease caused by too much dust inhalation.

With “2001: A Space Odyssey” as its inspiration, “Interstellar” has some of that film’s majesty and beauty, and some of its sequences can be quite breath-taking if nowhere near as psychedelic and mind-bending. The acting overall is competent though not outstanding. McConaughey and company do all they can to turn their characters into flesh-and-blood creatures and though McConaughey succeeds with Cooper, Hathaway and Chastain do not with their characters. Some actors are able to infuse sketchily developed characters with life and imagination and others need direction in this regard.

The drama feels quite forced with banal dialogue that tends to state the obvious too much and a familiar theme of love for family conquering a fear of the unknown and inspiring hope juxtaposed with Hollywood’s favoured view of humanity as essentially self-centred and mean-spirited. A parallel theme of deception in the plot tempers the more sentimental aspect of the idea of love transcending all barriers and makes the film’s final moments more ambiguous.

Inevitably the science in a film like “Interstellar” is forced into warp drive for the sake of moving the plot forward: a scene in which Cooper must try to redock his space pod with the main station is rather tricky, not least because an explosion has forced the Endurance into a rapid spin (there being no air in space so spinning spaceships can whiz about forever) so presumably Cooper must spin his pod at precisely the same speed as the Endurance to have a chance of redocking properly. Apart from the difficulties involved in calibrating his pod’s speed, and the fantastic odds against getting the redocking right on the first go, Cooper and Amelia Brand are spinning along with the pod fast enough that their heads might explode from internal pressures caused by the spinning. While that would be entertaining to watch, the film would be killed stone dead so artistic licence must be allowed.

The last hour is quite a doozy to watch if rather drawn out. Sadly (spoiler alert) we never see anything akin to the jaw-dropping / mind-slackening sequence in “2001 …” in which the Keir Dullea character’s space-pod is pulled into another dimension by unseen aliens in a psychedelic light-show, though the movie comes tantalisingly close. Viewers may feel the events plug plot holes rather too neatly; a few ragged loose ends might have made the film a little more credible. The finale is too simpering, happy Americana but one must remember that “Interstellar” is of a piece with “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” where conclusions aren’t really quite what the viewers are led to believe they’re watching. Is Cooper really reunited with Murph or is the whole sequence a figment of his dying imagination? One imagines that this finale was filmed for the benefit of an American audience while audiences in Europe get to see a different finale in which Murph continues to wait in vain for her father to return while ensconced in an abandoned underground bunker because the dust storms have become a permanent fixture on the American landscape and the Lazarus Project has had to be shut down by NASA.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” continues to be relevant to the present day because much of it is deliberately left open-ended and unexplained, and therefore subject to endless interpretation which freshens opinion about the film and one’s own experience of it with repeated viewings. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s desire to leave No Loose Ends Untied or Unexplained, if only to make “Interstellar” easier for the bean counters in Hollywood to understand, makes their film too hermetic to the point where it starts to feel suffocating. If there is only one way to watch a film, then the film becomes a creature tied to its times and will quickly grow stale.

For all its spectacular packaging and visual delights, “Interstellar” is an ordinary work let down by poor characterisation, banal themes and plot, and ultimately a deterministic worldview that does not tolerate diversity in how viewers might watch and interpret cinema.

The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

The Dark Knight Rises: bloated film seizes on Western anxieties to deliver a politically conservative message that undermines idealism

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City enjoys peace thanks to the Dent Act, named after Gotham City Chief Attorney Harvey Dent, which has allowed Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to bust the power of crime gangs and clean up the city’s corruption. He’s invited to a function at Wayne Manor on Harvey Dent Day and has a speech ready but at the last minute declines to read from the speech (because it is an admission that he and Gotham City have been living a lie which is that Dent died heroically and not as a fallen criminal). A US senator is kidnapped at the function so Gordon later leads a team of police that includes rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to find him; Gordon goes into the city sewers but falls into the hands of arch-criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) who takes Gordon’s speech off him. Gordon manages to escape and is recovered by Blake and hospitalised.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living a reclusive life in Wayne Manor, allowing it and his company Wayne Enterprises to crumble since he invested in a clean energy project that was to harness fusion power but shut it down after learning the nuclear core could easily be converted into a bomb. Wayne comes to believe that one of his Board Directors, Daggett, has hired Bane to help mount a take-over of Wayne Enterprises. One of the other Board Directors, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is put in charge of the energy project along with Board Chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He decides to return to Gotham City as Batman, at which news Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) walks out on him. While preparing to leave, Pennyworth tells Wayne that his old love Rachel had decided to leave him for Harvey Dent before she died.

Tracking down cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who nicked his mother’s pearl necklace while in disguise as a maid at the Harvey Dent Act function, Wayne as Batman meets Bane who tells him he (Bane) has assumed leadership of the League of Shadows after the death of Ra’s al Ghul. Bane has just stolen the contents of the Applied Science Division of Wayne Enterprises through a heist on Gotham City’s bourse and proceeds to cripple Batman and put him away in Ra’s al Ghul’s prison. There, Wayne learns the story of a mercenary who fell in love with his warlord employer’s daughter and fathered a child with her. He’s thrown into the prison but is later discharged, not knowing that the daughter took his place instead. The daughter gave birth to the child and was later killed by the inmates; the child survives only because one prisoner protected it. The child is later able to escape the prison but its protector was attacked by the inmates. Wayne assumes the child is the young Bane.

Back at the GC ranch, Bane has tricked GC’s finest into an underground sewer trap labyrinth and taken over the city under the pretence of reclaiming it for the city inhabitants. The nuclear core of the energy project is turned into a time-bomb. Gordon goes underground and contacts Blake. Bane reveals the truth about Dent publicly by reading Gordon’s speech before TV cameras. The prisoners Gordon had put away under the Dent Act are released. Various prominent GC movers and shakers, among them the right-hand man of Daggett (Daggett having been killed earlier), are subjected to show trials and either killed or forced to walk across the thin ice of Gotham river.

After several months recuperating and retraining, Wayne escapes Ra’s al Ghul’s prison and returns to GC where he joins with Lucius Fox, Gordon, Blake and Kyle to reclaim GC and stop the time-bomb from detonating and destroying the city. As Batman, Wayne meets Bane again and the two fight: Batman nearly defeats Bane but is cut off by Miranda Tate who reveals herself as Talia al Ghul, the grand-daughter of Ra’s al Ghul who escaped the prison as the child; Bane is revealed as her protector. In the meantime, Gordon has cut off Tate’s remote control to the bomb. Kyle arrives in the nick of time to kill Bane while Batman sets off after Tate who is determined to take manual control of the bomb.

The film is more unified than its predecessor and less dependent on silly skits but still histrionic and heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. Terrorism as a topic is treated rather simplistically though this is due to the movie format: Daggett, representing big business, works together with the rogue Bane, a catch-all figure for shadowy charismatic terrorists and mercenaries, to subvert the GC elite but Bane through superior cunning subverts Daggett’s ambitions and becomes GC’s warlord. He seizes on the cultural Zeitgeist with its loathing for political corruption and its socialite sycophancy and institutes a Reign of Terror to satisfy the hoi polloi’s desire for vengeance on its leaders. On a more personal level, Wayne learns how to properly use his wealth to benefit the people of GC and discovers physical and existential freedom and redemption; his burden of championing the weak and vulnerable passes onto Blake whose real first name is revealed to be … ha! Robin.

There are little connections with Nolan’s previous flick “Inception”: a cafe scene earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises” repeats at the end of the film in such a way that it can be interpreted as a dream and there is a message about breaking out of a rut and striking out on one’s own. The myth about Harvey Dent which Batman and Gordon had colluded on in the belief that GC would be unable to cope with the idea of Dent as a criminal, and blown by Bane, is accepted as false by GC citizens without too much ado or the chaos and despair that Gordon had feared would happen. Whether the GC people can kill off a myth only by replacing it with a new myth – which might say something “fundamental” about human societies (that no society can function without believing in lies: a Straussian philosophical influence is felt here) – depends on how viewers interpret the second cafe scene.

For guys as careful as Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan are in constructing narrative architectures,  they can’t hope to cover everything so it’s inevitable that incongruities should occur: how could Wayne not realise that Tate is Talia al Ghul and how did she manage to inveigle herself and Bane into the GC elite? how is it that Wayne survives having his back put out? why does Bane spare his life? what happens to Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who pops up as Bane’s judge and jury of the GC elite? The ending is too pat and tidy with GC finally taking its place among squeaky-clean utopias, Gordon being redeemed by his heroic derring-do in helping to defuse the bomb and Blake finding his true role in life as defender of helpless and vulnerable city orphans.

Like other bloated Hollywood block-busters, “The Dark Knight Rises” suffers from too many pyrotechnics, stock film tropes like a spectacular opening sequence in which Bane and his myrmidons kidnap the Russian inventor of the project nuclear core, unbearably melodramatic orchestral music, and an essentially conservative message about how billionaires really are good guys at heart and how individuals of different classes and backgrounds can band together to defeat a common enemy and save their city after the Federal government has abandoned it. The Nolan brothers enlist the Occupy message and people’s outrage against crooked banksters and mafia banks to suggest these can be corrupted and made to serve selfish individual agendas that lead to mob rule and the kind of terror that once existed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in China during the Cultural Revolution (and even in parts of the southern and western United States from 1880 to the 1960s with lynchings of mostly black people, though some white people and a Jew were also lynched); some reviewers will obviously take that as a cynical move on the brothers’ part.

It is unfortunately true that idealism can be subverted by forceful and charismatic individuals whose real motives are sinister. Especially if outrage at institutions and networks that perpetuate class hierarchies can be directed against particular individuals who are then demonised and forced to suffer punishment for the crimes of many; this of course means that the institutions themselves never undergo re-examination and can survive intact with new leaders. Messengers are shot but the message itself is lost in the changeover from old leaders to new leaders. Structures and the attitudes and values associated with them and which maintain them stay in place to corrupt a new generation of leaders. The Batman trilogy’s outlook is cynical about the prospect for social improvement and change, and the message is: don’t question the system / if it ain’t broke, why reinvent the wheel?

The film is loosely based on a three-story series that began with “Knightfall” and continued through “Knightquest” and KnightsEnd”, released by DC Comics in the early 1990s. References to the series and to “Knightfall” particularly in the film include scenes in the sewers where initially Bane has his hideout and an early line about crocodiles living there also (a reference to Batman villain Killer Croc), Bane breaking Batman’s back and Bane’s release of the GC prisoners. “Knightfall” has a theme about Batman realising that he can’t fight underground crime on his own and needs the help of others such as Nightwing, the Huntress and Oracle and her Birds of Prey to clean up corruption wherever it occurs; this idea is present also in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Unfortunately this third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is no great advance on the mythos of the vigilante masked crusader begun by Bob Kane during the Depression years some eighty years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Knight: a shallow movie with one-note characters beneath the pyrotechnics

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Second in British-American director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with “Batman Begins” (2005) and will finish with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, this movie represents Hollywood at its best and worst over the decade 2000 – 2010: blockbuster entertainment with big-name actors, some of whom deliver fine performances, as mostly one-dimensional characters in search of a clear and straightforward plot to justify the rollercoaster ride of tension build-up, peak, ride-down and repeat along with numerous exploding glass windows, transport vehicles, various deserted buildings and a growing body count. The only things missing are the product placements, the busty luscious babes and Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song. There’s a message about the age-old struggle between good and evil which even Hollywood knows is an old-fashioned idea that needs frequent tweaking to appear fresh and vital so the variation that appears in “The Dark Knight” is one in which, at the level of certain individuals, evil defeats good; and on a collective level, for goodness to prevail over evil, good people often have to bend the rules, engage in unethical practices, even copy what bad people do. Some individuals’ reputations have to be preserved and a network of lies spun to maintain the confidence and faith of the citizens of Gotham City in the law. Everyone in the film, good and bad, comes out looking as grubby as everyone else and no-one learns any valuable lessons after the rollercoaster ride ends other than “the end justifies the means”. This ensures that the cycle of violent crime in Gotham City will continue.

What passes for a plot in “The Dark Knight” is a string of sketches, most of which form a series of “tests” conducted by the criminal mastermind calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) on the city residents and in particular on Batman (Christian Bale) to test their moral breaking points and if Batman himself can be corrupted. Entwined with the Joker’s ever more elaborately staged and vicious pranks is the complementary rise and fall of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from heralded “white knight” hero supposedly busting organised crime networks to vengeful twisted nutcase intent on taking various people down with him. Although Dent’s transformation from good guy to bad guy is sudden, the film makes clear from the start his moral fallibility: he flippantly tosses coins to make important decisions, punches a guy in fury in court and relies on Batman risking his own life to make him look good so his sudden downfall, pushed along by the Joker, is plausible. Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldfield) who becomes Police Commissioner during the film, confirms Dent’s true nature beneath the squeaky-clean facade by remembering the attorney’s nickname Two-Face from an earlier encounter that took place long before the movie’s events.

Dent could have been the movie’s focus as an essentially well-meaning but flawed character who descends into the pit of evil, egged on by the Joker, and a set-up that enables him to redeem himself by recognising that he, not his coin, is solely responsible for “[making] his own luck” and to flummox the Joker into acknowledging that however hard mortals fall, they still have the potential to rise again, morally if not materially, would have made “The Dark Knight” a grander and more interesting, more thoughtful work. Batman and the Joker would play their good angel / bad angel routine and their battle for Dent’s “soul” might at least lead Batman to learn something about himself and his quest to rid Gotham City of crime and evil. The Joker might learn something too if only to make himself a more formidable enemy for Batman. They are indeed complementary if weird and polarised soul-mates.

The actors are all capable in their roles most of which are one-note anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal as lawyer Rachel Dawes, over whom Dent and Batman as Bruce Wayne are love rivals, has nothing to do and the movie disposes of her halfway through without resolving the love triangle, Dent not even realising he has competition. Bale, recognising Batman’s essential straight-man role to counter the florid villains, plays his dual role in a minimal and blank way. That’s some achievement: playing a character with two highly opposed personalities with next-to-no acting. Eckhart as Dent has the hardest task turning a flawed would-be hero into a dangerous killer and he pulls it off well though the coin-flipping habit is excessive and tiresome. Of the minor roles, Morgan Freeman makes the deepest impression as Lucius Fox, the quietly authoritative chief executive of Wayne Enterprises and the film’s supposedly moral voice. (Though if Fox is willing to help Batman nab a crook accountant in Hong Kong, breaking various laws there, he can hardly complain about Batman wire-tapping people’s cellphones to locate the Joker.) Ledger is a mannered Joker, affecting a hunch-back walk and facial tics when it suits and having a grand time in his role, getting the film’s best lines and toying with Batman and the police like so many guinea pigs; even his role hardly calls for much depth of character and it’s arguable that any other serious drama actor in the role would have done just as well as Ledger.

For a self-proclaimed canine car-chaser, the Joker in some ways is surprisingly generous and moral in a way: a true agent of chaos wouldn’t allow innocent people to choose their mode of death or give Batman and the police just enough time to rescue people before bombs go off. Most of those killed directly by the Joker are crooks or police in the line of duty and the city authorities are allowed to evacuate hospitals before he blows one up (and it was probably overdue for demolition anyway). The Joker appears to be testing his resolve and abilities as much as he tests Batman, and his own actions nearly always disprove everything he says about himself. Viewers either accept him as a confused mass of contradictions or assume he’s deliberately lying about himself to throw people off guard and see how they react when they discover the truth.

The Joker’s duel with Batman could have been a true battle of wits, self-struggle, self-examination and who has the brain and guts to call the other guy’s bluff. Batman is supposed to be a master detective using his intelligence and cunning where other comic heroes rely on super-powers; here, he runs about like a rat on a wheel, chasing the Joker and never coming to understand his foe or his methods, much less anticipate and predict where the fiend might strike next. The Joker could be preening himself, imagining that he is conducting a giant science experiment and egging Batman on to ever greater efforts of heroism, at least until Batman has a light-bulb moment (unlikely with Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of the character) and figures out a way to turn the experiment back onto the Joker.

We get a film where gadgetry and technology are fetishised, and explosions mark the various climaxes that appear with boring regularity, signalling the end of one acting routine that features a cat-and-mouse game and the beginning of another similar routine. The special effects, fiery blow-outs and whizz-bang computer work that simulates Batman’s sonar become tiresome and the film, stripped of its pyrotechnics, ends up looking like an ordinary and over-long CSI-type episode. The film does the original comic little credit in spirit: Batman should be something above the usual forces of law and order, and compensate for what it lacks, placing him in a position of conflict against it. For him to be co-operating with a corruptible and incompetent police force when he’s an incorruptible vigilante is a contradictory and compromising position.

The duality of the Batman / Joker conflict isn’t explored much beyond Batman as moral agent and the Joker as supposedly amoral agent. Even this aspect is conflicted in the film: Batman, by jettisoning his principles to capture the Joker at any cost, becomes a corrupted individual. The Joker, in refusing to kill Batman but simply wanting to bring him down through carefully staged pranks that Batman nearly always overcomes (suggesting that the Joker incorporates sporting chances in his schemes), is more “moral” than he realises. The irony is that the Joker didn’t need to do anything stagey or strenuous at all – Batman brought himself down low.

Inception: overhyped film remains in dream limbo

Christopher Nolan, “Inception” (2010)

I found this film disappointing despite the ingenious combination of
science fiction with the conventions of an action heist film, based on
the notion that one day it might be possible for strangers to invade
one’s dreams and muck around in there stealing secrets and planting
ideas and impulses that end up defining who you are and your life’s
work. I don’t expect a great deal from Christopher Nolan as a director:
the ideas he has for his movies may be good but their eventual execution
falls far from brilliant even when you allow for conformity with
Hollywood and mainstream audience expectations. I’m sure David Lynch,
Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg among other Hollywood directors would
have made something far more interesting and much wackier with the idea
of a dream-thief and his team implanting a notion into the head of an
heir to a corporate energy empire to force him to break it up. The
result might be messy and confusing for the audience to follow, with
sub-plots that might break off suddenly and remain unresolved in the way
of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Various snide asides and jokes at the
corporate world and about mind surgery would be dropped along key points
in the plot to relieve tension, lighten the mood and enable some
character development. With the idea in Nolan’s hands, everything
becomes part of a cool, glossy, sterile corporate-world veneer of glass
skyscrapers, picturesque historical architecture, marble floors and
people in expensive suits. Scenes of fighting and mayhem shot in a
Kenyan locale look well-ordered and clean with one narrow passage
between buildings strangely free of rubbish, pools of smelly water and
scavenging dogs. Even cities in the First World aren’t that
dental-flossingly clean! An unseen inflexible logic lurks in this world,
allowing nothing to disturb it and pursuing and getting rid of anyone or
anything that does.

In order to properly plant the idea into the victim’s head, the
dream-thief Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo di Caprio) and his companions –
an apt description as one of these people, Ariadne (Ellen Page), is a
novice at dream invasions and needs must have the parameters and
pitfalls of the inception explained to her (so the audience understands
what’s involved) in the way Doctor Who explains his actions to yet
another befuddled female Earthling he’s taken a shine to – find they
have to descend to four levels of dreamscapes, each one dreamt by a
different team member who must stay on that level in order to bring back
his fellows from a deeper level by a device or series of devices they
call the “kicker”. I happen to find it easier to view each dream as
being on a “lower” or “inner” level from the next as though they are
parts of a progressive vertical hierarchy. Each dreamscape runs at a
different pace of time so that the main action bar the kicker on one
level can finish before the team can enter a lower level. Hence we have
constant flipovers during the last hour of “Inception” to a van falling
in slow motion from a bridge to a river below. It’s very curious that
activity on the higher dreamscape level can affect levels lower down but
the effects of activity on the lower levels cannot filter up. Equally
curious is that Cobb’s guilt feelings about his dead wife Mal (Marion
Cotillard) intrude into the various dreamscapes while any subconscious
feelings Ariadne and the other team members might have resolutely stay
away from the dreamscapes.

Along the way, one of Cobb’s companions and instigator cum corporate
sponsor of the heist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), suffers serious injury on
one level which causes him to die on a lower level. This in turn sends
him to dream limbo and risks putting him in a permanent coma in real
life so Cobb diverts into a sub-plot – and another dream loop – to save
Saito. They end up recreating in mirror form a scene from the film’s
opening frames in which an aged Saito faces Cobb over a polished black
table. In these frames Saito asks Cobb if he wants to die old and alone
with regrets – in order to induce him into the inception caper – in the
recreation, it’s Cobb who asks the question of Saito to get him out of
dream limbo and back to reality. This is the climactic scene of the
movie: both Cobb and Saito are faced with a choice to continue dreaming
(and cut themselves off their loved ones in real life) or to return to
reality (and cut themselves off their memories of their loved ones, dead
or alive). I half-expect at this point they realise they’re in “Blade
Runner” so they pull out a Voight-Kampff polygraph test from under the
table to determine their human / replicant status and then exchange
origami unicorns. Instead, the extended denouement that follows becomes
a kind of limbo between the dream world and reality in which all loose
plot ends are apparently tied and the viewers must decide if they’re
watching Cobb in dream limbo or reality.

What impresses me is the conservatism and narrowness of Nolan’s vision:
the dream-thieves are contracted for a job to break up a corporate
monopoly in the long term. This is done mostly for the benefit of Saito
who altruistically includes his fellow corporate competitors as
beneficiaries. Nothing is said about any possible benefits or
disadvantages of this con-job to the planet and its inhabitants. Dom
Cobb has his reasons for accepting the job but the motives of his fellow
dream-travellers (apart from Saito) remain unknown and these people
remain one-dimensional for that. Ariadne initially is repelled but
decides to go to keep an eye on Cobb’s subconscious. The dream-worlds
they enter are banal even by our own Hollywood movie dream standards: an
urban highway chase scene in one dream, an attack on a fortress (which
turns out to be a hospital) in snowy country in another, a swish 5-star
hotel in a third. We may share the same culture so our dreams will often
be very similar in background scenery and symbols, no matter how kitschy
and trite they are, but the links and inter-actions among those symbols
and their meaning or significance have creative potential for something
original, something subversive, and become very personal. In the dreams
that feature in this movie, Nolan doesn’t attempt even in a small way to
play around with film genres like action film, science fiction film,
film noir or spy films that might extend their creative potential or
comment on the nature of making movies. (The aforementioned scenes
involving Cobb and Saito may themselves comment on linear plot
narrative.) For whichever genre appears in “Inception”, its conventions
are studiously obeyed. Irony and playfulness are replaced by explosions,
constant flipping among dream narratives and go-go-go action which
demands more energy than skill from the actors involved.

The result renders “Inception” as a smooth and efficient film with
little zest and soul. The film slots into a category along with James
Cameron’s “Avatar”, Cronenberg’s “eXisteNZ”, Gabriele Salvatores’s
“Nirvana” and possibly even Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (which
I’ve not seen) among others. In these films, characters take on other
identities and go into other “worlds” to interact with inhabitants of
those places: there is often a hidden agenda behind the purported
reasons for doing so. It may be cavalier or depressing to some that I
should treat the world of dreams as no different from virtual reality
worlds or brain / technology interfacing but other reviews of
“Inception” have noted the similarities between the dreamscape world and
computer games. This may have been part of Nolan’s intention when he
conceived the idea for the movie. In its drive to attract teenage and
young adult audiences, at home with the idea of blurred identities and
multiple fractured narratives that have an inner logic, Hollywood
undoubtedly will invest more money in directors and writers who can
deliver a similar style of film as “Inception” and its kind. If these
films can give us memorable characters and something challenging and
subversive about the way we see the world, that would be a bonus but
such bonuses are very rare in the rapacious and amoral corporate world
“Inception” seems to aspire to.

Contact: Official “Inception” movie website,
http://inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com/