Review for Batman Begins (2 disc set) (UK)
Christopher Nolan has to be the biggest ticket in town right now. He's Hollywood's golden boy, has been afforded the sort of acclaim with his 'debut' Memento that M. Night Shyamalan received when he made The Sixth Sense. Unlike Shyamalan however, Nolan has delivered on the promise of that first movie, and then some. In fact, it seems that every subsequent movie since then has just been bigger and better, and been both critical and commercial dynamite. Right now, the summer movie to see is Inception, which has somehow combined a blockbuster impact with a devilishly smart script. It's an intelligent summer movie, something that for the last thirty odd years many would have considered an oxymoron. All of which in no way goes to explain why I'm watching Batman Begins instead, expect for the fact that it's on my to watch pile, and my reviewing OCD just kicked in. I'll get around to Inception eventually (2015 at this rate).
I must admit that the combination of Christopher Nolan and Batman had me scratching my head when I first heard of it. After all, on the strength of Memento and Insomnia, I'd have thought Nolan perfect for cutting edge, Indie cinema, intelligent, thoughtful and innovative storytelling, not another iteration of a comic book superhero, even if it were one that has been reinvented more times than most. Up to that point, my experience with Batman on screen had been camp, gothic, and gothic and camp. There was the iconic sixties Adam West and Burt Ward television show, the dark and gothic reinvention of Tim Burton, and the descent into tomfoolery that followed under the aegis of Joel Schumacher. It was hard to see what Warners could do to re-energise a franchise that had apparently received the kiss of death in Batman and Robin, with its be-nippled batsuits, and supervillains that would have been embarrassing even in the Adam West series, let alone a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster.
Apparently, Nolan asked a question that could only be asked of this comic book superhero, what if Batman was real? All the other comic book heroes have super powers, have been bitten by radioactive spiders, or come from alien planets. Trappings of the comic books and films aside, Batman is fundamentally human, a vigilante, albeit one backed up with the boundless fortune of his alter ego Bruce Wayne. So the question becomes, what would it take for a man to become a vigilante in this world, what would make him don a batlike costume and hunt criminals by night, how would the trappings of Batman, the utility belt, the Batmobile, all these things actually work in the real world? Suddenly it becomes less of a comic book movie, and more an examination of character, of vigilantism, of the whole philosophy of crime and punishment itself. Forget the gothic nature of Burton's movies, forget the Dark Knight comic books, this becomes true darkness, the darkness in the human soul. Suddenly I'm interested in watching a Batman movie again.
Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by his past, yet uncertain of his future. As a boy he was orphaned when a street robbery went wrong, and it was left to the family butler Alfred to raise him. The mugger was caught, but in a city as corrupt as Gotham, prison bars aren't much of an impediment, and justice is fleeting. Trying to understand that which had torn apart his life, Bruce immersed himself in the underworld, and somehow wound up in prison at the roof of the world. It's there that he comes to the attention of a man named Ducard, who offers him focus in his life, to train in a monastery under Ra's Al Ghul, to join the League of Shadows, to become part of the force that brings justice at any cost. But for the League of Shadows, there is some corruption that cannot be simply cleansed, it must be burned away, and Ra's Al Ghul's plans for Gotham are terminal. Bruce has other plans. He's found the direction in his life that he was looking for. He will become Gotham's protector, a permanent symbol where men are impermanent. He will take on the form of that which struck fear into him as a child, and he will use that fear against his enemies. And he will root out the corruption that taints Gotham City. He will become the Batman, a creature of the night, the bane of the criminal fraternity. Of course for such an endeavour, he'll need some pretty nifty kit. It's a good thing that he's a billionaire then.
Batman Begins gets a 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer, which as you would expect from such a recent film is top-notch. The image is clear and colourful throughout, and if there is a slight hint of softness, it appears to be a creative choice, as certainly detail levels remain high, and contrast is good. There is slight moiré around fine detail, but that's to be expected at the limits of DVD capabilities. Gotham City gets a very realistic, if slightly tweaked look to it. It could very much be any city in the world, but there's just enough of a drift away from reality to make it a plausible world for the Batman. The action sequences and stunts are spectacular, and unlike many modern blockbusters, are filmed in camera instead of with composites of CGI and green screen. The close up hand-to-hand combat is usually obscured in darkness, but for once that isn't a cause for complaint, Batman is a creature of the night after all.
Audio comes in DD 5.1 English and German flavours, along with a handful of subtitle languages. It's all as you would expect from a summer action blockbuster, suitably resonant and full blooded a surround track. The dialogue is as clear as you would expect given Christian Bale's rasp as Batman, and some of the characters' tendencies to whisper and understate. Incidentally, the dialogue is pretty choice as well, with plenty of memorable lines and witticisms, as well as an overall depth and intelligence to the plot. The music suits the film well, if not immediately memorable and iconic. But I have to admit the thunderous heartbeat motif that heralds Batman certainly is effective and unique. It's a visceral emotive approach to music and sound design that certainly is a distinctive selling point of the film.
Two discs in an Amaray case, with one disc on a central hinged panel. I got a whole load of inlay guff in mine, none of which is of any use. Even the heavily Batman artwork covered leaflet was full of adverts and absent of anything remotely useful, not even a chapter list.
Both discs get the animated menus, while the only extra on disc one is the theatrical trailer. Note that disc one also autoplays with one of those pesky unskippable antipiracy trailers.
Everything else is on disc 2, presented as one giant Easter Egg hunt. The menus are presented as a Batman comic, with the various featurettes and links hidden within the panels and text, and you'll have to go searching to explore the disc properly. It's a neat and fun way to do things if you are in the mood, but a damned annoyance if you lack the patience. Fortunately, on the last page of the comic with the credits, there's a simple link to a menu screen where you can access all the featurettes without any hassle, although the (genuine) Easter Eggs on the disc aren't listed.
The Journey Begins lasts 14 minutes, and has director Christopher Nolan, writer David S. Goyer, and production designer Nathan Crowley talking about the creation and genesis of the film, and the casting of Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Cape and Cowl lasts 8 minutes, and looks at the creation of the iconic Batman costume.
Gotham City Rises lasts 13 minutes, and explores the creation of the city, the massive sets that were constructed, and the building of the Batcave.
Path to Discovery focuses on the pre-Batman sequence in the film, taking us behind the scenes of the shoot in Iceland, doubling for Bhutan. This lasts 14 minutes
Shaping Mind & Body lasts 13 minutes, and looks at the specific fighting technique used by Batman, and how it was chosen to represent the brutality of violence, instead of opting for the ubiquitous wire-fu that so permeates Hollywood action these days.
Ripped From The Pages lasts 15 minutes, and looks at those Batman stories that directly inspired this film, taken from the previous 70 years of literary heritage.
The Tumbler is a 14-minute featurette investigating the new look Batmobile designed and created for this film, again coming from a realistic perspective, it also shows how the designers built and crafted a robust vehicle that stood up to all the punishment that the filmmakers could throw at it.
Finally for the featurettes there is Saving Gotham City, a 13-minute featurette that looks at the climax of the film and how it was accomplished with one eye on realism.
You'll also find an Art Gallery that looks at the promotional imagery used for the film in all territories, as well as a glossary of terms that looks at Batman's Allies, Enemies and Gadgets. Of course there are several Easter Eggs to discover as well, but given that they are just as obscured as the listed featurettes, it's perhaps more appropriate to call them mini-featurettes that were left off the DVD sleeve.
There is plenty of input from the director and crew of the film, but the only cast members to contribute to the featurettes are Christian Bale and Liam Neeson, which given the illustrious weightiness of cast in this film is a little disappointing. Also disappointing is the absence of an audio commentary.
There is also some DVD-ROM Interactual content on disc 2, but since I swore never to touch that registry assassin again, you'll have to find out what it is for yourselves.
So Batman gets yet another reinvention, this time with one eye on realism, under the aegis of director Christopher Nolan. And you know something? It doesn't half work! This Batman is a splendid, entertaining, tour de force. It's a revolutionary take on the comic book franchise, which not only appeals to the die hard comic book fan, but can also be appreciated by those who have come to turn their nose up at such fare, who think of comic books as juvenile and beneath them, and who refuse to listen to those who know better. This Batman has the suit, the gadgets, the stunts, the action and the style. But it's primarily a character and plot driven piece. This isn't about the crash, bang and wallop, but what motivates such people to indulge in the crash, bang and wallop. As a smart, comic book movie, it's up there with the original Blade, the first X Men, and the granddaddy of them all, Superman: The Movie in terms of how it handles its characters and plot.
Where this film becomes unique is in relating those characters and its story to the real world. Up till now, the best comic book movies would have you leaving the cinema afterwards, wishing that you lived in a world where such fantasies were possible. Batman Begins leaves you with the suspicion that you already do. Of course in reality Batman just wouldn't be possible, there are too many checks and balances in society to prevent such vigilantism, and also to allow for such rampant criminality. We live in a CCTV Big Brother world, and if you start giving Batman Begins any serious thought, you can pick holes in its plausibility with ease. The film works by actually tweaking its world so that it is almost recognisably ours, but sufficiently different to allow for its worldview. Top of the list is that Gotham is practically an independent state. How else could such corruption thrive in its police force, such criminal activity go without punishment, if external authorities like the federal government are unable to act within the city? Only in such a situation can vigilantism be seen as a viable alternative, and only in such a situation can the Caped Crusader arise.
It also has to be a reality where vigilantism can be seen as acceptable in some way. There has to be a tacit acceptance, both by the citizenry, and by those in authority that it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to an independent police force. There has to be a collusion of sorts in the authorities and the press, to agree not to investigate the identity of the Batman with any energy or commitment. In the real world it would be far too easy to follow paper trails and evidence to eventually ascertain the crime fighter's true identity. But perhaps it's less of a tweak as it is a turning back of the clock. Watching Batman Begins, I'm strongly reminded of The Untouchables, when the Mob ruled Chicago, corruption was rife, and the US Government had to send in Elliot Ness to root out the criminality in the city.
What makes Batman Begins really work for me is that it's not about the guy in the suit at all. It's about Bruce Wayne. As the title states, this is about the genesis of the Batman, and there's no point in going into the man beneath the cowl if you do not know the man in the first place. So we get the first half of the movie devoted to exploring the Bruce Wayne character, to explaining his motivation, his search for his identity, and his need to make sense of a world that left him orphaned and angry, looking for someone to blame. We follow his search for answers to the eventual understanding and realisation of what his crusade is. By the time he eventually dons the cowl and cape, we are totally invested in Bruce Wayne. The costume is just that, a costume, a mask, just another facet of Bruce Wayne, and that is the character we are invested in. This isn't just a movie where we bide our time through the talky bits, waiting for the costume and the action.
Much of the strength of Batman Begins comes from the quality of the cast, with Christian Bale resplendent as Bruce Wayne/Batman. The real joy is in the relationship he has with his butler Alfred, played by Michael Caine. Morgan Freeman is synonymous with gravitas, and as Lucius Fox he's the perfect Q to Bruce Wayne's Bond. Gary Oldman as Gordon, Tom Wilkinson as Carmine, Cillian Murphy as Crane, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache, it's a filmmaker's dream. I have to admit that I love Liam Neeson as Ducard, which almost seems like a twisted Dark Side take on Qui-Gon Jinn, again his relationship with Bruce Wayne is by parts paternal mentor, by parts nemesis, by parts ally, and he received dimension and nuance in a way unprecedented for comic book adaptations. If there is a weak point in the cast, it's Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, a character whose only real contribution to the plot is in Bruce's formative years, but otherwise comes across as poorly written, and underused.
This Batman is as radical a departure as Tim Burton's take was fifteen years prior. But somehow its more realistic take on the characters, and the thoughtful and considered plot means it will probably endure a whole lot longer. It may not be the definitive comic book movie, but Batman Begins is a comic book movie with a whole lot of smarts, catering for fans of the Caped Crusader, and the intelligentsia alike. You can move this film from the guilty pleasures shelf, to the DVD shelf that you show off to guests and visitors.