Above all, we admire mastery. A painter, sculptor, athlete, musician, actor, scientist — whatever the profession, there is nothing quite like witnessing someone working at the top of their game. The expression of professional confidence, ease, and poise is a joy to behold. You sit back and let it wash over you, and think to yourself — this is really good.
The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, is a tour de force. Whether you agree with it or not, this guy has his own 20/20 vision of the world of Gotham, and he paints it across the big screen with incredible skill. He is supremely confident and relaxed throughout the 165-minute duration, maintaining a precise pace that’s never too fast or slow, and always drawing you ever nearer to the end of his dark trilogy.
Composer Hans Zimmer (who collaborated with James Newton-Howard on the first two films) is in his element here. Perhaps no other modern film composer can so masterfully convey heroism, anxiety, and tension. Standing on the shoulders of giants, Zimmer writes leitmotifs as stirring as Wagner’s, chords as massive as Bruckner’s, and melodies as uplifting as Mendelssohn’s to unify the action and energize the story. Pounding and rhythmic, the score pulses through the film like a ticking clock.
The two-note Batman motif (a minor third, with a shift in tonality from D minor to F major) is both supremely simple and powerful, conveying both the ambiguity and heroism at the core of the caped crusader. Zimmer has said that he never thought he was going to spread two notes over three movies but he does so quite effectively, without ever sounding predictable. He even manages to tie a neat little bow around the score. In the first film, Batman Begins, at the moment that defines who Bruce Wayne is to become, there’s a single note held by a solo boy’s voice. Listen for that defining note again in this last film.
While Zimmer whittled down the main theme to two notes, he does change up how that theme is used throughout the movies. In this score, he uses a creative trick to bring a massive scale to the score. Call it crowdsourcing — thousands of voices mixed to create a choir unlike any you’ve heard before. Zimmer put out a request on Twitter for people to submit their voices (on www.ujam.com) and he mixed the raw recordings to create a natural, organic choir. Its expression of humanity is effective because it’s not the precise performance that a professional choir would create.
Of course, sometimes the most effective score is no score at all. During a crucial (and brutal) fistfight, the underscore falls silent, and we hear only the sounds of bone and flesh violence. Since the scene is devoid of music, the raw sounds are doubly disturbing. Later, as darkness falls, the otherwise dominant ambient background sound (of gushing water) is diminished, bringing even more rawness to the grunts and punches.
Listen for many more effective sonic touches from sound designer Richard King — dialog in the Wayne mansion, for example, is surrounded by lingering reverberation to better emphasize the emptiness and loneliness of its vast rooms. In a subterranean tunnel, sounds of strings weave into the echoes of a subway passing by in a far-off tunnel. Whenever Batman’s cape is fluttering in the wind, that fader (with a sound effect of a flag in a stiff breeze?) is cranked to exaggerate that sound while others are reduced. The sound of the Batcycle’s motor screaming down the street and its fat tires shuddering around tight corners is even better than the best Harley; if you’ve ever ridden a bike, you’ll want a Batcycle. The sound of the airborne Bat is like something out of a mechanical hell, with a slight fluttering sound of metallic wings mixed in ever so subtly; even before its weaponry lets loose, the sound alone will make you duck and cover.
The voice of the villain Bane has inspired much discussion. He wears a mask over his mouth (pumping in an anesthetic gas to relieve his pain) and the sound of his voice is very electronic and perhaps overly processed. His dialogue is intelligible but it stands out oddly from its environment, not quite matching the ambience of the space around him. Regrettably, a few words of dialogue do get lost in the mix.
In a film world increasingly preoccupied with digital processing and technical gimmicks, this movie relies on old-school methods. In the closing credits, we see that “This motion picture was shot and finished on film.” Of course, there’s still a healthy dose of CGI, and very occasionally the traditional techniques fall short. For example, early in the film, the flying Bat (suspended from wires) looks a little shaky; CGI is used to remove things like wires, but never creates something that wasn’t originally shot on film. Also, while 3D is wonderful, but this film doesn’t need it. Nolan has said that it was much more important to shoot on a high-resolution format like IMAX than going to 3D, especially since the first two movies in the trilogy were not in 3D. In the end, he shot over an hour in the IMAX format. He would have done more, except that the noise of IMAX cameras makes them problematic during scenes with dialogue, so 35mm and 70mm was used instead. Throughout, despite small flaws, the visuals and cinematography are outstanding.
The Dark Knight Rises is expert story-telling and a wonderful example of just how far the art of filmmaking has progressed. Christopher Nolan has raised the bar for anyone trying to create a realistic, gritty cinemagraphic world. His mastery of the art and craft is undeniable. Whether on film or Blu-ray, this is a must-see movie.
Along with the editors at S+V, we would like to convey our deepest sympathies to everyone devastated by the Aurora tragedy.
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.
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