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Batman Begins (2005)

PG-13 140 minutes

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Bob Kane, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan

Starring
 · Christian Bale
 · Michael Caine
 · Liam Neeson
 · Morgan Freeman
 · Gary Oldman


Review by Matt Goodman

"You have nothing to fear but fear itself"

Such phrase is reiterated by numerous characters in Christopher Nolan's seminal production Batman Begins. Here is a character shrouded in infamy by the very sources that has made the character a legend. Those who have read the comics (I am told, I've never opened a Batman comic in my life) know the Dark Knight as a symbol of stoic fear and grace. The others, who know the Batman from the various films, know a campy and over the top character with a ridiculous moniker. What Nolan has done here is transform a legend from comic books into a legend in film. By utilizing themes not previously touched on by any comic book films, Batman Begins makes a name for not only its star, but the film itself.

Batman Begins focuses more on the film's protagonist than on its antagonists, something that has not yet been done by a Batman film. The film opens, surprisingly enough, in a Chinese prison, where we find Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale replacing George Clooney who most recently played the role) is an inmate.  There, Wayne is assaulted by his fellow criminals prior to breakfast. After dealing with them, he is sent to solitary confinement where he finds Henri Ducard awaiting his arrival. Ducard, played masterfully by Liam Neeson, proposes that Wayne should break from the prison that holds him, and find the training facility of Ra's Al Gul (played by Ken Watanabe) which lies high atop a mountain. Quickly, Wayne arrives at the facility and is brutalized and taught extremist ideals until he is forced to make a decision: follow Al Gul's demented requests, or break off and begin his own journey. From here, the film focuses on Batman's beginning; we see the acquisition of the Tumbler (commonly referred to as the Batmobile) and the batsuit. We see the idea of Batman come to full fruition and the idea that drove the discovery of the identity. Twists and turns await the audience as Batman must stop Gotham's most infamous drug lord (Tom Wilkinson) and a sneaky doctor parading around as a Scarecrow (played by the surprisingly cruel Cillian Murphy). By the end of the film, we have come a long way into Gotham's underbelly, and believe me, you won't want to wait to go back.

 

Smarts

 
 88%

Fear is obviously something that has consumed Bruce Wayne. Even in Burton's fantastical films starring the caped crusader, fear is clearly something that has influenced our protagonist. But only in Batman Begins does fear truly show itself. The theme floats over the affluent Gotham city and down into its decrepit valleys. Fear floats over Wayne, even from the opening credits. He is a confident character, but he is driven by fear's urges. For the first half of the film, he lives under fear's rules; the second half of the film is all about overcoming fear and being able to inflict it upon others. The progression in all of the characters is stunning and driven by fear; whether it be the arrogant urge to control it or the urge to overcome it. I was shocked to find something so mature in a comic book film, but if there was any one word I can use to describe Batman Beings it would be mature.

The most obvious bit of maturity comes from the actors as they play their roles. There is no winking at the camera in this film and there is very little joking. For what is on the line is dire, and seriousness was demanded by the film's director. The star-studded cast actually do quite a bit more than just boost the film's marketing potential; they act. Each and every major player in the film delivers a spectacular performance, but nobody exceeds moreso than Christian Bale and Liam Neeson. These two men have delivered two of the finest performances of their career, in a film based on a comic book, no less. Maybe now comics will start to get the respect that they deserve in the world around us. Comic book fans owe this to Christopher Nolan.

A lot can be said about Nolan's stern sensibility and dreadful seriousness when it comes to his films (I mean, watch Memento with the commentary on; talk about focused) but it really works here. His direction is cultivated and concise, providing atmospheric views of the Dark Knight and the villains plaguing the city he swears to defend. He allows his camera to linger when necessary, and provides emotion purely from the visuals. In reality, many of the scenes managed to bring a near tear to my eye, especially those with young Bruce. I won't spoil it, but one of Bruce's defining moments is brought to life here, and it is absolutely crushing.

This is also the first film in a long while to truly scare me. Honestly. Scarecrow is one of the most horrific villains to appear in a comic book film. His hallucinogenic gas, coupled with Nolan's chaotic visuals is enough to make any hardened horror fan grip the arm rest. Batman, finally, is also a force to be reckoned with. This is no longer a character where WHAM and BAM bubbles follow his every move, where corny dialogue rests always on his tongue, or where his various toys take the spotlight over the man himself; this is a domineering symbol that truly makes legions of dehumanized bad guys run for their lives. The implications of law breaking finally have consequences, and the character that brings justice is no longer just a man in a cape that looks good in his suit; Batman becomes a monster.

The score is also something that must be noted. Coupled with the fantastic visuals provided by Christopher Nolan, the score catapults the film into another league. The exhilaration provided by the action sequences is aided a specific intensity by the music accompanying it. This is a very good score, one that you will remember for days on end. I was reminded me of The Lord of the Rings epics as the music swelled throughout. It's truly glorious to hear. Hopefully, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard will get something for their unique collaboration here.  They certainly deserve it.

 

Popcorn

 
 93%

I'll be frank, huge fans of Burton's Batman and Batman Returns will be severely disappointed. This is nothing like those films, and it certainly is nothing like Batman Forever and the atrocious Batman and Robin. Nolan knew what he had to do when he crafted this film, and that was to give Batman a new beginning. He has done just that. No longer should you look at the other Batman films as part of the series; the series begins again here. This is the nail in the coffin for the tongue-in-cheek Batman films of yesteryear. I for one, am glad about that.

Many of the negative pre-reviews will say that Batman Begins' biggest flaw is that it's boring and exposition ridden. I completely disagree with that. There is action at every corner in the film. The development of Batman is not dry and vapid, but slick and stylish. Nolan has masked his film in an arthouse glaze that will not confuse viewers' minds, but expand them. This is how you do a big budget film of this ilk. Drench it in noir and atmosphere, develop your characters, have intense fight and chase sequences, and satisfy each and every type of viewer that pays the money to see it. This is the most satisfying big budget Hollywood film I've seen in quite some time.

Batman Begins has a ton of style, and is willing to flaunt it. Gotham is drenched in a gaunt yellow veil. Even though this is a film that obviously takes place in the future, the metaphors comparing Gotham to the depression era could not be more truthful. Nolan is a master of noir, as proven by Memento and Insomnia. His singular vision is perfectly tailored for Batman's world. You've never seen Gotham like this before.

With the exuberant amount of characters on screen, you'd think that the film would get bogged down in its pacing, but it manages to run at a great clip. The film swiftly moves through each of its characters, developing each and showcasing their eventual tragic flaw, their hamartia if you would, as I think a comparison to classic Greek stage drama is fair and relevant. Each character does not get equal screen time, but each makes their mark on the film in their own individual way. You will not forget the Scarecrow for quite some time. Believe me.

Horror is not something that you would expect going into Batman Begins but it certainly is there. Scenes featuring Scarecrow's hallucinogenic drug are extremely harrowing as Nolan puts us in the place of the victim. He gasses us through his visuals, and the scenes with such could not be more intense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen throughout the film, whether it be during the vicious training sequences or the rattling fight scenes. This is not your typical popcorn flick, but it certainly will engage the viewer more than any major Hollywood production released this summer.

 

Final

Leave it to Christopher Nolan to perfect the big budget Hollywood blockbuster and to define a character the way he should've been defined in the first place. This is a masterful film and certainly Nolan's best. Two weeks from now, when Batman Begins is officially released, there is no reason why you should not be attending. This is a film for everyone, from the teenagers looking for a visceral kick to the adult art house crowd looking for a sophisticated examination of theme. Quite simply, Batman Begins is Hollywood's finest offering this year, and may very well remain as such. Batman fans, rejoice, you finally have the film you've been waiting for. Everyone else, buckle your seatbelt because this is undoubtedly the ride of the summer.


1658 Words Published: 7 June 2005

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