As everyone clawed each other's faces off to secure the few remaining seats at last night's press screening of The Dark Knight Rises, an elderly man who smelled faintly of honey roasted pecans plopped down next to us and declared, "I hear it's three hours long! I can't wait!" He wasn't being sarcastic—as the credits rolled two hours and 45 minutes later, the sprightly septuagenarian fanboy burst into exultant applause. We'd emerged from the other side of nearly three hours of malevolent, stomach-churning apocalyptic mayhem, and the mood in the theater was nearly giddy. Mob rule and apocalyptic nuclear terrorism: In 2012, the keys to a feel-good summer blockbuster for all ages!
It's a strange but welcome thing for a big budget Warner Bros epic to dive so relentlessly into the fears gripping the national consciousness. The Dark Knight Rises is still escapist fare, but it's also deeply unsettling at times, particularly for any New Yorker who witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center. [SPOILER ALERT?] When the Brooklyn Bridge (and the other main East River bridges) are blown to hell, you can tell yourself it's just make-believe, but that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach is hard to shake. Then the city's entire police force is wiped out, the elites are dragged out of their Fifth Avenue mansions and summarily executed, armed gangs open fire on Wall Street, and the terrorists drive a neutron bomb into the heart of town. More popcorn, anyone?
Unlike its predecessor, "Rises" lacks the leavening, albeit twisted, levity brought by the late great Heath Ledger's Joker. There are small, welcome oases of dry humor, but the tone is overwhelmingly bleak and ponderous. Tom Hardy (Inception) is enthralling and terrifying as the brawny villain
Bain Bane, who wears a mask that supplies constant pain medication to counteract injuries sustained in the Republican primaries in the world's most hellish prison. As such, his eloquently distorted speech is occasionally difficult to decipher, but you know whatever the hell he's saying, it's bad news.
It's both engrossing and dreadful to watch Bane bring Gotham to its knees, and as his gang of creepy comrades open fire on the stock exchange and loot the homes of the one percent, it's impossible not to think of Occupy Wall Street, which was in full swing when director Chris Nolan was filming down in the financial district. "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," Anne Hathaway, who plays a talented cat burglar turned Catwoman, warns in the film's first act. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches...You're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
On some level, you've got to suspect the suits at Warner Bros were a little relieved when Bloomberg sent in his army to clear the Zuccotti Park encampment—had that revolutionary foothold been permitted to grow more entrenched over the past nine months, the flick's class warfare motif might have seemed a tad too in-your-face for a summer tent pole comic book movie. Even so, the seething metropolitan anarchy and violent terrorism seem pretty "edgy" for a mainstream blockbuster in 2012. And with his protagonist helplessly incapacitated for a significant chunk of the narrative Nolan ratchets up the feeling of doom to an almost unbearable degree.
Because of this overpowering atmosphere of doom, the promised "rising" of the title feels almost like a surprise by the end of the film, which squeezes more than one gasp-inducing plot twists into the last half hour. [YES SPOILERS COMING] As much as we hate Hollywood endings, it was a relief to see the relentless horror finally abate, and find that Nolan's promise to "end the legend" wasn't exactly meant to be taken literally. One hopes this does indeed conclude Nolan and Bale's involvement with the franchise—quit while you're ahead and all that—but the door wasn't completely shut for future installments with some of these actors. Which, given the amount of money Warner Bros is raking in off this, seems as inevitable as the Catwoman's portentous storm.
By the way, all this murder and mayhem is exquisitely photographed by Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister. Half of it was shot with large-format IMAX film cameras—more than any other film of its kind. For this reason, we highly recommend coughing up the extra money to see the spectacle in IMAX, even if you have to wait a few weeks to get in. And, as always, we're referring to giant IMAX at AMC Loews Lincoln Square, not one of the many "fauxmax" theaters that have popped up around town in recent years. None of those screens come close to the massive 76-foot-high screen at Lincoln Square. Accept no imitators!