A Sense of Wonder (Blog Post)

Love him or loathe him, there’s little doubt that with his latest epic The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan has crafted one of the most ridiculous films of the year. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. After the sheer balls-to-the-wall absurdity of Inception, it would have been a crushing disappointment had Nolan failed to crank up the crazy with his next project. On that level, the new Batman film delivers. To its credit, the film rarely threatens the levels of preposterousness exhibited by something like Prometheus, but that’s not really saying much – Prometheus is a hallucinatory nightmare of a film that revels in its own insanity, and is only marginally less quixotic than a unicorn shitting diamonds into the mouth of a gremlin. Everything is relative. (I’m a Prometheus apologist btw. I come to this conclusion from a place of love.)

No, The Dark Knight Rises (or #TDKR if you’re one of the cool kids on Twitter) does not trip the shite fantastic to quite the same extent as Ridley Scott’s film, but it does play fast and loose with logic in a way that is best described as cavalier. Motivations change on a whim, the narrative is a nonsense, and for reasons that no one even wants to explain, characters travel from one end of the world to the other without a passport and in no time at all. And I love it. I love it because the film has a genuine sense of wonder, one that’s real and palpable and utterly mesmerising, despite plot holes so dilated you could drive a Tumbler straight through them. (It may be more Battle of Algiers than Batman & Robin, but there are moments in The Dark Knight Rises that leave realism standing alone at the altar.)

The scene that best sums up my feelings of general Dark Knight wonderment happens towards the end of the film, when the Bruce Wayne takes to the skies in the Bat, basically a massive and unlikely flying tank thing, and chases down Bane’s Tumblers through the streets of Gotham, helicopters hot on their tail and several kinds of merry hell breaking loose in the background. The effects are, for the most part, practical, all wires and hydraulics, and the impact is stunning. Watching it in big-face IMAX, my jaw dropped and my heart soared. All the crazy paving plotting of the first act, every cock-eyed narrative device, every implausible twist or turn (I particularly enjoyed how EVERY SINGLE COP IN GOTHAM gets trapped underground at one point) simply wiped from memory, replaced instead by a tingly, childish glee.

It amazes me to think there was a time in his career when Nolan had been touted as the natural successor to Stanley Kubrick. All cold and intellectual and emotionally distant. If The Dark Knight Rises proves anything it’s that rumours of Nolan’s cold, dark heart are overly exaggerated. Kubrick could never have made anything as broad and imprecise. Nolan’s propensity for big marquee moments and convenient but propulsive storytelling probably has more in common with the stuff Spielberg and Lucas were putting out in the seventies and eighties than anything in Kubrick’s catalogue. Some critics have even described The Dark Knight Rises as Nolan’s Return of the Jedi, which is fine by me, all insults aside.

I was a child of the eighties, and Return of the Jedi (or #ROTJ if you’re one of the cool kids on 1983 Twitter) was the very first film I ever saw at the cinema. I was 4 years old, and from what I remember – as a Nolan fan I’m open to the possibility this may well have been “incepted” – my dad and I showed up late for the performance. I’d seen the other Star Wars films on TV and VHS – they were pretty much on constant rotation at our house – and yet I was woefully unprepared for the experience. The screen was just too massive, too terrifying, and so I scarpered, hiding behind my seat while Fat Jabba held court on Tatooine. It may not have been an instant connection, but once I settled in, that was it – I was enthralled. Luke, Han and Leia – essentially the Peter, Paul and Mary of intergalactic laser terrorism – were kicking ass on Jabba’s big flying sky barge and, without even noticing, I found myself lost in movies. A frightened 4 year old feeling (yes!) that sense of wonder for the very first time. (I know, I know. A nerdy, nostalgic Star Wars anecdote. I went there. I wish it was The Passion of Joan of Arc, or La Règle du Jeu, but it wasn’t. It was bloody Star Wars. Deal with it.)

Just the other day I had a flashback to that memory. I was watching a preview of the excellent new Pixar film Brave at a local multiplex, and during the opening scene I heard a young boy, clearly enamoured with the delights of 3D projection, turn to his dad and say, “It’s like the TV’s come alive!” I nearly cried. As a fully fledged, card-carrying, grown-up male man with an iPhone and an Oyster card, that sense of wonder is increasingly elusive. And that’s the reason Nolan gets away with what he gets away with in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the reason Ridley Scott very nearly gets away with a whole bunch of craziness in Prometheus. It’s that sense of wonder an audience deserves. It’s that sense of wonder an audience needs. Now, where’s my space flute?

(Note: A sense of wonder may also be experienced during the following films – 2001 A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, ET The Extra Terrestrial, Manhattan, Brazil, My Neighbour Totoro, Singin’ in the Rain, Pinocchio and Sherlock Bones: Undercover Dog. I have seen neither The Passion of Joan of Arc nor La Règle du Jeu, but I have seen every Police Academy film at least twice.)

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