I did a peculiar thing last weekend. I went to the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
The reason this was peculiar, at least for me, is that I normally run a mile from populist Hollywood fare. I recall the original Batman film as having been pretty execrable, in common with every other post-1980s Hollywood action spectacle that I’ve seen bits of (mainly on long-haul flights). But what tempted me to give The Dark Knight a try was that it’s had good reviews from critics who usually know what they’re talking about, and in particular there have been glowing notices for the late Heath Ledger’s performance (it was the last film he completed) as The Joker.
Well. More fool me.
Sure enough, Ledger’s performance is compellingly grotesque (or grotesquely compelling, or whatever). But it’s hardly enough to sustain the movie for 152 minutes. And not for the first time, I noticed a peculiar pattern.
Allowing for the fact that any Hollywood spectacle based on a comic-book character requires a certain suspension of disbelief, the film’s narrative follows a more-or-less coherent path for the first hour or so. Ingenious special effects and slick cinematography help cover weaknesses in the storyline. But at some indiscernible point the director and scriptwriter seem to decide they no longer need to maintain even a pretence that the story makes sense. The narrative careers off the rails completely and the movie enters a strange cinematic realm where all that matters is noise and motion.
What dialogue you can hear ceases to mean anything. The film blindly lurches forward, steadily gathering momentum as it simultaneously sloughs off any semblance of plot. It just gets louder and louder, sillier and sillier.
It’s as if the director has a severe hyperactivity disorder for which he has taken a massive dose of Ritalin at the start of the shoot. He manages to keep control of himself for a while, but as filming progresses and the drug slowly wears off he becomes increasingly manic and deranged. I suspect that Christopher Nolan, the director of this particular turkey, could no more explain the plot than I could split the atom.
As I say, I’ve observed this in Hollywood action spectacles before. I first noted it in Ghostbusters (1984), a diverting bit of harmless tosh that made less and less sense as it went on. The trend has steadily gathered pace since then and it now seems utterly immaterial whether a Hollywood action spectacle follows a logical storyline. Even the acclaimed film There Will Be Blood, after an impressively controlled, low-key start, steadily had the pressure cranked up until it eventually blew apart like an overheated boiler.
It sometimes seems Hollywood has forgotten how to tell a simple story well. Trick cinematography and sound effects – the louder the better – have triumphed over characterisation and storyline. But of course this isn’t entirely true; mercifully we still have films like In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men (thank God for the Coen brothers) and the wonderful Charlie Wilson’s War to remind us that not all of Hollywood is brain-dead.
Speaking of people being brain-dead, those around me watching The Dark Knight seemed to find it enthralling. What’s even more scary is that so many otherwise intelligent critics seemed impressed by it.
On this occasion I foolishly disregarded my own advice to walk out of crappy films. I think I kept hoping that it would somehow redeem itself. It didn’t. In fact it ended on a completely appropriate note, with one of the central characters saying something that was clearly supposed to be profound and portentous – except that we couldn’t hear it over the flatulent background (sic) music.