Dunkirk

 

mv5bmzuyntq3ndg0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzcyndy4mji-_v1_sy1000_cr0013711000_al_German soldiers are conspicuously absent in Dunkirk. There’s a character in one of the three entwining, parable-like narratives who might or might not be German (playing a double-entendre with the title of the beach segments: “The Mole”), but full-uniform Nazis barely exist in physical form. Instead, Christopher Nolan treats their presence as an abstract: the roar of gunfire ripping through hulls and bodies; leaflets falling on the titular French city; the horrific, deafening whine of approaching Luftwaffe, bombing and gunning down shivering, panic-stricken Tommies. They aren’t an army, but an all-consuming specter, a chilling reminder from the past threatening to push people into the sea. Tellingly, one character intones to another, shell-shocked one, “There won’t be a home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.”

To that end, Nolan not only centers the retreating British, but hones in on their psychological state. The three stories–a private waiting rescue on the beach, a mariner who volunteers with his son and a hired hand to aid the evacuation, and one of the Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy) sent to protect the ships and soldiers–are told in concurrent non-linearity. Action is not relayed spatially or tactically, but emotionally. Montage is used often to portray characters experiencing the same traumas of war (drowning in a sunken ship is a recurring one) simultaneously at different points in time. While Nolan and editor Lee Smith treat this as an effective tension-builder, particularly when paired with the booming sound design and Hans Zimmer’s Shepard tone score, the way characters and situations align also taps into the collective mindset of people fleeing violence and nationalism in search of a home.

Interstellar

While one of the bigger talking points regarding Interstellar has been comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the connection between the two films is weak. Formalist compositions and man-vs.-cosmos themes aside, Christopher Nolan doesn’t appear to be taking Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opera as much of a signpost. 2001 had little interest in its human players outside of the mechanics of its millennia-spanning tale of evolution and first contacts. They were such passive creatures, Kubrick had HAL-9000 seize the reigns to move the species along. By contrast, Interstellar‘s idea for humanity’s leap forward–blasting through a wormhole to find a new planet, before Earth becomes a toxic hellhole–is a backdrop for the dramatic arc of its people. Though Nolan, ever the lover of storytelling aesthetics, uses his gazillion-dollar equipment (including the much-touted 70mm IMAX) to demonstrate spectacle, he always roots it in human perspective. Tight-angle vehicle shots used for outer space suspense are used equally in a whimsical scene where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chase a drone for its solar cells, panoramas only used to denote when characters feel insignificant or threatened. In this respect, Interstellar treads more in the territory of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, especially when it comes to its male lead.

A former astronaut, Cooper has been grounded after public opinion turned against the space program (seen as frivolous in the face of global famine and dust bowls). Raising  a family on a Midwestern farm, he ruminates on humanity giving up its “place in the stars” to worry about “the dirt.” Hints of a crash he survived suggest some bitterness for never achieving a dream, tempered only by a sense of fatherly responsibility–a more explicit version of Close Encounters‘ Roy Neary. At first glance, Cooper’s mission (made clandestine for the same public opinion reasons) would appear to align his twin motivations, but only pronounces the tension between them. The time and space required to undertake this journey strains his relationship with daughter Murphy. The effect is magnified when Cooper’s crew needs to account for relativity: a black hole dubbed Gargantua looms in the would-be colony galaxy, distorting time. Hours and days for the astronaut crew become lifetimes back on Earth, demonstrated by a disastrous trip to a planet rocked by mountain-sized tidal waves. After escaping that world, Cooper borders on falling apart as he watches decades of video messages–including the birth and demise of a grandson he never got to see. Nolan uses Cooper to push past the initial triumph of Neary’s choice, to go with the aliens in Close Encounters‘ closing moments, to the inevitable regret which comes with leaving behind loved ones.

The film then criss-crosses between Cooper in space and adult Murphy on Earth (played by Jessica Chastain), attempting to finish an equation which will make mankind’s exodus possible. These interstitial tales weave closer together, reflecting and commenting on one another, a father’s attempt to reconcile with his child. People’s place in the stars or the dirt become distant, rearview concerns to its place with one another.

The Passive-Aggressive Method to Swallowing Your Soul

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Oculus’ opening minutes are a vanilla ghost movie, with forlorn expressions and ominous lingering shots of the film’s centerpiece prop, a mirror housing a demonic presence. Creep scares where objects in reflections are different than reality. Entirely expected. Then, Karen Gillan hijacks the mirror and sets up a Do It Yourself science experiment to prove supernatural influence before destroying it, and the film veers wildly into Christopher Nolan territory. Space and time intertwine in disorienting ways, Gillan and her puppy-eyed, confused brother (Brenton Thwaites) find themselves not only facing off against an unseen tormentor, but reliving childhood trauma, where the mirror exerted malevolent influence over their parents–a series of events which culminated in the father killing the mother, and Thwaites’ younger self being institutionalized for killing the father in self-defense. The two timelines collide, adult Gillan or Thwaites wandering into a room to find their child selves (or vice versa), making them feel small. Gillan’s methodical safeguards and Thwaites’ learned, rational explanations for the paranormal become quaint attempts to control forces which defy reason and will not be contained, simply because their power lies within the deepest recesses of the subconscious.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan depicts the entity as a needler. It mutters insults to the mother in the father’s voice (“What did you say?”, she asks, to which he responds, “Nothing”); later, it accentuates and distorts a c-section scar she self-consciously notes when looking at her reflection. The mirror sows doubt amongst the siblings by offering alternative explanations for its actions, such as when cameras used to document its activities instead show them moving objects themselves previously seen shifting of their own volition. Outside observers become unable to see the truth the siblings know, because the entity (like any abuser) hides the bruises and has an excuse handy to deflect blame. Appearances kept, it continues to harass and bully until, unable to take anymore, the abused (tragically) attempt to strike back. This lurking horror revels in causing pain and misery without every physically acting against anyone. It knows full well society can, and will, find a way to blame the victims.

The Dark Knight

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Quietly, assuredly, Christian Bale gives a fascinating portrait to Bruce Wayne’s moral and spiritual crisis in The Dark Knight. Last time around, fatherly confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) warned Bruce he was “getting lost in this monster”; Bale seems to have run with this line. A year on, Bruce has subsumed every facet of his life into the War on Crime/Corruption: through his company and CEO/gadgeteer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he fakes merger talks with an exec who launders mob money, in order to get a look at their finances; he arranges a fundraiser for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), apparent savior to Gotham, through his high society connections; of course, as Batman, he pummels mobsters and helps the police get around pesky jurisdiction laws. This obsessive-compulsive, dominant behavior plays out in the (mostly) improved fight scenes: fists guarding his head, Bruce directs attackers to his ribs, catching them with elbow counterattacks before using them as human battering rams. Gadgets are always placed in advance of actual need. Bruce, then, is an extension of Bale the actor, compartmentalized in body language and vocalization at all times (going into a Terminator mode when a thug gets in his way en route to a costume change). He’s a performance put on to distract everyone. Bruce will let the mask slip in the presence of his tiny social circle–a chuckle when Alfred gives a well-timed “told you so”, or expressing fears to friend/would-be lover Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). The rest of the time, though? He’s in control.

That is, until a psychotic clown shows up and starts blowing everything up.

Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan defines Bruce by his relationships to the men around him: he looks up to Alfred and Fox, trusts Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), appointed as head of Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, and wishes to be Dent (not least of which because he is the preferred rival for Rachel’s affections). Then there’s the Joker (Heath Ledger): a conniving, nasal-voiced madman who frustrates any attempt to pin ideology onto him, shifting the goal posts (and his origins) depending on who he is having a conversation with–chaos the sole motif. He has no civilian identity, either, nothing human to tether him. The Joker is what awaits Bruce if he loses to the monster.

Tellingly, the Joker is the only person, other than Alfred and Rachel, Batman loses his cool with. In a fluorescent-lit interrogation room, Joker tells him both Harvey and Rachel have been abducted and will be murdered. Rage boils over. The Bat smacks the clown’s head against glass, then starts punching him harder, harder. Hans Zimmer’s electric, buzzing score raises in pitch. Batman’s “one rule”–the oath against killing–might be broken. Earlier, when Gordon is shot, Batman breaks a mobster’s legs before realizing he’s going too far; the only thing stopping him in that interrogation room is a time limit. The result is tragic: Rachel dies; Harvey becomes scarred, vengeful Two-Face.

Outside those moments, Bruce tries to understand, if not empathize, insisting on figuring out Joker’s motives. Given another chance to break the rule, he saves the villain from death, saying he should be “in a padded cell,” preferring laws which grant leniency to the mentally ill over vengeance. This follows on from two previous strands: the affinity Bruce has for the poor and downtrodden in Batman Begins, and the way he steps in to save one of Joker’s henchman (a paranoid schizophrenic) from enhanced interrogation. Mistakes made and lessons learned, he sets about mending the damage–preventing SWAT from killing hostages and buying time for Gotham citizens to choose empathy over the Joker’s dog-eat-dog worldview.

Unfortunately, by this point, Bruce’s compounded anger and fear–of losing himself, his love, his humanity–lead him to cross a number of lines. Aside from the vigilantism and torture, he’s engaged in kidnapping and spied on Gotham citizens. By the time he’s foiled Joker and caught wind of Two-Face’s murder spree, there’s no turning back. Violence and terror have reached a fever pitch. Only one option for de-escalation: let the monster win, then cast him out.

Batman Begins

Confidently, I remembered most of Batman Begins beat for beat. The one aspect I did forget, though, subsumed by the momentum of Christopher Nolan’s latter Bat-films, was how tentative it was. Large patches of dialogue are clunky, sounding like meddlesome studio notes–beyond the Wayne Tower employee explaining the significance of Ra’s al Ghul’s stolen microwave emitter repeatedly during the final showdown, there’s also Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne asking for clarification of obvious points throughout the opening act (Liam Neeson says he can become “invisible,” and he responds “Invisible?”). The choppy editing of fight scenes doesn’t help, either. Initial goings suggest Nolan is aiming to put audiences in a position of weakness: fights play out first from Bruce’s POV, when he’s outmatched during his training; when he becomes Batman, we then see criminals and cops reacting to, and attempting to process, this predatory, almost supernatural figure, glimpsed fleetingly and leaving broken bodies (the sequence where Batman surgically strikes Scarecrow’s gang in Arkham Asylum, then escapes Gotham PD, is the film’s best). The climactic showdown, where Bruce confronts the genocidal would-be father figure aboard the hijacked remains of his real father’s public transit system, is where Nolan’s choices betray him. Unwilling to show even a complete attack chain, the fight is simply a mess which ends on a false punishment note.

So what makes Batman Begins successful, despite such huge, fundamental mistakes for an action film? Breaking down Bruce Wayne. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer introduce the man at his lowest point: grubby, imprisoned, fighting random thugs, and most of all angry. Flashbacks reveal not only his parents’ murder and the resulting fragile emotional state, but a narrowness of vision. When the mugger is scheduled for early release, in exchange for testimony against a crime boss, he fumes at this, even when the killer expresses genuine regret. This almost leads him to assassinate the man, before getting a rude awakening to how crime and class intersect. A childhood friend (Katie Holmes) who lacked the insulation of billion dollar inheritance shows him the crime bosses and ruling class pals who profit off a system which creates more abject poverty, the kind which leads to similar tragedies he endured. Shocked and in need of new purpose, he wanders the globe, training with al Ghul’s ninja clan in the ways of vigilantism. Their solution, however, rests on wiping out the poor and the downtrodden. Disgusted, Bruce blows up their HQ.

While Christian Bale retains the physique of Patrick Bateman, the vainglorious, murderous WASP he portrayed in American Psycho, Nolan codes Bruce in working class terms. He spies on targets while wearing ratty coats and baseball caps, assembles his arsenal and constructs the Batcave in jeans and T-shirts, and bicker banters with Cockney-accented Alfred (Michael Caine) on everything from mask construction to daytime hobbies. When Bruce does dress upper, Bale goes into a smirking, preening vaudeville mode, a chandelier-lit mockery of privilege. Notably, his public return to Gotham (and Wayne Enterprises) involves helping a secretary practice golf, disrupting a CEO’s get-even-richer dealings. As Batman, he doesn’t randomly attack petty crooks, but specifically targets authorities (mobster Carmine Falcone; crooked judges and cops who have to swear to him; the abusive, greedy doctor who becomes Scarecrow). He networks with a blue-collar Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Nolan’s Bruce Wayne follows an edict: wipe out corruption in the halls of power, level the playing field, allow opportunity to spread. Crime will dwindle as a result. Bale, Nolan, and Goyer redistribute a fascistic, 1% icon into a figure of bleeding heart populism, then drop him into a class war conspiracy in a rain-drenched, Blade Runner inspired ghetto. This core, considered ideal powers through Nolan’s awkward transition to blockbuster filmmaking.