Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sneak Preview: “The Dark Knight Rises” Prologue

Ordinarily, it would be vainglorious to screen the first few minutes of a yet-to-be-completed new motion picture, unless it’s presented in film festivals as a work in progress. Perhaps the best use of this was in 1991, when Disney screened Beauty and the Beast using then-new computerized animation blended with traditional hand paintings, heralding a renaissance in animated film. Perhaps the most recent example was Madonna’s W.E. at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, which secured it a distribution deal through The Weinstein Company. Whether or not the film is a masterpiece waiting in the wings or a misbegotten vanity project (if you believe some of the early reviews accorded W.E.), it’s a great way to gauge audience interest before a project is completed and can be fine-tuned.

Beyond industry screenings, few films warrant a public viewing the way that Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises can. Considering its predecessor’s massive box office (the third highest domestic total in history), its canonical status as one of the greatest American films of 2000s, and its magnificently ghostly Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, it more than justifies a public screening, even if they only show the six-minute prologue. Tonight, Warner Brothers quietly screened the prologue for select audiences.

Nolan has a lot to live up to. The franchise was rejuvenated in spectacular fashion with Batman Begins in 2005. The Dark Knight was haunted not just by the genius of Ledger’s embodiment of the Joker, which I consider one of perhaps the ten greatest performances ever committed to celluloid, but by the knowledge that its tragic star burned his essence, including his chaos, pain and primal scream, into the role. The Dark Knight Rises is burdened only by the genius of its predecessor. To be fair, Warner Brothers did a similar launch in December 2007, launching the preview seven months before that mercurial film opened to a rapturous response the following summer.

And how was tonight’s screening? Can we expect to be disappointed? Is this purely a marketing tool or is it a legitimate way to gauge fanboy feedback? (Mild spoilers after the jump.)

Without giving away too much – because you can also catch this preview before the upcoming Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – you will see Tom Hardy as Bane, even if you won’t recognize him immediately. He sounds oddly strangulated but the performance, however briefly, establishes him as a formidable villain to Batman. We already knew the psychosis dripping from Ledger’s being before The Dark Knight. This time we cannot gauge how demonic Bane will be, but we can be assured that he is from this brief preview a worthy adversary and match. It’s a different sensibility than its predecessor, given that the villain is more of a brute than the diabolical sadist Ledger’s Joker was. Nolan turns the opening sequence on its head in swift, spectacular fashion, the kind of opening that has you salivating for just a little bit more (even if it isn’t a mind-opening salvo like the absolutely pitch-perfect overture to Inception).

You see very little of Christian Bale as Batman or of Anne Hathaway as the new Catwoman, and perhaps that’s the whole point: that the focus is on the villain and on an unrecognizable Hardy. We already know so much about the tortured history of Bruce Wayne, we don’t need a refresher because it’s part of pop cultural lore. Perhaps most disappointing, but only to me I imagine, is that we do not get to see Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, so sublimely malevolent in Inception, as a new and completely original character. Maybe it’s too much to hope to see a snapshot establishing everything about the new film. Nevertheless, the fanboys will have much to discuss over the coming months.

The prologue to The Dark Knight Rises is a sign from Warner Brothers that says to all other competitors next summer at the box office: we’ve come to play.

Next up: Comic Con. Otherwise, I can’t wait for July 20, 2012.