“Batman has no limits.”
We’ll just move through this part quickly. Since he started tearing across the rooftops and throttling bad guys, Batman (Christian Bale, The Prestige) has turned Gotham City around. The mob is running scared, two-bit criminals wet their pants at the mere sight of the Bat signal and the collateral damage from the Batmobile and its missiles is grander than ever. Personifying that hope: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking), Gotham’s new stud DA who’s been locking away gangsters like crazy with the help of his second-in-command, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stranger than Fiction). Rounding out the Tri-force of Power is Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element), the high-rising law enforcement official who has a special working relationship with Batman.
But no one expects the destabilizing force of the Joker (Heath Ledger, The Order), a psychotic with plans to claim the soul of Gotham at the expense of anyone who stands in the way of his violent endgame.
Fair warning, this won’t be a contrarian review. I’m not going to inflate my critic credentials by nitpicking this movie to smithereens. Yes, I get it, Batman sounds like he’s in the last stages of emphysema and there is a logic gap in how the Joker made it up to Bruce Wayne’s penthouse undetected and that virtual reality stuff at the end was out there, but those are the smallest of small potatoes, especially when you compare them to the overflowing bountiful Thanksgiving feast that Chris Nolan and his who’s-who of talent cooked for us.
So, here’s what kind of movie guy I am. Where others may look to the art form as a way to learn something about the human condition or gain a new perspective into the world around them, I glean most of my joy from the escapism. If a filmmaker can craft an engaging world and plug me in and hit me with an unforgettable story, then that’s a profound experience. Take me the @#$% away from the real world, away from cratering 401Ks and incessant car repairs and a dog that poops on the carpet — tell me a tale and pin me to my seat.
And I was pinned to my seat for all 153 minutes of The Dark Knight.
I am not one for hyperbole, but this thing deserves all the adjectives of praise you can conjure. Gotham under siege is as tenuous and tense a cinematic locale that I have ever jacked into. The Joker — so shockingly portrayed by Ledger — is unpredictable, and his plans don’t reveal themselves until he lets them known. Having the villain so many steps ahead of both the heroes and the audience is a genius move and results in a relentless feel of dread throughout. Did you know how the ferry scene was going to play out? If so, congrats, but I was completely unsure. For all I knew, Nolan was indeed going there. Just the fact that I had such a visceral reaction to the material makes The Dark Knight one of the finest movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long, long time. Maybe even since — gasp! — when I saw Willow in the theater on my birthday with my dad. This movie is the best of the year by a long shot, so good that the prospect of a third feature fills me with a familiar sense of dread — there’s no way Nolan can top this. Right? Right?
With the flagging economy, obviously creature comforts like home video will feel the pain, and DVD and Blu-ray sales haven’t exactly set the world on fire this quarter. There’s a lot riding on this release and allow me to jettison the suspense: The Dark Knight on Blu-ray is a visual and audio masterpiece, a high-def outing that will immediately earn a place in your reference disc rotation. When judging the picture quality for Blu-rays, I measure transfers against my gold standards. My current gold standard is Speed Racer (another Warner Bros. release) and The Dark Knight hangs with the champ easily. The aspect ratio shifts from 2.40:1 to 1.78:1 thanks to the handful of sequences shot in IMAX and, admittedly, the change in ratio may distract a bit, but it’s no deal-killer. Actually, the IMAX scenes — action bits all of them — pop even more once they fill the screen.
IMAX-primed: the kick-ass bank heist prelude, the Hong Kong incursion, portions of the prison break, the hospital explosion, the climactic building siege and the very ending. Whatever the aspect ratio, the picture quality is absolutely top-shelf. The detailing is sharp from small to large; you’ll be able to make out every paint-laden crevice in the Joker’s face, the intricate design of the new Batsuit, Harvey Dent’s sublime facial texture (talk about flawless visual effects) and the big stuff — the sweeping shots of Gotham, the funeral march, the bank robbery, the Hong Kong skyline, the ferries — are just as impressive. With so much of the action shot in the daylight, the enhanced clarity that high-definition brings is even easier to digest. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is served incredibly well from the boost in resolution. The video quality belongs in the top tier of Blu releases that I’ve seen and for that reason alone makes for an absolute no-brainer as far as the upgrade question goes.
The audio treatment also earns the highest marks. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix is about as active and aggressive as you’ll find. The fantastic score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard will fill your room with an excellent range of sound, from the piercing squeal of the Joker’s theme to the pumped-up and now familiar Batman score. The sound effects work is mapped well to the discrete channels so the big action sequences become an enveloping experience. The centerpiece chase scene through the streets of Gotham? That, my friends, is as good as it gets for home theater.
Now here’s where the cold water hits. Warner Bros. isn’t stupid. They know they’ve got a cash cow here. And, as such, I’m 100 percent positive that there will be a double-dip release in our future…because of the extras. Two discs feature bonus materials, while the third is the digital copy. The first disc, which includes the feature, sports the best of the bunch. “Gotham Uncovered” is a series of featurettes with Nolan and his crew dissecting the elements of the movie, with a focus on filming in IMAX and the stunts. This is a solid batch of behind-the-scenes bonuses and they go into a great detail of how some of the biggest set-pieces were executed. You can either watch them all in a row or trigger them while watching the feature. Disc Two is where things fall apart. There are two major extras included on this disc “Batman Tech” and “Batman Unmasked.” The former looks at some of Batman’s gadgets and compares them to real-world counterparts and the latter talks about the psychology of the Batman universe. Both of these are incredibly stupid. I know a lot of work went into producing them (they run 45 minutes apiece) and they’re transmitted in high-definition, but talk about a waste of disc space. Where are the cast and crew interviews? Where is the examination of the performances, especially Heath Ledger’s legendary effort? How about a look at the development of the story or the ingenious viral marketing campaign or the unprecedented audience response? Or how about a commentary track while we’re at it? Talk about untapped potential. No, instead we get college professors saying things like “We have, all of us, a muscular ability to regulate our impulses.” Good grief.
It gets worse. Drill down and you’ll find six fake episodes of the Gotham News network, hosted by Anthony Michael Hall, which are absolutely pregnant with lameness. After that, it’s boilerplate throwaways: concept art, poster and production stills galleries, trailers, and TV spots.
Note: The BD-Live portions were unavailable at the time of this review, though Warner Bros. promises webcam-enable custom commentary, a live screening, and a media center with additional material.