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THE DARK KNIGHT
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman
Director:  Christopher Nolan
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.4:1 (1.78:1 in IMAX sequences)
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  153 Minutes
Release Date:  December 9, 2008

“You either die a hero…or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Film ****

The Dark Knight is a visionary masterpiece; a deeply intelligent, psychologically intense, dark, dramatic nuanced crime thriller in which good characters are forced to confront lines they never wanted to cross and the price they have to pay for their decisions to cross over that line, or not.  Forget the superfluous description of “comic book movie”.  This is simply great filmmaking of the highest artistic, emotional and intellectual caliber.

Credit must go to co-writer and director Christopher Nolan, who first captured the attention of the world with the mindbendingly backwards puzzle Memento, and has continued to show brilliance in every subsequent project.  He resurrected the Batman franchise from camp and self-parody with the amazing Batman Begins, a film I considered to be the best superhero movie ever.  Not anymore.

Nolan seems comfortable in exploring characters who are driven to dark places via their own obsessions.  In that regard, he may have been the perfect choice for the popular comic book vigilante whose tragic loss motivated and shaped his life into one of fighting the plague of crime and attempting to re-balance the scales of justice.  Batman (Bale) wanted to be a symbol; something the evil would fear, and something the good would feel inspired by.

But as The Dark Knight opens, it hasn’t gone all according to plan.  Batman has been inspiring others, but mostly as second-rate copycats, who bring guns and improvised costumes to crime scenes, making it harder for Batman to hold his reputation.  Even that has been on the decline, as the controversy over whether he is a hero or a criminal rages on in Gotham.  Even as Bruce Wayne, Batman has to dismiss and condemn his own good works.

And now there is a new player threatening to change the face of the game.  The Joker (Ledger, in an absolutely spellbinding final performance), has begun to leave his calling card on Gotham.  In the stunning opening sequence, The Joker masterminds a bank robbery, but not just any robbery…he’s been depleting the mob of its funds.  Meaning The Joker is marked by both criminal and cop alike.  But though he may be crazy, he’s also brilliant, thinking several moves ahead like a chess player.  And Batman will be his next opponent.

Batman isn’t completely alone…he has his faithful servant and conscience Alfred (Caine), and the man who makes Batman fly, Lucius Fox (Freeman).  There is the one good cop Lt. Jim Gordon (Oldman), his longtime friend and assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), and a new face that has been rallying the people of Gotham out of their fear…the new DA, Harvey Dent (Eckhart).  But they’ve never faced a challenge like The Joker before, particularly when he starts by systematically murdering Gotham’s finest citizens one by one, promising only to stop if the Batman will unmask.

The Joker is as fascinating and unsettling a screen villain as we’ve seen since Hannibal Lector.  In this movie, he’s a complete enigma…no origin story, and in fact a back story that seems to change upon his whim.  He’s the kind of adversary that knows where his opponents are vulnerable, and he manages to concoct dark, diabolical schemes that brings the good guys closer and closer to the darkness.  Good people will die…and what’s more, some good people will not be able to come back from the paths The Joker has laid out for them.  And what’s more…he seems to have no real personal motivation for it all.  As Alfred remarks to Bruce Wayne, “some people just want to watch the world burn.”

In other words, forget everything you thought you knew about The Joker.  Forget the fun but over-the-top take of Jack Nicholson.  Just like Christopher Nolan brought us the Batman we always wanted to see in the first movie, in the second, he brought us The Joker we always wanted.  And not enough can be said about Heath Ledger’s work in the role.  Unsettling, weird but not campy, full of tics and hints of what lurks behind the madness, this performance is a true revelation from a gifted artist who will be forever missed.

Who would have believed that Batman movies could be this good?  Visually enthralling, yes.  Fun, yes.  Action packed?  Of course.  But that a comic book film could be elevated into something with such emotional weight and depth, such intelligent writing, such amazingly realized performances, and be willing to venture into such darkly unsettling psychological waters…it almost defies description. 

In a week year for quality films, The Dark Knight easily stands out as the best offering.  But it might have done so even with better competition.  Many, including myself, probably never thought we’d say that about a superhero movie.  I guess the joke was on us.

Video ****

The Dark Knight is the single greatest reason to purchase a Blu-ray player.  I would seriously suggest you haven’t truly experienced what high definition has to offer unless you grab this disc. 

Christopher Nolan made the challenging decision to shoot the opening and several other key shots in IMAX format, the highest resolution film stock available.  This anamorphic transfer keeps the taller shots intact, and the movie moves seamlessly between scope ratio and IMAX ratio.  The soaring tall screen shots are so vivid and detailed, you’ll want to freeze shot after shot and just marvel at the construction and crispness.

The overall clarity, color and contrast are beyond anything I’ve experienced before.  In a film where so much of the settings are deliberately dark, there is still a brightness that shines through, shaping the action and bringing definition unlike any other cinematography that I can recall.  Every pixel of every frame feels attended to; information is plentiful but not overwhelming.  Your high-def system has never had such a workout.

Audio ****

The TrueHD audio is most impressive as well…the many action sequences give a startling dynamic range to the proceedings, and as with all of the highest quality Blu-ray audio offerings I’ve heard, I had to toggle the sound down from time to time; it filled my living room completely.  I was most impressed at how something almost always seemed to be coming from the rear channels, whether it was an uncompressed audio effect, a piece of the orchestration of the music, or even a bit of echo on dialogue in big empty spaces.  All kept the movie ambient and alive, even in quieter moments.  Terrifically done!

Features ****

Three discs are included in this package, including one for digital copy.  Disc One has the film, and a series of creating the scene short clips that take you behind the scenes with Christopher Nolan and crew, discussing how the movie was made from the special effects to the cumbersome IMAX photography and more.  The treat is you can either watch these in picture-in-picture format while you peruse the movie, or you can watch any of all of them together separately in full HD screen mode.  It’s kind of like a more expansive version of a scene-specific commentary, with visual aids.

The second disc contains the remaining features, the best being a look at the psychology of Batman and Bruce Wayne, which will be heavily on the minds of anyone watching either Christopher Nolan film of the Caped Crusader.  There is also a closer look at the gadgets of the movie…both of these featurettes are in high definition.

There are also six full episodes of “Gotham Tonight”, the news program that frequently provided exposition within the movie, and galleries of artwork, stills, trailers, TV spots and even Joker Cards.

Summary:

The first time I saw The Dark Knight theatrically, my hands were literally shaking afterwards.  And I consider myself a jaded critic who’s seen it all.  I certainly didn’t expect a comic book movie to affect me so strongly, even one by the masterful Christopher Nolan, but he, and this newly reborn franchise, continue to surprise beyond all expectations.  This is the year’s best movie, and the best looking Blu-ray you can possibly own at this point.

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