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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters

As I get older, it’s harder to find books or films that surprise me – pleasantly, that is. I went to see The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) and The Bourne Legacy (TBL) more as a means to avoid the New England summer humidity and give my cortex a chance to cool down between edits of my SF anthology. Both films had the expected scads of sound and fury, yet one of them managed to surprise me. To be clear, I’ve read neither the Miller comics nor the Ludlum or Lustbader books; so those who plan to use arguments of the type “But this is explained on page 4 of issue 13!” can save their breath.

I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely intriguing was The Prestige. Auteur pretensions aside, the closest relatives of Nolan’s Batman opus are the abysmal Star Wars prequels. The two trilogies share pretty much everything: the wooden dialogue, the cardboard characters, the manipulative sentimentality, the leaden exposition, the cultural parochialism, the nonsensical plot, the worshipping of messiahs and unaccountable privileged elites, the contempt for “mundanes” and democratic structures, the dislike of women and non-hierarchical relationships. To be sure, Nolan’s second Batman film boasted the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But TDKR should have been called Bat Guano or Darth Vader Meets the Transformers.

The reactionary politics (Billionaires and police know best! People left unherded devolve instantly to mob rampaging and kangaroo courts!) are bad enough. So are the obvious telegraphings and pious ersatz-mythic strains (“Rise! Rise! Rise!” — and of course, sob, the orphan boys). But the film is dull, unfocused, lumbering and messy even within its own frame: why the elaborate (and totally fallow) Wall Street takeover if Bane intends to blow the city up anyway? The protracted mano-a-mano between Batman and Bane is frankly dumb. All Batman has to do is rip out Bane’s breathing muzzle – incidentally, a lousy way to deliver pain meds. The reversals of the two women (antagonist becomes ally and vice versa… and the villain, naturally, is the one who removes her clothes) are so much by the numbers that I felt literally itchy. The hero rejoins the living twice, once as Bruce, once as Batman, for zero reasons of either plot or emotional logic.

The two male protagonists are boring one-note ciphers. Batman doesn’t earn his increasingly stale angst; even less so the unquestioning loyalty of his long-suffering allies (as laid bare in a great analysis of Gary Stuism). Christian Bale isn’t capable of more than one facial expression anyway – in Terminator Salvation he was more wooden than Sam Worthington, which is a real achievement. Needless to add, he has zero chemistry with either of the romantic interests put on Bruce Wayne’s silver spoon. Nolan criminally wastes Tom Hardy, who can really act: he made a feral, magnetic Ricki Tarr in the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the one glimpse of his face when he’s about to be swallowed by the raging crowd in TDKR shows what he’s capable of. The Bane/Vader parallel is obvious: the raging slave of great ability who dares to love above his station and heroically serves a cause intrinsically hostile to him – yet is demonized because he doesn’t fit the Messiah profile, first due to his “wrong” pedigree, later due to severe mutilations that limit his potential. The equivalence is made plain by several touches beyond the breathing mask, including the camera lingering on the frantically kicking feet of someone in his grip.

Oddly enough, both principal women fare fractionally better as characters, despite (or because of?) Nolan’s palpable disinterest in them. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle owes more to Charlise Theron’s slinky yet formidable Aeon Flux than to past Catwomen, which is to the good. On the other hand, the obsessive zooming on her ass while she’s maneuvering the Batbike is emetic (when Batman does it, his nether cheeks are decorously covered by his cape — which finally gives a reason for its existence). There is also a hint that she’s bisexual, which makes her truly intriguing. But for my money, Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul is hands down the most arresting presence in the entire Batman film parade. I’d be happy to see a whole film with her as the protagonist. Hell, a trilogy. Although I’d have preferred that she had gone after her mother’s killers rather than her father’s – especially taking into account her father’s shabby treatment of her savior, to say nothing of his daffy agenda (“cleansing the earth of humanity” using nuclear weapons: unassailable logic, if you’re five years old).

Despite its superficial similarity to TDKR, TBL is a very different beast; I agree with MaryAnn Johanson that it’s high-quality fanfic – specifically, AU fanfic with OCs (in English: alternative universe with original characters). Don’t misunderstand me, it’s far from perfect. It’s uneven, lumpy and ends on a blatant “To Be Continued” note. Nevertheless, it has four great assets besides its intricate interweaving of the Bourne prequel threads: the two principals, Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross and Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing, come across as complex persons – even setting aside the lagniappe of Oscar Isaac as Aaron’s fellow enhanced killing machine; Aaron’s plight is more relevant, interesting and wrenching than that of Jason Bourne; the dialogue is snappy, non-generic, character-specific; and it gets its science as right as Hollywood possibly can. As is often the case with me, I’m in the minority. TBL’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is significantly lower than TDKR’s, in part because many reviewers (like orthodox fanfic readers) want canon, not AU; some have also opined that Jeremy Renner lacks Matt Damon’s charisma.

To each his own. To me at least, Damon has the charisma of a particle board plank. Renner, on the other hand, with his lived-in pug/cherub face, comes across as truly dangerous: you’re never sure if he will kiss or kick, yet you trust him when his smile reaches his eyes – a volatility he engaged to stunning effect in The Hurt Locker and to single-handedly elevate The Town into something eminently watchable. Weisz, on her part, radiates intelligence and competence in whatever role she appears, from The Mummy to Agora to The Constant Gardener. She is one of the very few actors who’s entirely believable as a working scientist.

What makes Aaron’s plight closer to my heart and to real life is that he’s in a Flowers for Algernon situation: he got brain damage during his tour of duty, which made him ripe for the poisoned apple of the top secret augmentation program; for him, stopping the medications that leash him to his handlers is equivalent to a sentence of living death. This pegs the jeopardy meter far harder than Jason Bourne’s thriller-cliché amnesia. When Aaron decides to renounce his newly won freedom for the sake of keeping Marta safe, we feel that real stakes are involved. Aaron and Marta are true partners with equally instrumental overlapping skills. Marta does not spend any length of time impersonating quivering jello, nor does she get relegated to the helpmate slot – though knowing Hollywood’s stance on fully human women, I tremble for her fate in the inevitable sequel.

The science is stunningly accurate for a Hollywood film. That’s a real lab in the chilling massacre scene; when Marta injects Aaron with the viral stock that might cut his indenture bonds, she withdraws it from a real cryovial. When she described the delivery problems of viral vectors, I didn’t wince once and the enhancement route she outlined (mitochondrial ratcheting) is in the domain of the possible. She made one error when she segued into brain function: it’s plasticity, not elasticity… but I’ll take it over ANY other Hollywood science in my memory banks. Nor are the slippery slopes ignored: Marta knows that she let her fervent wish to do cutting-edge science override her moral judgment, choosing to close her eyes to the applications of her work.

In the end, Aaron is kin not to Jason Bourne but to the fascinating loners that we glimpse all too briefly in the Bourne franchise: the Professor (Clive Owen), Jarda (Marton Csokas), Outcome 5 (Oscar Isaac). It occurs to me, of course, that these guys fall in my snacho category… which may be one more reason why I liked TBL far more than TDKR.

Images: Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf (La Vie en Rose); Jeremy Renner as William James (The Hurt Locker); Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovaç (The Whistleblower).

28 Responses to “Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    I do love your reviews.

    I’ve seen neither of the movies in question, but of the two, I have absolutely no interest in the Batman one but mild interest in the Bourne one, so I’m very glad to hear that that’s the one that’s a pleasant surprise–and glad to hear of the ways in which it is. I’d read and boggled at the dreadful politics in Batman. It’s depressing that people will eat that up. Actually, though, your one-sentence encapsulation of Darth Vader/Bane is the best summary of Darth Vader I’ve ever read, and makes him more interesting than anything else I’ve ever read.

  2. Dylan Fox says:

    TDKR really annoyed me. The political message in the first two films wasn’t subtle, but if you concentrated on the explosions enough you could at least ignore it. But in Nolan’s third film, he’s apparently decided to tackle the Occupy movement head on and decided they’re all a bunch of Communists out to destroy the U.S. of A. The message can’t be ignored: if you take power out of the hands of the super-rich and put it into the hands of the wealth creators, then all you get is murder, rioting and anarchy. And why did the Arabic woman have to threaten Gotham (New York by another name) with a rogue nuclear weapon? And be saved by super-rich Batman, who knows wrong from right and doesn’t care what pesky laws get in the way! Too much, far too much.

    I haven’t seen the latest Bourne film, but my interest has been peaked. Do you need to have seen the other films to get the most out of it? Sounds like the science alone makes it worth watching–I like a good action flick with a solid foundation.

  3. Athena says:

    I’m so glad you enjoy them! I hadn’t thought I’d do a Batman review — they even committed the cardinal sin of action films: it was boring! — but I realized it would be interesting to juxtapose the two. Plus there was the Bane/Vader archetype to discuss.

    As you know, I’ve given much thought to Anakin/Vader. What’s mostly elided in the films (so that Lucas could make more money from the spin-off TV comics, with their associated lunchboxes) is that Anakin spent a decade of his young life leading the clone armies against planets who wanted to leave the old “republic”. By my count, he started doing that when he was, like, twelve: a child soldier ripped away from his mother (the Jedi can cruise the galaxy but have no money to manumit her) and told that he’s tainted because he has normal feelings, so he has to sneak around to see his wife. If there’s a poster case for PTSD and free-fall alienation, he’s it. The surprise actually is that he didn’t snap into Vader mode sooner.

  4. Athena says:

    Although al Ghul is Arabic (it means ghoul or demon), in the film at least the clothes and surroundings of Talia’s mother look like Rajasthan — which would give this portion of the film an interesting historical backdrop, if only Nolan or anyone else were interested in anything beyond Bruce’s emo angst. Ditto for Selina Kyle’s backstory, another blank. And, of course, Talia’s father wanted “an earth cleansed of human debris” — by using… nuclear bombs. Unassailable logic.

    You don’t need to have seen the first Bourne trilogy to follow TBL — it does weave through TBL and important characters make cameo appearances. This background is there to essentially show that Jason Bourne’s going off the reservation triggered a cleanup of the secret programs across the board, including human “assets” — the operatives, the scientists who worked on their enhancements. The secret services involved intend to keep the science, of course, and reactivate the program when the political heat subsides.

    As I said, the film is not perfect: there’s a chase scene at the end that goes on entirely too long. At the same time, you have to pay close attention to understand what’s going on beyond the bangs. The violence, when it happens, is neither random nor pornographic. So if you want a good action flick that’s more than it appears and appeals to the cortex as well as the brainstem, I’d say give TBL a look.

  5. Sue Lange says:

    I’d probably never go see either one of these movies, or rent them on Netflix. I don’t mind Batman movies, but one’s enough. Although I’ve read a lot about Heath Ledger so I may go to see how he compares with Jack.

    Bourne? I saw one once and hated it. You may be partially right about Matt Damon, but, really, go back and watch Dogma. He’s more interesting when he doesn’t take himself so seriously. I agree about Renner. He has a lot going on under the exterior. Good to watch.

    Thanks for the reviews.

  6. Athena says:

    The Nicholson and Ledger interpretations are completely different. Both are chaotic ids but the former is camp, whereas the latter is really scary. Frankly, I think they would have done better to treat The Bourne Legacy as an independent film, not tied to the franchise.

  7. Alex Tolley says:

    Christian Bale isn’t capable of more than one facial expression anyway

    if you haven’t seen them, try “The Machinist” and “The Fighter”. I think Bale is a lot more than a one note actor when the material requires it.

  8. Athena says:

    I don’t make such statements casually — I certainly wouldn’t judge Bale solely on the Batman films. I’ve seen him in at least seven others, off the top of my head: The Prestige, Reign of Fire, Terminator Salvation, Flowers of War, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The New World, 3:10 to Yuma. He was ok in the last two. But his range is narrow and like others (Nicholson comes prominently to mind) he essentially plays himself.

  9. Athena says:

    Now that I think of it, I did see Bale in The Fighter. That was indeed a very showy tour de force. But. A good craftsperson does not just turn off the juice because the material is “inferior” (by whatever definition). Bruce Wayne/Batman was a plum role, at least in the Nolan series. It was up to the actor inside the suit to give it more than two dimensions.

  10. Dylan Fox says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about your description of Anakin/Vader in your comment. I mean, he didn’t actually start leading the clone armies until he was nineteen or so (the time of the second prequal film), but he was taken away from his mother when he was nine and pressed into military service with very heavy cultish overtones. And, yeah, demonised for having normal feelings. If only Lucas had spent more time exploring that rather than crappy CG fight sequences of no consequence, we coud understand his decision to turn against the Jedi order and his absolute hatred of them.

    As for Bane, well, he was less of a character and more of an action figure in Nolan’s film. Given the potential he offered as a character–both from the psychological stand point and comic book canon–he was cheated by being turned into nothing more than a glorified attack dog. Talia was cheated too–as you say, why did she decide to complete the legacy of a father who abandoned her? And Selina, well, I think she was only in the film for that motorbike shot you mentioned. It’s such a shame. All the characters in that film could have been neuanced and interesting, but they turned out to be cardboard cutouts. At least Alfred got a good part (loyally supporting the billionaire no matter the personal cost, but I believed in him… and no doubt helped by not being in the majority of the film).

    Will have to look up the latest Bourne film when it gets to DVD. It’ll be nice to watch a film about genetically altered humans where the science doesn’t produce immediate face palms!

  11. Alex Tolley says:

    Now that I think of it, I did see Bale in The Fighter. That was indeed a very showy tour de force.

    You will note that he won a lot of awards for his supporting role in The Fighter (hugely overshadowing Mark Wahl, IMO). I would count that as disproving your comment about his acting abilities. Yes, lots of actors just dial it in, even the greatest were not consistently good, and much of that is just typecasting. Nicholas Cage is a good example, an actor who appears to have sold out and just does “Nicholas Cage”.

    An actor who has really surprised me with his range, is Johnny Depp.

  12. Athena says:

    I would disagree with the relative assessements in The Fighter. Both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale gave scenery-chewing performances, but Mark Wahlberg was far more effective with far less Sturm und Drang (Leo was fantastic in Frozen River, so she knows how to modulate her presence; Walhberg is a narrow-range actor, but he never phones it in). I still maintain that Bale “phones it in” or “can’t gauge the right level” (take your pick) more often than not, and I also maintain that he mostly plays versions of himself.

    Losing a lot of weight for a role doth not a Method actor make. “Not phoning it in” is the definition of a professional, rather than a primadonna who will only deign to sing well at La Scala. Look at Gary Oldman in the small and thankless role of Inspector Gordon (or Sirius Black, or…). In just about everything else I’ve seen Bale in besides The Fighter and The New World, he seems to have one expression: Suffering from Permanent Severe Constipation.

    Johnny Depp is an interesting contrast: he has always taken risky roles (he could easily have rested on his jeune premier laurels and image till his fifties) and he rarely plays himself, although Jack Sparrow has gotten annoying.

  13. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I have not seen either TDKR or TBL- but I always enjoy your reviews. Speaking of terrible Hollywood science, Batman Begins has a truly absurd error, which I call the Smart Microwave Fallacy: the ninjas steal a top-secret microwave weapon. They intend to use it to vaporize the water in the mains, releasing their fear drug into the air and causing the population of Gotham City to destroy themselves, so they stick it on a train and turn it on. Naturally, Batman shows up to stop them in a big fight scene, even as the water in the mains evaporates and spreads the fear drug.

    Microwaves heat all water, including the water in Batman, the ninjas, and anyone standing nearby the train. In a few seconds, they all would have exploded into a spray of blood and gore like someone hit by the ARC ray from District 9. Those farther away from the train would have suffered from a debilitating heatstroke and organ failure as their organs cook. All the metal on the train would have begun sparking and arcing, eventually heating to red hot. The train might have even melted. Electrical systems would have been totally destroyed, but the lights on the train don’t even fail.

    In the real world, microwave weapons are being investigated for disabling electronics. Some SF stories feature microwave ray guns that can cook someone alive or even boil their blood until they burst like a potato left in the oven too long, but Hollywood seems to think that microwaves only aim for what you want it too. I don’t think the writers even bother to check their scripts with a quick Wikipedia search (they have a big article on microwave burns). I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood SF misconceptions, but this one is really absurd in my opinion. Do any of you have a Hollywood SF error that you find really, really egregious?

  14. Athena says:

    If we started listing the science errors in Hollywood films, we’d crash the blog server! Hollywood films/TV series that touch upon science contain errors of “the sun goes around the earth” type and magnitude. That’s because they usually hand the script after the fact to a “science advisor” (usually a science journalist) with notes that say “insert tech here.” The “science” is frilly decoration: not only is the substance and accuracy barely relevant — they don’t even bother getting the terminology right.

  15. Alex Tolley says:

    Permanent Severe Constipation.

    You are way too harsh. I’ve also seen Permanent Mild Constipation, Acute Severe Diarrhea and also Extreme Laxative Relief. ;-)

  16. Athena says:

    Well, Alex, we’ve established that you like Christian Bale and I don’t — perhaps too many words to lavish on a 10-word sentence of a 1,400 word essay. I only discussed his “contribution” to Batshit… er, TDKR, because I couldn’t avoid it. He’s really peripheral to my argument that even popcorn action flicks that mine exhausted tropes (mostly ersatz myth-lite) must at least have internal logic and narrative flow, and take some care with their characters. The pleasant surprise with TBL is that it does exactly that, which shows how low expectations have fallen.

  17. Walden2 says:

    Once again I have almost given up hope on the human species – and then I read a film review by Athena and my soul is at least partially restored.

    I wish I was joking here. I haven’t seen either film and will probably wait until they are on cable or some such.

    Gee, Athena, aren’t you going to review Ted too?? :^)

  18. Athena says:

    I’m a hopeful romantic, Larry! Hope springs eternal in my chest cavity.

    What’s Ted?

  19. Walden2 says:

    You probably don’t want to know, but it’s about a stuffed bear that magically came to life for a little boy but then stayed with him as he grew up and all the issues that ensure because of this.

    The good thing is that the guy who made it, Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame, got Carl Sagan’s paper donated to the Smithsonian and is bringing back a new Cosmos for 2013.

  20. Athena says:

    From your description, I already know more than I want to!

  21. Barkeron says:

    Judging from your commentary I didn’t miss much by not watching it. Okay, I’m not consuming much Hollyweird at all nowadays; it’s become too much a right-wing agitprop machine for my taste.

    Something different: http://gizmodo.com/5937249/scientists-clear-a-path-to-the-fountain-of-eternal-youth

    If we look past the stealth transhumourist/Gawker sensationalism “eternal youth” blather, do we have here a facile breakthrough in making healing people Religious Right-compliant or just another creative method to create lots of cancerous tissue?

  22. Walden2 says:

    It’s funny how the right accuses Hollywood of being so liberal, but every time I watch the Oscars the crowd of celebrities acts like the biggest bunch of conservative I have ever seen. This is why all those non-traditional comedian hosts have failed.

  23. Athena says:

    Yes — the vast majority of Hollywood film actually has seriously regressive politics. Then again, the Overton window has moved so far to the right in the US that anything to the left of Genghis Khan is labeled “liberal”.

  24. Athena says:

    I skimmed the Gizmodo article. Either they got stuff wrong or the research is really old news: the group essentially created induced pluripotent stem cells. I covered these (and the other two types of stem cells) in Blastocysts Feel No Pain.

  25. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Speaking of fresh breezes, I finally have found some SF novels I am enjoying. By the way, thanks for the recommendations, Athena! I’ve placed a hold on Downbelow Station from the local library network, and I’ll check out the rest on the list after I’ve read it.

    I recently finished Stansilaw Lem’s Solaris and have started A.E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Van Vogt’s book was a large influence on Star Trek (Coeurl doubtlessly inspired the salt vampire from “The Man Trap”), and the creature from Alien was so similar to the parasitic Ixtl that Van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox. Despite this, the stories are actually quite different from anything seen in Star Trek or Alien- the Space Beagle’s mission is similar to the real Beagle, unlike the Enterprise, and the discord and power struggles between the scientific and military factions aboard ship are quite unlike the unity and cooperate shown on Star Trek

    As a biologist, how feasible do you think a creature like Coeurl might be? In the story, Coeurl feeds on the potassium in living cells, which he calls “Id”. Potassium in any form outside of the human body, even that intentionally held in some sort of suspension intended to bait him, is useless to him- the potassium must be in a particular arrangement which begins to decay as soon as the body dies. This is a strange diet, to be sure, but how realistic is such a creature?

  26. Athena says:

    I haven’t read van Vogt’s book, Christopher, so I can’t tell you how realistic his critters are — plus there are non-terrestrial, which leaves even more leeway.

  27. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Well, if you are ever looking for a fun SF novel with a lot of critters, The Voyage of the Space Beagle might be worth a try. I haven’t gotten far into it yet, so I can’t give a fair review, but so far I have been enjoying van Vogt’s novel.

    It is difficult to gauge the scientific accuracies of fictional aliens, beyond calling out really silly mistakes like humans and aliens with copper-based blood interbreeding. There are so many different environments, body plans, and biochemistries that might be possible, there is no way to keep track of them all. A real alien might be so bizarre as to be regarded as absurd fiction unless one is standing, floating, or flobbering right in front of you, much as the duck-billed platypus baffled naturalists so much many thought it was a hoax…

  28. […] Logs Athena Andreadis writes about The Dark Knight Rises and The Bourne Legacy: Fresh Breezes From Unexpected Quarters. I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely […]