• In a nutshell:
After becoming dissatisfied with the everyday injustice of his home city after the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne assumes a dramatic costumed alter-ego – Batman – and launches a one-man war on crime.
Cast: Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, et al.
• The atmosphere
I’m almost certain I’ll end up overusing the word “atmospheric”. The visuals, the writing and the score combine to capture perfectly what I’ve always loved about the Batman comics I read – most of the film’s atmosphere is dark and thoughtful, the tension always building, just there in the background, making you wait; there are very few relaxed or domestic sequences in the film. It’s all, very like Batman himself, dark and dramatic but still managing to be somehow cool, not straying into costumed campery or angst.
In fact, the outlandishness of the whole idea of Batman – a man, dressed as a nocturnal creature, determined to single-handedly defeat every criminal in a huge city – is made to feel remarkably realistic and natural, very much helped by the present-day setting and the very matter-of-fact presentation of events; this is actually what makes this series my favourite screen representation of the dark knight.
• The writing
The research put into the screenplay shows: this film adheres very well to the often confused and confusing Batman canon, and really does show, as the title says, Batman’s beginning, explaining everything neatly and compactly – right down to the famous spiked bracers – without ruining the mystery and the fun of it all. I love origin stories, and this film is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of one; this film focuses more on Bruce Wayne than Batman – the man behind the mask; that’s actually the second reason this may be my favourite Batman film.
Meanwhile, the overall writing and dialogue quality is excellent; lines flow well and feel natural rather than like needless exposition. There are maybe a couple of lines which stray into cliché or pseudo-profundity, but they’re brief and vastly eclipsed by the other 99.9% of the script’s quality.
• The visuals
Christopher Nolan’s “action” filming is often erratic, as if he’s not quite used to it and is trying to show everything, now, at once, but the man sure knows how to set up a scene. The whole Batcave sequence (rock formations, tension, bat colonies, waterfalls, and a very good use of an actor with a strong profile), in particular, is just beautiful, and some of the scenes where the camera sweeps over the Gotham cityscape have taken a few notes from Blade Runner, ending up introspective and atmospheric.
Actually, the styling generally – all dark and steely, very much in the mood of “gritty” Batman comics like Year One and The Black Mirror – is lovely; muted colours are never boring, and actually make you notice more detail rather than less.
• That lovely, brooding score
And this is where I put on my amateur soundtrack nerd hat.
My God, the things Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard can do with strings, particularly in this film of the series – the resolute, marching strings of tension or springing into action; the sweeping, building two notes, like an inhaled and eventually exhaled breath, that are the closest thing to a theme Batman has. Almost everything is low frequency, low pitched – it’s all deep, quiet strings, focused on building expectations, and most percussion is bass drums, adding to that marching, tense, building feeling. This is only broken up by the occasional, slightly unsettling chime, the slightly higher, sublime slow build of viola notes across the relentless march, or the sweeter, more soulful notes in the more hopeful, tender moments of the film.
The music is almost constant, rather than just something for the “big” scenes, sometimes slipping past almost unnoticed; most of it is about building atmosphere rather than being showy, and manages it beautifully. When the “epic” is called for, the scorers bring out the cymbals and the horns, and create a bombastic, dramatic sound almost without ever straying into musical cliché.
It sets the mood perfectly, and is, all in all, a very… Batman score.
• The cast
Bale is generally excellent as Bruce Wayne – though, better, I think, in The Dark Knight – and pulls off the intensity and contrasting identities very well; he has a certain presence that suits the character he plays.
Caine, as Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred, and Freeman, as tech provider Lucius Fox, add some gravitas to proceedings, and get some great lines; Oldman, as long-suffering “good cop” Gordon, shows wonderfully the world-weariness and frown lines of a man who has seen too much, too soon; Liam Neeson, as Bruce’s mentor, Ducard, backs up the gravitas, but also adds a certain quiet, intelligent menace to the mix; and Cillian Murphy is wonderfully creepy in his turn as Scarecrow.
Katie Holmes is… alright, I suppose, as the love interest, Rachel Dawes, but I somehow doesn’t feel quite right in the role, and I can’t help thinking that the recast was a good idea.
• The verdict:
It’s not perfect, but it is quite an experience – wonderfully intense, beautifully scored, and excellently acted. There are really very few things not to like here, and this stands on its own as a good film, even if you’re not a Batman fan. I may be the only one out there who actually prefers this first film to The Dark Knight.