The final stretch.

About the last couple of reviews, they won’t be as regular as the other last two hundred or so, as I’ve just become a father. Priorities, and all; I don’t intend to abandon this project when it’s so close to completion, so for the people who have been following it along, please stick with me, and they’ll go up as soon as I have the time.

The Dark Knight (2008)

I would love to come back to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy some ten, twenty, thirty years later, to see the way that time judges them. All three parts made it into IMDb’s Top 250, but a lot of this feels like it’s because they’re popular films in the age of the Internet and it is the folks of the Internet that ultimate decide what ends up on the list; I already found the shine coming off the last entry in the series, and while I quite like the first film as a perfect example of how to explain a superhero and their psychology to a person who doesn’t take for granted that the moment a character is bestowed with great power they will automatically take up the great responsibility of fighting crime, it’s nothing much beyond that. The Dark Knight, though, the middle film, the one that neither sets up or closes out the arc but escalates it, that I feel has the most longevity. I’ll just have to see if I’m right every ten years or so.

With Gotham City no longer beholden to its criminal families thanks to fearless district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and masked vigilante Batman (Christian Bale), the leaders of the underworld turn to a mysterious anarchistic figure in an attempt to regain control of the city: the Joker (Heath Ledger). Let’s be honest, Ledger’s portrayal of the iconic Batman villain, a twitching morass of contradictions and chaos with no history and no grand plans other than to watch the world burn, is the biggest draw of the whole film; every second he’s on the screen is mesmerising, a performance with all the bewildering intensity and destruction of a train wreck. The polar opposite he provides to the major figures in the film – not only to Batman, the arch-nemesis he uses to define himself, but also the moral Dent, the structured crime families, and even the wider society of Gotham itself – is the fuel the film runs on; there are been villains more cruel and wicked and villains that have been more satisfying to feel burning hatred for, but there has never been a villain that more thoroughly embraces the terrifying idea that the stability of a society is a fragile, tenuous agreement, and that it only takes the slightest push, the smallest thing out of the ordinary, to send it plunging headlong into an anarchistic nightmare.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The name J.R.R. Tolkien is synonymous with Western fantasy literature. When Tolkien combined Scandinavian mythology with his own experiences from the First World War to expand on his children’s story The Hobbit and create a mythical multi-millennial fantastical history for England, it became the template from which all other works of fantasy were drawn. Middle-Earth’s serene elves, hardy dwarves, noble men, wicked orcs, subtle wizards, and unassuming hobbits exist with such a deep history and rich backstory that filming the events of The Lord of the Rings seemed like an impossible task; the story is too large to ever be contained in a single film. Peter Jackson’s films are called a trilogy, but as they were all shot at the same time and flow seamlessly from one to the other, much like Tolkien’s books were originally intended to be they are one epic-length film, one with scope and breadth unequaled in all of cinema and the only vehicle large enough to house so much of Middle-Earth at once.

The films center around a treacherous quest. The One Ring, the object of power needed by the titular Lord of the Rings, Sauron, to be restored to his full power, is discovered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the hands of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit with a pure heart but no yearning for adventure. Though ferrying the Ring to the elvish city of Rivendell gives him all the experience with the world outside of his home in the Shire he needs, he volunteers to carry Sauron’s weapon to its final destination: Mount Doom, deep in the dark land of Mordor, to be unforged in the volcano. Meanwhile, Sauron gathers his armies of orcs and mercenaries to attack the lands of men; with his ally the fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) they wage war first against Rohan, land of the horse-lords, and then against Gondor at Minas Tirith, where the throne of men has remained empty since Sauron’s defeat an age ago. Aragorn, (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, travels with Frodo but soon finds his path diverging, leading to his destiny to unite the lands of men against the Dark Lord.

To call the films “epic” does them a disservice, as there are ordinary epics and then there is The Lord of the Rings. Incredibly detailed sets evoking the equally-detailed descriptions of topography and architecture Tolkien wrote of fill the screen, each new location a distinct entity with its own history drawn from the source material. Armies of extras outfitted in hand-crafted mail, each with personal details that show what rank its bearer has in their society or what part of the world they hail from, wage war on crowded battlefields. Every dramatic and scenic location in New Zealand seems to have been scouted to play the part of Middle-Earth, and having real locations rather than fanciful computer creations for the backgrounds pays off, lending yet another level of realism and credibility to the films. The variance in design for just one of the races is more than the majority of fantasy epics can manage, and with at least four major societies depicted the amount of detail on the screen at any given time is phenomenal. Every part of the world has its own personality and its own culture – even Saruman’s elite Uruk-Hai soldiers, clad in crude blank mail and armed with mass-produced blades, carry an alien look of being manufactured with them. The staggering amount of work to bring the films from page to screen is apparent in every frame; the trilogy almost deserves all the credit it gets just for that effort alone.

But alongside the fantasy setting that will be the defining fantasy setting for films for decades to come there is an amazing story being told, one of sacrifice and brotherhood and the will to do good in the face of impossible evil. The characters lament that war and dark times are descending on Middle-Earth, but not in a way that speaks of preventing the specific causes of these wars, rather just accepting that dark times occur as a matter of consequence, making it applicable to a wide range of real-life circumstances, not just those that resemble the Great War in some way. What seems like a simple good-versus-evil scenario is filled with complexities, showing the ways the coming war affects all peoples from the ancient and nearly immortal beings to the simple commoners who desire only a life of peace, and that in such darkness lies the capability for great heroism, not just from kings and warriors but also from the kinds of people about whom songs are not written and stories not told. The theme that the least of us may have a large role to play is a recurring one: not just in Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the One Ring, but also in his friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), instrumental in defeating Saruman, in Eowyn (Miranda Otto), forbidden from riding with the men of Rohan but who slays Sauron’s fearsome champion, the Witch-King of Angmar, in single combat, in Gollum (Andy Serkis), the twisted creature who possessed the Ring through much of its absence and who is the eventual (and accidental) cause of its destruction, and most of all in Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo’s faithful companion and protector who accompanies him every step of the way into Mordor.

These films are not flawless. I’m sure that every person who has read the books has their own little list of things they would have liked changed. But that does not take away the fact that the films as they are are an example of the impossible being made possible, and as a singular unedited entity they place Tolkien’s world on the screen in both look and tone, a monumental feat untouchable in terms of size and scope by any other multi-film tale, and I would willingly give up my minor dream edits to keep the harrowing journey from detailed written setting to fully-realised film world as intact as it is. I couldn’t give The Lord of the Rings anything but the highest grade; just as Tolkien’s name is synonymous with written fantasy, so too should Peter Jackson’s be with cinematic fantasy.

Fight Club (1999)

Let me tell you a story about Fight Club. I was in high school when the film came out, and I was deep into it and its message. We shouldn’t let ourselves be owned by our useless stuff that corporations sold us on, man! Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you could subvert all the advertising with a message to wake up and not pay attention to all this brainwashing? Wouldn’t it be amazing if all the giant capitalist structures came crashing down, and we could live in unfettered anarchy? I re-watched Fight Club a couple of years ago and found myself not connecting with it as much, and I couldn’t quite understand it – I still believe, perhaps even more strongly, in maybe we’d be better off with less things and more do-it-yourself and to never, ever take any advertising at face value, so what had changed? Was the film not quite as good as I remembered? Between then and watching it again now I heard an excellent interpretation of the film that made it all make sense, and… well, because Fight Club begins in media res and doesn’t quite care about sticking to a linear narrative, let’s pick this story up again towards the end.

An unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), after struggling with insomnia and a tedious white-collar job, is jolted awake by a maverick anarchistic philosopher, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); together, they found a “fight club”, an underground fist-fighting arena with the purpose of giving men something “real” in their artificial lives, which spreads across the country and metamorphoses into Tyler’s personal army. Where Tyler’s message of anarchy seemed previously inspiring, now it reads like hollow whining. You have to work a boring job? We all have to work boring jobs. Instead of trying to destroy society, why don’t you try something to fix it? Tyler’s posturing is the faux-masculine grandstanding of every anonymous thug on the Internet, scared children talking large because they aren’t secure enough in themselves to pursue the things they really want in life – in the film’s case, it’s a girl, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). But this is the real genius of Fight Club – like its divided narrator, it’s both messages at the same time. As a young man I saw Tyler Durden as the hero, the ideal of what a person could be if they lived a free life; as I’m older I see Tyler as the villain, the destructive little shoulder-devil you have to crush before you truly understand yourself.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

When constructing a trilogy, there’s an inherent problem when it comes to the middle act, as by the very nature of its structure it will automatically end up with no proper beginning – which was all in the first part, since you don’t want to be spending any more time than is needed resetting the characters and their situations – and no proper end – which you should be saving for the last part, wrapping up all the plotlines from all three segments and pulling out a climax that dwarfs the other two endings. The middle section of a planned trilogy is often just shuffling characters about, preparing them for the final chapter and leaving so many questions open – they’re often considered the weakest moments of three-part arcs.

The massive glaring exception is The Empire Strikes Back, which takes the campy universe of Star Wars to darker and more mystical places, replacing the big explosive finish with a stinging character-driven revelation and the greatest twist ending in all of cinematic history, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Star Wars fan who does not consider Empire the best film.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) journeys to find the mysterious Yoda (Frank Oz) to further his Jedi training; meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) struggle to keep out of the grasp of the Empire and Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The film allows for a lot more downtime than the first and all the character-growing moments that come with it, courtesy of director Irvin Kershner; the focus of Empire is not in goals (ie. find/rescue the princess, destroy the Death Star) but on Luke’s mastery of his emotions required in his training, Han and Leia’s growing relationship, and of course the big reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. By placing more emphasis on character it adds a greater emotional weight to the action setpieces that do exist, and the Flash Gordon-esque universe as a whole – these are no longer archetypes acting out their parts in the monomyth but characters with investments and motivations – and to add further heft the protagonists do not walk away victorious in any sense at all. Instead of defeating an enemy that opens the way for the final encounter, they are set back on all fronts, without a clear plan for how to proceed and how to win the day. It makes the middle section stand out, not just within the trilogy itself but in cinema in general, because how often is it that, in high-action settings with clearly-defined sides, the good guys lose?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One of the big themes that great works draw from is humanity – unsurprising, since we’re all human – and the equalising factors that show in some way that we’re all the same. There’s never been a single text that perfectly sums up the human condition, and most likely never will be given just how many facets there are to mankind as a whole, but even though there’s no consensus on the things that do make us all the same, the fact remains that the narrative almost always runs that we are all the same. We all have a common ground. We are all a small part of the same collective, and there should be no label and no method of recategorisation that can break off a select few from the whole. There should be nothing possible to erase one’s humanity.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, repeat felon and anti-authoritarian Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns a mental illness to be transferred from prison to a mental institution, only to be placed under the supervision of rigid disciplinarian Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Despite being disruptive and rebellious, McMurphy treats his fellow patients as equals, just another bunch of guys not too different from the ones he was previously locked up with, seeing past their illnesses in a way the hospital staff cannot and eventually usurping Nurse Ratched’s authority on the ward. She is truly one of cinema’s greatest monsters, not just because she is the very face of emotionless authority, the law and the rules and the bureaucracy embodied, but because she believes that keeping her patients in a strictly-controlled regime that drains them of their humanity – “works on them”, as Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) would put it – is the best thing for them, treating them more like ill-tempered beasts that need to be sedated rather than people that need to be fixed. That she can barb and control people the way she does without any malice is the dark counterpoint to the reminder of every person’s fundamental sameness, but it makes the payoff and emotional resonance greater each time the ward defies her; they are not defeating some demon, some outsider, some other, they are standing up to the very worst humanity has to offer, the voice of order that drones commands to fall in line and to follow the rules because the rules are there to be followed, and they are discovering that they are stronger.