In a year when Oscar has anointed as its host Seth MacFarland, creator of TV’s ribald “Family Guy” and the blockbuster R-rated comedy “Ted,” it’s fair to say the Academy seeks to boost ratings for the telecast by appealing to a broader and younger demographic.
That broader reach was also widely perceived to have been behind the Academy’s decision in 2009 (since revised) to expand the best picture category from five to 10 nominations, allowing a film like “Avatar,” the mother of all blockbusters, to further prove fantasy and superhero epics, such as “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, could aspire to high art while breaking new ground. Clearly the outcry over Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” not making Oscar’s final cut the year before was not lost on the Academy’s ruling body. Not only had Nolan’s second installment of the Batman trilogy earned some of the year’s best reviews, but it also challenged “Titanic” as the highest grossing film of all time.
This year, “The Dark Knight Rises” managed to surpass its predecessor’s $1 billion-plus worldwide take, with some critics, such as Time’s Richard Corliss, declaring it “a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement” while declaring Nolan “a dead-serious artist with a worldview many shades darker than the knight of the title.”
Others disagreed. “Caped or un-caped, the guy is a bore,” opined the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. He went on to describe “The Dark Knight Rises” as “murky, interminable, confused, and dropsical with self-importance.”
Such is the nature of a business where art and commerce make uneasy allies. In the immortal words of William Goldman, “nobody knows anything” and yet everybody has an opinion. But “The Dark Knight Rises” and the two films leading up to it can’t be taken for granted as ambitious statements about the motiveless malignity of our times, to borrow a phrase by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Sam Mendes, whose take on the 007 franchise, “Skyfall,” dares to examine James Bond’s motivation, told the Playlist earlier this year that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” was “a game changer” that influenced his approach to rebooting James Bond in a way the Academy might take notice.
“What Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in, even if, in the case with ‘The Dark Knight,’ it’s not even set in our world,” Mendes said. “That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without ‘The Dark Knight,’ might not have been possible.”
In interviews promoting “Rises,” Nolan emphasized the character-driven aspects of the movie, rather than the grandly staged action sequences, many of which he tried to keep as f/x-free as possible. When asked about the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Nolan told Movieclips: “I didn’t really approach it from saying, ‘OK, who’s going to make a great Catwoman?’ It was really about ‘what’s Anne going to bring to the character of Selina Kyle?’… You can’t approach the icon head on, it’s too daunting. It’s more a question of ‘who would this person be in real life?’ ”
If it’s psychological complexity that lays the groundwork for Academy acceptance, Mendes’ take on Bond can’t be dismissed out of hand in the awards derby. “Without sacrificing action or overall energy, Mendes puts the actors at the forefront, exploring their marvelously complex emotional states in ways the franchise has never before dared,” wrote Variety critic Peter Debruge.
Mendes and Nolan’s peers in the Academy have always been rather fickle when it comes to adrenalin-rushing entertainments, especially of the tentpole variety. When “The Avengers” opened in May, many critics were filled with praise, with the New York Daily News declaring that it made “super-hero movies new again — a colossal task indeed.” But like a sugar rush that has subsided, those superlatives go into hibernation during the winter months, when cooler heads prevail.
Still, for movies more likely to be unveiled at Comic-Con than Cannes, they’re often left outside with their noses pressed against the window during awards season. During its 50-year history, the Bond franchise has only generated seven Oscar nominations, all in the crafts and music categories, and none for best picture.
By contrast, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogy, “LOTR,” has amassed an astounding 30 nominations, with the third film racking up 11 wins out of 11 noms, including best picture. So it’s no surprise that expectations will be running high when Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” in effect a prequel to “LOTR,” is first shown to the media before Warner Bros. rolls out the film Dec. 14. A trailer for “The Hobbit” promises something as lavish, spectacular and equally brushed with shades of light and dark as the “LOTR” movies. It certainly doesn’t lack for ambition.
“There’s 125 pages of additional Hobbit material in the appendices of “Return of the King,” Jackson told an interviewer during ComicCon in July, “and we had the rights to use that material as well. So this is ‘The Hobbit’ supersized.
Art finds surprising home | Scrappy indies aspire to level playing field | Dramas ripped from headlines | Popcorn epics’ battle for top prize |