Cut Scenes is Josh Wise’s regular column on the intersection between film and video games. This week, it’s BioShock vs. Batman.
Built in the 1940s, visited in the 1960s, and jettying out into the future: Rapture is a place of a specific time, yet so too is it entirely outside of time. Art Deco, Gothic, and a place of enormous contrivance, it shares its spirit with another vague and vivid metropolis – Gotham City.
In particular, the Gotham City Anton Furst wrought for Tim Burton’s Batman. Brought to life with 18 sound stages and almost the entire 95-acre backlot at Pinewood, at the time of its construction it was the biggest set ever built – which makes Furst something of an Atlas.
Furst imagined this Gotham a composite of “the worst aspects of New York,” envisioning a city with no zoning restrictions – much as Andrew Ryan would. Gothic churches vie for space with brutalist metal museums, Art Deco town halls with grimy urban diners. Painted sets of distant bridges and factories, clearly false, shroud Gotham in a wintery firmament – a city in a snow globe.
Ken Levine and his team at Irrational weaved similar illusions to mask their constraints. Rapture’s painted facades quaver outside every window, giving the illusion of massive scale. When we venture into the web of that blood-gorged spider, Sander Cohen, in Fort Frolic, we know at once how it felt to be in Michael Keaton’s boots in that moonlit bell tower atop Gotham Cathedral.
Cohen, with pencil moustache and boot-polish hair, is a raving reflection of Salvador Dali. Slathered in that waxy gloss the seventh generation of consoles was so charmed by, he looks like a bizarre artwork himself – a lone figure at the centre of a Dada collage, drowning in the blues and clamour of the 20th century.
Like all the great Batman villains, Cohen is possessed of an idea. This idea trumps all else – morality, consequence, certainly legality, life and death. The Riddler cares, above all else, about riddles; Two-Face with the idea of duality, and chance; The Joker with primal chaos, with the hilarity of cosmic indifference. Cohen cares only for Art – his art.
After bloviating on the immortal beauty of his gruesome works, Cohen descends his grand staircase, dressed in a tuxedo and rabbit mask, to an adoring crowd that not only isn’t there, but never was. He’s a hack and knows it, dreads it, but refuses to let his mask slip. As he walks down, Waltz of the Flowers by Tchaikovsky plays.
Batman, in a mirrored act of refusal, climbs a rotting staircase as it crumbles beneath his feet. He goes to face the Joker in a pas de deux to the death. The spectacle refuses to take itself seriously: bells chime; henchmen somersault; the Joker dances with a limp Vicki Vale dressed in white; while Danny Elfman’s Waltz to the Death plays them all off. The games people play.
Batman, like his villains, refuses to let his mask slip. Like them he refuses to bend on his idea: his obsessive crusade against crime, atoning for sins that aren’t his, for things that cannot be undone. And so the waltz goes on.
You, even if you don’t know it, have your own unbending idea – one that BioShock is keen, in its immortal moments, to dissect: play, like the show, must go on. The masterstroke of your confrontation with Cohen is that it indulges the game’s dilemma of agency without Ryan’s later pageantry, without letting its mask slip, and with one crucial improvement: you can choose not to fight him.
While the Joker lies dead on the cathedral steps, Cohen may be left in his gilded cage at the bottom of the Atlantic, alone with his ideas.
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