Movies move us. We laugh, cry, and scream – our emotions are hijacked by the filmmakers. But what is it that makes these flickering images resonate so profoundly in our minds? And why do some movies have such a long-lasting effect, while others vanish from our memory? Memorable movies stick because they allow humans, whose brains are fairly adept at discerning real life from the imaginary, to treat what is on screen as a part of their very existence. As Jeffrey Zacks, a neuroscientist from Washington University in St. Louis, puts it, movies have “evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.” Techniques used by filmmakers effectively manipulate human brains into viewing chains of images as cohesive, intricate, life-like stories with significant implications.
Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that when watching movies in a group setting, viewers have nearly perfectly synchronized brain waves and elevated emotions, as those around them are experiencing and reacting to the same sensations. This phenomenon, termed the “mirror rule,” captures our human compulsion to replicate the behaviors of others around us, especially when it comes to moods and emotions. Movies that truly capture and maintain an individual person’s attention can cause a theater full of viewers to subconsciously build on their fellow audience members’ emotions. Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter released when trust is established, enhances our ability to share emotions and relate to those around us–the specific mechanism through which the “mirror rule” functions. Incredibly, on-screen emotions (including grinning, anger, and sadness), even with unliked characters, are reflected in the audience members, whose smiles or knitted brows will appear and fade in unison. This synchronization even permeates the most unconscious of human behaviors such as blinking and breathing. When a movie controls its audience steadily, through tonally consistent and well thought-out storytelling as well as detailed camera work, viewers come away with a more unified consensus about the movie’s excellence.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a movie widely heralded as one of the greatest, demonstrates a masterful ability to emotionally entrance audiences. Nearly ten years after its release, The Dark Knight is still used for countless comparisons, not only for superhero movies or for action-adventure or crime dramas, but for movies in general. So, what allows it to appeal to such a diverse population? Many aspects come to mind, including its legendary opening scene, momentous climax, thematic analysis of morality and criminality, and beautifully constructed interpretation of Gotham City. However, the truly captivating components involved Nolan’s scientific methods of appealing to audiences. Through a psychological approach, he fine-tuned three of the characteristics most capable of drawing in audiences and securing their attention: well-structured characters and characterization, enchanting music and effects, and meticulous cinematography.
Compelling character-driven stories never fail to enthrall audiences, causing oxytocin levels to rise in harmony and brain activity to increase in areas such as the auditory and visual cortexes and the limbic system. The more an audience’s attention is controlled, the greater the unity in their reaction. In its interpretation of classic characters, The Dark Knight produces a supreme antagonist in the Joker, the perfect counterbalance against Batman. Throughout the movie, the Joker wholly negates Batman’s physical strength, turning it into a weakness and reveling in the opportunity to create situations in which Batman’s physical prowess is utterly useless. Nolan and the other writers create scenes that require the audience to refine their expectations and change their perceptions, drawing them further into the story. As viewers, we are emotionally attached to seeing how Batman can overcome a challenge he is not ready to solve. In addition, the movie effectively accomplishes what few others are able to–the antagonist competes for the same goal as the hero. Batman and the Joker both compete for the soul of Gotham, their independent visions of Gotham as a place of generosity and hope or lawlessness and disorder. Other movies may have complex storylines, but intricacy isn’t enough to craft a memorable final product. In The Dark Knight, the fate of the entire world isn’t at stake, as is the motif in far too many movies today. This element of storytelling is what connects the audience to the film even more; Batman’s struggle resonates because he has to, above all else, overcome personal limitations and do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal of establishing justice in Gotham. To prevail over personal flaws is a dream accessible to people of all backgrounds.
Filmmakers have the heavy task of giving their movies unique auras and atmospheres. While other movies may change their music drastically from scene to scene, Hans Zimmer’s glorious soundtrack maintains the overall mood of the movie, with slight alterations to either darken the tone or introduce a sliver of hope. In terms of scientific accomplishment, it would seem The Dark Knight would fall short compared to the CGI extravaganzas that are most modern-day movies. So why don’t other more scientifically advanced movies with their CGI-laden scenes and visually altered stunts simply overshadow The Dark Knight? In fact, Nolan’s scarce use of CGI is one of the secrets to his movie’s wide appeal and lasting psychological effect. This version of Batman, who still uses his resources to acquire powerful technologies, simply seems more grounded and relatable to common viewers, and his stunts and heroics seem all the more impressive because of their realism. The numerous scenes with Batman standing on the edge of a Hong Kong skyscraper and later hitching on to a C-130 cargo plane–easy decisions for most directors to use CGI–were specifically kept as actual stunts by Nolan. However, rather than simply being stunts for the sake of being stunts, they were well incorporated into the story, and fit like lock in key with the feel of Batman, a superhero without superpowers. Many other movie producers and executives love big-budget tech and expensive shots, but they are often disconnected from average viewers, most of whom prefer simplicity and straightforwardness. Both consciously and unconsciously, viewers are drawn in by practical effects and photographic reality.
Unforgettable movies incorporate a technical variety of camera shots, each tailored for maximum impact. Researchers have demonstrated that character-driven stories stimulate audiences more, and character-centered camera work paired with carefully chosen equipment gives a movie its desired feel. Precise cinematography involves medium shots, close ups, arcs, and physical camera movement all while keeping the characters as the focus of the shot. The Joker’s interrogation scene, a cinematic treasure, features symbolic lighting and meticulous cinematography. The Joker first sits enveloped in darkness, which subconsciously hints to the audience he is detached from their common perception of morality. Once Batman enters, the lights are thrown on, and the Joker cannot hide anymore. After Batman’s initial display of physical strength, the Joker and Batman converse intensely, and the camera slowly circles around them, capturing close-ups of both characters to build on the tense mood. Soon after, Batman loses his temper and pins the Joker against the wall. The camera shows their eyelines are level, which to the audience signals a turn: Batman is strong, but he has no advantage over the Joker. He has nothing to bargain with.
Finally, the movie’s use of blurs and distinct focuses indirectly convey what is of importance. At the end of the interrogation scene, the Joker laughs maniacally, and Batman’s blurred fist is seen as he raises it to strike the Joker. Batman’s power is useless; the Joker, laughing hysterically and still in focus, has complete control. Though far more difficult to use, the complex IMAX cameras and equipment utilized to shoot this scene and countless others offered Nolan extra sharpness and way to completely immerse the audience.
A more in-depth view into what goes into creating a movie allows viewers to deepen their appreciation for the science behind it all. As for budding filmmakers, the focus should always be on the story. Honestly telling a story and carefully wielding the great power of cinematography and directing will genuinely move an audience. Examining The Dark Knight and other brilliant films reveals one common theme–when cinematographers and directors tread the fine line between science and aesthetics, everyone wins.