I believe there is a another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.
I read the book this film was based on earlier this year. It was shortly after seeing the amazing 6 minute trailer for the film that I became excited to read the book which had been sitting on my shelf for a few months. It quickly vaulted onto my top 50 books list at the 15 spot, a marvelous work of clever writing and profound ideas. It is a book of halves, each of six stories telling their first half a story going from a time when merchant ships and the slave trade were the big money makers to a post-apocalyptic far-future, which is the turning point after which the conclusions of all the stories come. It’s weird, it works. Would the movie version retain this odd style? Would it even work as a film, with such varying sensibilities between the stories?
Well, I think it does work, though the film throws away the half and half storytelling technique for a more flowing narrative which brings all the stories into clearer contrast and parallel. It makes sense to show all the stories next to each other with similar scenes playing next to similar scenes. In fact, that’s where the best parts of the movie come, when the stories line up and the action or drama of one story feeds into the next. It is, essentially, a tightly wound short film compilation. There are thematic and narrative crossovers, and the film takes its time to highlight them. It’s a wonderfully constructed film, which is something I didn’t expect. For a 2 hour and 40 minute film, it never feels long. There’s so much going on, a sea adventure, a long distance romance, a conspiracy thriller, a hilarious farce, a dystopian future, and a post-apocalyptic trek up a mountain, and with all of that action there’s hardly a moment to breathe. That’s a plus. There are emotional scenes and they work generally as well as the action and “ideas” scenes.
Where the film falls flat, and it’s only temporarily, in moments, is the acting. Tom Hanks was probably needed for the name recognition, but the film asks him to play six different characters. Tom Hanks is a great actor, but he’s generally just Tom Hanks. He’s good in half his roles in the film (including one which is played for laughs, an element that allows for some over-the-top-ness that Hanks gives it). He just doesn’t fit very well in the final story, the post-apocalypse. It’s the story that was always going to be the toughest to translate from page to screen, and Hanks’ inability to sell the strange dialect doesn’t help the transition any. His cohort in that story, Halle Berry, also has some rough times, though she comports herself well in that post apocalypse. She has one other large story role as an intrepid investigative journalist, and she does that ok, but I found myself bringing a lot of the personality from the book that she didn’t bring herself. She’s kind of blah. Luckily, they’re the only two semi-weak links. Jim Broadbent is entirely delightful in all his incarnations, especially the farcical story about a publisher imprisoned in an old folks home. Hugo Weaving is the only actor to play the same kind of person in each of his roles. He’s so perfect as a bad guy, and you can see echoes of his Agent Smith throughout his evil characters, but it’s Old Georgie, a devilish character with green skin in the post-apocalypse story that is a standout. So awesome. Jim Sturgess does his best work here, especially in the sci-fi story, as does Doona Bae as a genetically engineered slave. Ben Whishaw is wonderful in the post WWI story of a young man composing the titular piece of music that forms the foundation of all the stories. The acting is superb overall, with a few rough patches. A movie this ambitious can’t be perfect, I guess.
And now is the point in the review where I talk about the ideas of the film. A little on the nose? Yeah, but so’s the film. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer adapted the book and directed and they basically took all the themes and passages and made them as obvious as possible. It was already a book that spelled out a lot of its ideas and the movie makes no attempts at subtlety. In fact, it often takes a highlighter and points out where the stories comment on the same things. This was work you had to do as a reader when the stories were separated from each other, but with the scenes placed next to each other the connections seem so obvious. Not that obviousness is a bad thing, it’s just almost too easy to swallow. I don’t even know if that makes any sense. Anyways, there’s a lot of metaphysical stuff going on, reincarnation and re-finding the same love in different bodies. The main idea is that there are two people and that, no matter the form, they are meant to be together and touch each other’s lives, along with the lives of those around them. So that’s one half of it. The other half is the oppressors and the oppressed. All of the stories deal with freedom and what it means to have it and how those without it can find it. From slavery to the power of reputation to the tyranny of the system, it’s got a lot of angles on the subject. They’re mostly effective, too, which is cool. The book fleshes out a lot of the smaller ideas and relationships between the secondary characters and the primary characters, and fans of the film should certainly seek it out for a deeper and wider experience. As a film, though, it stands out as a towering work of ambition and, surprisingly, it’s much less of a mess than I expected it to be. It’ll probably end up in the top 10 of the year.