Sunday, 31 March 2013

5 Weird Misconceptions about Prometheus

I'm currently searching for a new film podcast to listen to at work. A lot of audio libraries like SoundCloud and Libsyn were recently blocked, so I can no longer access the Empire and SlashFilm podcasts that I normally use to avoid Jeremy Vine's radio show.
In searching for a replacement, I've begun to use Prometheus as a kind of litmus test. Prometheus is, if nothing else, incredibly interesting, and generates a high level of discussion in a podcast. It's a good indicator of what a show is generally like - bringing out everyone's personalities and ideas and causing fun arguments.
But I've been noticing some recurring ideas about Prometheus that are just plain wrong. Obviously, stupidly wrong. I've listed a few common ones below, and hopefully debunked them. In this case "common" means that the same mistake appeared on at least two different professional podcasts, and is dumb enough that it shouldn't have.

Spoilers follow.

(As a random aside, the other outcome of my podcast binge, and of Prometheus' infamous caesarian scene, is that I've now sat through several surreal experiences of Americans talking about abortion. It's not helped by the fact that these podcasts are all predominantly male, but the country's attitude as a whole makes the subject feel very odd anyway. They don't just seem afraid to talk about it, they seem afraid of the process itself - even the "pro-choice" guys - and hearing them treading on eggshells around the "issues" is weird and uncomfortable. But I digress.)

1: This is a New Idea

"At the dawn of time, life on our planet was seeded by aliens and now, aeons later, they are returning to destroy us."
That's a plot summary of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Or it's a summary of the comics, at least - I've mostly forgotten the film.
The point is that we don't even have to mention Arthur C. Clarke to find examples of aliens dabbling in Earth evolution. Chariots of the Gods is neither recent nor particularly original. Science fiction is full of this stuff, and scientology even preaches it as fact!
So, when one podcaster loudly proclaimed that Ridley Scott will be revered as a visionary if it turns out aliens did have a hand in human evolution, he was loudly being stupid, and he was loudly being wrong.

2: The Beginning is Interesting

Some people don't understand what is happening in the first scene of the movie. In this scene an alien (an Engineer) is beside a river on a primitive planet, with a spaceship hovering over him. He drinks some mercury-like gunk, starts spasming, and then his body dissolves into the stream. We see his DNA breaking apart in the water, shrivelling and dying - but then it begins to link together, reforming into new shapes.
Now ok, fine, maybe that seems abstract and confusing. Except that two scenes later some humans explain that aliens long ago seeded our planet with DNA. The connection isn't hard to make.
But, even allowing for that still being confusing somehow, it doesn't explain how some people seem to have their mind blown when this is explained to them. "Oh my God," said one, "that's amazing!" and he upped his rating from 3-out-of-5 to 4.
Why? What exactly has changed? This scene offers no information that isn't already spelled out in the rest of the movie. Realising that you saw something that you knew happened but didn't know you'd seen is an "Oh, right!" moment, but it's hardly a revelation. And it's certainly not worth an extra star.
Also not revelatory is making that first scene artificially interesting by asking irrelevant questions. Does he dissolve himself on purpose? Sure looks like it. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No. Is this Earth? Almost definitely. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No. Why is there a spaceship? That's probably how he got there. Does that affect anything at all about the rest of the movie? No.
Maybe these questions are interesting in regards to the scene itself, but in regards to the rest of Prometheus they mean absolutely nothing.

3: Charlize Theron is an Android

At the beginning of the film, Peter Weyland introduces android David as "the closest thing I'll ever have to a son". Later on Theron's character Vickers, who pretty clearly despises both David and Weyland, calls Weyland "Father".
This gives us two options. Either the film is making a point of how Weyland values his boy robot over his lady robot, even though the lady robot is so much more advanced than the boy robot that it can easily pass as human and even has fully working sex organs... or it's making a point of how Weyland values his robot son over his actual flesh-and-blood daughter. Even in a film as confused as this one, which seems more likely?
There is a moment that Vickers arguably displays more strength than a human should have (she slams David into a wall) - but, don't forget, there's also a moment where someone longjumps, sprints and abseils ten minutes after crippling surgery. Realistic portrayal of human strength is not this movie's strong point.

4: "But Who Made Them?" is a Compelling Theological Argument

"Well," says a christian on three different podcasts, "at least they put in an argument for God."
They're referring to the moment that Holloway asks why Shaw still wears her cross now that they've found humanity's creators. Shaw's answer, which the film itself and believers watching it seem to think supports her, is, "And who made them?"
Are you kidding? Really? That question is the oldest, simplest, and most convincing argument in history against the existence of gods. "Who created the creator?" is a self-defeating paradox for people who don't believe life can spring from nothing. If your worldview requires complex organisms to have been designed by something alive and complex, where did that something come from? Either it sprang from nothing (i.e. your worldview is wrong) or it was designed by something else. If the latter, where did that designer come from? Rinse and repeat...
If the film was doing something clever - if it was subverting the question somehow - this would be fine. But to just stick this line in the script and intend it to mean the opposite of what it actually means is not subversion; it's just dumb.
In this case the fault lies with the film, not with the viewer, but it's on this list because it just kept getting brought up. That and it really bugs me.

5: Sci-Fi Doesn't Need to Make Sense

This is the big one. Bigger than Prometheus; bigger than any one film; bigger than Film itself. I've witnessed it on Facebook, on forums, in real life and, again, on several podcasts that ought to know better. Unlike the rest of my petty whinings, this one actually matters.
The thinking goes like this: in sci-fi you can go faster than light, or make solid holograms - things which are impossible and make no sense - so it is foolish to then be bothered by other things that make no sense, and doing so makes you a hypocrite. This is usually accompanied by the words "suspension of disbelief".
This is a complete fallacy for a number of reasons. I could talk about consistent world-building, rules of the universe, or about the difference between hard and soft science fiction, but the fundamental point is that there's a reason we call it suspension of disbelief and not, say, destruction of disbelief, or abandonment of disbelief. The amount of nonsense we're willing to believe is lifted, raised and, yes, suspended, but it's still not infinite. The line has moved, but it is not gone - it will take more than usual, but a sufficient amount of nonsense will still be able to cross it.
We accept that the good ship Prometheus can travel faster than light (but not that much faster, because they still need stasis pods) and we accept the magic hat that lets you watch people's dreams. We accept that David learns an alien language just by learning some other languages, that everyone signed up for this with no knowledge of what "this" actually was, and that Weyland funded it all based on the flimsiest of non-evidence. We even accept the aforementioned post-surgery acrobatics. This nonsense is all on the right side of the line - we accept it and believe it despite its silliness. But if the Engineer they eventually wake up had started singing and dancing (SpaceBalls style), or had spoken English with a thick southern drawl, would it be hypocritical to claim that that made no sense? If the awful Geologist had developed superpowers and called himself I-Love-Rocks-Man? If Vickers had sprouted wings and revealed she was an angel all along? The fact that we suspend our disbelief does not mean we should accept anything the film then throws at us. There is always something that can go too far.
When Holloway and Shaw point at what looks like a constellation of six stars and call it a "galactic configuration", which is not just inaccurate but totally meaningless, that is an acceptable level of nonsense; but when they then say that the galactic configuration contains "a star" (meaning that this is a configuration of six what, exactly?) they have crossed over into absurdity. To claim that the Engineers have "human DNA" would have been acceptable; but to specify a 100% match turns it into utter nonsense. The fact that we accept the dream-hat does not make this any less true.
The idea that fantasy and sci-fi get a free pass to do whatever, just because we accept a base-level of nonsense as part of the concept, is not just wrong but actually dangerous. Giant transforming robots don't really make sense, but does that mean all the other things that don't make sense in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen should be ignored? Of course it doesn't (though some people honestly think it does)! That film has awful problems and they deserve to be pointed out. If they don't get pointed out - if we just say, "It's sci-fi so none of this matters," - then the industry will continue to make films of that quality. By which I mean bad films.
If we let sci-fi and fantasy off when they are badly written and badly thought out, then why should anyone bother to write them well in the first place? This "hypocrite" line of thinking essentially removes all quality-control from these movies. That's a very unhealthy direction to go in. To hear this particular misconception being thrown around as much as it is, by actual film journalists in some cases, is a disturbing trend. And, regardless of suspension of disbelief, it makes no sense.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful Review

I should probably start by saying that I have not seen, or read, Wicked - or any of the original Oz books - so this film is the only Wizard of Oz prequel I've experienced. Quite what that means, or how much it matters, I don't know - I just feel it's probably important. If you're familiar with Wicked, your experience of Oz the Great and Powerful could be entirely different to mine. Mileage may vary.

Another admission is that I didn't see this in 3D. Normally I seek out 3D for films actually shot in the format (as opposed to digital post-conversion, which is never as good) but on this occasion the cinema was refurbishing their 3D screens, so it wasn't actually an option.
I've heard the 3D is very good, but the only thing I can say from my own 2D experience is that things get thrown at the screen more than I would normally like. Importantly, though, that's something director Sam Raimi does in all of his films anyway - coming, as he does, from a splatter-horror background - and he knows how to make it work. In his hands it's not just a gimmick, 3D or otherwise.

Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is ostensibly a prequel to L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - showing how Oscar Diggs, a circus magician from Kansas, came to become the titular Wizard. But it's not really. In truth it's both a prequel and a homage to 1939's classic film musical The Wizard of Oz - based on Baum's book, but different in many ways.
The reason Oz can't be honest about this is that the rights to the original film are owned by a different studio, so this one can't reference if directly. There are no ruby slippers, for instance, and Glinda the Good Witch is no longer the Witch of the North. But any references they can get away with, they do.
This is most obvious at the beginning, during a black-and-white opening that turns to colour when we reach the magical land of Oz, just as it did for Dorothy in the original. Likewise, there are characters here who will reappear in Oz in different forms. These are unmistakable references to the original film, proving already that this is not a prequel to the book.

That early section is great, and the film is actually at its strongest when it's revisiting the original like this. It's when it tries to distance itself that things go wrong. The movie tries to make Oz "magical" in a way that the original never could, with impossible CGI landscapes and creatures. The CGI is mostly great (some vicious river-fairies notwithstanding) - the problem is that it never feels like the Oz we know. When giant digital flowers begin to open as Oscar passes, within his first minute in Oz, it can't help but feel like Tim Burton's horrendous Alice in Wonderland. It's more constrained and controlled than that film, and infinitely better focused, but it still feels weird and hollow - and it definitely doesn't feel like Oz.
The focus on flashy visuals also means that, in the first half at least, the story is under-served and anaemic. It's also trying too hard. There are two twists just within the first half, where even one is unnecessary, and plot points and backstory are just rushed through in dialogue. The setups are minimal, so the payoffs feel cheap. It's all at the mercy of those visuals - why invest in the story when it can show us the sights?

It also struggles to invest us in the characters. James Franco's Oscar is selfish, pompous and smarmy - grinning as he cheats and lies and not caring about the fallout. Even at the end he doesn't seem remorseful or even reflective over some of the things he caused.
The witches don't fare any better. There are three - Evanora, Theodora and Glinda - and one of them, we are told, is wicked (a word that, in Oz, is seemingly used in place of "evil"). I won't spoil it, but here's a hint: there are three witches in The Wizard of Oz, too, and one of them is called Glinda. Early on, the witches are mostly exposition dispensers - which is awkward for all three, but particularly damaging for Mila Kunis' Theodora. Her story progresses at breakneck speed and really could have used more screentime.
Like Dorothy, Oscar also picks up a group of weird, magical creatures - here a flying monkey and a living china doll - as he travels a familiar yellow road. Where the movie tries, and fails, to make Oz a more magical place than the original, the same approach actually works well for these characters. Finley the monkey and especially the China Girl are brilliantly realised creations, rendered beautifully and believably, and actually capturing some of that elusive wonder where all of the digital vistas couldn't. It helps that these two are also better characterised than any of the actual actors - they are funny and charming and, for a long time, they're the only things keeping the movie afloat.

Luckily, there's a point where it all suddenly clicks and the film starts working. Not coincidentally, it's around the point that the story settles down in a location we already know. It's a town square, where the Yellow-Brick Road ends in a spiral. You know the one.
From this point on the film is more static, and the locations - this town, the Emerald City, a field of poppies - are more recognisably real, and more recognisably Oz. Settings established, the movie stops trying to impress us with visuals and actually begins to focus on its story.

Where The Wizard of Oz's strength is in the actual journey, with Dorothy's success eventually coming down to dumb luck and the same villainous weakness that later earnt Signs no end of ridicule, Oz is the opposite. The journey, except for a brief detour to China Town (where the China Girl is from), is not nearly as interesting as the eventual showdown.
Oscar faces off against the Wicked Witch's real magic with his own theatrical tricks. This battle of deception, and the preparations required to make it work, really are exciting and engaging in a way the first half wasn't. We see them building devices and making plans and, though we might not know what it's all for at the time, when the Wizard uses his "magic" we know exactly how it was done.
It's here that Oscar finds a kindred spirit in Glinda. Her witchy powers manifest as smoke and illusions and, though she can fly unaided, she chooses to travel in a giant bubble "just for show". She's as much a showman as he is, and seeing them come together over this and combine their skills really elevates both of them (we even start to like Oscar).
The ending more than makes up for the uninspiring first half - a battle of wits that focuses on character rather than spectacle. There is action, but it's all meaningful and necessary, and it resists the common urge to just become a giant fantasy warzone. There's more twists here, too - they're maybe a little obvious but, unlike the which-witch-is-which stuff, it really works well. Everything we've seen, in both this film and in the original, is artfully tied together, bringing new meanings to the things we saw in both. The stuff that didn't work is mostly forgotten.

The one weak link in these later, better stages is the Wicked Witch. It's partly the makeup, honestly! Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch, had a long, angular face already, and the pointed chin and nose prosthetics just accentuated her real features. Here, the actress in question (still not spoiling it) has a soft, round face, and adding angular features just looks ridiculous. But, worse, is that she plays it absolutely straight. Her Witch is nasty and spiteful but, unlike the original, isn't enjoying herself. She cackles maniacally because that's what the Wicked Witch does, but the laugh doesn't match anything else about her. There's no sadistic pleasure to her evil - she's just angry. She's meant to be a caricature (she certainly looks like one) but she doesn't seem to know it.
Possibly worst of all is that she's not scary. If nothing were scary, we probably wouldn't notice, but it's highlighted by Raimi's talent for this (again, from his Evil Dead horror background). Everything surrounding the Witch is suitably frightening - her slow reveal, her creepy creepy forest, and especially her nightmarish flying baboons (no mere monkeys in this one) - but the Witch herself, through silly makeup and weak performance, fails to leave the same impression. It's a terrible shame as this should really be the stand-out role of the movie!

But, despite a weak villain and a faltering start, the overall experience is surprisingly positive. When the film stops trying to impress the audience, it actually finds the power to impress. The characters come alive and the ideas start to blossom. There's enough here to make it all worthwhile.
Perhaps it's just nostalgia (a second viewing would certainly be interesting) but, when the Wizard gives the others symbolic little gifts at the end, it actually does feel a worthy companion to The Wizard of Oz

And the truth is, for a Sam Raimi movie with James Franco, there can only be one verdict.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Dudey Joe 3 - 02: A Hero Will Rise

You may vaguely recall a promise, in early February, of an update on the status of Dudey Joe 3. It's fine if you don't remember, though, because neither did I.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, production on the short is still happening. It's just a lot slower than expected.
Animating in Flash was a lot easier back when I didn't really know how to animate. Now that I do, I'm building this thing frame-by-frame in a program not remotely designed for frame-by-frame. It's excruciating, to be honest - but I've started it like this and I intend to finish it the same way!

To prove that the project does still exist - and to prove that Joe Eckson is actually in it - here is the first official still from Dudey Joe 3.

What's that in his hand? Is he pulling a lever? Or is this a "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" moment with a staff? These, I'm sure, are the burning questions that will plague websites the world over until the film's eventual release.

As for when that release will be, I can't be certain. Production is about two-thirds complete, most of the character animation is done, and it's coming together nicely. It will hopefully be finished by early summer, but it's too soon to call that official.
Judging by how long it's been since the last update I'm not sure even I believe that!

In other news, you may recall another promise, from the same post, regarding something called "Mangaphobia". Unlike the update you're reading now, Mangaphobia is a promise I have not forgotten about, and should be gracing this very blog quite soon.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Cloud Atlas Revolutions

I'm still not happy with my Cloud Atlas review. I saw the film on Wednesday, and intended to have the review up by Friday, but it ended up taking twice that long. And I still wasn't happy with it.
Perhaps it's apt! The review makes a lot of points that all mention the same ideas, but I could never make them come together into one complete thought. It's a lot like the film itself - except that I was more than happy with the film, because it's excellent.
It's just such an unusual movie that, beyond basic technical stuff, the normal rules for assessing it don't apply. The "story" in particular is hard enough to describe, let alone measure. It's so strange, in fact, that it defies comparison. At least, I thought it did.

Normally I'd put a spoiler warning here, but Cloud Atlas might be impossible to spoil. There are story-beats mentioned below, but you won't know which of the six stories they fit into, and any character-traits that I mention are self-evident from the moment you meet those actors (even in the trailers). Nothing mentioned should damage your first-watch enjoyment.

I was telling someone that Hugo Weaving is basically playing Agent Smith in this, and I joked that Agent Smith could actually be another incarnation of the same "soul".
But, you know what? He really could! The Matrix (another film by the Wachowskis) could be edited into this film and wouldn't be at all out of place.
We know that civilisation collapsed at some point between the two future-set stories - maybe "the Fall" that Tom Hanks and Halle Berry talk about is The Matrix's Machine uprising. They do say that civilisation fell foul of its own "smart" (and that's the "true true"), so it does fit!
It also fits thematically. The Matrix deals with the same cycle of oppression that Cloud Atlas explores. The Machines rose up from oppression, and became the oppressors themselves, fuelling further revolution. It's the same cyclic story we see repeat throughout history in Cloud Atlas.

For The Matrix to truly fit into Cloud Atlas, we'll have to recast. The main characters in each story share the same actors, so that will need to be true here, too.
Hugo Weaving is perfect in the role of... well... Hugo Weaving. It does beg the question of Smith, a Machine, having a "soul" - but that's exactly the sort of thing Cloud Atlas is asking anyway. So, what about the other characters?
The core story of The Matrix actually resembles one of Cloud Atlas' other stories quite closely. That story revolves around Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae - lovers and freedom fighters for a repressed minority (there's other spoilerific similarities, too). In this case, though, Neo (the new, highly important rescuee) more closely matches the characters of Doona Bae; meaning Trinity (the hardened warrior, but also a figure of kindness) is Jim Sturgess in drag.
Keith David, a mentor figure throughout Cloud Atlas, plays Morpheus - with Susan Sarandon, a symbol of wisdom, backing him up as the Oracle. The traitorous Cypher is played by Tom Hanks, volatile throughout the six stories - his relationship to Trinity mirroring the same relationship to one of Jim Sturgess' past lives. Which, I just this moment realise, means Tank is played by David Gyasi, sharing in that same past relationship.
At a stretch, Hugh Grant (the powerful bully character) could even play the Sentinels - it fits, but it's more just because I want to see Grant's face on a giant robot squid.

There's similarities in all the Wachowskis' films, actually. The three Matrixes (Matrices?) and V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced) all deal with similar themes of oppression. Even Speed Racer, which I haven't seen, seems to deal with inequality and injustice in a similar way to Cloud Atlas' '70s sections.
There's the same character links, too. In Vendetta, the female lead, Evey, has much in common with Halle Berry's characters. This initially made me think that V (the titular revolutionary) must be Tom Hanks, but there's a lot of ways that doesn't work - he much more closely fits with Keith David's mentor figure. James D'Arcy takes the Steven Fry role; Jim Broadbent is John Hurt's dictator, with Hugo Weaving (who, confusingly, actually plays V in the film) as his enforcer.

This is getting silly now, but I'm going to make it sillier. Luke is Doona Bae; Leia is Halle Berry; Han is Tom Hanks. Vader is Hugo Weaving; Tarkin is Hugh Grant (he even looks a bit like Hugh Grant). Obi-Wan is Keith David (or possibly Jim Sturgess, but that's a little creepy).
Frodo is Ben Whishaw; Sam is James D'Arcy. Gandalf is Keith David again; Aragorn is Doona Bae (which presumably makes Arwen Jim Sturgess); Boromir is Jim Broadbent. Gollum, of all people, is Tom Hanks. Galadriel is Susan Sarandon and, incredibly, Hugo Weaving actually kind of works as Elrond.
To really take this too far, Bella is Ben Whishaw and, depending on your reading of Twilight, Edward is either James D'Arcy (romantic hero) or Jim Broadbent (controlling abuser).

Far from defying comparison, as I said at the start, or even just comparable to stories dealing with oppression, Cloud Atlas is comparable to every other story I can think of. The story itself is every other story. There's an unlikely friendship doubling as a horror, a tragic romance, a procedural thriller, a comedy caper, a bloody revolution/war/chase movie, and an epic fantasy quest. Likewise the recurring characters are the same characters we see throughout most stories.

I realise that I sound like someone who just discovered Joseph Campbell for the first time - this is basic Hero's Journey stuff, I know. In Campbell's seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he claims that all stories are essentially the same and that they all have the same basic set of characters. That's similar to what Cloud Atlas is doing, but there's a subtle and important distinction.
Campbell's Hero's Journey always assumes a Hero, for one thing. Applying the Hero's Journey to Cloud Atlas gives us six different actors playing the Hero, even though each actor plays one consistent "character" throughout. There's an argument that Hanks is playing the Hero for the whole film, as his arc is the one that goes through the most change, but he only really "answers the call" in the one story where he is playing the lead. The actors in Cloud Atlas are playing the same archetype in every story - but none of those archetypes are "Hero".
The other difference is that Campbell defines all the other Hero's Journey characters in relation to the Hero (Mentor, Herald, Guardian, etc.), where Cloud Atlas (already lacking a clear Hero) defines them by their attitudes and morality. It doesn't matter that Hanks is a danger to the protagonist of some stories and an ally to others - he is still playing the same archetype. Jim Broadbent is a villain in one story, and an unlikely hero in the next - but he's still playing the same archetype. Even though I have called Keith David's character the "mentor" a few times, I meant only that he is an experienced character who passes on knowledge - not necessarily to the Hero, as Campbell's Mentor does.

I've always disliked the Hero's Journey for precisely these reasons. Calling Luke the Hero diminishes Han's arc, which is actually the more interesting one. It's even worse in ensemble pieces and long-form stories. Who's the Hero in Game of Thrones, for instance? Is it Jon? Daenerys? Tyrion? Arya?
There's an argument that in big ensemble stories, each character undergoes their own Hero's Journey. Meaning that each character has their own Mentor or Herald, which can sometimes be other characters' Mentors or Heralds, or even other Heroes themselves. But that gets messy quickly. Worse, it views the story as a bunch of different stories - never as a whole.

Which brings us back to Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas is a perfect example of the problems with the Hero's Journey, while also presenting a brilliant alternative.
When we label a character "Hero" and define them, and others, only by their impact on the story, the Cloud Atlas experience is a disjointed one - six separate Hero's Journeys that don't really come together. But when we define characters by their innate nature - by the way they interact with everyone, not just the Hero - the film becomes one whole entity. This is where the emotion, strength and depth of the story come from - where the Hero's Journey is useful only to describe the events that happen.
To me, Cloud Atlas' approach is more interesting, but also more useful than The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I actually do prefer The Various Characters with Six-or-Seven Faces - though the name could probably use some work.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Cloud Atlas Review

Cloud Atlas is about a tribal man in the post-apocalyptic future and the more advanced woman who makes him question his religion; which speaks of a blade-runner-style "fabricant" in the pre-apocalyptic future who is driven to revolution by a film; which shows an imprisoned publisher plotting to escape a modern-day nursing home while assessing a manuscript for a mystery novel; which follows the adventures of a plucky '70s journalist whose investigation into industry corruption leads her to some old letters; which were written forty years earlier by a lovestruck composer struggling to make his mark on the world who finds an old sea journal; which was written by a budding 19th Century slave-trader who forms an unusual friendship.

All these stories are intercut from the very beginning. We are not introduced to them chronologically, and the first scene we see of each is never from its start. At least two stories are recounted from their own endpoint, with one actually cutting forwards and back to an interview throughout. Many have narration; some even have flashbacks. Some events reappear as a film within the film, performed by different actors, and we sometimes see that version before the "real" version. One character describes dreaming the events we saw happening hundreds of years later, while two other characters feel déjà vu because we already saw them meet later on. And, as my genius girlfriend pointed out, the ending actually loops back into the beginning.

Did I mention that the same actors play multiple characters through the different stories and timelines? Because there's that, too.

The fact that this works at all is worth praising. The fact it works really really well feels like a minor miracle!
Directors Wachowski and Wachowski (of The Matrix fame) and Tykwer (of less fame) have woven a rich tapestry of information from what could easily have been a tangled mess. Using matching dramatic or visual cues from each story (two moments of happiness here, two similar lines of dialogue there) they cut back and forth between the six - mixing and jumbling the stories, but never at risk of losing the audience. The construction is brilliant and inventive and, somehow, never really draws attention to itself - we're simply watching six tales at once, and we quickly forget how unusual that is.

One thing helping the audience hold onto all six parts is that the same themes crop up throughout - oppression and injustice, and the struggle against them - though they each handle this in very different ways. Two are tragic, three are hopeful, and one is even a flat-out comedy!
Though the film cuts constantly between these stories, it selectively ignores the ones that don't fit the current overall feel - maintaining a consistent tone from scene to scene, even when those scenes are centuries apart. It's not unusual for entire narratives to drop out of the film for half-an-hour at a time, because their tone doesn't fit with what's happening at this point in the other stories. There's a definite arc to the emotions of the movie, even while the stories are separate and unconnected.

It's a testament to how well-constructed the film is that it isn't until afterwards, leaving the cinema and thinking back, that you realise how slight each of those stories actually is. Cloud Atlas is just under three-hours long, which is a meaty length for any normal film, but in this particular case amounts to under half-an-hour per story. It's more like six short films - or, in the case of the present-day and '70s segments, more like episodes of TV shows. Some of these short films would have been massively engaging on their own, but some would barely register (the slave-ship particularly suffers).
But, again, you only realise this coming out. When they're on the screen in front of you, the power of each story elevates those around it. Drama and tension from one story (aided by the impressive musical score) is carried across the cuts and breaks, instilling the next section with those same emotions, even if it hasn't earned them itself. I don't mean any of that as a negative, either, as it is very much to the movie's credit - this is genius-level filmmaking!

Also genius is the decision to use the same actors again and again through the different periods. Whether this is more confusing or less confusing, I'm not sure, but it works to tie the otherwise disparate stories together. The feeling here (heavily implied if not stated) is that the actors represent individual "souls", reincarnated throughout history. Each face (sometimes under heavy prosthetics, often a different race and occasionally even a different sex) always plays a character with the same values and morals. An actor playing a selfish character in one story is generally selfish in the others. A kind "soul" will continue to be kind. At one point, an actor even appears as the actual Devil - and it still matches the other characters they play.
There are a couple of characters for whom this does not hold true. In most cases this amounts to a basic character arc within just one of the stories. The selfish "soul" that I mentioned, for instance, learns to think of others over the course of one story (and I don't think it's a coincidence that that's the last story, chronologically, in which that particular "soul" plays a meaningful part).
Tom Hanks, however, is a curious anomaly. The "soul" that he represents goes through various different attitudes and values. In some ways he feels like the main character - the only "soul" with an arc that spans the whole film, rather than just one of the stories. It certainly makes him the most interesting. The problem is that there's no way to figure that arc out until afterwards. The disjointed, non-chronological presentation - which works so well for most aspects of the film - means that we see six different parts of that arc at any given time, but never understand all of it until the very end. Even then it's still a jigsaw puzzle that needs fitting together. It can't feel like a true character arc, but it thankfully never feels too out of place, either.

As I understand it, the structure of the source novel is a very different beast to the movie. The stories are split into only two parts, with each story appearing half way through the previous story - nested like Russian dolls.
All the intercutting and criss-crossing is down to the directors, skilfully adapting the experience into something much more filmic. This is the movie's great strength, but also its eventual weakness. Because the stories are so interwoven in their editing, we automatically expect their stories to weave together too. That's just how films work - we know this on a primal, unconscious level.
Unfortunately these six tales remain largely unchanged from the book, where they were separate entities. Themes and motifs are repeated, but the actual narratives never touch. While those motifs are enough to make it work, we're still just watching six slightly similar but ultimately unconnected stories. Though they orbit each other throughout, they never come together in any meaningful way. There are six small dramatic payoffs, where cinematic language tells us there should be one big climax.

Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly designed, clever film with strong messages and symbolism. Ambitious, but never overreaching. It's stunning to look at, well directed, and has layered six-part performances that go far beyond being a gimmick. It doesn't have many problems, and the ones it does have are mostly imperceptible until after-the-fact - hidden behind spectacular editing and a powerful thematic arc. In the end though, despite the unified themes and message, there's no hiding the fact that this is six films and not one.
The final product, then, is a rare construction; no more or less than the exact sum of its parts. But, make no mistake, they are very high-quality parts.

As a final note: something very strange is happening with Cloud Atlas. This film had a massive release in America last year and made decent, if not amazing, money. But, like many 2012 films (including Wreck-It Ralph, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty), it was pushed back until 2013 in the UK for some reason.
When it finally did appear, to very little fanfare and almost no advertising, it was impossible to find. Of our three local cinemas, only one began showing it, and then only once per day. This is bizarre - it's a hundred-million-dollar sci-fi blockbuster from the people who made The Matrix, for gods' sakes! The screening we did eventually go to was packed, and the audience was entirely captivated - so it's clearly not a problem with reception or demand. It's just plain weird!
If you can find a cinema that's actually showing Cloud Atlas, it is well worth seeing. It's just a shame that you may have to hunt for it.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Personal Growth

As well as having Christopher Nolan producing and Christian Bale starring, there was another part to yesterday's Justice League rumours that I never actually mentioned: there's also talk of my old friend Zack Snyder directing the thing.

Now, even though Snyder plays a part in those rumours, and even though I was talking about tone and meaning and all the things Snyder is bad at, and even though I mentioned Man of Steel which he actually directed, I somehow resisted the urge to call him a talentless hack.

I'm quite impressed with myself. I consider that progress.

The Justice League Rises

(Not to be confused with Rise of the Justice League)

Rumours abound that Chris Nolan and Christian Bale may once again join forces - this time for the Justice League movie! Although, to be fair, that same rumour has been floating in an infinite-loop ever since the whisperings of a Justice League movie first began.
The latest version of these rumours is that Nolan, director of the awkwardly-named-after-the-second-film Dark Knight trilogy, will be producing Justice League, and that Bale will be reprising his role as Batman. Nolan's involvement seems like non-news considering that he already has a producer credit on Man of Steel, the upcoming Superman film. "Producing" is such a vague term anyway that it could mean almost nothing. Bale, on the other hand, would have a real impact on the film, and on the future of DC's films in general.

Tying DC's burgeoning movie continuity into what's become known as the Nolanverse would define the direction and tone of all their other films. As I see it, for Bale's specific version of Batman to exist in the same world as the rest of the Justice League, they will be driven in one of two directions.
The first option is that all their properties are forced to adopt the "gritty realism" template, to prevent Batman looking completely out of place. This is a pretty bad idea, though not completely unworkable. It just limits the amount of fun they can have with their lighter characters such as the Flash, which is a shame, and could easily choke the enjoyment out of any teamup. An entire universe of intense, dour characters could quickly begin to drag. From what we've seen of Man of Steel, though, this looks to be the direction Warner are already headed in.
The second option is to undermine Batman's seriousness. Make fun of him. Have the other characters laugh at his gravelly fake voice and his gloomy attitude. This would free them up from Nolan's tone and allow Justice League, and any other films in that universe, to find their own, more suitable, style. They could still be serious, but that wouldn't have to be the only option.

I for one would much prefer the second direction. Not because I don't think the first one could work (though that is certainly a concern) but mainly because of how the Dark Knight trilogy ended.
Spoilers follow.

For all the things that The Dark Knight Rises got wrong (pacing, silly voices, nonsensical evil plots, logic-holes, the line "No, I came back to stop you," and oh so much more) the ending was perfect. Maybe the execution was off, but the sentiment was spot on.
From the start of Batman Begins, that trilogy had been about Batman as a symbol, not as a person. The ending, which many people somehow misread as the setup for more sequels, was actually the exact opposite. Bruce Wayne was gone, but Batman would live on - the icon had outlived the man. That was Nolan drawing a final line under the point he was always making. It was Bruce Wayne's ultimate victory, and the end of his story.
There's a reason Nolan's "Robin" wasn't Dick Grayson or Tim Drake. Ending the trilogy with a new, non-comic character taking up Batman's mantle was meant to prevent Warner from continuing the series. No-one would have accepted a non-comic character in that cowl, and Nolan must have known that.
I would even suggest that the reason Nolan showed us Bruce and Selina in Florence (rather than just showing Alfred's reaction, as many have suggested) was to definitively show that Bruce had moved on and was happy without Batman. Leaving it ambiguous would have given the studio more room to continue the franchise - but this ending doesn't give them that option.
This was all very consciously designed to be irreversible and final.

Yet here we are, talking about Bale returning. My point is that, if the rumours are true, this instantly undoes the finality of Nolan's ending, and it instantly undoes the overarching message of his story (that Batman doesn't need to be Bruce Wayne). Those are two of the strongest parts of that trilogy. Bringing Bruce back already undermines all that, so why not run with it and undermine the darker tone of Nolan's work, too?