To my great surprise, I ended up really enjoying this film. I wouldn't expect to find the answers to the universe's great questions here--unless you're quite simple-minded--but what it supplies is a fast-moving ride through moods, sights and emotions that is quite enjoyable and compelling. As my friend summed it up: "That was total claptrap, but I enjoyed it."
I was NOT looking forward to this. I was VERY cynical about it, given what I'd heard about its hokey Zen-lite spirituality (spoiler: we're all connected), early bad reviews, all of the Wachowski's films after the first Matrix, and the fact that it's three hours. But, rather amazingly, I was totally enraptured from the first moments, and swept away by the whole thing, and though it may not add up to much--or anything--it's still an interesting, different and enjoyable movie experience. The best summation came from my friend: "It was total claptrap, but I enjoyed it."
We open with Tom Hanks uttering some gibberish that is supposed to be a future mutation of English, then go into a beautiful prologue sequence that spins swiftly between all six stories to be told, all to the urgent strains of a lovely score by Tykwer and others, weaving them all together, showing us the many faces we're about to get to know, and building up until we have the title. I'm on board!
Here's the deal: this film tells six stories, ranging from the 1800’s to the 2100’s, all of which hinge on freedom and human connection in some way. Some of the characters from certain stories appear at a different point in their lives in other stories. Most actors appear in various guises in all of the stories, many switching race and sex at times, giving the whole thing a sort of vibe about reincarnation and the same souls meeting through time (though this is one of the few things never explicitly stated THANK YOU GOD). I have not read the novel, though many are quite impressed with it, and it is said to be much deeper, richer and more moving than the film, and the connections between the stories quite insightful as they are revealed.
But apparently the novel tells the stories in major discrete segments, where what this film does--and which becomes its main success--is that it minces the stories into tiny chunks, some as short as 30 seconds, the longer ones not more than ten minutes, so you are just whirling through all of these stories, quickly seeing connections, and on to the next before you have any time to think, which in this case is probably a good thing. As such, the film becomes a mood piece, an emotional journey, an extended swoon, and you should just let it take over and be swept away. Ultimately it is not so much telling or story or delivering any kind of statement, it's a ride, an experience. And as such, I think it has real value and is refreshingly quite ambitious and different.
You may have heard that the makeup is distracting and laughable. There is definitely a comic effect to suddenly realizing that's Hugh Grant or Susan Sarandon under there (Susan being the rare dystopian, post-industrial future world medicine woman with perfect, gleamingly white teeth), and it can be distracting, trying to get into characters whose faces cannot move because they are only so much foam and plastic. It's a bit like going back to those early Star Trek films. But I am reminded of something John Boorman said in his commentary track on Zardoz: "I can see where, if you don't enter into the spirit of the thing, it can all seem quite ridiculous." Okay, ha ha, the people look funny. But that's a pretty facile complaint, and I advise you to, as Boorman says, "get into the spirit of the thing."
Of course, it might have helped that I had eaten a pot brownie beforehand.
As for the stories, they're all involving enough, though I'm not sure any of them would be particularly compelling if we were to watch it chronologically. I'm also not sure what any of them come to. One big thread is the escape of this clone from a future Seoul, who ends up becoming a revolutionary that is still known long into the future. But once the movie was over--dang if I could figure out what she did! How did she become such a huge figure of revolt? WHAT did she do? Hell if I know. Then there's this whole thing where Hanks and Berry must adventure through the jungle of the distant future to this long-dormant mountaintop station (and goll-darn it, the thing still works!) with this big unfolding mechanical artichoke that shoots a beam, and... what was that about? What did that do? Even as I walked out, I couldn't say I knew how any of these stories ended.
As for the Buddah-for-dummies dialogue, it's there, but not as intolerable as I expected. There's a repeated one about how we're all connected "from womb to tomb," and it's like: please refrain from having a moronic, distracting rhyme in the middle of your sentiment that you want me to take seriously! Another favorite is "My uncle was a scientist... but he believed that love was real!" Aww, those poor, maligned scientists. People think that just because they are intelligent and don't believe in claptrap like this movie, that they cannot know love! Then there's also a good one in "You have to do whatever you can't not do." Oh--so I have to drink and masturbate, is that what you're saying? Is THAT what the message is here? The future society, where language is gibberish with just enough English to be understandable (apparently one of the themes of the novel is how language evolves over time, an idea WAYYYYY too intellectual to fit within this film), they have a term for something that's really QUITE true, which is "True-true." Which made me think there's no reason they couldn't have fit in a version of Milli Vanilli singing "Girl you know it's true-true! Ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh! Ooh!"
Here are my issues. First, if it's going to be so content-free, there's really no need for it to be three hours, is there? Could have been perfectly effective--or MORE effective--at two and a half, or two and twenty? And fatigue DOES set in. My more serious complaint is... I was really hoping it would all come to a climax, and build to a breathless ending where all the stories are coming off at once and connections are being made fast and furious and it would all lead to a big universal statement! (which, apparently, is what predecessor to this movie Intolerance did--in 1916!). But it doesn't. In fact, I couldn't tell the ending from the beginning. It all just rises to a certain level and coasts there until the end.
But whatever. It's a lightweight version of what I understand is a pretty rich book, but what it supplies instead is a dizzy, involving ride through moods and atmospheres, suffused with nicey-nicey messages about connection and spirit and chai tea and freedom and crystals and black velvet paintings, but that stuff just makes it vaguely pleasant and you should regard it as wallpaper. It's the movie equivalent of walking through a field of pretty flowers and my advice is: stop and smell them.
I think so. Get shitfaced, too. You'll be glad you did.