I saw this a few weeks ago and haven’t gotten around to commenting on it yet (see previous entry), but Sj and I had a nice night in Manchester as she wanted to see it having read the book and I was interested based on the directors back catalogues (multiple directors, hence the plural). At this point I’ll note that I haven’t read the book, but based on Sj’s comments it follows the plot and feel close enough (but with one interesting diversion) that it feels like a proper adaptation. That’s pretty much all I can comment on with regard that aspect.
So, massive budget science fiction based on an established medium, fair-to-middling reviews and low box office, this all feels a bit like John Carter last year. Whilst it doesn’t share the same pulp sensibilities as that film it does share the same sense of scale and ambition – this is one of those rare films where not everything works (something I’ll return to later), but the ambition means that it’s difficult to criticise it because there’s still the willingness to take a risk with something this far from the norm. A few people walked out at the screening we were at, presumably not because of the content (this is fairly mild for its certification these days) but because it actually demands that you pay it attention rather than just turn up and be entertained – again, something of a rarity these days.
So, two & a half directors (I’m counting the Wachowski siblings as one & a half as you can never be sure where the join between one of them directing and both of them directing occurs) and a large scale cast taking multiple roles over six distinct time periods (often under heavy make-up), it’s not difficult to follow provided that you pay attention. There are occasional problems with regards inconsistency of tone (the modern day segment is a little too comedic at times, detracting from the more sombre elements either side of it), but as the film progresses and the pacing quickens, this becomes less of a problem as the narrative converges. Whilst this interlacing of the various time periods isn’t the same approach as the book (which I am given to understand is much more linear), it’s a case of the directors / writers realising that they are producing something in a different medium, something many adaptions ignore. The interlacing also means that despite the length of the film – nearly three hours – it never feels like a long film and you do sort of wish that certain sections were given more space to breathe. It all sits together well enough, and the links between various events are perhaps clearer than the source material, but it also possibly losses some of the ambiguity about the reality of events in the process.
The casting is fine throughout, and it’s interesting to see well established actors working alongside more up-and-coming ones, and often cast against type. Both Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant play against type as villains, although it must be said that Hugh Grant seems far more comfortable with this than Hanks. The star of the show is Hugo Weaving, playing the chief villain in all six of the narratives and once again proving that you don’t need to actually recognise him to realise its him and seemingly more capable of delivering believable action scenes than many actors half his age. The fun is in watching him bring a different type of malevolence to each of the different periods, rather than merely the same role in different costumes. He’s also less prone to needing prosthetics than the other actors, more comfortable playing evil without the need to hide. Halle Berry is fine in the 70’s set story, but feels somewhat underused elsewhere.
Is it worth watching? Well it’s certainly better than many of the reviews would have you believe, but it never quite feels like it hits the top flight that it should. Most disappointingly, after the visual invention of Speed Racer the Wachowski’s seemed to have returned to more traditional filmmaking techniques here (perhaps to avoid causing further confusion to the already fractured narrative) where perhaps more experimentation may have added a further level. Technically it is at times astounding, but it never really pushes the envelope. It certainly benefits from a big screen but I can’t help but feel this is really going to find its feet when it arrives on DVD.