Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

Catching Fire Theatrical Trailer

Contains mild spoilers but not, in my opinion, anything that would ruin the film.

The full trailer for the second film in the Hunger Games Trilogy (of four films), Catching Fire, has been released!  You can watch it here.

I’m really excited for this film for the reasons I mentioned in my write-up for the teaser trailer back in April.  You can never fully judge a film by its trailer, which is in many ways an artform of its own, but I think we can glimmer a bit of insight into how Catching Fire may differ from The Hunger Games from it.  We know it’s being directed by Francis Lawrence, replacing Gary Ross – he certainly has a tough act to follow – who, I’m guessing, appears to be taking a more cinematic approach to the film.  Ross intentionally made The Hunger Games a rough, very handheld adventure from Katniss’ viewpoint.  Perhaps as the story begins to take a larger significance and move away from being solely Katniss’ experiences this is the natural route.

I’m also pleased that the trailer appears to be focusing on the message of the story.  There’s a temptation to glamourise the film, discuss Effie Trinket’s stunning fashion style (which completely defeats the point of her; she’s supposed to be hideous), and turn this into a Twilightesque love story.  Instead the trailer emphasises that trouble is brewing in Panem – that the social order is slowly beginning to catch fire from the spark Katniss provided.

That said, I have one issue with the trailer.  Structurally the novel is very similar to the first book, so therefore the film will inevitably be too.  This is fine – the events occur under completely different circumstances and have different significance.  However in the trailer, for simply a casual viewer of the films it will appear in some ways to be a carbon copy of the first film, with even the very same shots and lines being included.  Again, when you actually watch the film (I hope) each of these scenes should highlight a difference, but it’s difficult to get that across in the trailer.  This is why it’s possibly a mistake to focus entirely on the first half of the film, though I can appreciate why the action-packed second half is being kept under wraps.

I can’t wait to watch it, anyhow! *cough* IN EDINBURGH *cough*.

The Hunger Games vs Battle Royale

Contains spoilers.

After reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins  over a weekend roughly a year ago, I became aware of the Battle Royale franchise, created over a decade ago by Japanese writer Koushun Takami.  Both deal with the same grisly topic: a group of teenagers thrown into an arena forced to battle one another to the death (actually, this is a horrific concept; how did it ever become so popular?!).  Collins has been accused of stealing the idea from Takami though she claims to have never heard of the franchise.  I was able to compare them myself when I found the manga at my local library and dove through them.  My clear favourite is The Hunger Games, though that’s mostly because I struggled with the sickeningly graphic content of Battle Royale, often skimming entire chapters to avoid it.  But this aside, there are various interesting points of comparison.

The stories differed in their treatment of characters.  The Hunger Games spent a large amount of time developing the central characters of the trilogy, forcing the audience to really invest in their struggle.  Battle Royale, in contrast, would develop each character to the same extent and then, in most cases, kill them off shortly afterwards.  This created a ‘shock factor’ but became tiring after a while, making me reluctant to care about any of the characters.  The Hunger Games did this too, most prominently with Rue, but I feel Collins handled it better.  However once the characters had been established it’s up for debate which franchise dealt with them better.  I think they’re generally equal in this respect; The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Prim are all very rounded characters, while a significant number of supporting characters also seem to have depth.  I would argue that Battle Royale does well in establishing Shuya, Noriko, Shogo, Mimura, Sugimura, Kiriyama and Mitsuko, but the rest come across as a little two-dimensional, having just one defining characteristic such as ‘frosty’ or ‘elitist’.

In Battle Royale there’s a clearer divide between the students who are ‘playing’ the game and those who refuse to go along with it.  This idea is briefly present in The Hunger Games where you have ‘Careers’, who volunteer in order to win, then just those who are scared and run, but I do like Battle Royale’s focus on battling the government.  Mimura makes a bomb to target the base of operations and the story ultimately ends with the slaughter of the game planners.  Katniss’ desire to simply keep her family alive fits with her character and I’m not criticising it, but as a reader the rebellion in Battle Royale was more fulfilling.  That said, the subtle approach of The Hunger Games is also commendable.  Katniss causes riots in District 11 through her televised honouring of Rue in death, and the country is brought to the brink of a full-scale uprising after she and Peeta attempt suicide to deprive the government of a winner.  This develops in the subsequent novels, with a large group of tributes in Catching Fire refusing to ‘play’ and planning an escape.  So it’s difficult to say which approach I preferred.

One issue I had with the characters of Battle Royale was the attitude towards female characters.  With a couple of exceptions they were generally treated either as weak characters dependent on the boys or sexual objects.  This particularly bothered me every time Shogo told Shuya to “protect Noriko.”  It was Noriko who ultimately shot Kiriyama, fatally wounding him, but this is the exception.  Katniss, in contrast, must be among the most resilient and able characters in the entire trilogy.  Characters in general felt more realistic in The Hunger Games – girls were neither simply ‘weak’ nor ‘strong’ and the male characters ranged from fierce bullies like Cato to the softer personality of Peeta.  A contrast might be made between Peeta and Shuya, both being idealistic and loving characters.  I can’t pick a preference between them.

Both stories present fascinating dystopian worlds.  The Hunger Games is set far in the future in a society built from the ashes of the USA, while Battle Royale is set in Japan in roughly the present day that developed along an alternative timeline.  Both use their respective games to instill terror in the population and keep them in their place.  Though I couldn’t help noticing the dangers of both systems in provoking the population into an uprising.  This concept is eventually explored in The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ actions do provide ‘the spark’ for civil war.  This indicates that Panem is near the verge of collapse by the beginning of the story, which I believe is partly a consequence of The Hunger Games providing a *major* grievance for the non-Capitol majority.  The Capitol’s strategy to rule solely through fear is what ultimately destroys it – though that’s a discussion for another day.

Interestingly, I believe the original Japanese version of Battle Royale does not include The Program being a TV show.  This solves many inconsistencies I found in the (somewhat sloppy, I have to say) English version.  This could be one reason why the government is more stable; The Program is less prominent and more of a myth.  Like how the Nazis deliberately released prisoners from concentration camps to spread stories and fear throughout the population, The Program serves as a stick to batter fear into the population, preventing them from speaking out in case their children are targeted.  Indeed, there are no signs that the government is under any threat throughout the story.   The Hunger Games explores the political and social situation of Panem more thoroughly than in Battle Royale, but both provide fairly realistic societies.  However it’s worth noting that schemes like The Hunger Games or The Program have never to my knowledge actually been tried in history; the closest example I can think of is forcing slaves to fight to the death in Ancient Rome.

In terms of the world outside of the totalitarian state, Battle Royale is a clear winner.  I was always frustrated by The Hunger Games’ lack of any detail regarding other countries in the world.  Despite being set in a semi-post apocalyptic world, they live in a mostly functioning society which would suggest that the planet is capable of supporting life elsewhere.  I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the capabilities to contact these other nations.  It makes the story simpler and perhaps more coherent when Panem is the only country, but it’s less convincing.  On the other hand I enjoyed the discussion in Battle Royale about escaping to the USA, and the idea that Japan was viewed by the rest of the world as a crazy, rogue state.  It’s also hinted that the world doesn’t know about The Program, suggesting the depth of Japan’s hermit status – rather like North Korea in our world today.  Battle Royale ends with Shuya and Noriko successfully escaping to the USA, though I’d like to have seen more of the international reaction to their testimonies.  So neither is perfect in this field.

Overall, both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale provide great portrayals of the same concept.  I can’t comment on the way they developed the ideas due to one being a trilogy of novels and the other, in the form I read it, being a manga.  As I said my overall preference is for The Hunger Games, but Battle Royale certainly takes a different perspective on many themes.  Both are worth reading, though Battle Royale isn’t for the faint of heart.

Final ratings:

  • The Hunger Games: 9.5/10
  • Battle Royale: 7.5/10

Related article:

  • See this essay for a a similar comparison which comes to a contrary conclusion.

Fringe Season 5 (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I finally got around to watching the final ever season of the brilliant TV show Fringe.  It was originally broadcast in the USA between September 2012 and January 2013 but due to various factors, including not having an inhabitable house, I decided to wait until the DVD came out.  The brainchild of science fiction King J.J. Abrams, whose written and directorial work also includes Lost, Alias, the two most recent Star Trek filmsSuper 8, and also the next Star Wars film.  That’s the kind of CV most directors would kill for.  From 2009 – 2011, during its first four seasons, Fringe has proved itself to be an immensely imaginative show.  I particularly enjoyed its focus on parallel worlds; after the conclusion to series 2 I spent months imagining my home village and town as parallel worlds.

Then in series 4 we had that incredible episode, “Letters of Transit,” revealing the terrifying future of 2036 where the Observers have enslaved humanity and created a totalitarian authority – a great concept for the final season.  There was initially some confusion over whether the show would continue, so I was very relieved when it was announced the show would end with season 5.  It’s so upsetting to see such a promising show decline without a proper resolution.

To start off, as I mentioned, I love the concept.  Dystopias are one of my favourite genres and I was excited to see what Fringe did with it.  Unfortunately I don’t think the concept was utilised as well as it could have been.  I don’t mean it was handled badly – a tone of paranoia, suspicion and despair was developed sufficiently in the early episodes – it just never felt entirely convincing.  We’ve been told that the Observers wiped out a large portion of humanity in ‘The Purge’ then took control of the remnants, yet this society is strikingly similar to the world we know today – only technologically superior and, you know, ruled by Observers.  There are wrecked districts and abandoned cars here and there, but it never quite feels enough.  Maybe the fact we only ever see a handful of locations in what was formerly the USA contributed to this; there’s never much indication that this was a worldwide invasion.  As often happens, the Americancentric view harms the setting.

I’m also not convinced by the extent of Observer control.  The fact that the Fringe team can walk through city streets, often quite freely, is a serious flaw.  Surely they would be wielding mass surveillance, mass thought control, mass infiltrations?  The totalitarian state of Nineteen Eighty-Four is more effective, and that’s run by humans with 1940s technology!  I’m also quite shocked the Observers don’t have the ability to communicate with one another.  They can teleport, travel in time, read minds and torture people without lifting a finger yet don’t have the capability to send a simple radio wave to one another?  I appreciate that they have to have limitations in order for the protagonists to even have a chance and there is still an omnipresent threat throughout the season, but at times I felt the characters had it too easy.  Given the fantastic opening credits, I never quite believe that concepts such as ‘joy’, ‘private thought’, and ‘community’ can quite be considered Fringe topics (as is the norm for words during the credits).

I’m doing the concept a disservice by being so critical – there are areas where it worked extremely well.  As might be expected with Fringe, it works best when taking a personal response, such as the ending of episode 1 where Walter first experiences hope after waking in this new world.  The idea is well developed by such symbols: Captain Windmark tells Walter that “nothing grows from scorched earth,” and later he sees a solitary flower in the street.  Then, later in the season, we see the White Tulip again.

To discuss a third weakness of the Observers and their world, I first have to discuss a subplot which generally worked really well: Peter’s conversion into an Observer.  After the death of Etta (more later) Peter, so distraught with grief and anger, tortures a captured Observer to death and implants its technology into himself…  This is really dark stuff.  This transition works so effectively due to the subtleties of Joshua Jackson’s acting; the monotone voice; slow, deliberate movements; and the ever-so-slight head tilts.  The end of episode 7 is one of the series’ best moments (yes, David Bowie helps).  This idea was cut short with Peter’s decision to remove the Observer technology which, from a science fiction point of view, feels cut short but for the character is exactly right.  Peter returns and discovers that the way to defeat Observers is through love and compassion.  My main problem is that, through this subplot, we discover just how powerful the Observers are.  Peter is able to assassinate some Observers by charting their movements and predicting their futures.  I can understand how he is successful at first – he has the element of surprise – but once the Observers are aware that the Fringe team is operating, and particularly once Peter removes the technology, then why don’t they stop them?  Windmark’s obsession with killing the team is undermined by this fact.  I’m merely left wondering, “Well, why don’t you?”

It was a very brave decision to kill Etta as early as episode 4.  Though it seemed strange at the time I believe it was the right decision.  Her death provided much of the tension for the next several episodes as Olivia and Peter’s relationship teetered at breaking point and Peter took elaborate steps to exact his revenge, but it also worked tonally.  That, above all else, made the Observers appear truly dangerous.  The shocking death of Nina Sharp a bit later had the same impact, and then Donald’s in the finale.  It also provided for one of the season’s central themes: the conflict between emotion and cold logic.  It is arguably Etta’s death which drives the team to victory, which gives them a determination that the Observers could never understand.  This contrast is greater when the Observers do begin to find themselves developing emotions; Windmark’s only feeling is hate.

The theme of characters in transition crops up a lot during the season, in fact.  I’ve already mentioned Peter and Windmark, but we also see September in human form.  During his travels through human history he developed an affinity for the species and was consequently stripped of his, uh, Observership.  He becomes Donald and is a truly fascinating character.  The fact that Donald/September is such an empathetic, courageous and generally humacharacter emphasises how similar Observers and humans are.  Observers can be seen to be the dark side of human nature, the side which strives for efficiency and unregulated progress.  Then there is also Walter’s gradual return to the cold, ruthless person he was before the operation to remove parts of his brain.  This is a plot threat which builds until Walter communicates with the child Observer and then, I suppose, becomes kind of enlightened.  This sounds terrible but it never felt cheap or rushed – it just seemed to work, and tied in with the general concept of the child Observer being humanity’s saviour and the ‘perfect human’.

I was very impressed with the way various threads from previous seasons were tied up.  J. H. Wyman, showrunner for the season, stated his intention was to:

“…bring back things that you’ve forgotten about and maybe some things you haven’t forgotten about, recontextualize them and have the series make sense. That was really a very big part of what I was after…”

In that, he certainly succeeded.  I couldn’t recall all the plot points which are returned to: the parallel world and cortexiphan, the previous fringe cases and the child Observer, to name a few.  I really enjoyed seeing the parallel world again, even if only for a fleeting appearance – it really helped to close the series.  Using horrific fringe cases against the Observers and, often, their human ‘loyalists’ posed quite a moral dilemma which never seemed to be addressed.  There was the debate early on between Etta and Olivia over the treatment of prisoners, but eventually even she seems to accept the idea that ‘everything goes’ in war.  Considering they’re fighting to rewrite time, this doesn’t jar too much.  And I thought it was genius to bring back the child Observer, not seen since season 1, and make him an integral part in the resolution of the series.  It’s as if this was planned from the beginning when clearly it wasn’t.  Badly written arcs are my main bugbear of TV series, so considering the convoluted nature of Fringe’s plots this continuity is nothing short of incredible.

Of course, this couldn’t all be smooth.  One area where I think Fringe spectacularly failed was the creation of an ‘alternative timeline’ for season 4.  It was interesting for maybe, oh, one episode, then became repetitive.  Characters spent the season trying to discover secrets the viewers already knew, only to recover memories from the old world anyway.  I had hoped that this admirable but ultimately unsuccessful arc would be swept under the carpet but unfortunately, in a bid to stick with continuity, it had to return.  “Maybe the child Observer won’t remember us; that was a whole other timeline after all.”  “Oh, of course, Walter won’t remember that.”  It’s just messy.  But that’s only a minor point.

I’m glad that the writers decided to abandon filler episodes for this final season.  They worked back in the modern day but for this dystopian epic the plot really needed to be focused in one direction.  It did unfortunately still end up falling into the routine of “let’s find the latest piece of the puzzle” which is a rather typical way of plotting TV seasons, but still managed to stay interesting throughout and followed the different pattern of having to find tapes from inside the ambered laboratory.  This concluded in a remarkably simple plan: show the child Observer, who September engineered to have both a superior intellect and empathy, to the scientists in 2167 who first developed Observer technology in order to convince them to then take a different path and engineer more compassionate race so the Observers will never exist.  I would have liked to see at least the beginning of this meeting, however.  I’m afraid I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending.  It felt a little rushed and went out with more of a whimper than a bang.  Walter rushes off with the Child Observer, never to see Peter or Olivia again, then we snap back to 2015 and all is well.  It wasn’t bad as such, but just felt somewhat underwhelming.

The characterisation and acting in this final season continued to be of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Fringe.  Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble continue to play Olivia, Peter and Walter with incredible conviction, forcing any emotion desired in the audience and pushing the story forward with great energy.  Noble again demonstrates skill in shifting between Walter’s various personalities.  Jasika Nicole provides great consistency with the often forgotten Astrid, providing the glue which binds the team together.  Georgina Haig was good in her short appearance as Etta, as were Blair Brown, Lance Reddick and Michael Cerveris reappearing as Nina, Broyles and September – all of whom made very welcome returns.  But I think the standout performance, for me, was by Michael Kopsa as Windmark.  First for his general creepy, powerful ‘Observerness’ but then as he developed simple, almost primal feeling of hatred – his presence stole every scene he was in.

In conclusion, season 5 is a worthy end to Fringe.  Loose ends are tied up satisfactorily and the characters’ journeys arrive at a suitable end.  While there are some problems, none of these are large enough to have a significant impact on the season and I’m left with an overall very positive impression.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever find another show which matches Fringe‘s quirky combination of the extraordinary with simple, grounded humanity.

Final rating: 8/10

Total Recall [2012 Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.


This will be a basic review, as I watched Total Recall across splintered intervals throughout my rather stressful exam period in late May, and so I don’t have quite the coherent a set of notes I would like.  I had vaguely heard of Total Recall before I watched it but knew very little about it.  This film is a remake of the 1990 of the same name, based on Philip K Dick’s novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.  I hadn’t seen any of director Len Wiseman’s work before and know little of the starring actors.

The concept of living a fantasy life – the ‘Recall’ – is hardly a new one, and it isn’t really explored to that great a degree in this film.  In fact, very little of Total Recall is actually about memories.  There’s the beginning sequences in which we are familiarised with the life  Douglas Quid and introduced to the setting.  This is done rather well in a scene with his wife, Lori, in which we develop as much sympathy for the characters as we can in such a limited timescale, then we see bits of his monotonous work at a robotics factory.  The film does a better job developing these characters and setting in just 10 seconds than, uh certain other films with similar themes.  The Recall concept is first established when Douglas visits the ‘Rekall’ complex to experience false memories, then finds himself in a gunfight with Federation forces and discovers he has the abilities of a top-class agent.  Later, his Lori tries to kill him and is revealed to be an agent posing as his wife.  As the film progresses more of Douglas’ ‘real’ persona of Carl Hauser are revealed, but this plot thread seems to take a backseat, bizarrely.  There is that brilliant scene where his former friend Harry tries to convince him he is still living in Rekall’s fantasy world, and you genuinely wonder whether the events are actually happening or if it is all just a fantasy, but there’s not really much of a return after this.

The film’s setting is also quite strange.  It’s set in the year 2084 after the Earth has been rendered mostly uninhabitable by war, with only Britain (now the United Federation of Britain) and Australia (the Colony) inhabitable.  Not sure what kind of warfare would be so specific, and there’s never any indication that either of these settings are survivors of a brutal war (I can’t believe only the UK and Australia would alone be neutral in a world war).  It’s also jarring to hear so many American accents and scarcely any Australian.  These issues aside, the actual cities are well developed and realised.  From the kind of folding transport systems to the ‘hoverways’, it’s all rather impressed.  I was particularly taken by the attention to Physics in the film.  Most obviously, the freefall sequence as they travel in the gravity train was extremely well done, and perhaps one of the most original reasons for an escape I’ve seen in a film (though surely there’d be a warning as it entered freefall?).  As a Physics geek, I appreciated the attention to detail – it was also seen in other examples, such as a falling hovercar destroying another car as it lands through the force of it’s, uh, hover power thing, but the falling hovercar itself bounces off and is less damaged.

The film’s plot was rather basic and, as I’ve already mentioned, didn’t have all that much to do with the recall concept.  Basically, Douglas’ real persona, Carl, is a Federation agent but Douglas himself ends up becoming embroiled in the resistance seeking to free the Colony.  This all builds up into a rather predictable but well-directed action sequence in the end in which the villain, Chancellor Cohaagen, is killed (why would he personally have joined the invasion force?) and the link destroyed.  This is how you do a decent science fiction action sequence!  It should get to the point and develop and include real danger rather than the bizarre decisions taken by, uh, certain other films.  The ending is your kind of standard Hollywood ‘happy ending’ – although apparently in the Director’s Cut there is a sudden Blade Runner style moment of ambiguity intended to leave it uncertain whether he is still in the fantasy world.  That would be a far more satisfying conclusion.  I found Douglas’ searching for clues to his identity and mission fairly engaging, and the pieces did eventually slot together well.

None of the acting really left a memorable impact on me, meaning most was decent but little exceptional.  I recall (sorry…) Colin Farrell playing the part of an ‘average guy in a crazy situation’ very well, and Bill Nighy totally dominated the few scenes he appeared in.

Overall, this was a decent blockbuster.  Okay, it was a bit rushed, sometimes flimsy and generally quite superficial (I seem to say this a lot about films…) but, essentially, it worked and succeeded at its aims.  I think other critics have been harsher than I am towards the film, but I did ultimately enjoy it.  One of the better blockbusters I’ve seen, and it did help to take my mind off scary exams.

Final rating: 8/10

Other reviews:

The Matrix: Realoded (Review)

I’m going to be honest.  I did not get on well with The Matrix.  It was a good film, sure – I could recognise that much – but it was not to my personal taste.  But, if I didn’t like The Matrix, then I positively loathe its first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded.  Directed and written by the Wachowskis and released in 2003, this was a successful and popular sequel to the cult film, though most critics agree that its quality is less than the original.  Unlike the first film, this is neither to my personal taste nor well made.  Sure, it’s directed well and stuff, etc. etc. but, after having seen it all before, this doesn’t alone make the film good.  Why continue watching these films, you may ask?  Largely because a couple of my friends have are really big fans of the franchise, so I would like a full insight into what the fuss is about.  And while I’m here, I might as well get it finished.  So, anyway, here are some brief thoughts.

Firstly, I just simply didn’t really get the plot, or see any reason why I should care.  The machines are digging down to Zion!  The humans bizarrely react by having some kind of orgy-celebration.  They need a key! For, uh, some reason.  Then Neo saves the day because he’s ‘The One’.  Or something along those lines.  Most, if not all, of the plot was explained through a dull excess of expository dialogue, so I really should be following.  My conclusions are that the plot really is that boring and unintelligible, or I’ve stopped caring.  Possibly both.  I generally just felt frustrated that the robots hadn’t slaughtered them all yet and ended it all.

The characters are no more likeable or endearing in this film.  I welcomed Harold Perrineau, who played Link, for providing one of the few characters in the film who actually acts like a human being, albeit a clichéd one at that (I wonder if the irony was intentional).  Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and Niobe might as well have been machines themselves – although that would possibly be an insult towards the talents of Hugo Weaving, whose performance as Agent Smith was one of the few things which kept the film watchable.  Pity he was wasted in drawn out, excruciatingly tedious action sequences in which he got beaten up and then the characters escaped, presumably deciding they too had had enough.

In terms of structure, it felt all over the place.  Granted, I couldn’t distinguish between ‘scenes where dull people in sunglasses talk in riddles trying to sound smart’, nor ‘scenes where they fight with martial arts for no apparent reason’.  The chase on the motorway is the exception, which was a piece of masterful direction, but even that just went on and on.  Another scene I genuinely did enjoy was when Neo met the creator of the Matrix, who explained – correct me if I’m wrong – that the human insurrection is not only permitted, but ensured by the machines, and that by giving people a choice to stay in the matrix or not is the solution for stability.  I think Neo’s cop-out ‘One’ powers are also the work of the machines.  That was a genuinely engaging twist.

But overall, I’m afraid, I really, really did not like this film.

Final rating: 3/10
(+1 for Hugo Weaving, +1 for Neo’s fabulous cloak and +1 for occasional displays of genius direction).
[Yes, that is a worse result than any four of the Twilight books.  In fact, it’s the worst result I’ve yet to give on this blog].

Cloud Atlas [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Where to begin?  I honestly don’t know how to review this film – I suspect, much like the book was claimed to be “unfilmable”, this unfilmable film is “unreviewable.”  But I’ll take a stab at it anyway.  I first stumbled across the film when I happened to watch the trailer, and instantly fell in love.  I felt inspired and awe-struck by the trailer alone, and I knew that this is a film I had to see.  I hoped it would not let me down.  The original novel was written by David Mitchell, an author whose work I know of shamefully little.  The film is directed by the Wachowski Siblings – whose most famous work, The Matrix, I’ve recently had an ambivalent encounter with – and Tom Tkywer.  At nearly 3 hours long, this film is not for the faint-hearted.

Within the first five minutes we witness the old, scarred Zachry speaking in a strange, futuristic dialect, journalist Luisa Ray travelling to a nuclear power plant to uncover a conspiracy, Timothy Cavendish writing on his typewriter, Robert Frobisher loading a pistol into his mouth, Adam Ewing seeking out Dr. Henry Goose, and the final interview of the clone Sonmi-451.  The film doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cloud Atlas can be described as 6 separate stories woven together, although the more you watch the more it comes to resemble one story with 6 differing facets:

  1. 1849:  On the South Pacific Ocean, after visiting a slave plantation on the Chatham Islands, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) helps a self-freed slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), while his doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), slowly poisons him to steal his possessions.  Upon arriving home, he joins an abolitionist movement.
  2. 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), inspired by Ewing’s journal, helps musician Vivyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his compositions, culminating in the composition of the Cloud Atlas Sextet.  During this time he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
  3. 1973: Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an older Sixsmith, who now works as nuclear physicist.  After Sixsmith’s death, she works with Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the conspiracy to allow the nuclear reactors to fail.  She is driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of Frobisher, whose letters she reads.
  4. 2012: Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), fleeing from gangsters to whom he owes money, is tricked into a militant nursing home by his brother, Denholme (James D’Arcy).  He then escapes.  His work as a publisher continues when he receives a manuscript based on Rey’s life, and also writes about his own story.
  5. 2144: In the dystopian city of Neo-Seoul, South Korea, the clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and enters a resistance movement.  A film based on Cavendish’s adventure helps to cement her beliefs.  However the rebellion fails and Sonmi-451 is executed.
  6. 2321: In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society.  Plagued by cannibals from another tribe, the people look towards their Goddess, Sonmi, for guidance.  When the technologically advanced Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives, Zachry takes her to Sonmi’s temple, but they return to find his tribe has been wiped out.

I truly admire the way in which the action cuts between characters and the six time periods with such ease, finding links to tie certain sections of the stories together.  For example, one moment Autua is balancing across the ship’s yard avoiding gunshots, and then the film cuts to Sonmi and Hae-Joo running across a walkway between buildings over the city, avoiding lasershots.  Both Luisa and Timothy are chased by Hugo Weaving’s characters in a sequence from different stories edited together.  When Sonmi discovers the grim fate of every clone, Zachry simultaneously discovers that his village has been massacred.  When Adam and his wife Tilda decide to join the abolitionist movement, Tilda’s father’s speech, in which he claims the movement is destined to end in failure, is interspersed with shots of Sonmi’s execution.

As I described in the summary, events in one story directly impact another.  As well-crafted as these initial connections are, the further you delve into the story you discover the subtler hints.  The comet birthmark is one, although I believe, in the novel, this is supposed to indicate one character living again and again in different lives, which the film chose to change and do by actor – leaving the birthmark rather redundant.  My favourites are the small connections, such as Vivyan’s house eventually becoming the care home Timothy (both played by Broadbent) is confined within.  While Nurse Noakes threatens to make Timothy eat soap, the clones in Neo-Seoul are fed a substance called soap, which it’s later revealed is protein recycled from former clones.  There is also, arguably, a development of the soul for each character: Hanks’ characters begin as scheming, selfish souls but develop into humble heroes.  Broadbent’s follow a similar pattern.  Meanwhile, Berry’s start off as persecuted characters – first as a Moriori slave and then a Jew in the 1930s – but develops into an independent journalist until finally becoming the most powerful character in the period as Meronym.  I say arguably because I don’t think these were Mitchell’s original intentions, and is merely an interpretation.  But, of course, the nature of Cloud Atlas leaves it open to so many interpretations.

Paradoxically, it is these connections between characters and times which was one of my favourite and least favourite aspects of the film.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the links come together, but I felt it could have gone further with them.  At the film’s end I was left wondering what the overall point and message had been.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw.  Maybe, being so used to linear plots, I feel as there needs to be an overarching idea where the film could work perfectly well without one.

One part of the film done absolutely perfectly was the acting, make-up and costumes which  successfully disguised the actors in their repetitions across the 6 stories.  Half of the characters I didn’t realise were played by recurring actors until afterwards, such as Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs.  It is a crime that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar.  I was particularly  impressed when actors played a character of a different gender and race to their own – particularly Hae-Joo and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (which is perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film).  While these changes were never 100% convincing, I don’t think they were supposed to be – the audience is supposed to understand that this is the same person in a different life.  I cannot praise this aspect of the film highly enough.

Another thing I loved about the film – something which probably hasn’t been mentioned by critics much – is the dialogue.  Quite simply, it all felt so real.  This is down to both the writing and the acting.  When characters spoke to each other, I believed they were having a spontaneous conversation rather than performing in a well-rehearsed scene.  Compare the dialogue here to the forced conversations in Shetland – for instance – and there’s really no contest.  Best of all, I was stunned to discover that, in the post-apocalyptic world, I was not being dense by misunderstanding the characters but they were actually speaking in a futuristic dialect.  Dialects and languages are complex things which evolve staggeringly quickly when isolated from the rest of the world, but to artificially create one is beyond impressive; it’s utter genius.  It appears to be an extension of Southern US dialects, where certain beats of speech are given further emphasis and twangs.  Artificial idioms and figures-of-speech are thrown in, making the dialect even more realistic.  Read these excerpts:

  • “Yоur аugurіn’ соmе truе, Αbbеѕѕ. Βrоkе brіdgе, јuѕt lіkе yоu ѕаy. Μеrоnym were thеrе, yibberin’ hеr аbout trekіn’ uр Μаunа Ѕоl. Why does this Ρrеѕсіеnt wоmаn соmе сurѕіn’ and twіѕtіn’ up my lіfе?”
  • “Fееlіn’ I оwnin’ yоu a real соwtow, fоr іnvаdіn’ yоur hоuѕе wіth nо ѕаyѕо. Τruе ѕоrryѕоmе… Ѕо, yоu mіndіn’ а ѕtrаngеr querin’ аbоut yоur troddin’?”

It has a poetic effect – almost Shakespearean.  The irony being that if someone spoke like this today they would be lambasted for mutilating the English language with rotten colloquialisms.  I found the dialect a beauty to listen to, though I can appreciate that other viewers would become irritated at the difficulties of understanding the words.

There’s much more I could say about Cloud Atlas, but the review has to end at some point.  Perhaps in another life I will review it differently.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative, thought-provoking films I have ever seen.  Watching it is an experience.  I have the opportunity to go see it again in a cinema but I don’t think my brain could cope with watching it from start to finish, all in one go, again.  It simply isn’t big enough.  But what I will say is that I feelin’ this move-move is mighty good, and that’s a tru-tru.

Final Rating: 10/10