Basically, this is a film that hits just about every emotional beat you could want. Since the story is made up of six vignettes in different time periods, the filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) have an excuse to make six movies for the price of one. So, let’s run them down…
- An 1830s melodramatic potboiler that takes place on a ship in the South Pacific
- An angsty 1930s Merchant-Ivory-style production about betrayal and loyalty and loss
- A 1970s conspiracy thriller about nuclear power
- A light-hearted present day farce filled with quirky old Brits
- A Matrix-y tale of a revolution in 22nd Century Seoul
- A post-apocalyptic tone poem on fear and hope
This isn’t a Tarantino picture, chopped into chapters. All six stories are intercut throughout the film. Sometimes the cutting is just like any movie or TV show with subplots. But often enough to give the whole film a sense of momentum, they shift into montage territory, with two or three stories cutting back and forth at a critical juncture very quickly. This was one of the ways that a film of this length (nearly three hours) doesn’t feel bloated. You don’t get a chance to be bored. (Or at least I didn’t. I found all six stories interesting.)
To underscore the themes of connectedness and destiny and what-not, the cast gets recycled from time period to time period. For example, Hugh Grant plays a jerk in every sequence. And then Hugo Weaving plays someone basically evil. But they didn’t simply have every actor get stuck in a rut like that. Tom Hanks plays a murderer, an extortionist, a scientist, a gangster and, finally, a cowardly goatherd. Halle Berry’s roles are even more diverse, since she gets to play three (or maybe four?) different races. That angle, having the characters shift into heavy makeup sometimes works brilliantly (James D’Arcy as an old guy) and sometimes looks pretty ridiculous (Halle Berry as an ancient Korean man). It was kind of a fun mind game to try to keep all the actors in their multiple roles straight. But it didn’t necessarily add to the experience for me. Except, of course, that they’re all great actors, so seeing them in multiple roles just multiplies the greatness. Special Kudos to Jim Broadbent for nailing a couple of important characters.
The idea of connectivity and the hint that these are souls reincarnating is dealt with a little… but it’s not the central theme here. The central theme, and it’s kind of amazing to see it played out, is the idea of subjugation of the “other”. Slavery, homosexuality, antisemitism, feminism, agism, cloneism, and, I guess in the final storyline, luddite-ism, as we see the tension between a group living in primeval squalor and another group with far-future technology. It’s a fascinating way of looking at history. You can see the progress; each subjugated group throws off their chains as history progresses… but the downside is that there’s always someone new to subjugate, isn’t there?
I thought the performances, the cinematography, the editing, most everything worked, and worked well. Screw the other critics. I loved it.