Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I tried to stay spoiler free about this movie although I couldn't help seeing headlines from articles about it. I haven't read the book but I want to now (just ordered it), so I'll know soon enough why it has been described as "unfilmable." At this time I feel that was an incorrect assessment, because I was impressed although I went into it thinking it would be an ambitious failure. That assumption was based on my opinion of the Wachowski's uneven output and the one film by Tykwer that I have seen (Run Lola Run). Not everything works, at least one of the segments could have been edited out, but for the most part it is successful and the best film of the year so far (that I have seen).
It's probably next to impossible to spoil the film without a very detailed synopsis because of its complexity and fractured narrative style, which I first thought was going to be confusing. All of the main cast play multiple characters in scenarios that span hundreds of years. From a 19th Century sailing voyage which teaches a young man about the evils of slavery, to a mid-20th Century tale of a musical genius doomed to tragedy, to a 1970's look at a crusading journalist, to a futuristic struggle for justice for down-trodden clone workers, to a farther future post-apocalyptic Hawaii clinging to superstition and besieged by cannibals, all of the stories begin to blend into a composite of how everything we do affects everyone else and becomes just another thread in the indelible fabric of time and history.
It's going to require multiple viewings to catch all the interconnections, and in reviewing the character list on IMDb I find I don't recall some of the names so I must not have recognized some of the actors in specific scenes. The makeup and hairstyles probably had something to do with that. There are at least two of the segments where it was hard to tell it was Tom Hanks until he spoke. Speaking of Hanks, he does a very good job in most of his roles, but in a couple of them...not so much. He is part of one segment I thought was superfluous, although another viewing might help explain its connections with the others. From what I recall now it did introduce a publisher who later gets a manuscript of a book written about the '70s journalist character played by Halle Berry, although it is possible I am confusing that character with another played by Jim Broadbent. I will be buying this when it is released on Blu-Ray, not only to look for all those connections, but also because I'll want to turn on the captions. Two of the segments have dialog that was hard to understand. It wasn't bad enough to hinder me from getting the gist of those scenes, but Bae's accent in Neo-Seoul and the pidgin-English used in the post-apocalyptic scenario are things I want to be more clear about.
There have been some complaints about Oriental characters being portrayed by Caucasians, but I think that is unfounded considering the later characters are obviously descendants of ones in the earlier scenarios. Doona Bae (Korean) is featured as a mixed-race daughter of Hugo Weaving in the earliest segment, and she is married to Jim Sturgess, who reappears as the mixed-race rescuer of Bae's character in the futuristic Neo-Seoul. Better to have those actors in those roles rather than lose the connections by casting Orientals, even if they could have found someone that had a close resemblance.
The strengths of the film are numerous, from the acting and the dialog to the score and the visual effects. It is epic in scale while at the same time being intimate and emotionally poignant. Almost all of the segments could have made great stand-alone films on their own, and in spite of the fact it is a long film (about two hours, forty-five minutes not counting the credits) it is amazing they were able to do all of them justice. Destined to be nominated for major awards. I don't even care if it wins any of them or not, just that more people get the impression it is one they should experience.
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