Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Be Freaking Awesome (Intolerance)

My final comparison with the upcoming Cloud Atlas is a film that is actually very, very similar, albeit 96 years older. I am talking, of course, about the amazing spectacle that is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

I’ve read a variety of stories about how this film came into being, but the one that makes the best yarn is that Griffith was stung by the criticisms of racism for his 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (criticisms which I will admit were well-founded). So, as a result, he decided to make a film getting all his thoughts about man’s inhumanity to man out of his head and up onto the screen.

The two best descriptions of this film I’ve ever head are that it is a “cinema sermon” or, to use a musical description, “a cinematic fugue” (a fugue, for those not familiar with classical music, is a piece of music where one theme begins on one instrument or voice, then shortly afterwards, a second voice will enter with the exact same theme and combine with the first voice, thus layering on levels of complexity into the music).

Griffith’s idea was landmark – to tell four different stories about man’s intolerance towards others, all set in different periods of history, and cutting back and forth between the stories. The stories were linked by an image of a woman rocking a cradle (to do with a line from a poem about “the cradle endlessly rocking, bringing the same joys and sorrows”).

Griffith’s gargantuan effort (the longest version out on DVD currently, runs for 200 minutes) starts slowly but picks up speed, as he introduces us to the different characters in his four stories. Story 1, which takes up the most screen time, is the “modern” tale (for 1916) of a young lower-class couple in love, being pulled by the temptation to join in local crime on one hand and being persecuted by over-zealous social workers on the one hand. I can’t think of any other film that has ever used “over-zealous social workers” as part of its plot synopsis, which just gives you some idea of the eccentricity of Griffith and what he would fixate on.

Story 2, which takes up the least amount of screen time, is the life of Christ – or, more correctly, famous vignettes from his life, because there’s not really enough screen time for it to have a storyline. But what it does do is lend an epic Biblical weight (which would have worked wonders for the more religious audiences back in 1916) to key scenes, by suddenly “cutting to Jesus”, as it were. That said, the attention to detail in the scenes (just look at all the characters in the opening marketplace scene) is amazing.

Story 3 is set in France in the 1500s, in the time leading up to the St Bartholomew’s day massacre, when the Catholic queen of France gave an order to massacre the Huguenots (the French Protestant political party). We see this primarily through the eyes of a Prosper Latour, a young Huguenot, and his fiancé, Brown Eyes.

Story 4 is the most epic of all, at least in terms of sets and production values. It tells of the fall of Ancient Babylon, and how one of the greatest civilisations in the world (according to Griffith) was destroyed by the intolerance of the high priests, who betrayed the city by letting the Persians in to destroy them.

The mix of metaphors and imagery is undeniably chaotic. (In fact, it’s very strange that Griffith, who is working with Biblical ideas in the Christ story, is such a champion for ancient Babylon. The Bible’s version of the fall of Babylon is that it was a good thing, because there were thousands of captured Jews living in the city that finally got set free from 70 years of exile by the invading army.) But as long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s an astonishing feat of cinema. Even if you think the message is heavy-handed, it’s mind-blowing just in terms of its sets and choreography, featuring mile-wide sets and at least three battle sequences.

What makes the film so amazing is that it only works in the editing room. If you took any of the four stories by themselves, only the modern story would give you anything coherent enough to stand alone, and it would be a fairly low-grade melodrama that nobody would talk about it. But instead, the film has an incredible fury and pace that leaves you gasping. There is something incredibly visceral about seeing four stories climax at once that makes the whole thing much more than the sum of its parts.

*** MAJOR SPOILER WARNING ***

As an example of why the film works – it’s something about the cumulative power of images. At the finale of the film, we keep cutting back to the modern story. The boy is on death row, the girl is madly pursuing the governor to get a stay of execution. If it was just this story, we’d probably say that it would end happily and not get as involved.

But instead, the Huguenot story ends on a devastating note – Prosper arrives to find Brown Eyes killed (and presumably raped) and carries her body out to scream at the Catholic soldiers – who promptly mow him down.

Then we switch to Christ on the cross, the mob howling for his blood.

Then to Ancient Babylon, where the Emperor and Empress commit suicide together, realising that the city has fallen and there is no hope. Finally, our hero, the Little Mountain Girl, gets wounded by an arrow and dies.

So three out of four stories have ended unhappily – this IMMEDIATELY raises the stakes on the boy being being led to the gallows and the tension is unbearable. It’s a powerful experience, and really paved the way for multi-strand cinema.
*** END OF MAJOR SPOILERS ***

The source material that the Wachowski / Tyker trio are working with in the novel of Cloud Atlas is remarkably similar to this. There is a recurring theme throughout the book of the strong oppressing the weak (sometimes subtly, sometimes completely in-your-face), thus lifting the story above a simple gimmick about different time periods and genres, and the word on the street is that the script has taken the six stories from Cloud Atlas and put them together in an interwoven manner.

In short, they’ve re-created Griffith’s Intolerance for the 21st century. If they can pull that off, it will not just be a great movie this year, but go down as one of the great movies of the century. We can only hope. It’s about time we had a movie that deserved that sort of label.

Cloud Atlas: Is This The Best Movie Trailer Ever?

I’ve been a bit absent from the world of blogging lately, but I’ve been tempted to return because of one of the most intriguing (to me) film trailers I’ve seen in years. To get the full effect of the trailer, I’ll let you watch it for yourself.

See what I mean? You’re watching along, thinking – okay, story set in multiple time periods about people making the same mistakes, etc. etc. Is it like The Hours? Then all of a sudden, about the two minute mark, there are Asian clones, the music ramps up and it’s like Blade Runner meets The Matrix. Then the last two minutes are almost indescribable. Smashing plates? Hugo Weaving with mutton chops? What’s all this about?

I wasn’t sure what the trailer was about, but I instantly loved it. Because it shows ambition. It’s the thing that’s been missing from Hollywood for about the last decade. I’ve been complaining to anyone who will listen that movies have totally gone downhill the last few years. I’m not sure whether piracy is to blame, or just a particularly boring bunch of producers at the top of the system, but whatever is going on, the results have been horrendous: Transformers movies, prequels, sequels, reboots, remakes of old TV series, endless superhero franchises, and increasingly stupid Tim Burton / Johnny Depp freakshows. (Come on – where’s the Tim who made Big Fish?)

It seems as if the studios won’t greenlight anything unless it’s a) really cheap or b) guaranteed to be a hit beforehand (thus the prequels, reboots, etc). The end result of this is that what gets pushed to the side is the mid-price films. The ones that cost $100 million or so. Everything is either small and indy or massive event cinema. And event cinema usually means dumb. (The one exception to this has been the incredibly talented Christopher Nolan, who has proven that you can be big budget and smart, but he seems to be a rare breed.)

So when I came across this trailer for Cloud Atlas, I was blown away that some studio exec somewhere had signed off on clearly quite a lot of money to make a film that is pitching high above the average film-goer. (Or at least pitching above what studio execs think the average film-goer is like.)

As a result, I’ve gotten very curious about the whole film, especially because there’s not a lot of info out there about the film. I’m in two minds about it at the moment – it could be a total disaster of a film, or it could be the movie event of 2012. Either way, this is the kind of smart, original work, made with a decent budget, that has been missing from our cinema for a long time and I, for one, am going to shell over the money to see it just to encourage more innovative cinema.

Of course, the more pressing question for most of my readers might be, “That’s all well and good – but after 5 1/2 minutes, I still can’t tell – WHAT IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT?” I got curious about that, and started reading the book straight away on Kindle. It’s rather lengthy, so I’ll report back on that shortly.

Film Review: Avatar 3D

I’m miles too late to review this film, because I went and saw it back in January, but my own sense of vanity insists that I must review it, just to show that I actually went and saw it.

However, there’s not really a lot to say that other reviewers haven’t already. The famed special effects took me about an hour to warm up to. When you’re told that you’re going to see the most spectacular film ever made, you tend to be a bit more cynical going in.

But eventually, Avatar works its magic. I think what makes this film so interesting is that the special effects actually help conjure up an emotional reaction to the story that I don’t really remember since Jurassic Park. By way of explanation – some of us might remember that up until the early 90s, we reacted to special effects slightly differently from the way we do today. Back then, we kind of could tell how the special effects were done. E.T. was a puppet. The original King Kong was a clay model. The 70s King Kong was a man in a monkey suit. The spaceships on Star Wars are big plastic models.

So given that we knew how these special effects were done, we tended to judge their effectiveness by how cool they looked. King Kong was a pretty awesome-looking clay model. The Star Wars spaceships were awesome. The man-in-a-monkey-suit looked crap. It was as simple as that.

But then Jurassic Park changed all the ground rules. I distinctly remember being 15, sitting in Greater Union on George Street watching the massive brachiosaur (or whatever dinosaur it was) come out and rear up on its hind legs. From there, a turning point was reached. Nearly all of us in the cinema were sitting there with our jaw dropped because for all intents and purposes we were looking at a real dinosaur. The only way we knew it was special effects was because there was no way that thing could be real. It was a magical moment for special effects because, in the same way that the scientists on the island were awestruck by beholding a real dinosaur, so were we as an audience. The effect was magical, and John Williams’ score for that moment was likewise one of the most beautiful sections of music he’s ever written.

The problem, however, with magic moments, is that if you have too many of them, they’re not magical any more. After a while, computer animated dinosaurs weren’t that much of a big deal any more. In fact, there have been so many perfectly-rendered computer-animated creatures that have flashed across our screens, we don’t feel that amazed any more. We know the nerds can do it, so it’s no big deal when it appears. And from then on, our judgment on special effects was different. Instead of judging how cool they were, we now judged them by how real they were. The line, “That bit was so fake” became a common catch-cry among teenagers. Whereas, my generation was used to fake.

So now – nearly 15 years after Jurassic Park, we’re all a bit cynical of special effects. We’ve seen it all.

Enter James Cameron.

The hype surrounding his film Avatar was that he’d put the magic back into special effects. I was a cynic, but I must confess, that I am converted. I think he’s done it.

First off, everything you’ve heard about this being  a by-the-numbers environmental/American Indian story set in space is true. I haven’t seen Disney’s Pocahontas, but this reminded me quite a bit of Dances With Wolves mixed with Last of the Mohicans. So there’s nothing particularly original about the story.

But what was different this time was the environment of the planet Pandora which James Cameron created is so compellingly beautiful, that when the inevitable rape and pillage of nature begins about halfway through the film, you’re already in love with the place. This is no mean feat. To make us truly care about the planet (and most audience members will respond emotionally to the plight of the Na’vi), the effects had to be real enough that we felt like we were watching a real environment and then likewise beautiful enough that we kind of wish we were there as well. So it’s a remarkable feat by both the design team and the geeks who have brought it to life that Pandora gradually rises up off the screen in all its beauty and glory and makes you feel like you’re actually there.

So what that means is that all these special-effects, far from being a bit of eye-candy, actually become the emotional driver of the film. As Sam Worthington’s character becomes more drawn into the world of Pandora, we do too. When it cuts back to the boringness of the human space base, we switch from gorgeously rendered trees and animals to claustraphobic box-like sets and we long for the film to get back to the jungle as much as Sam does.

So, all in all, whether you like the story – and all I’ll say is that it’s one of the most subversively anti-American storylines to appear in a mainstream film – the film will stay with you. The spectacle I was expecting – the beauty was a pleasant surprise.

4 out of 5 (until it gets usurped by a film with a better plot and the same level of special effects).

Film Review: Collision

I was rather excited that this film got a theatrical release, because I’d heard about it a few weeks ago and it was pretty much going straight to DVD. But Dendy Newtown brought it out for one night (albeit courtesy of a church in the area who sprung a Q&A on us after the film was over).

The story behind this documentary is that Christopher Hitchens, the prominent atheist – an Englishman residing in Washington DC – wrote a book a few years back called God Is Not Great – Why Religion Poisons Everything. From what I understand, in 2007, he invited any religious people who wanted to debate him to come and have a go. Many people have, and for most people who are unprepared, I think he’s pretty much eaten them alive.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, in 2007, a Reformed pastor from a place called Moscow in Idaho (how bizarre is that?) called Douglas Wilson, decided to take Hitchens on and so the two men had an online debate on www.christianitytoday.com. It’s also not mentioned anywhere, but Doug wrote a reply to Christopher’s book called God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything. Anyway, they collected the back and forth debate into a small book called Is Christianity Good For The World? and then someone got the smart  idea of sending the two of them on a debate / book launch tour.

This film is a documentary that covers those three days on the road. For 90 minutes, we watch them debate, sign books, drink beer, ride in taxis, ride in limos, debate, followed by more conversations in cars. And somewhere in there they got a helicopter ride as well.

Considering that there were about three two-hour debates in there (from what I could work out watching the film), there is no way in 90 minutes, you’re really getting the full weight of either of their arguments. And the filmmakers don’t try. Director Darren Doane deliberately steered the film away from being about getting one message across or another and instead tried to make it, as much as possible, about the conflict between the two men. (This does lead to some slightly corny slo-mo scenes where Hitchens and Wilson are filmed in split screen, with gangster rap over the top, to make it look like Theists In Da Hood. But as one friend told me, at least if gave your mind a brief rest before the next round of debating took off.)

What of the arguments themselves? I’ll let you track the film down for yourself – you can get it from Amazon.com – to see the full thing, but as far as I could tell, Christopher Hitchens was arguing the case – most of the time – that Christianity (or religion in general) was just an extra crutch people were trying to use to prop up morality (which could exist quite fine on its own) and that, in fact, it had produced quite the opposite. (You’ll hear the killing of the Amalekites mentioned on quite a few occasions.) I’m sure if we’d seen more of the debate, we’d have come across other objections such as Christanity being unscientific, relies on the supernatural, etc.

Douglas Wilson, on the other hand, was using what’s known as a “presuppositional” argument. He’s right up front in assuming that there is no such thing as neutrality, there’s no “neutral” platform to stand on and engage with facts – instead you have a set of preconceptions. So he’s quite comfortable with believing the Bible is true, and then building his entire worldview around that. The rest of his argument was then pointing out that, if you adopt a certain set of assumptions, you have to live by them. For instance, if you believe, as an atheist, that everything evolved by chance and that there is no rhyme and reason to why we’re here, then you can’t really have any set reason for assuming objective moral standards. You can make some up, to make your life easier, but there’s no reason that they should be true for everyone in the whole world – if we’re all random bits of protoplasm.

Which turned out to be the chink in Hitchen’s armour. It started to clog up the last 30 minutes of the film, but Wilson seized onto the fact that Hitchens kept wanting to use moral terms against Christianity (“It’s a wicked cult”, etc) without giving any justification for his morals (apart from that we “intuitively feel” that certain things are right and wrong). That’s still not likely to convince somebody to become a Christian (human nature is that we like to have justice, but we don’t really like the idea of a God breathing down our neck that we have to answer for), but for me, it’s enough that I could never be an atheist. I couldn’t live with the level of uncertainty that they have to have.

I don’t know that you’d claim that anyone “won” the film, but I would say that Hitchens probably carried the argument for the first hour of the film, because he’s a very good public speaker. Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking of so many things at once, that his thoughts would come out a bit fast and furious. Also, because Wilson makes no bones about assuming that the Bible is true, when he starts talking about something like Jesus prophesying the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, I’m sure it would have sounded quite foreign to non-Christian ears. (Hitchens’ body language at that point certainly conveyed that he  felt like he was stuck next to the village idiot.) However, over time, this becomes a bit of a strength, and we watch (especially in the non-debating moments) as Wilson is actually teaching Hitchens things about the Bible that he never really knew before.

The last scene of the film is also quite an interesting one, albeit it for no other reason, than it proves yet again that alcohol brings thing out that we cover up  in our everyday conversation. I won’t spoil it for you, but it shows that there may be other things going on that are underneath the level of the positions being argued.

To finish, the best thing about this film was simply that I got to get together with a bunch of friends on the Christian side of things and on the atheist/agnostic side of things and have great conversations afterwards. That doesn’t happen very often in our polite, Aussie society where religion and politics are off the table, so I was very grateful to Hitchens, Wilson and co. for the opportunity to have the discussion.

4 1/2 out of 5.