Review: Cloud Atlas

I’m reviewing the movie here, not the book it was based on. I actually tried reading the book, but I have a hard time reading dialect, and both book and film half quite a bit of it. Hence, I settled for the movie.

I was quite taken with the trailer when I saw it over the summer and was really looking forward to this. It promised to be a little deeper in the intellectual waters than most American films. And yeah, I’d say it was deeper all right. It ended up being one of those films I was going to have to see more than once to really know what I thought about it. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to do so before it promptly vanished from the theaters, so that will have to wait until it comes out on disc.

First of all, I have to say it is a visually beautiful film. The settings (both real and virtual) are gorgeous, and the cinematography is stunning. It’s a testament to how seamless effects can be in a film that’s not really billed as a special effects bonanza. Things that are quite unreal simply looked real.

Second, the movie hops around quite a bit, but I think it does so to its benefit. It’s really six tales interleaved with each other, but they are all separated by time, anywhere from fifty to three hundred years. And yet, there were connections between most of the tales, some subtle, some not. Some of the connections were about cause and effect, while others were more tangential. I would say they were actually all connected, but there was one link going forward that I could not spot in my memory of the film.

And third, the cast was a fabulous collection of A-list actors, with each of them playing multiple roles that were often quite different. It was only when the credits rolled did I realize just how many roles they each played. I expect this film to win various technical awards for its costumes and make-up.

So, all of that is the blah-blah-blah that movie reviewers go on about when describing some high-concept art film, but it never really tells us what the film is about.

So, what is this one about?

It’s kind of hard to say, but to sum it up, I would say it’s about the terrible things we humans do to one another as well as how individuals face that. Some of them fold under. Some stand up and fight. And others make good their escape. And these six tales examine many of humanity’s real and imagined sins ranging from historic slavery all the way forward to post-apocalyptic barbarism. And I would say it did a good job at it.

So, in short, the six tales are about the following – and no, these aren’t really much in the way of spoilers:

  • the American institution of black slavery
  • the treatment of homosexuals in historic “polite society”
  • the abuse of corporate power against citizens
  • the shutting away of our elders
  • the denial of basic rights to artificial life forms
  • the barbaric struggles of a post-apocalyptic world

There was also a hint of reincarnation, cycles of life, and other non-Judeo-Christian views. The preview actually made me expect much more of this than I saw in the film itself. What it had was actually pretty vague and open to interpretation. On exiting, I overheard an elderly couple discussing the film, with one asking, “So, was Tom Hanks supposed to be Christ?” I never would have made that leap myself, but it does show that different people will see different things in the film.

So, if you missed it in the theater, definitely give it a look when it comes out for purchase or rental. I know I’m going to be buying it on Blu-Ray, just to get another look at it.

Review: Highway to Hell, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is the third (and so far final) book in the Maggie Quinn vs. Evil series. I really enjoyed the first two (Prom Dates from Hell and Hell Week), but I have to say I was a little disappointed in this one. However, I will admit that much of my disappointment can be tied to my expectations that the book was going to be something that it was not.

The story follows Maggie Quinn and her old high-school friend D&D Lisa, aka Lisa the Evil Genius, on their way down to Padre Island in south Texas for a week of spring break debauchery. Along the way, they get sidetracked and end up spending the bulk of their week investigating a local legend and ultimately going into battle against capital-E Evil.

Some of the other supporting cast of do-gooders show up to join in, and the locals add their own skills. Probably what I liked best was seeing them all come to rely on one another’s strengths. It was reminiscent of the final battle in the summer movie Avengers when they finally stopped bickering and worked as a team. And the Evil and the supporting history for it fit together nicely.

However, I was really expecting them to actually reach Padre Island and run into some as-yet-unknown capital-E Evil down amongst the bikinis and beer kegs. You see, to me, much of the charm of the first two books was how Maggie dealt with Evil amidst some common rite of passage. The first book was battling a demon in the run-up to high school prom, while the second book dealt with curses and blood pacts all tied in with a college sorority’s initiation rituals. This one seemed to be aimed at the rite of spring break.

So I figured they would be fighting Evil during the road trip itself or on the island of crazy parties and loose morals. (Not that Maggie Quinn’s morals were ever going to be all that loose. I mean, really, she’s a good girl.) But still, I was expecting another rite of passage. Yes, the conflict occurred on a road trip, but the road trip wasn’t really part of the story. It merely bookended the tale, providing an excuse for their arrival in middle-of-nowhere and a reason for their eventual escape, so it wasn’t even a proper road trip, with bad fast food, dirty rest stops, scary truckers or any of the other elements of a long cross-country trip. Instead of a rite of passage, they were out-of-towners tangled up in some local legend.

I suppose if I could have gotten past that, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. After all, the plot and characters really worked, but in the end, I confess I felt like Private Hudson in Aliens asking, “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” Well, as my reaction shows, it was a bug hunt.

Should We Just Kill Him?

The big battle has come, our hero is triumphant, and evil has been vanquished. What do we do with the bad guy now? Do we put him in jail, or do we just kill him? I don’t mean this to be a debate over capital punishment. Rather, I’m looking at what satisfies us as readers/viewers. Are we okay with putting the evil genius behind bars to contemplate his wrongdoings, or do we need the hero to plug him through the heart with his double-barreled ray gun?

I think the answer depends on several factors. What kind of villain was he? What kind of hero defeated him? What kind of world are we in, i.e. what are our genre constraints? And heck, to some extent, which direction is the wind blowing?

Let’s start with the villain. Is he a murderer or a financial swindler? If a murderer, was this a single crime of passion or a long series of calculated assassinations? If a swindler, did he go after your grandmother’s savings, or did he take down the Italian economy? And finally, was he an average guy doing bad things, or is he truly some evil genius who will forever seek to show off his capacity for mayhem?

As much as I said this wasn’t a debate about capital punishment, many of those same factors enter our literary calculations. If the villain was the guy next door who made a series of bad decisions, we’re more likely to be satisfied with locking him up for a lifetime of remorse. On the other hand, if he’s some sociopath bent on nuclear holocaust, I think we’re a little less satisfied with that plan of remorse. After all, he’s shown that he won’t feel remorse. He’ll just be plotting some other way to unleash Armageddon.

But in addition to things like recidivism and the scale of the crimes, we readers (and the hero) also make the decision based on personal feelings. Did this guy go after the hero’s own grandmother with his ponzi scheme? Was one of the slasher victims our detective’s innocent wife? For God’s sake, did that evil bitch run over my precious little six-legged space kitten?!!

These are things that would get you kicked off a jury faster than… well… I don’t know, because that’s pretty as extreme as it gets judically. We don’t let victims’ friends and families sit in judgment of the accused, but in fiction, this isn’t a jury. Our hero has the chance to be judge, jury, and executioner, and the more personal it gets, the further along that triple role our hero is going to go.

As much as we would never condone it in our real-world judicial system, if the stakes are sufficiently personal most readers find satisfaction in a hero’s righteous revenge. I could argue that this lets us exorcise that particular demon in a safe way, but I don’t think I can argue that the demon isn’t there to begin with. Maybe that’s all hindbrain stuff that we’re trying to evolve our way out of, but for now, both we and our heroes are stuck with it.

But not all heroes are wrathful revenge-monkeys with poor impulse control. Take Superman, for example. I’m not a huge comic collector, so I can’t speak to the eighty years of pulp canon, but from the movies and the old black-and-white TV shows, I don’t think I ever saw him kill anyone. For starters, he’s just a little too pure to kill anyone, or at least, too pure to act in vengeful anger. But also, he’s Superman. If the bad guy gets out, unleashes mayhem again, Superman can just throw him in prison again. Sure, some people get hurt along the way, but Superman’s hands are still clean.

Other heroes are happy to mete out vengeful justice on their own. Dirty Harry is a great example of this, particularly in the very first film. He has no qualms about killing the bad guy, and he’s got a 44 Magnum loaded with righteous wrath. However, as much as he is held up as the quintessential anti-hero, he still follows at least one rule. He won’t kill a defenseless criminal. That’s the deal with his whole “Do you feel lucky?” speech. He wants the bad guy to pick up his weapon to make him a legitimate target.

That particular bit of rule-following is endemic in another type of hero, who would like to consider himself as pure as Superman but is still willing to kill. This is the hero who defeats that bad guy and then walks away, only to have the bad guy rise from the debris to take one last shot at the hero. The hero, of course, puts the bad guy down for good, usually with an unquestionably lethal act that is accomplished with trivial effort, e.g. the gunshot precisely between the eyes from fifty feet. [As a side note, when putting down your bad guys, ALWAYS double-tap. Really, I think we’ve all been burned by this enough to know that we’re not done until the double-tap.]

But then you have some heroes who are unapologetically dishing out a chilled plate of revenge. I think of the original Mad Max where Max puts some guys behind bars for killing his partner, only to have them be let out and suffer an even greater, personal loss. The revenge orgy that ensues is enough to satisfy any grudge-meister, especially the final act of revenge. He shows no hesitation, no remorse, and absolutely no sympathy for the soon-to-be-dead bad guy. I won’t say that Max will go ape-shit if you cheat him at cards, but this is a guy that you don’t want to leave around for Act II if you can help it.

But then there’s the world around you. The Max in that last example was living out on the frontier of the Australian outback in a time that was either during or shortly after some apocalyptic war. The remnants of civilized society weren’t working anymore, and Max had a certain amount of freedom to hunt these people down. Score one for the genre, because after the apocalypse, it’s an all-you-can-eat revenge-flavored ice cream buffet.

Compare that to Superman’s world of Metropolis. The government is stable and happy to lock up these troublemakers, if only it was strong enough to catch them. Gee thanks, Superman! I mean, it’s kind of hard to argue against incarceration there. He caught them in the act, gathered up the evidence with his free hand, and to top it off, Superman makes a great eye-witness for the prosecution. (And to top it off, Lois poisoned the whole jury pool with an exclusive article.)

Dirty Harry (and Batman for that matter) split the difference. There’s still a functioning judicial system, but it’s imperfect and apparently growing worse. We’d like to put these bad guys away, but we realize that in this particular case, we just can’t trust that the system will work. Even then, they sometimes drop the villains off at the local precinct.

But there are also genre constraints that limit the hero even more than the judicial backdrop. Action films pretty much require the villain’s death, the more spectacular the better. Even beloved villains like Hans Gruber have to take the plunge. Meanwhile, some comic stories/films require that the evil genius live to escape and fight another day. Mysteries almost always require that the villain survive because the detective has to win by intellect, not by force. Even if he proves the villain’s guilt first, it’s somehow dissatisfying if that wasn’t enough, that some additional low-brow gunplay was required to be victorious.

Finally, I’d say that the political winds of the real world effect how we and the heroes see this. In the early years of the “War on Terror” in the US, I noticed a lot less sympathy for villains, and more and more heroes did “what had to be done.” This was also true in the late 70’s through 80’s as we experienced pushback from the peace-movement 60’s and ratcheted up the cold war with the Soviets. But in the 90’s and increasingly now in the 2010’s, I saw a lot more heroes going with the equivalent of Hawaii 5-O’s “Book ‘em Danno”.

It would seem that there are times when the unruly mob is giving a collective thumbs down, chanting “death, death” to the hapless gladiators in the arena, and sometimes we’re in a more forgiving mood. It’s easier to fine-tune that in movies which can be more timely with their audience, but it can leave some books out of step as they can find “fresh readers” twenty or thirty years later.

So, how about you guys? What villain were you glad to see splattered? Which ones got the mercy they deserved? And which ones got away or were unfairly squished?