I didn’t publish this back in November because I’ve decided that commenting on pop culture and other people’s work doesn’t really sit well with me. But I want to get it out of my queue, and nothing kills a piece of writing better than publishing it.
I’ve already said some caustic things about the novel (see a few posts down, or up or sideways, however you’re navigating):
“Hopefully in the Wachowski Siblings’ movie it will be the structure, images, and characters that shine through and not the gloomy stereotype of a future.”
And that’s what we got. They even explicitly cleaned up the unreasonable gloominess of all but the most prosthetic of the six stories. Andy, Lana, and Tom Tykwer dissolved the structure as well, switching to an intercutting of the different stories based on context rather than David Mitchell’s nested dolls. While David Edelstein (“You’re Better Off Reading the Book”) disliked the changes made to Mitchell’s darlings, I found that the Wachowski’s changes worked quite well (given the density of the material remaining after the inevitable cutting) and managed to make palatable the most obviously false notes of the novel.
Mainly, though, I noticed that old people love them some sci-fi when it’s conceived by one of their own and shamelessly packaged for and aimed directly at them. The horde of retirees in the audience may have been motivated by a similar desire as my own—be cheap and see the matinée on the Sunday after the film’s release—but the characters who were most easily identified as from our world were also all from the boom generation: the vital heroes of a 1970s thriller and the rattling retirees of a 2010s farce. It’s not a coincidence that elements of the stories also seem drawn largely from a bin of boomer context. In strict chronological order they are:
- the mendacious and racist Enlightenment— as exposed by boomers in the Civil Rights era
- pan-sexuality— acknowledged by boomers (with ambivalent caveats) during their grumpy middle age
- two explicitly boomer stories— empowering fantasies of “fighting the man” by boomers past and present
- a reactionary vision of middle-future dystopia— as endlessly wanked about by boomers
- an idyllic beachcomber’s paradise Somewhere Else at the very end— what it all means for boomers
As a film, the density of the remaining material follows the traditional mismatch between the narrative size of novels and movies.
Without having read the novel some of the dialogue would have been incomprehensible, especially Mitchell’s simple patois of the far future. The action was pretty understandable despite this. While I can understand why some readers of the novel would be disappointed with the change from Mitchell’s structure to reg’lar old, filmic intercutting, the joy of watching a film for just a few hours is often in the way a set of disparate moments can be edited together. A novel has a much more difficult time mining this dynamic across several sessions of reading.
At the climax, the Wachowskis maximize this effect when every central character in every story says, indignantly, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!” including twice over from the character of Timothy Cavendish, once played by Broadbent as the character experiencing his life now and once played by Tom Hanks playing an aged Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation of Cavendish’s autobiographical novelization, in the 3d-HD-ultra-something-or-other movie of 2020-something being viewed as banned entertainment far in the future. This got a laugh from the bluest of hairs in the audience. They got it and I enjoyed the moment as well.
Given the source material and the limited narrative space of a movie adaptation, the Wachowskis made the right choice in cleaning up some of the down notes and ambiguities, limiting the cast to recurring actors (even though the bit where “white people have freckles and future Koreans must look like androids, while future Korean androids are played by actual Asians” was never anything but jarring). The major false note was the homage to their own work in the action fight sequences of future-Seoul followed by a firefight that looked like it was lifted from an old episode of Stargate SG-1.
Abandoning Mitchell’s measured and recursive structure was a solid choice for the movie. Mitchell’s structure would have made a movie version seem interminable. Those who think otherwise might be dreaming of an eleven-episode television series instead. It’s a solid success for the siblings and Tykwer when it could have been so easy to let Mitchell’s unformed vision guide them to disaster.