The visual smorgasbord has six stories spanning five centuries put through the montage shredder. The direction of time is intentionally fuzzied, but as to why, we shall explore. As with all epic stories, it gets juicer in the back.
Three directors are an absurdity. We have all heard of on-screen chemistry, but off-screen? For a preview of what you get in the film, watch this video of the three directors’ (Tom Twyker, and Lana & Andy Wachowski) commentary. Rarely has a collaborative effort been so seamless, but with a vision this unified, the questions pointed more to ‘why not,’ rather than ‘why.’ The faultless segues show they are clearly plugged into the same matrix.
David Mitchell, the author of the book, called his work unfilmable. He cited that film flows unforgivably, omitting details sometimes and bombarding at others, leaving no time to immerse. It is also inherent with finality, limiting readers’ interpretations. A filmmaker is obligated to give a final dénouement, lest be berated for the lack of a happy ending. The film was also nearly unfilmable literally. Despite the stellar cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent, no one wanted to produce it until Warner Bros. pumped in a fraction of the cost, with the rest being sourced independently. Luckily for them, huge risks meant huge returns!
Emerging from the theatre, this was far from limiting, even awakening. The film bridged across various genres, ranging from science fiction to American history. With each actor playing 6 characters, viewers left theaters with a curious dissonance that could only be resolved by the next person, or the credits. As my sagacious friend Syd later quipped, “HOLY SH*T. THE ASIAN GIRL ALSO PLAYED THE MEXICAN WOMAN.” Every role was a cameo treat, injecting comic relief into the serious thrust of life and death, violence and the unexplainable. The film is international in several respects. It was quite apt that they got Korean actress Doona Bae to portray clone chick Sonmi-451. Chinese actress Zhou Xun tags along as Yoona-939. The Guardian reports the heated controversy of putting Briton Jim Sturgess in yellowface instead of hiring an Asian actor. The gender benders and race faces were at times laughable, but all served a greater purpose – lifetimes transcend race and gender. Halle Berry does a whiteface, Hugh Grant does a savage face, and they are both fine. I had no problem, apart from the one time Korean rebel Hae-Joo Chang erupted in distressed Cantonese, “Mo mun tai ah (no problem!)” to the guards. I suppose in the future, neo-Hong Kong or Guangzhou lies on the other side of the border. The Three Directors knew they were opening a can of worms here. What is the meaning of life?
“What if the villain of the story, is actually the hero of another story, played by the same actor?” –Lena Wachowski
There is a thin line between Fantasy and New Age Territory, and that was one line well tread. Several critics have lambasted the epic for its complexity, marring the true meaning of the film. At CNN, we hear how it is “all over the place.” The Huffington Post even goes so far to say Tom Hank’s “epic falls flat.” Brutal.
I was able to identify three main themes that resonated with me. For starters, my personal interpretation kept being led back to this lecture on The Distinction Between Past and Future available on YouTube by Richard Feynman. Famed for winning the Nobel Prize, he makes Physics philosophical, in the manner of a personable uncle. It is almost an hour long, so I shall condense his main points.
He says they have not found the distinction between past and future. If we record a picture of the Earth’s rotation, it appears to be going the same ways both forwards and backwards. Every process is time-reversible, or time-symmetric, and not completely changing at every moment. Time has its own speed. Yet in what we observe, if we drop a glass, it breaks and does not reassemble. The irreversible shattering is translated into heat and sound as it crashes against the ground. Against time’s arrow is that of entropy; of friction and disorder. As entropy increases, there is a loss of energy. The term Arrow of Time was coined in 1927 by Astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, postulating that time is one-directional because it just makes sense. There have been many other theories – string, retrocausality, relativity – if I were to tell them all I might grow a beard, so let us leave that for another lifetime. Time has been envisioned as a cube, a block or even a fabric interwoven with space. For our understanding, the movie follows a two-directional arrow linked by recurring themes.
Feynman continues explaining how disciplines of history and science, ideals of beauty and hope are series of interconnecting hierarchies. We sometimes forget the fundamental interactions on an atomic level. Man is a bunch of organs, and within them cells. The concept of heat for example, is essentially atoms jiggling. Up in the hierarchy of water we have waves, and then a storm. In his analogy of a wet towel, as it dries you, it becomes wetter. If you waited long enough, the towel would dry up. There is no way you can control it to stay damp forever and retain this oneness.
“Nature never loses or gains energy. Yet the energy of the sea, for example, the thermal motion of all the atoms in the sea, is practically unavailable to us. In order to get that energy organized, herded, to make it available for use, we have to have a difference in temperature, or else we shall find that although the energy is there we cannot make use of it. There is a great difference between energy and availability of energy. The energy of the sea is a large amount, but it is not available to us. The conservation of energy means that the total energy in the world is kept the same. But in the irregular jigglings that energy can be spread about so uniformly that, in certain circumstances, there is no way to make more go one way than the other — there is no way to control it any more.” – Richard Feynman
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” – Adam Ewing
Feynman is describing the Laws of Thermodynamics.
“First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy is always conserved, it can be changed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy and matter in the Universe remains constant, merely changing from one form to another. In essence, energy can be converted from one form into another.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state. This is also commonly referred to as entropy.” via – Estrella Mountain Community College
In the end, Feynman concludes that one end does not stand closer to God than the other. No surprise that the tag line of the movie is Everything is Connected. Every atom at one point in the time arrow is as close to the next. The film demonstrates this with a backwards and forwards tug on each scene. With this understanding, I identified the 3 main themes that resonated with me.
1. Past-Future Lives and Karmic Relationships
Energy always tends towards uniformity as heat transfers to where it is cold, and abundance spills into the void. A killer in one life becomes the savior in the next. Soul mates meet again in separate lifetimes, redistributing transgressions and rewards.
Isaac Sachs: “I can’t explain it. But I knew when I opened that door something important happened.”
Luisa Rey: “Why do we keep making the same mistakes, over and over?”
Characters always seem to be escaping doom and gloom, fueling the engine of suspense. There is this idea of a pre-determined natural order and imposing one’s will against it. The universe is entropic. It is altruistic, yet seemingly vindictive. The more characters revolted against their fate to establish their own truths, the more energy and entropy they created. Yet the more they lost, the more they recouped.
Sci-Fi fans will love the homages in dystopic Neo-Seoul to past flicks. It revisited the narratives of fascism and the ethics of artificial intelligence. Think Metropolis’ feudalism and the social pariahs of Logan’s Run and Blade Runner, where we have runners and replicants. With billionaire Peter Thiel investing in 3D-printing artificial meat nowadays, who knows if a brain can be that far? Certainly makes you think about the soul in matter, and what lengths the human race will go to sacrifice or preserve this sanctity.
3. Eternity and Timelessness
Through repeated cycles of loss and reconciliation, the remnants of one act are transferred from one generation into the next. There is a running stream of kindness, where one good turn deserves another. Radio waves we broadcast into space continue indefinitely. The light from Stars shining brightly in the sky take ages to reach Earth. The most intriguing motif amongst opal, teeth and rings is the comet-shaped birthmark with six tails, symbolizing reincarnation. Comets burn for hundreds of years, leaving a trail of debris. Both star-crossed lovers, Robert Frobisher and Sonmi-451 share the same birthmark, believing love will continue after death. Robert passes before his lover and Sonmi-451 after, reiterating the idea of Karma.
Still feel like you are wading around in mercurial mud? Well, one thing is for sure. Hugo Weaving always plays the bad guy. Poor fellows, that is one karmic debt that will never be repaid.
Although released in the US on October 26 2012, it will only arrive on Singapore’s shores in January 17 2013. In the meantime, do check out the breathtaking trailer!
The Global Radar series examines activity in New York, Singapore and around the globe. The writer is a student in Design and Management at Parsons the New School for Design in Manhattan, NYC. She has a natural affinity for spotting trends and thoroughly appreciates diversity and internationalism.