You should watch: Cloud Atlas

MOTHs in a china shop. Image via TeeVee in DC.

So last night I saw Cloud Atlas, the big new film directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, beyond that it’s based on a widely respected and reputedly un-filmable novel and that I haven’t cared much for anything the Wachowskis have directed since the original Matrix. But, well, wow.

Cloud Atlas weaves together a set of stories set hundreds of years apart, using the same core cast of actors — including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Whishaw — in different-but-related roles. If that sounds potentially unwieldy already, consider that many of the actors switch genders and races (to widely varying degrees of effectiveness) from story to story, and that in fact each story is really a completely different genre. There’s a Merchant Ivory-style tale about a nineteenth-century lawyer voyaging home from a slave-buying expedition, a farce that might as well have been an episode of that BBC sitcom about life in a retirement home, a mystery thriller set in the 1970s, a quest across a postapocalyptic wilderness, a tragedy about a miserable old-timey homosexual who’s composing a groundbreaking symphony in prewar Britain, and a Blade Runner-style science fiction action film.

All these films are intercut so as to highlight, with varying success, the overlaps and interconnections between their stories. The melody at the core of the symphony composed in prewar Britain recurrs in a San Francisco record shop in the 1970s, in the slums of futuristic Neo-Seoul, and among the ruins of nuclear war. In the farce, a bumbling old publisher writes a memoir which is adapted into a movie that inspires revolution centuries later. People are made captive, and set free; they help and hinder each other in their various quests. Multiple characters in multiple stories muse aloud about the interconnectedness of all people and the transmigration of souls, which is mostly unnecessary given how often we can see that, if the stories don’t quite repeat themselves, they unmistakably rhyme.

Whether or not you like Cloud Atlas will boil down to how well you think it weaves all these stories together — I came away almost entirely satisfied. I’m a sucker for big and ambitious and wide-ranging, and while there’s more than a few moments of fridge logic within the individual stories that comprise Cloud Atlas, I walked out of the theater looking forward to seeing it again.


“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Against my better judgement (okay, not really) I’m starting to get excited about the upcoming prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

By adding Bilbo Baggins to his filmography, I think Martin Freeman is officially defining his career in the role of the Universal English Everyman, the straight man to wonders: John Watson, Arthur Dent, even Tim, his breakout role on the original version of The Office. Next up: Newton Pulsifer from Good Omens?◼


2001 in 2012

Via io9: An educated/hilarious guess as to how the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey would look if the film were released in 2012. (Maybe turn down the volume before hitting “play”—this gets loud.)

If you’ve familiar enough with the actual film (Or maybe too familiar? Nah.) the real fun of this is noticing which individual images are crammed into rapid-fire, action-y montages.◼


You should read: Redshirts


You’ve already read my fanboy glee in anticipation of John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts, so it’s only fair to report that I have already finished the book, and I can honestly say it was everything I hoped for.

“Redshirts,” on the original version of Star Trek, were the nameless, red-shirted security officers who’d beam down to strange new worlds alongside the stars of the show—and, if danger should present itself, it usually did so by killing a redshirt. Redshirts, the novel, is about what happens when some redshirts start to realize that their mortality rate is more consistent with a campy TV show than actual military service, even military service in space.

The result is a short novel that might be what you’d get if an episode of Star Trek were exposed to exotic radiation in an ion storm and spontaneously developed self-awareness. Although many of the resulting jokes have been made before (notably in the also-excellent movie Galaxy Quest, which is required viewing for the thoughtful Trek fan), Scalzi draws them out of genuine characters caught in a plot that ventures deep into the weirder end of Trek‘s repertoire without going off the rails.

I can’t go into any meaningful detail about that plot without spoiling it, so I won’t. I can say, however, that Redshirts is hilarious and humane. It’s a story about decent, rational human beings trapped in an indecently irrational universe, which is nevertheless the very kind of universe that human beings routinely imagine in every possible venue for fiction. Scalzi’s ultimate conclusion—that an author has something approaching a moral obligation to tell good and worthy stories with the characters he imagines—gives the story far more depth than mere fanfic.◼


Do you hear the people sing?

You guys, this is happening:

And check out the casting: Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean (yay!), Russell Crow is Javert (um, okay). The Thénardiers will be played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. And in a particularly nice touch, the Bishop of Digne will be played by Colm Wilkinson, who was Valjean in the 1985 cast.

I can’t wait for Christmas.

(Hat tip to Dave Munger, on Facebook.)◼


Nuking the suspension of disbelief

In my favorite long read of the week, David Shechner of Overthinking It sets out to determine whether Indiana Jones could’ve survived an atomic bomb from the safety of a lead-lined refridgerator, as depicted in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Spoiler alert: Indy (and the franchise) wouldn’t have survived, in the real world. But exactly how Professor Jones would most likely meet his end is a much more enjoyable question. Here’s a tiny bit:

Sadly, the lead and steel shielding which the authors intend to protect their protagonist from ionizing radiation can itself become a source of it. While beta decay constitutes a relatively small portion of the average nuclear device’s output, what little sprinkle the Frigidaire receives it will transmute, in kind, into an X-ray bath for its inhabitant. It’s sort of like the way a Russian Sauna works, but instead of hot coals there’s a nuclear explosion, and instead of steam there’s a burst of X-rays, and instead of a wood hut it’s a Frigidaire, and also you’re dead. [Link sic.]

As additional evidence of Shechner’s scientific bona fides, he presents the whole analysis in the persona of the third reviewer. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a takedown of one of George Lucas’s late-career cinematic catastrophes so much since Anthony Lane wrote, in reference to Yoda’s diction in Revenge of the Sith, “break me a fucking give.” ◼


You should read: Reamde

Reamde. Photo by jby.

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde, opens in a self-consciously stereotypical image of rural America: three generations of the Forthrast family engaged in recreational firearms practice in the midst of an annual reunion on an Iowa farm. The next thousand pages follow two members of that family out of the Midwest and across the globe.

Reamde zips from Iowa to Seattle, the mountains of British Columbia, urban China, the Isle of Man, the Philippines, a trailer park in Missouri, and a survivalist compound in north Idaho. The engine driving this jet-setting plot is a computer virus, the eponymous Reamde, propagated through a fictional massively multiplayer online game. Reamde reaches out across the Internet to entangle the creator of that online game and his niece with Russian gangsters, a Hungarian hacker, Chinese professional gamers, a Wales-born Al Qaeda terrorist mastermind, British and American intelligence agents, rural U.S. militia members, and two fantasy authors—one outrageously highbrow, the other hilariously low.

I’ve never read a Stephenson novel I didn’t enjoy cover to cover, and Reamde draws on what I like best about his work. There’s incredible attention to detail, whether in the workings of a fictional online game, the layout and choreography of spectacular action set pieces, or the cultural details of Chinese internet cafes. There’s a delightful slew of nerdy in-jokes, particularly in the simmering feud between the two fantasy authors working as creative consultants for the online game. And there’s an international cast of smart, dryly witty characters risking life and limb in a succession of perfectly rendered international locales. It’s a great read, but it’s also interesting for its perspective on the world we inhabit today.

The first-blush gloss on Reamde is that it’s a William Gibson novel set in the present day. But it even more strongly recalls the sub-genre of international/intercultural dramas that were popular as Oscar-baiting films a couple years ago, like “Babel” and “Crash.” Those movies would pick a selection of seemingly unconnected people across greater Los Angeles or the entire world, and attempt to demonstrate how their lives were really interconnected on some profounder level via apparently insignificant links propagated across the karmic ether. Reamde achieves the same effect organically, accumulating each new player by following the next thread in the widening web of Reamde, and (mostly) doing so without breaking the plot’s techno-thriller pace.

What’s remarkable about Reamde (though not surprising coming from Stephenson) is its unabashed optimism in the midst of circumstances that shade from trying into horrific. Our unprecedented global interconnectedness creates the chaos that propels the plot; but apart from the obvious bad apples (did I mention Al Qaeda is involved?) the wildly disparate people snagged in the web of the Reamde virus react to each other with the open-handedness of friendly strangers meeting in an online comments section, rapidly identifying their common interests to work together across cultural, economic, and even linguistic divides. Even as the body count racks up, the people who need to avoid potentially tragic misunderstandings manage to do exactly that, and see to it that the folks who need comeuppance get it. When the Forthrast reunion reconvenes at the end of the book, the attendees include members of a newly assembled global family. ◼


(naked fisticuffs are always optimal)

Via Got Medieval: Myths RETOLD does exactly what it says on the tin, with ATTITUDE. For instance, Beowulf. Here’s our hero awaiting the murderous monster Grendel’s highly predictable arrival after the party in Hrothgar’s meadhall:

then the party kind of starts to wind down
so beowulf just goes ahead and strips naked
in the hopes of making this task as needlessly difficult as possible
which actually he fails to do
because it turns out no weapon on earth can harm grendel anyway
so naked fisticuffs are optimal
(naked fisticuffs are always optimal)

anyway Grendel shows up
makes a big show of ripping the doors off
which actually begs the question
do they replace the doors every day?
or does Grendel replace the doors every day
just so he will have something to rip off at night?
either way he immediately eats one of Beowulf’s men
while Beowulf stands there like HMM I SEE

Even if you haven’t read the original, you will laugh painfully hard. Expect seriously salty language, but nothing that Beowulf himself wouldn’t use if he had a MySpace page.