Reviewed: To the Wonder and Cloud Atlas

We are the world.

To the Wonder (12A); Cloud Atlas (15)
dir: Terrence Malick; dir: Tom Tykwer
Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

While watching To the Wonder, it’s important to determine whether the film is artistically and intellectually derelict or if its director, Terrence Malick, responsible for a handful of modern masterpieces, simply has further to fall than most. In the spirit of this wishy-washy movie, I’d say it’s a bit of both. The Malick ingredients are all here: soaring choral music with invocations of divinity, the emphasis on nature and light, lots of elliptical editing and fragmented narration. But when one discontented character observes wanly: “There’s something missing,” it’s as though the movie is giving itself a three-word review.

While the viewer grapples with a loss of faith in the director’s methods, the film touches on other kinds of crises. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) has left Paris to live in Oklahoma with her lover, Neil (Ben Affleck). Not that she has forsaken her inner Amélie; all the adults here are like children, gazing at the sky or engrossed in play – spinning one another around in the street, crawling through leaves, listening to each other’s heartbeats. No one expects characters in a Malick film to be shown unblocking the toilet but this insistence on the whimsical infantilises them.

Eventually Marina realises she has fallen out of love with love and seeks the counsel of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is himself experiencing a crisis of faith. “How has hate come to take the place of love?” Marina sighs in one of the breathy voiceovers that replace dialogue so fully that no one ever exchanges more than an occasional word. In this context, we feel grateful for anything tangible, such as when Neil and Marina’s blissful courtship gives way to tantrums, or when Neil angrily smashes his jeep’s wing mirror. (It’s restored to its original state a second later – presumably divine intervention rather than a boring old continuity error.)

Malick’s storytelling style has often resembled a slideshow of snapshots held together by a cumulative emotional potency. But characterisation and meaning are so opaque in To the Wonder that the film never feels any deeper than a photo-strip love story, albeit one published in American Cinematographer magazine rather than Jackie or My Guy. It was to be expected that Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, would conjure up rhapsodic imagery: the sun flashing stroboscopically through the spoke-like legs of a cartwheeling child; a prisoner’s thick, tattooed forearms draped on the sill of his cell like dozing boa constrictors. Even here, though, Malick is not immune to the banal. The fingertips-trailing-through-wheatfields shot was already a cliché when Ridley Scott used it in Gladiator. The swooping Steadicam that felt fresh in Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, has hardened into mannerism.

Something has happened to this director’s work since he lost interest in the friction between sound and image from his first three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), where the dislocated narration went against the grain of the lyrical photography. With it has gone the tautness of his vision. A film doesn’t necessarily need solidity but in the absence of momentum it does require philosophical weight, and To the Wonder is as ephemeral as dandelion spores.

What a rum state of affairs it is when a new Malick picture can be eclipsed in the audacity stakes by a movie from the siblings responsible for the Matrix trilogy. Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski have divvied up the directing duties with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) on their adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas. It’s far from perfect but then a certain amount of unevenness is to be expected from a three-hour film that intercuts six stories whose settings include the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, 1970s San Francisco and a savage island civilisation 106 winters after the Fall, possibly on a Thursday. Cloud Atlas spans genres, too, incorporating science fiction, espionage, farce and several love stories; the casting is no less elastic. Tom Hanks takes on six parts, including a nuclear-power whistleblower, an Irish thug-turned-novelist who hurls a critic off a rooftop and an actor starring as a fictionalised version of a professor played earlier in the movie by Jim Broadbent. (Do keep up at the back.) Hugh Grant’s roles include a curlyhaired, runny-eyed Cockney gangster and a futuristic warlord; Ben Whishaw and Hugo Weaving get to hop back and forth across the gender divide. The whole shebang is like fancy-dress day at Rada.

It isn’t clear that this mix-and-match casting adds up to anything more than a guessing game for the audience à la The List of Adrian Messenger (where Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum appeared in disguise). Certainly the intended message that these are the same souls at different phases of evolution gets obscured. The rapid movement between the different plot lines emphasises parallels between characters divided by oceans and millennia even as it risks turning Cloud Atlas into a restless trailer for itself. But the sweep of the film, its naive charm and compassion, is intoxicating. I wasn’t bored.

A still from "Cloud Atlas".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture