When I see a significant movie the feeling overtakes me that I must scribble down my own thoughts before I sift through other people's. I have my own thoughts on what I just saw, but when I start to read others I will inevitably say, "Yes, yes, that's a good point, hadn't thought about that," and so on. And while that's a good exercise, the point of a review is to share your perspective. Good, bad, or indifferent all fall before the fact that I want YOUR take. I really want to read Ebert's take on the movie, and I really want to read Medved's take as well, and I'm sure they will be different, and actually, yes, that's what I'm hoping for.
I have to say all this because I have shied away from writing reviews in the past and what has stopped me is this: I have to say it just right. I have to be erudite and informed and correct about my opinion and take. Of course I know it is impossible to have a correct opinion, but I suppose I confuse "correct" and "informed" to the point where they might as well be the same thing.
But life is short and I am busy, so I will simply shoot from the hip at you about this movie:
On a four star scale, I believe I have settled in at giving it 3 and a half stars. Everyone is correct, it is an incredibly ambitious movie. To some extent it does have to be credited for its ambition alone. You can get carried away with that, and some will no doubt go too far, but to a certain extent I simply doff my cap and say "well done, well done indeed." But it fulfills its ambition by telling its story very well, very seemlessly, easy to follow for the monumental task it set before itself. Good acting, of course, but it does buckle under the weight it gives itself of everything having to be connected, the characters having to repeat; sometimes the makeup job is a bit ridiculous, the stretch a little too stretched. But that's about the worst technical criticism I can give it.
SPOILER ALERTS STRAIGHT AHEAD:
Now here is where my proclivities, probably better described as issues, begin to take over. I take my philosophy much too seriously, for starters. Philosophy, themes, messages, statements--the things that run through all great art (in my not so humble opinion), are the fuel that guns my engine. Production value, acting, cinematography, these things all run secondary, for me, to the theme/message of the movie. And that is where my review really begins.
I think it will be very difficult to defend my take on this movie, and I'll probably be misunderstood, but whatever, here it goes.
It's a nice idea, but friend, it doesn't work.
The theme of the film is fairly simplistic, it seems to me. Karma. Be good and good will happen to you. Be bad and you will only get worse. The characters who are truly bad in the film get worse as their reincarnations proliferate. The characters who are "good" only get better. And then we get a few who are our, as I believe, our stand ins, who start off as fairly bad, but you know they have a hint of good in them, and they turn out by the end of the film. The problem I have with that philosophy is that the only way you, and I mean YOU (you who have not murdered anyone, haven't cheated too badly on your taxes, have not been overtly racist, etc.) can define yourself as GOOD is if you degrade the definition of good. I will not speak for you, I can only speak for myself, and I know that my thoughts, my pettiness, my selfishness, my wishing harm on people who in the slightest way inconvenience me, my tendency to give myself the bigger piece of the pie if given a chance (literally and figuratively), all stand as a monumental argument against the idea that I am a "good" person--that is, if we really want the word "good" to mean something. If good is to always be judged on the curve, that it varies from place to place and time to time and can be defined by people and groups in power, then fine, I am "good".
What I am saying is that if the way we save ourselves is by being good then I am doomed. There are a lot of things you can argue about, but I don't think you can argue about the fact that, unequivocally, that is what the film is saying. If that works for you then that's great, I'll be busy finding an alternative to saving myself.
I close with a little irony I picked up in the film that I believe was unintended. The film clearly advocates the common Hollywood idyll that We Are All One. I refer you to Avatar, Lion King and numerous others, that we are all one, that the grass and the stars and the animals and the oppressed humans and regular humans are all One (I agree with that last one, by the way, and only point it out because I find it conspicuous that precious few films have the balls to say that the Nazis and you and I are all one). This film goes even further and says that distinctions and separations are all illusions that we would be better unshackling ourselves from. Well that opens a whole moral, ethical can of worms that I won't start to get into--but the logical extension of that idea is that we are all one. What that means is that there is nothing about you or me that is special. There is nothing that makes us distinct from one another. We are all the same and we are not allowed to have differences--differences are an illusion.
This is the essence of all dystopia. This is a razor's edge idea that somehow appeals to everyone--sensitive artists and Hitler alike. And the irony is this: there is a dystopia represented in the movie where there is a dominant group known as Unanimity--as in, we all agree--as in, no distinctions. But it's awful, terrible, and is being fought against by the group of people that value...no distinctions.
BOOM. That just happened.