Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gravity (2013)

I saw this in Imax but save for one effect, Ryan’s floating tears, I don’t think that was especially necessary. I know the world disagrees.

It was a great inspiring adventure. Bullock has come a long way from Speed and expertly pulled off what was most often a one-man show. She shoulders the task as well as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away. Of course, George Clooney’s Matt is a bit more captivating than Wilson.

Matt is the senior officer in charge of their space mission. Ryan is a medical engineer, not an astronaut. She’s gone through just 6 months of training to get out there to perform IT in the cosmos, working on the computer system. Ryan is still pretty nauseous as her body continues to adjust to the lack of gravity. I thought her queasiness would play a part in the story, as she hasn’t been able to keep any food down, but it doesn’t, which is good and in keeping with the plot that is really about human strength (the real kind, not the superhuman), rather than contrived weakness. When the movie starts she, Matt and Shariff (as doomed as any red shirt) are outside performing technical repairs. They have a crew back inside their ship and are talking to Mission Control on earth.

Clooney has gotten to the point where he reminds me of what I always used to say about Cary Grant, that his light, playful side is so well known that even when he’s in a movie where he’s cold and withholding (Notorious) or depressed (Penny Serenade) the audience is fully familiar with the part of him that is missing. They can imagine him laughing and kidding, even if they never see him do it onscreen, because the essence of Cary Grant is so ingrained in their minds. You almost assume that any character Grant plays has all of his known personality traits, even when they’re not on display. This is also now true for Clooney and it works both ways: when he’s being irreverent (as Matt is in the beginning) you are aware that he can easily be grave. When he’s cool, you know he can be tender. When he’s gruff, you know there’s a reason for it and are never left to think it’s just bad temperament. You’re always cognizant of the different emotions under his surface and know that if he’s not showing them, there’s a calculated reason, because he wants to spur some particular reaction. Clooney has become such a commodity that it allows him to act in shorthand, one gesture or lip turn speaks volumes.

While Ryan works, Matt is regaling Mission Control with stories he’s told 100 times before. His wife left him, but he really misses the car she took with her. He’s concerned about the space walk record held by an astronaut rival that he’s determined to beat. He plays country music that Ryan asks him to turn down, so she can concentrate. No problem, he says. He’s being the life of the party because that’s his character, because it’s needed to break the tedium, but also because that laid back air will not add to Ryan’s nervousness as a novice in space.

He’s in the middle of a joke when Mission Control tells him that debris from a fallen Russian satellite is headed their way. Ryan is trying to bring the computer server up before they had back to the ship and it looks like they have time, but soon Matt realizes they don’t and orders her to stop what she’s doing. She hesitates, thinking she can finish in seconds and we see the commander in him kick in, ordering her to stop instantly. “Don’t make me tell you, again.” Before they can reach safety, the debris hits. Their ship is caved in. Shariff’s helmet crashes in. Temperatures in space can reach well below freezing and they need their suits and helmet for protection and oxygen.

The earth below them goes dark, all lights extinguished. After the debris storm is over, Ryan finds that she’s been knocked away from their base. She’s floating in darkness, alone in the world, in the universe. We share her isolation in the vastness. She begins hyperventilating as she spirals out of control in her suit. Too terrified to try to navigate the chaos.

Matt is wearing a jet pack that he can use to guide himself. He is still transmitting to her and after an excruciating length of fear as she takes in the reality of her situation thousand of miles away from civilization with no way back, Ryan calms herself down enough to respond to Matt and give him her location. He finds her and tethers her to his suit.

Matt asks for Mission Control’s permission to retrieve Shariff’s floating body. They’ve lost contact with Mission Control, but Matt keeps making blind transmissions. He tells Ryan that they can’t hear MC, but they never whether or not MC can still hear them. So you keep broadcasting, in case there’s someone out there who can save your life. Poor Shariff. The character was not played by a star, so the minute you see him as their co-worker on a dangerous mission, you know he’s not long for this world. He’s the expendable one. The one whose death will bring home the horror of the situation. And so it does. When they get next to Shariff’s body, she’s the one who has to reel him in. She comes face to what used to be HIS face. Some kind of space garbage smashed a hole in his helmet that went right through the middle of his head. But it’s so frozen up there that there’s no skull or body parts really. He looks more like a brittle mask than a man.

When they get back to their ship, it’s been blasted apart and the rest of the crew has suffered the same fate. Matt tells MC that he and Ryan are the only survivors. He doesn’t show palpable emotion, but the priority he made the retrieval of Shariff’s body, so it could be tethered to the ship and, hopefully, some day taken back home to earth, says it all.

He tells Ryan there’s a Russian satellite nearby and they can go there, get a capsule that they can use to travel to the Chinese satellite, which will get them home. She is running out of oxygen. She says she is only slowing him down and he should leave her. She’s going to die anyway. Her tank goes empty, but Matt tells her there’s more in her suit. She just has to “sip” it, not gulp. Stay calm. He assures her she can make it to the Russian satellite and he promises that there’s vodka there to revive her. He knows where the Russians hide it.

She apologizes for not stopping work on the computer and taking shelter as soon as he ordered. He says that the debris was coming no matter what and there is nothing she could do to stop it. He’s right, if they’d gone back to the ship earlier, they would have been inside when everyone else got killed.

Not that you can distract someone at a time like this – when their oxygen is dropping fast – but Matt tries. He asks where she is from and what people in her town would be doing at 8:00 p.m. What would SHE be doing? Driving. “Let me guess: NPR?” Nothing special. She listens to anything where there’s not a lot of talk. She values the quiet. That’s the one thing she likes about space: the silence. She could get used to that. Where would she be going? Was there someone waiting for her. A Mr. Stone? No. She clamps up but then bursts out that she had a daughter. Alert Matt takes out a mirror from his suit, so that he can see her in back of him and read her face, make sure she is not on the verge of hysteria or despair. Her daughter, Ryan continues. A four year old who fell at school playing tag, hit her head and died. It was so silly, she says. And we understand. Life is silly, senseless and capricious. You can’t really talk fair and unfair in a random reality like that. She was driving when she got the news and she has kept on driving since.

As his jet pack runs out of fuel, they plummet roughly onto the Russian satellite, but it has been hit by the debris too. They get swung around trying to enter the ship and they become untethered. Ryan’s foot is loosely caught in ties hanging from the satellite and she is holding onto the broken tether, keeping Matt linked to her. He’s floating, being pulled away from the satellite and Ryan. She says that she can maneuver them both to safety. He sees that she can’t. The atmosphere is too heavy and if they stay connected he will just pull her away from the cords that are her only perilous tie to the satellite. Once her foot loosens from those cords, they will both be floating in space, with no way to guide themselves to even a SMALL chance of escape back. This makes me wonder if gravity free space is like floating in the water. Can’t you kind of wave your arms and propel your body in a certain direction that way? I guess not, but I think I would have tried flapping my elbows like a chicken, just to see.

He says that she has to go to the satellite without him. And then she has to take it to the Chinese satellite IMMEDIATELY, because the last they heard from Mission Control the remnants of the fallen satellite were en route to them and they would be hit by even bigger and deadlier stuff soon, so she has to get out of there as fast as she can. No, she won’t go without him, she insists, holding the broken tether firmly. “I have you. I have you.” She says. He says, it’s not her decision and slowly starts to unbuckle the clasp from his end, breaking his link to her tether. Sealing his fate. It’s more chilling and sad than if he’d put a gun to his head and killed himself in front of her THAT WAY. “Nooo!” She screams. “I HAD you. I HAD you,” she sobbed and you feel the futility of his sacrifice just as she must. And it’s not just his life that she mourns, his sacrifice that she regrets. It’s the fact that without him she will be alone. Alone in this endless black. In a way, that’s worse than death. Better that they had perished together, exchanging, communicating, sharing, rather than that he, she, die alone out there. The silence she once graved is what is most scary now.

But it’s not there yet. She can still hear Matt. He’s giving her directions to get into the Russian satellite. She can see him floating, but he gets more distant each second. She says that she is going to get in and then find and save him. No, there’s no time. She has to be at the Chinese satellite before the next round of deadly space garbage hits. She can’t detour to find him, he orders. “That ship has sailed” he tells her calmly. No, she WILL do it. But he seems at peace already. You can’t beat the view up there, he says, where the sun’s glow is as big as a city. His country music is playing and he already seems at peace.

She gets into the satellite, just after her oxygen reserve is completely drained. She gasps as she finds air and enclosure that it must seem has been absent for a lifetime. She tears off her helmet, the space suit and is left in only a tank top and briefs. Barefooted she pulls her legs to her chest and floats in the fetal position, a brief moment of safety. Then, she pushes her way through the satellite to the dashboard and tries to talk to Matt. She wants his coordinates. She’s coming to get him. No answer. I think that maybe he can still hear her but is CHOOSING not to answer, because he wants her to head to the Chinese station and not waste time trying to retrieve him. I feel confident that he will turn up again. She makes a blind transmission to Mission Control and tells them that she is now the only survivor.

We saw flames flickering in the satellite as she navigated through it, but Ryan didn’t. Not until now. They erupt and start barreling towards her. She speeds away from them, fleeing into the capsule and locking the hatch, closing out the flames just in time. She pulls on a hanging space suit and I’m thankful. I’m afraid the space suits had been consumed in the fire and that she would be trapped without one.

She reads the instruction manual and launches the capsule, but is caught in its parachute attachment, the netting and ropes from it ensnaring her. She has to get out to try to unscrew the parachute from the capsule. Looks into space while completing this task and sees tons of more debris heading her way. She narrowly makes it to cover and then tries to restart the capsule when it runs out of fuel. Ok. That is where I draw the line. It’s a space satellite. Don’t international crews constantly maintain these things and make sure they have plenty of fuel just for emergencies like this?? Maybe the fuel tank was pierced during the debris avalanche. I can only hope there’s some plausible explanation for what looks like a bad plot device in a film that, to its credit, has largely felt real despite the extraordinary circumstances.

At this point, Ryan thinks the turn of events is almost as comical as it is tragic. I mean, when you’re on the verge of hysteria, Murphy’s Law is actually good for a quite a laugh. The tears of hopelessness she sheds sail away from her face and towards the camera lens, in a poignant use of the 3d effect. She tries to get a signal on the capsule’s dashboard and gets a foreign voice. She thinks it may be another satellite that can rescue her and says “May Day,” the person thinks that’s her name. [isn’t “mayday” a word that is universally understood]. She speaks frantically trying to make herself understood, but then hears dogs and realizes that the person on the other end is on earth, not close enough to help. She all but collapses in helplessness. She’s going to die. We’re all going to die. But SHE is going to die today. She lets the fear that this certainty brings her set in. Along with the dogs she hears a baby crying. The man sings. Is he singing the baby a lullaby. She used to sing to her daughter and she finds this soothing. She bids him to keep singing as she takes off her helmet, relaxes in her seat and welcomes death as if it’s only slumber.

She’s half-conscious when she hears a knock on the capsule door. It’s Matt. He is preparing to open the capsule. She motions for him to wait as she scrambles to put on her helmet as protection from the elements, but he doesn’t pause. Why not? He looked through the window and saw she didn’t have anything on her head. What was the point of knocking to give her a thumbs up if he’s just going to barge in in a way that might endanger her? He comes in and she cowers, but I guess it’s not’s 145 degrees below Fahrenheit out there after all, because even though his entry makes it a little windy in there, it doesn’t seem to cause her much discomfort.

How did he get there? It’s a long story he says, jocular as ever. Turns out there was still a little power left in his jet pack, there’s ALWAYS something left, and without her around to hold him back he was able to maneuver to safety. Did she get the vodka? No, he never told her where it was. He finds it under the seat and offers her some. She declines. He says they better get going to the Chinese satellite. But they’re out of fuel. But they can still launch can’t they? Didn’t she learn that in training? They can use that as their fuel. She doesn’t think it will work. That’s right he says. She should give up. Her daughter is dead – she clinches – so why bother carrying on? It would be just easy to just curl up in a ball and resign herself to dying. Go ahead. Lay back and die. It’s easier than fighting. Accepting his challenge she sits up … Matt disappears. It was her subconscious, yes, but I still expected her to reach under the seat and find the vodka bottle whose location SHE didn’t know and prove that it WAS indeed a paranormal visitation and not just Ryan talking to herself into action. But it’s not that kind of movie. It’s about will power rather than fantasy.

She figures out how to launch the capsule. Gets enough force to propel herself to the Chinese satellite. When she gets out of her capsule, she takes a jetpack but then discards it prematurely I think. I’m afraid she will lose her grip on the satellite and go floating out to space. I keep wanting her to somehow tether herself to the satellite spokes as she tries to locate and enter the hatch rather than kind of just jumping from one part of the vessel to another, completely unfettered. I’m not the only one afraid. People around me audibly exhale when Ryan finally opens the hatch door and is almost knocked from the satellite as the lid swings back. She makes it in just barely. Brief respite again. Accepting Matt’s death she tells him he’s going to see a little girl with knotted hair, because she never liked to brush it. Tell her her momma loves her so much and is so, so proud of her. Ryan is headed home or to her fiery death if the satellite is burned as she plunges through the atmosphere. Either way, down they go.

The trip back to earth seems like a surprisingly fast one. Before we know it, Ryan’s satellite capsule, parachute open, is plummeting into the ocean. Her dashboard hits up. Mission Control is asking the unidentified capsule to identify itself (it’s a wonder that the military doesn’t shoot at the capsule as a downed Chinese surveillance vehicle, but they know they have a missing space crew and probably are gleeful realizing that someone has survived. The capsule hits the surface, but it’s filling with smoke and she has to open the door. Water rages in and the capsule begins to sink. It’s a rush for time as Ryan races to get out before she drowns. In the water, weighed down, she has to pull off the heavy space suit. With herculean effort she swims to the surface, again in just her tank and briefs.

Heading towards the muddy shore, she climbs through plants and finally slithers out of the water, onto the damp soil. Terra firma. She lays flat, reveling in its solidity. U.S. planes fly overhead. She holds the mud in her fingers, loving It and everything it stands for. Home, survival, triumph. She tries to make it to her feet, but stumbles at first, her body so unused to gravity. The reverse of where she started. She tries to rise again, loses her balance, but regains it. Like a baby taking first steps. Then, walking upright, body wet from the water, skin glowing and revitalized, bare feet firmly on the ground.

The movie is an affirmation and I love that we don’t see the planes land. She made it back alive, not by herself necessarily, but without anyone rescuing her. It’s a story of courage, perseverance and autonomy. And it’s not as if the audience ever thought Ryan couldn’t do it. She panicked, felt forsaken, almost gave up, but she was NEVER incompetent, just thrust outside of her skillset and not completely sure there was a world below to which it was worth returning. But, in the end, the will to survive is greater than the pain of going on. Life is not the easiest way forward, but winning the fight to make it the ONLY way, the only choice, is the best victory.

Ryan faltered like we all would and succeeded like we all hope we could. The film’s suspense originated more from thought than action and that’s exactly what made it so exciting.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The movie starts with Tommy Lee Jones’ voice over. That’s misleading for two reasons: (1) He’s the sheriff. You’ve seen him in The Fugitive (or even Men In Black) and you automatically assume he’s going to be hot on the tail of the bad guys, closing in, making their lives miserable, giving them a taste of what it’s like to be hunted. That never happens. (2) Jones’ character, Ed Tom Bell is a third generation sheriff. He grew up hearing not only about his father and grandfather’s pursuits, but of their colleagues. Bell talks of law enforcement officers who did not even wear guns. He says he likes to hear their stories. Combine this with the movie title and you might conclude that this is no country for old men, because crime has gotten much worse than it used to be. Andy Taylor’s Mayberry once existed but is now extinct. But we soon learn the opposite is true.

He sent a man to jail for killing a 14 year old girl. They called it a crime of passion, but the killer told him it wasn’t passion. He’d been planning to kill someone all of his life and if he got out of jail, he promised Ed he’d kill again.

Evil is old. Bell knows it, so did his father and his father before him. Evil’s unreasonable, unpredictable, and inexorable. It’s not invisible, just unnoticed. It takes you by surprise or it comes while you’re waiting. You deserve it or you don’t. You grasp its logic or grapple trying. It’s slow, it’s fast, it’s inescapable.

Here evil is embodied by Anton Chigurh. With his pageboy, oxygen tank and deliberate reticence, his weirdness is obvious, but not frightening. Not at first.

We first see him being arrested and cuffed, but inexplicably, he’s not chained to anything. His movement is restricted, but not prevented. When the deputy turns his back while talking on the phone to describe his capture, Anton easily comes up and kills him from behind. Their bodies spin on the floor as Anton strangles. The blood swirls and the killer’s intensity is almost sexual.

He steals the deputy’s car, police lights whirring, he pulls over a motorist who thinks the oxygen tank by the “cop’s” side is strange, but not troubling. “What’s that he asks.” “Can you please step out of the car?” Anton replies and even though Anton is dressed as a civilian, the driver doesn’t begin to think anything is wrong, until perhaps the very end, when Anton raises the hose on the oxygen take and uses it to propel a lethal pellet into the man’s head. My friend thought it was a stupid weapon, but for a serial killer who murders more for psychological art than necessity, it’s perfect. Anton does not prefer this tank over a shotgun because it’s less conspicuous, as he has no trouble parading massive rifles in public places. Rather, the tank gives him the opportunity to watch the fear and certainty of death dawn, then spread, then end, while a gun or knife would have put his victims on instant alert, shortening the game. Cat and mouse is more layered, when you see the mouse just discovering he is prey.

Anton stops off at a gas station and, oxygen tank in tow, he teases the owner. Twisting his words, taking offense where none was meant, until the man soon realizes there’s no answer he can give this stranger that will keep him safe. Anton takes out a coin and asks the man if he’s feeling lucky. This moment was part of the movie’s famous trailer. Its tension is part of what kept me away from the film for 6 years. I didn’t want to know what happened when that coin stopped spinning. I can watch violent scenes, but don’t like seeing them approach. A shoe on the floor is nothing, compared to watching it drop, in slow motion. If you’ve never been assaulted, you can’t empathize with the injury, but hopeless, helpless waiting is something we’ve all experienced in one form of another and it’s stomach-turning. If the shark doesn’t get you, his theme music will. But things end well for this shopkeeper. Anton tells him to call the coin. He delays, saying how can he call it if he doesn’t know what he stands to win or lose. Anton insists. Head or tails? He chooses head. He wins. Anton gives him the coin as a prize, but orders him to keep it in a special place. Don’t let it mingle with all the other coins, because then it won’t matter.

I wonder about the shopkeeper though. He’s in an unpopulated part of Texas. Near the Mexican border. He’s got merchandise, money and few places to hide. If urban 7-Elevens are dangerous, surely isolated road stops are. How’d he protect himself before Anton? And if he didn’t, surely he knew that the day would come when he might regret it. Ed Tom Bell saw trouble on the horizon and this man should have seen it too, but instead of preparing for it, they both seemed to just wait to see what would happen when it came.

Meanwhile we see Llewelyn Moss out hunting in the desert. He comes upon a slew of dead bodies and abandoned vehicles. There’s one man still alive, bleeding, begging Moss for water. “I ain’t got no water,” he answers unapologetically. He notices that the man’s truck bed is full of drugs. They were transporting an illegal load across the border and obviously got double-crossed during the exchange. Moss asks the fast failing man who was the last one left standing. There was a fight, but it seems that that the attacked killed as many people as the attackers did. There are drugs, but no drug money. Where’d it go? Moss decides that whoever took the money would have gone to the shade. He sees a big tree in the distance and stealthily heads over. There’s a dead man there and a brief case. It’s loaded with money and Moss takes it and hurries off.

Back at his trailer home, he eludes his wife Carla Jean’s questions about where he’s been and hides the money, still in the briefcase, under his trailer.

I appreciate that the lead characters in this movie are all smart, but they do some really dumb things. This is one of them. This is a world where people where dirty jeans to a funeral. It’s hot and dusty and no one carries a brief case. Why would Moss have kept the money in there. It draws attention and it’s heavier than a back pack would have been. Plus, he seems to know that there’s $2 million in the case, but he apparently never bothered to count the stash. It’s a ridiculous point that runs the plot and I’d like to tell the Coens that they could have told the same story, only with a more believable cash container. But I guess avoiding the strange and unlikely has never been their strong suit.

Moss goes to bed, but then decides to return to the desert. He lets Carla Jean know that he’s going off on a fool’s errand and may never return. “Tell mama I love her,” he says as he departs. She reminds him that his mother is already dead. Oh, then he’ll tell her himself, if anything happens. He fills a jug of water before he leaves. So, did he return only to take water to the man he left dying? Did his conscious prick him? Is this gesture supposed to tell us that at heart he’s a decent man? Since he scoffed at the man and had no qualms about abandoning him in the first place, I’m not moved by Moss’ belated compassion, especially since the guy was in such bad shape that I’d hardly expect him to live for 12 more hours waiting for Moss to take pity and help him.

Moss finds his way back to the scene of the shoot out and the man he’d left in the car is now dead. He survived the first round of gunfire only to die later. You're never really spared, only suspended. Aqua came too late to save him. Moss sees vehicles in the distance and as they start shooting at him, he has to leave his truck behind. He makes it home wounded and tells Carla Jean that his truck is registered and can be traced back to him, the Department of Motor Vehicles opens at 9:00 a.m. and that’s how much time they have to get away. She needs to pack everything she can, because she’ll never see any of it again.

He puts her on a bus to her ornery mother in Odessa. But once his vehicle paperwork reveals his identity to the killers, they’ll know who his wife is too. They can easily track down her relatives, so sending her to this destination for protection was crazy. He should have sent her anywhere Greyhound goes where she would have no roots that could be trailed.

He sends her off and rather than getting on a separate bus himself, he gets a car and tries to lay low in the local area. He checks into a motel, but takes two rooms, one in back of the other. He hides the money in the hotel vent in one room, then makes sure he can retrieve it quickly from the adjacent room. The plan being the people on his tail will go to the wrong room and he can high tail it out of there from the other room, with the loot.

Ed Tom Bell and his deputy find the dead bodies in the desert. It’s a drug deal gone bad and when they see Moss’ truck Bell, who knows Moss casually, figures that Moss wasn’t involved with the drug sale, but took the money after things went downhill. The deputy wonders if Moss knew what he was getting into. Well, Bell reasons if Moss saw all the carnage that they did, it probably left an impression on, because it sure impressed Bell.

Anton is hired by the people who put up the money for the drugs to find the person who took it. Once he gets the assignment, he promptly kills the people who retained him, traces Moss’ vehicle registration and heads to Moss’ trailer. It’s empty, but reading Moss’ mail, Anton sees the number most frequently called on the phone bill. That number belongs to Carla Jean’s mother. So Anton immediately knows where to find the wife, but better still, he knows how to find the money. It seems that it was packed with a transmitter inside the brief case that Moss never bothered to rifle through. Once that transmitter starts beeping, it will lead him directly to the brief case. Anton opens Moss’ fridge, takes out the milk and sits down to drink it, watching his reflection on the black tv screen before him.

Ed Tom Bell comes along so soon after Anton has left that the milk glass is still sweating. They just missed him and “that’s frustrating,” he exclaims. But also life-saving. When they entered the trailer, Ed instructed his deputy to have his gun drawn and ready, but what about Ed’s gun? He tells the deputy that he’d rather just hide behind him! But considering all of the dead people they found in the desert, their two guns would not have been enough to defend themselves against multiple shooters – or even one shooter with a powerful enough weapon. So, why DOES Ed go in without his gun drawn? Does he want to be like the sheriffs of old who didn’t wear one? Why. That approach only works if crime rates are low or the criminals easily outsmarted. Ed already knows that neither is the case in this situation. Does he just think death is inevitable and evil something that you can only defeat if you never meet it? Otherwise, don’t bother trying.

Ed takes a swig of the still cool milk and also looks at his reflection in the blank television screen. Are he and Anton both just playing roles? If Anton’s role is evil personified, what is Ed’s? He’s not justice. He’s chronicling wrong, but not correcting it or even warding it off. He’s not a narrator because the audience knows more than Bell ever does. Moss challenges Anton in this movie, no one else comes close. Jones’ great acting aside, one wonders what Bell’s purpose in the story is. Does he represent humanity? No more than Anton’s victims do.

Anton’s transmitter tracks the money to Moss’ motel, but the way it’s situated, hidden at a curve in the vent, it seems to be in a different motel room than the 2 that Moss has rented. Anton busts into that third room and finds three men inside who also have a transmitter. He blows them away. They were apparently hired to do the same job as he was.

Moss hears the gun shots and quickly runs away, briefcase in hand. At the next motel, he wonders how he was tracked and FINALLY looks in the briefcase and finds the transmitter. He removes it and I think maybe if he throws it out the window, Anton will think the money is across the street, but Moss knows he doesn’t have time for that. He calls down to the front desk and gets no answer, quickly concluding that the motel attendant has been killed. He sees footsteps outside his door and waits gun at the ready. The feet under the door move away. Was it a false alarm, a fellow guest who has now gone on down the hall? I hope so, but Moss knows better. The hall light is turned off, so that Moss can no longer see the feet under the door. Anton wants him to know as little as possible about when it’s going to happen. The door bursts open. Anton enters blasting. Moss throws himself out the window and runs down the street with his case.

There’s a chase and a satisfying turn when suddenly it is an armed Moss who is after Anton, rather than the other way around. He fires and hits Anton, ending the showdown briefly. Bleeding he buys an overcoat and beer from college kids and crosses the border into Mexico, pretending to be a drunk. I didn’t know that it was that easy for drunks to cross the border, without any proof of citizenship, but maybe so.

He throws the money over the railing near the immigration checkpoint and checks into a Mexican hospital. Anton doesn’t. He explodes a car to distract pharmacy employees, steals the drugs he needs and treats his own injuries.

In a high rise office in the business district, a corporate exec wants his $2 million back. He hires Carson Wells to find the man who has taken it. Carson tells him its easier said than done, because Anton will be after Moss too and Anton plays by a different set of rules. Money doesn’t mean anything to him. He has his own principles and adheres to them in a way that gives him a strange type of honor. Unlike the exec or Carson, Anton can’t be bought, which makes him all the more dangerous. Knowing this, Carson heads off after Moss anyway.

He says it took him only 3 hours to find Moss in the Mexican hospital and if he can find him, he tells Moss that Anton surely will. If Moss lets him know where the money is, he can save his life. Moss won’t. He’s willing to die. But is he willing to see Carla Jean die, Carson wonders. He knows she’s in Odessa and so does Anton. Moss is quiet, but unyielding. He gives Moss his card and tells him he’ll be staying in the hotel across the border.

All roads lead to Odessa. Ed Tom heads out that way too and tells Carla Jean to contact him when she hears from Moss. He can keep Moss safe, he assures her. How so? And why doesn’t he try keeping Carla Jean safe? Ed Tom may not know that the bad guys are after her, but if he knows that Moss will make contact with her you’d think he’d realize that others know the same. By keeping tabs on her, he’s closer to capturing both Moss and the killers, but instead of guarding them Ed leaves Carla Jean and her mother to their own devices.
He goes to visit an old family friend. His grandpa’s deputy, Ellis, who is now paralyzed. He asks him what he would do if he could confront the man who put him in that chair. Probably nothing. There wouldn’t be a point. Ed is surprised. Ellis says all the time you spend trying to get back something that’s been taken from you makes you lose even more. Hmmm. That’s one way to look at things, but Anton’s trying to get back money that’s been taken and he doesn’t seem to be suffering much. As the two men converse, Ellis recalls his Uncle Mac who was shot down on his own front porch in 1909. Ellis hears from Ed’s wife that Ed will be retiring. Ellis wants to know why. At first I think Ed will deny that it’s true, but he tells Ellis that he’s retiring because he feels overmatched. Well, that’s fine but I have not seen him really ENTER the match. He’s not stayed one step ahead of Anton or tried to catch up. He’s been content to follow him, rather than chase. Is he a coward? A man who has entered the wrong profession, one that he inherited rather than chose? I don’t know. The gas station owner that Anton terrorized with the coin had inherited that shop from his father-in-law. He married into it. Maybe we are all heirs to our own destiny, not something that we shape, but that those who shape US do. I don’t know why Ed is there or what I am supposed to learn from his perceptions. If he’s changed, dwindled, if he used to put killers away and now he can’t, then I need to see him trying and failing. I just see him watching.

Carson spies the briefcase that Moss tossed aside over the guard rail. He plans to retrieve it later. Although he was the one who told Moss just how close on Moss’ heels Anton was didn’t bother to watch his own. Back at his hotel Anton waylays him. He tells Anton he can get the money, says, “You don’t have to do this,” and Anton replies that’s what they all say. You don’t have to do this. Woody turns in a fine performance, sweating with fear, but never losing his used car salesman swagger. Carson’s hotel phone rings. Anton answers it, then casually kills Carson so he can give the caller his full attention.

“Who is this?” Moss asks on the other end. Anton knows that Moss knows who it is. He tells him to give Anton the money now. Then, he’ll still kill Moss, but he’ll spare Carla Jean. If Moss doesn’t surrender now, then Anton will treat Carla Jean as if she’s just as guilty as Moss is. Moss refuses. He says that Anton will go to Odessa, but Carla Jean won’t be there. Huh? She’s there in Odessa now. Who’s to say that Anton can’t easily get to wherever she might be in the future?

In the movie’s stupidest turn, Moss calls Carla Jean and tells her to go to El Paso where he will give her the money, put her on a plane and then he’ll confront Anton. Since Anton is, presumably, more concerned with the money than Moss (as far as Moss is concerned, even if the audience knows better), why does Moss figure that Anton won’t go after her, wherever he sends her? Plus, since everyone in the world already knows she’s in Odessa, how does Moss think she can get out of there safely and live long enough for him to put her on a plane to ANYWHERE?

Carla Jean wonders about her mother. She can’t just leave her behind. Sure she can Moss says, the old woman’s so aggravating that she’ll be perfectly safe alone. No one’s going to harm HER. It’s a funny line, but also shows how little Moss knows about Anton. He doesn’t just kill when he has to, for a purpose or to gain an objective. If Moss knew this would it make him more effective against Anton? Well, it didn’t help Carson.

Speaking of which, Anton heads to the skyscraper where the business exec who hired Carson is and kills him, angry that the guy hired another team of assassins and gave the transmitter needed to do ANTON’s job.

Carla Jean proceeds to El Paso on Moss’ orders. Moss charms border patrol by telling him he’s a Vietnam vet (Carson was too) and crosses back into the US. He gets to El Paso first. A woman by the pool flirts with him, but he tells her he’s married. Is that why he keeps looking around? Is it his wife he’s waiting for, the woman asks? That’s half of it. The other half is just him looking at what’s to come, he replies. Well, why did he arrange to have his wife meet him at the same place where danger would be? I don’t understand it. If part of him fears Anton’s arrival, how does he think she will be safe? She’s more worried about Moss and calls Ed Tom to El Paso too, because her husband is in over his head.

Here it seems like a piece of the movie is missing. It’s not the finale we expected, perhaps because this a movie about reaction, not action. Dusk comes we see a dead body floating in the pool. It’s the woman who flirted with Moss. Flash to an open hotel room, with a dead Moss inside. We don’t even get to see him lose. Carla Jean pulls up in a car, sees the yellow police tape and screams.

Ed Tom talks about what went down with the local police chief. The chief thinks that crime is different today and it all started when kids dyed their hair and stopped saying sir and madam. It’s not just one thing. It’s a whole tide of bad things that changes society for the worse. Ed agrees with this, only his history should tell him that society has always known the worst. The chief says that Anton not only killed Carson at the hotel, but the day before he’d killed the desk clerk. He must love to return to the scene of the crime.

This is ridiculous because we had not seen Anton exhibit a pattern of doing any such thing. In fact, in returning to the desert in the first place once he’d already had the money (and could not be traced to its source), Moss seemed more like he was determined to revisit the scene of the crime than Anton. Secondly, if there had been a murder there the day before, in a small town like that, surely there would be evidence of it remaining 24 hours later. Carson would have heard about the desk clerk being killed, known it was Anton and would never have returned to that hotel. He should have been on better alert anyway, but now that we’re told there was another murder besides his at that same location, there’s no excuse for him being caught off guard left.

This return to the scene of the crime plot device is just thrown out to give ED a reason to return to the El Paso motel. He does and stops outside the hotel room where Moss died. It’s still cordoned off with yellow tape. Inside we see Anton lurking in the shadows. Ed draws his gun (oh, he decides to use it THIS time) and enters with trepidation. The room appears to be empty. He goes into the bathroom, turns on the light. It’s empty, with the window locked. He sits on the bed, sighing in relief. He's missed Anton by minutes again, just as he did when he got to Moss' trailer and drank the still-cool milk. Back then, he said being minutes behind Anton was "frustrating," but was it? Was he thankful to have gotten there too late for a confrontation?

He looks down and sees the vent in the room. The cover has been unscrewed and lies on the floor, there’s a discarded coin beside it. We must assume that Moss hid the money inside that vent (as he had before) and Anton found it. But where is Anton now? He was too big to climb into the vent? Wasn’t he? How did he escape?

I assume Moss rented to hotel rooms this time as he had the first time and maybe we thought Anton was in the room that Ed Tom entered, when he was actually in the adjoining one.

Time passes. Carla Jean buries her mother who was surprisingly only 58 years old. For some reason she was portrayed as an older woman and I wonder if there's something significant about her true age. Carla Jean returns home from the funeral only to find Anton waiting for her. She knew he would come, but she doesn’t have the money. He says he will kill her anyway, he promised Moss he would. He promised her husband he would kill her?? Yes. Moss had the chance to save her, but chose to save himself. Even though Anton’s explanation is supposed to be perverted, I somewhat agree with what he says. Whether it meant giving up the $2 million or not, I think Moss unnecessarily put Carla Jean’s life in danger.

Carla Jean doesn’t beg. Anton offers her a way out. He’ll flip the coin and she has to call it. She won’t. She won’t call it. It’s him. He makes the choice whether she lives or dies. The coin doesn’t. Cut to the house exterior, Anton is exiting. He made the coin’s choice.

He is leaving in his car and is hit by a random car. He’s hurt badly, bone extruding from his arm. Moss couldn’t bring him down. Law enforcement didn’t catch him. Mercy never stopped him. But he’s driving away on a peaceful residential street when he’s hit by a car out of nowhere. There are police sirens in the distance. He waves down two boys and buys a shirt from one of them. Tells them they never saw him. Then, he’s gone, injured but alive. We don’t know why he didn’t kill them. He killed 2 men to steal their car. Killed two hotel clerks, but let the woman at the trailer office where Moss lived survive. Urgency doesn’t dictate his victims. What does?

Ed Tom is at home breakfasting with his wife. He’s retired and aimless. He had a dream. Two of them, both about his father. In one he had money and he lost it. He can’t remember the details. In the other, his father was still a young man, younger than Ed was. He was passing by with a horn of fire and he rode his horse into the distance and Ed knew that his father was going somewhere to make a fire out in that unknown dark and cold and when Ed got there, his father (and the horn of fire, I guess) would be waiting. This dream is reminiscent of Moss and his dead mother. He expected to go someplace where he could tell her he loved her himself. But in the end, Ed’s father offered him protection, something none of the other characters – except Anton – ever had.

Ed told Ellis that he’d always expected to find God later in life, but never did. Why does he think that? Because he feels there’s no justice? That right does not prevail over wrong? Maybe he wasn't overmatched by the criminals, but by the evil that propels them, so that good can never conquer bad. That might explain his lackluster efforts to apprehend Anton, but even so why retire? Death doesn’t approach when you’re overmatched, then halt if you retreat. It just comes anyway. He asked Ellis when his Uncle Mac died, after being shot on his own porch, while his killers casually looked on and watched him bleed? Was it right after he was shot or was it later? It was later that night and his Aunt buried him the next day. So, it seems that any escape is only temporary. Unhurried, unworried, death always catches up with you, which is the same lesson Moss learned.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cloud Atlas, The Book (2004)

Because I hit the maximum character length on Goodreads, I decided to put my review of the Cloud Atlas book here, which will make it easier to find and compare to the movie review which will follow -- as soon as I see the movie!

[contains SPOILERS]

I thought this book would be about reincarnation. Which means, I expected the process of reincarnation to figure into the story's plot and, as characters became aware of its role in their lives, eventually factor into their development and become a catalyst in their meeting with destiny. Instead a flimsy reference to reincarnation is used as a very thin thread, which loosely links 6 disparate short stories.

The author, David Mitchell, is very talented in creating not only diverse narratives, but different worlds, sometimes complete with new languages that are delightful to decipher and interpret. What he clearly couldn't do was tell a compelling, novel length story. So, what we get is themes bookending short tales, rather than an extended plot.

For the most part, the reincarnated souls don't share common personality traits or ethics. They don't learn from past life mistakes. They don't inherit karma. Basically, all they share is a comet shaped birthmark on the left shoulder blade. In a lurid violation of the "show us don't tell us" rule, that's how we are able to identify them as the supposedly same person, from story to story.

In case you get through 75% of the book without realizing its transparent structure, Mitchell helps you along by having one of the reincarnated protagonists, a music composer, spell it out, by using the outline for his symphony (helpfully titled Cloud Atlas Sextet) as an unneeded metaphor for the book as a whole:

"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists'" piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each soli is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" Unfortunately, the answer is NEITHER.

While "gimmicky" would not be a compliment, it might require more complexity in the interweaving or overlap between stories than actually exists here.

The series of six begins with ADAM EWING, an American notary from San Francisco (during the Gold Rush era) who handles various estates and is traveling home, from abroad, on a ship that stops at various ports on "uncivilized" black islands being overrun by Anglo-Saxon missionaries and fortune seekers, both seeking to exploit the local tribes. They imprison and kill them, steal their resources, and/or strive to convert them to a code of ethics that is more modern than theirs, but, in the end, no more moral or less savage.

If the natives aren't killed by outright oppression, then it's the foreign diseases that the white ships bring, for which the tribes have no immunity. They are dying off in droves, a fact which those invading their lands care nothing about. Adam distances himself from the tribes people, but also empathizes the more he sees them victimized by his peers. Religious without hypocrisy, Adam tells his shipmates that they should be civilizing the natives, not killing them and is told that the best of the blacks is not too good to die like a pig.

Back aboard ship, Ewing seems strangely enchanted with the beauty of a young shipmate, Rafael. In the end we learn that Rafael is being raped by the more seasoned sailors and ultimately commits suicide to Ewing's horror. I had begun to wonder if Ewing was in love with Rafael himself. He only mentions him sparingly in his narrative, but in a way that suggested that Rafael was more often in his thoughts than in his journal. Ewing's fate is also intertwined with a stowaway', Autua, he is a runaway aboriginal slave. While on shore, Ewing saw the youth being beaten. He only made eye contact with him briefly, during the whipping, but when they did, Ewing saw recognition in the youth's eyes and "uncanny, amicable knowing."

Now, reading this during the first pages of the book, I thought we would experiment more with how kindred spirits are drawn together over time and over different lives, by the sub-conscious connection they're fated to have throughout incarnations, but it's a subject that's not really visited. Moreover, other than the shoulder birthmark, there is nothing in the personality of the characters or that experiences, together or alone, that would help you identify them as the same souls in the other stories. Except for the person who is described as having the birthmark, we don't recognize the other people with whom he/she interacts from one story to the next as being a continuing presence throughout many lives. So, if Ewing and Autua were reunited in future centuries, it's hard to infer that with certainty.

Furthermore, if Ewing seemed so fascinated by Rafael because he's known him before or will know him again -- it's not clear who plays the "Rafael" role in the other stories. Also, how are the Autua and Rafael roles different? Are Autua and Ewing always the characters who rescue each other and co-exist from lifetime to lifetime? Is Rafael always the soul that Ewing fails to save, because he understood and gave too little, too late?

We eventually learn that Ewing is being poisoned by the ship's doctor, Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. Does the soul of this same villain return in the other stories or, sometimes, is life itself the villain? Perhaps, Ewing's life lesson is that he shouldn't have trusted Goose based only on his station in life. When Autua rescues Ewing from the death Goose had planned for him, Ewing vows to dedicate the rest of his life to the abolitionist movement, realizing that no race is superior to the other in intellect, compassion, evil or brutality.

The next hero is ROBERT FROBISHER. I found his (and later Zachry's) one of the two most compelling stories in the sextet. Frobisher's story is told through letters to his friend and sometime lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Even though we don't actually "meet" Sixsmith in this story, he's just an addressee, the depth of his feelings become so clear based on nothing more than offhand references by Frobisher, that by the time Sixsmith is actually introduced to us as an older man in the next tale, he already seems fully-fleshed and our stake in his outcome is a firmly vested.

Frobisher is the black sheep of a rich British family. He's a genius, gifted composer, but a bankrupt and lecher, using both men and women for his pleasure and his financial security. He's been disinherited by his disapproving father and gallivants through Europe, skipping out on hotel bills and concocting a web of lies that allow him to infiltrate the homes of the wealthy long enough to steal and fence their valuables, before they find out his checkered past and chuck him out the door.

We meet him in 1931, when he weasels a position as apprentice to a wealthy, older composer, Ayrs who is living off of his laurels, his creativity having dried up. Frobisher is able to translate Ayrs' stunted compositions to music in a way that revitalizes the elder's dying brilliance. But they're at a stage in their lives, where Frobisher actually has more to teach Ayrs than learn from him. Ayrs steals Frobisher's work, confident that Frobisher's has sunk so low on the social status pole that there is nothing Frobisher can do, except grin and bear it, grateful to have Ayrs' generous roof over his head.

Aware that his hands are tied, Frobisher grudgingly defers to Ayrs, but secretly works on his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, careful not to let it fall prey to Ayrs' plagiarist instincts.

Meanwhile, Frobisher is sleeping with Ayrs' wife who is becoming more possessive all the time. Frobisher happens upon a half-finished diary in Ayrs' library: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. It fascinates him and he longs to find the rest of the document. Even half-finished he can easily tell that Ewing is being poisoned by his physician Henry Goose. Perhaps Frobisher is able to divine this so quickly due to what he has learned between lives, but overall, he seems less wise and evolved than Adam Ewing. Plus, unlike the other reincarnates, Frobisher is uniquely self-centered, his altruistic leanings quite few.

Has his soul reverted because Ewing naiveté and faith only caused him harm? That would be hard to say, because it was AFTER he was poisoned by Goose that Ewing decided to help others, even if it cost him personally.

Ayrs reveals that he's known Frobisher was sleeping with his wife all along and will actually use that fact to contribue to Frobisher's permanent ruin, unless Frobisher quietly continues to let Ayrs' pass Frobisher's work off as his own. Frobisher has a "meet cute" with Ayrs' daughter Eva, as they hate each other at first site. However, when the young lady softens towards him, Frobisher believes that she has fallen in love. He soon comes to requite those feelings, only to find that he was mistaken. Eva is engaged to someone else and knowing that he has slept with her mother and been shunned by her father, is quite contemptuous of him. Frobisher contends that he is not broken-hearted, but fell out of love as quickly as he fell in it.

Still, once he finishes the Cloud Atlas sextet, he shoots himself. The end is jarring since Frobisher's tale has been a humorous and irreverent one. Yes, he was restless, but we didn't glimpse that he was dissatisfied or depressed. We don't know why he never returned to Sixsmith, the love of his life. For these reasons, his suicide seems quite genuine causing the real life shock and regret you have when you lose someone vibrant who had so much to live for and you (& Sixsmith) would have done so much to save, had you only realized he needed salvation. Only learn later in his tale does Frobisher elaborate about his brother Adrian who was killed in the war. He resented Adrian whom their father always held up as an example to whom Robert Frobisher could never compare. But after his death, he wonders about those aspects of his brother that Robert never knew and Adrian will never get to be. He goes to leave flowers on Adrian's grave, but can't find it among all the headstones of fallen soldiers. He leaves them on the grave of another "F," hoping that maybe the unknown deceased had crossed paths with Adrian, at some point.

We are left to conclude that Adrian, who never played a real part in Frobisher's story, was a big role in his death. After leaving Adrian's grave, Frobisher is in a car that hits a pheasant. Frobisher kills the wounded bird to put it out of its misery, his motive being far gentler than the act itself. I suppose the same can be said of Frobisher's suicide.

In his last letter to Sixsmith he informs him that not only does the universe move in a cycle, not only do patterns repeat, but actual lives do. Literally. They will meet again at the same place they met before and "ten years later I'll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter ..." this belief fascinates me, because I not only believe in reincarnation, but also think (hope?) that I will relive THIS life again too and reunite with people I've lost, in our same roles, only maybe I'll appreciate them more the next time around.

Frobisher's view on this subject comes as a surprise, as there has been nothing in the preceding narrative that suggested he entertained such notions. While it's a nice plot point surprise, it also reflects a weakness in character consistency. Plot-driven stories are usually frustrating, but especially so when there are six mostly unconnected ones.

The next story is Silkwoodish & takes place in the seventies. Sixsmith is an aged scientist who discovers that a nuclear reactor being reacted in a small American community is actually a hazard to everyone, a secret that no one affiliated with the reactor wants to get out. Sixsmith is murdered as he is about to go public with his findings, but not before telling his secret to an intrepid reporter, LUISA REY (the reincarnated Frobisher) to whome he instantly feels a connection. Rey pursues the story, putting her own life in jeopardy to do so. She is finally aided by a would-be assassin who recalls how her father (a police officer) saved his life decades earlier and believes he owes it to the dead man to rescue his daughter. So we have karma and we have Luisa willing to forfeit her own life to save others (in keeping with what Ewing was prepared to do in the end) & we have Sixsmith, but other than that, there's no true connection between Luisa, Frobisher and Ewing -- oh, except for her comet birthmark and fascination with Frobisher's Sextet, which she's sure she heard somewhere before!

TIMOTHY CAVENDISH is next on board. He's a London book editor. He seems to be another reverted soul. Not only is he not saving others, as Luisa did, but he's vaguely racist, which Frobisher did not seem to be. Of course, no one said that Mitchell believed in the Buddhist theory of reincarnation where the soul rises to different levels of consciousness and higher thinking over time, until it finally graduates to Dalai Lama heights. But if you aren't carrying the wisdom of past lives with you into the new ones, what's the point of reincarnating at all?

Cavendish's business is a failing one. One book comes across his desk, Half-Lives: The first Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish scoffs that the book contains a suggestion that Luisa Rey is Robert Frobisher reincarnated, but Cavendish writes that off as rubbish. After all, he also has a birthmark below his left armpit. So what? We aren't familiar with the book's writer, Hilary V. Hush (surely a pseudonym), nor are we advised of her connection to Luisa, but Luisa came into contact with mediums, new age spiritualists, maybe she reached the reincarnation conclusion herself, after we left her. His mild interest in Half-Lives is a recurring one but his story takes off when one of his writers is involved in a murder scandal, the sensationalism of which sparks book sales. With the writer himself dead, his heirs accuse Cavendish of pocketing money that should be theirs. They hire thugs to threaten him. His brother sends him to a "safe place" that turns out to be an old folks' home -- actually, prison. We never learn why his brother sends him there. At least we were told that Dr. Henry Goose's schemes against Ewing were mercenary, but why is Cavendish victimized? He had an affair with his brother's wife once, but is what happens to Timothy meant to be his brother's retribution? God's? David Mitchell's?

Traveling to what he expects to be his haven, Timothy encounters many mishaps. In between them, he is riding in a cab when he thinks the driver calls him "Zachary" he replies that that isn't his name (but will be the name of a friend of his, someday). The cabbie responds that he said "exactly," not "Zachary." I sustain a concussion being hit over the head by such heavy foreshadowing.

Once signed into the elder care facility, Cavendish is not allowed to leave. His cruel guards (the nurses, administrators and facility staff) use physical force to detain him, strapping him down, whipping him like a child, even drugging him. It's like a Cuckoo's Nest for the elderly and Cavendish has his own vengeful Nurse Ratched. Trapped there on Christmas, Cavendish sees a documentary on Ypres a once beautiful town subjected to war atrocities. He wishes he had appreciated the joys in life before they were all obscured by clouds. He should have mapped the clouds' location to make the pitfalls easier to recognize. "What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds?"

Cavendish and 3 other inmates plan and execute a fumbling, funny escape. He uses the experience to write his own book, which becomes a bestseller and is made into a movie.

The next story takes place hundreds of years in the future in Nea So Copros, what was once Korea. Instead of enslaving other humans, people have taken to growing artificial beings, known as "fabricants" and using them as slaves. The fabricants feed on "soap" which keeps them in a robotic, semi-conscious state, preventing them from forming memories or independent thought. They only recite the lessons they have been programmed, serving humans without question. This futuristic world has its own language derived from ours. Sunrise = yellow up. TV = ADv. All movies are disneys. All handheld computers are sonys and our reincarnated heroine works for the evil Golden Arches. It's not called McDonald's, but its employees do wear scarlet and yellow uniforms! Their biggest holiday is Sextet Eve. I am not sure this is an ode to Frobisher's music or not.

Sonmi 451 is one of the fabricants. Not only are their senses dulled by the "soap" they are fed, but they are brainwashed in a cult like environment, where they are ordered to follow the word of leader Papa Song, if they want to reach paradise. They are subjected to daily sermons, rituals and videos that reinforce their servitude.

Sonmi lives this robotic life like the others until an unusually aware fabricant, Yoona 939 opens her eyes. Sonmi worked and slept in her dorm room with other fabricants. They lived in a soap-induced coma, not unlike the imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, only they were not even aware they were prisoners. Sonmi knew no other life outside of work and sleep until Yoona woke her up when everyone else was sleeping and began to show her the secret world that humans inhabited after the fabricants were put to bed. Yoona plotted an escape and was killed in the process. After that Sonmi's own eyes were opened and she began to sense the world around her. Her knowledge grew and she only pretended to go through her old robotic motions. She thinks her newfound sentience is concealed from the world of humans (or purebloods) but she is caught in the act of sneaking around her workplace at night, when she is supposed to be asleep and is recruited by a member of an underground Unanimity, an organization seemingly dedicated to freeing fabricants.

"Free" in a sense, for the first time in her life, Sonmi devours human knowledge, learning everything from Plato to Hollywood era films. The flick or "Disney" that really captures her is about Timothy Cavendish. Ugh! This is such a heavy-handed and unrealistic link between the stories that it tells us more about the book's overall weakness than it serves as proof of the reincarnation.

The more embedded into this underground union Sonmi becomes, the more she learns about the atrocities committed against fabricants, while dew drugged purebloods (cosmetically altered so that they never age) live off of the fabricants' unending toil.

She learns that they are used by college students, much like lab rats on which they run experiments and write papers on their findings, oblivious of the harm, even death, they inflict on their subjects. She learns that tiny fabricants are created to serve as living dolls for the purebloods. Since there are fees levied to deactivate a fabricant, once pureblood are tired of playing with their "dolls" their parents just callously kill them rather than disposing of them in a more "humane" fashion. Finally, Sonmi learns about the biggest lie told to the fabricants: the promise that they will live in paradise after 12 years of service. She watches as fabricants with 12 years of service are taken to a room (expecting to be transported to beautiful retirement homes on a luxurious ship) and violently beheaded and mutilated. Their bodies are turned into the same "soap" that is fed to the living fabricants and also used in the food that the Golden Arches restaurant where Sonmi once worked served to purebloods.

Sonmi is stricken by one cold truth after the other. She sleeps with Hae-Joo, her union guide, Hae-Joo. The sex is joyless and mechanical, but at least it is an act of the living. When the Unanimity tells her they want to use her in their cause to free all fabricants, though their mission will be very dangerous for her, she readily agrees. She writes a manifesto for the union, declaring human rights for all fabricants. Then, she is arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death, all of which comes as no surprise.

She tells her story to an archivist and reveals that she knew that Hae-Joo and the Unanimity were working against her all along. She was a willing martyr. Their goal was to set her up as an example so that purebloods would recognize the threat posed by all fabricants if allowed to usurp their place. When Yoona was killed by humans, they falsely said it was because she posed a threat to a young pureblood boy dining in the restaurant where she served, teaching the humans that unless they kept them enslaved, the fabricants would murder and overthrow them. Similarly, Sonmi was used to spread a moral of the harm that would befall purebloods if other fabricants ever acquired knowledge and coalesced. Sonmi knew she was a tool, but did not believe the Declarations she offered would go to waste.

They were converted into catechism, to teach fabricants and those who would aid them submission, but Sonmi knew that it would inspire rebellion in some and inspire them to fight or die for freedom. She learned from the greatest and recalled, "As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor." Her narrative concluded, Sonmi tells the archivist to turn off his recorder. She is ready to march to her death in the Light House, but not before she finishes the Timothy Cavendish movie, her last request!

Sonmi realizes that for every rebel who is killed, multiple rebels will take her place, not unlike a many-headed snake, like the Hydra (the name of the nuclear reactor in Luisa's story) and it's the same conclusion that Ewing reaches when he realizes that his efforts on behalf of evolution are just one drop in the bucket, but that many drops create an ocean. The characters ponder similar concepts occasionally, but don't share common, or even derivative, goals and outlooks.

Finally, we meet Zachry (a name that Cavendish recognized as referring to him, centuries before his reincarnated Zachry was actually born). Zachry is a primitive islander, not unlike those Adam Ewing encountered on his sea voyage. He and his valleysmen worship the God Sonmi and fear the devil, Old Georgie.

As a youth, savage tribesmen from another village saw Zachry running to where his father and brother were and followed him. Zachry fell and was hidden from them, but they killed his father and enslaved his brother Adam. Zachry never told his family that he led the killers to the lost Adam and Pa, but he lived with the guilt for the rest of his life.

Sometimes Zachry's island was visited by an advanced ship inhabited by people with special "smarts" and technology that far surpassed Zachry's society's. These foreign visitors, called Prescients, would often trade goods with them, but their stays were brief and Zachry's people learned little about them. Then, one year a prescient woman, Meronym, said she wanted to stay and study the villagers. She offered to help out in one of the homes and give them goods, in exchange for an opportunity to witness life on their island directly. The villagers were suspicious and did not want the strange woman in their home with her unknown magic, so they nominated Zachry's family to play home to her, when they were absent at a village meeting.

Because Meronym worked hard and seemed kind, everyone soon took to her, but not Zachry. He thought she planned harm for his people and didn't like the way she was constantly studying them, learning all of their secrets, without divulging any of her own. He knew she possessed advance knowledge, but she would never reveal it, speaking in Zachry's language and acting at his stage of advancement, although he was sure she knew science and technology well beyond his range of understanding. He spied on her, following her to a cave where their family history was kept and accusing her of keeping secrets. Meronym replied that he had secrets of his own [I still don't know how she knew that or if she was just bluffing] and once went into her room and found her "orison" a small computer-like device (dare I say an ipad?) with video and sound. He saw a shimmering woman speaking in words he could not understand and was entranced, but the woman was quickly obscured by a gruff man who appeared on the screen (facetime, I presume), called Zachry by name and yelled at him. He quickly put the device down and ran out of the room, but he knew that Meronym knew he had snooped. He was even more wary of her after that, but when his sister fell ill, he called upon Meronym to help her. At first Meronym resisted. She was there as an explorer. It was not her place to change the course of their primitive lives or anything else. And she could get in trouble if she did so. He would never tell anyone what she'd done, if she would only help. Zachry told her about his role in Adam and Pa's death. It was a shameful secret he'd never divulged to anyone and she could use it against him, should he ever reveal hers. She takes pity on him and gives him the pill that will save Catkin's life. After that, he senses a bond with Meronym.

When she wants to explore forbidden areas of the island which the villagers believe to be cursed, Zachry, though frightened, decides to accompany her. They forge through dangerous jungle and finally come upon spectacular modern buildings full of advanced technology, but vacated. Meronym reveals that she is part of a small group of survivors who lived after the rest of humanity destroyed itself through greed (much like the Lost City of Atlantis). Only the untouched regions of the world like his island tribes still survived. Her civilization advanced to astronomical levels, but fought and destroyed the world, in their quest to kill and conquer each other. She has been traveling to find the few places where the survivors from her civilization can live and procreate. After her revelations, Zachry has visions from Old Georgie telling him to kill Meronym, but he listens to messages he has received in his dreams instead and actually saves her life during their journey, bringing her back to his village safely.

Not long after that, the village is taken over by marauding Kona tribesman, who rape and kill many villagers and take the rest as their slaves. Zachry is captured, but Meronym saves him on horseback, rather than running as he did when Pa and Adam were overtaken, Zachry is determined to return home to see if his mother and siblings could have survived the Kona attack. His home is empty and his possessions either stolen or left in a pile of rubble. Everything they built or spent lifetimes achieving and learning was destroyed in a matter of hours. What had it all been for? He doesn't know what has become of his family and not knowing is worse than certainty of their deaths. His young sisters would have been raped, but what about his aged mother? He sees the corpses of other villagers and the wisest man in his town has been beheaded. His rotten head now rests upon a spike on what had once been his front yard. Zachry has no words to describe his despair and the way Mitchell paints the scene for us, makes these the most moving and heartbreaking passages in the book.

To his surprise, Zachry finds a drunken Kona man sleeping in his bed. Delirious from his looting, he must have passed out and fallen behind the rest of his savage tribe. Zachry remembers a dream vision which warned him about this moment and cautioned him NOT to kill this man. He also knows that he will pay for taking a life. He shouldn't kill the slumbering villain. But he does. He later tells Meronym what he's done and she says nothing, casting no judgment. On the run, Zachry and Meronym become closer. He notices the comet-shaped birthmark on her shoulder. She tells him that the woman he saw on her orison is really his beloved Sonmi, not a God. She was a martyred fabricant from long ago whose archived history had become a mantle for freedom. Knowing that shimmering woman from the video was Sonmi did not make Zachry believe in her any less. What did Meronym believe in? Nothing she answered. Well, what does she think happens when we die? Meronym simply believes that when we die, we are gone. There is no afterlife.

She reveals the whole truth to him, her prescient kind is dying out due to a plague and they had intended to come and settle in his village, make it their territory so he had been right to suspect her. At this point, Zachry doesn't care. After what the Kona from another village just like his own did to him, why should he think that outsiders would be any worse. If they were like Meronym he would welcome rather than fear them in his world. She shows him her orison and she and her prescient leader invite him to leave with Meronym on one of their ships. He says that he must try to help his family, though far outnumbered by the Kona and not even knowing if his family members survived, any rescue attempts on his part would surely be a suicide mission. He vows to escort Meronym through the island that is unfamiliar to her, to get her safely to the spot where her mother ship has been docked before taking off to follow the Kona. On their way to the ship they are surrounded by Kona. There's a bridge they can use to get away, but remembering one of his dream visions, Zachry insists that they cannot cross it. Sonmi told him not to Meronym angrily denounces his dreams and superstitions, "An' did Sonmi know we got a furyin' swarm o' Kona on our tail?" she sarcastically demands. But in the end she gives in and believing in Zachry's word and instinct alone, she does not cross the bridge, but their attackers do. When they run across it with their horses, they prove too heavy and the bridge falls, they drop steeply into the water below where they are killed or maimed to grievously to survive. Meronym and Zachry survive, but his leg is injured and there are other Konas who will follow after them. When Zachry lapses into unconsciousness, she makes the decision to take him onto her ship. Woozy, a bleeding and drained Zachry floats on the water looking at the sky and marveling that clouds are like souls. They change form and color, but are still clouds as they drift across the ages, just as a soul is still a soul. No one can say where the cloud will blow from or where it will go, except God and the atlas o' clouds. (eye roll)

We don't know what life is like for Zachry outside of his village, but we learn that he went on to father children who retell his story with some skepticism. Interestingly, even though Meronym took Zachry to her island, his children speak in his dialect, suggesting that he was somehow reunited with villagers of his own kind. His children acknowledge that their dad was a weird old guy, but they believe in the orison, because they still have it. They found it among Zachry's remains and they still play the mesmerizing Sonmi video, even though they do not understand her language, her soothing image helps to put their children to sleep at night. As for the rest of their father's tales, they have to admit he was a little strange. After all, he came to believe that Meronym was Sonmi reincarnated. How crazy is that?

So, the sextet of stories is presented. I look at the pairings to see if there have been soulmates over time. Autua and Ewing, Frobisher and Sixsmith, Sixsmith and Luisa, Zachry and Meronym. In addition to the brother who betrayed him for reasons we can't guess, Cavendish had 3 friends who helped him break out of the institution, but he wasn't emotionally close to them exactly. He just reached out to them in his despair. Sonmi had Hae-Joo, but he betrayed her, so he was more her Dr. Goose than her Autua. All in all, the destined relationships that one usually explores in reincarnation stories isn't emphasized in this one. It's hinted at, a sense of deja vu, a flash of recognition, and instant sense of camaraderie, but the closest we get to examining a true bond is Zachry and Meronym. If there are links that are supposed to move forward from one life to the next, they don't. Many of the reincarnates are shaped by those they have lost: Frobisher's brother Adrian whose grave he could not locate; Luisa's father; Zachry's father and brother Adam (who shared a name with Adam Ewing, although Zachry is not a reincarnate himself, I think his losses impact Meronym's too); Sonmi's fabricant friend Yoona. Then both Adam and Meronym were separated from family. Meronym had a son who may have died in the plague that was killing prescients. But she did not know his fate and had to struggle with the uncertainty, which is just what Zachry had to do, when he did not know how or if his villagers survived the Kona attack. Most of them had to love and grieve without answers, but that's one of life's burdens in general, not something unique to this incarnated soul.

In sum, what have we learned? What has the reincarnated character learned from Ewing to Zachry? Though centuries apart, the primitive worlds that they knew were not dissimilar. But the same cannot be said of the reincarnated. Yes, Sonmi can be recognized as Ewing, perhaps Louisa can too, but Cavendish and Frobisher are not like any of them nor like each other. Like Ewing, Cavendish and Frobisher are victimized by wily oppressors, but that doesn't ultimately make them concerned with man's inhumanity to man. They grow crafty, but don't evolve. Zachry grows from boy to man, coward to fighter and he's connected to his ancestors and the past. It's his subconscious mentor. So, I suppose we have to accept him as the culmination of the five lives he has lived before. But while the story makes it clear that the world's patterns recycles, the universe grows, learns, collapses under its own weight of greed and evil, and is then reborn, it is not as easy to chart the character cycle of reincarnation. Autua in the first story could be Zachry in the last. Yes, Ewing could be (is) Meronym too, but who and why were all the people they became in between those first and last incarnations? One life does not impact and shape the other, except in passing, not in substance.

Even Sonmi the fabricant we knew is very unlike the Sonmi god that Zachry believes in. Sonmi 451 was not Zachry's patron saint who healed the sick and took the dead to a new womb to be reborn. Of course, legend recreates fact and it is reasonable to believe that the real Sonmi was converted into something different, higher than the fabricant flesh she actually was, just as Jesus Christ may have been. But even if Sonmi becomes mostly fairy tale over time, the reincarnations are supposed to be real. Why aren't they meaningful? What's their point? This is not a story about one soul over time. It's a collection of six narratives, connected to one author, but not to each other. Cavendish and Sonmi's paths inform each other far less than Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Darcy's do, so why label them reincarnations?