The notion was to have six stories, each divided in half at a critical point, that nested: the journal of the seafaring lawyer was read by a young gay composer, who mentioned it in letters read by an investigative journalist, who was a character in a police procedural mystery manuscript set in the early 70's, being read by a contemporary London vanity press publisher, who is writing a campy comedy about how he had been trapped inside a sadistic old-age home, which was viewed as an inspiration by a rebelling Korean replicant in the near future who was being interviewed by the Corporate Juche (it's as bad as it sounds) before being executed for terrorism, a holographic recording of which was considered the Messiah legend of a post-future tribe member from Hawaii who was retelling the story of his journey to his current off-planet home for his son.
Each would be (mostly) in the same continuity, but with an unreliable narrator: the journal was thought to be a piece of antislavery propaganda, the letters forged to provide a romantic backstory for an obscure piece of music, the two contemporary stories were "just" fiction, the replicant might have been a cat's paw for the terrorists, and the tribesman is described by his son as a champion thrower of bull. Each featured, somewhat in the manner of Blackadder, the same character as hero, the same character as villain, and a third, lover/helper to the hero, with various characters having prescient dreams (forward and backwards in time), imagery, phrases, and so forth to tie the whole story together. Chronologically, they form a parabola, from savagery to high civilization and thence back, with the Hero, the Villain and the Lover switching genders, social classes, and ethnicities.
Unfortunately, this is being done by the Wachowski Siblings. As much as they're renowned for making action/adventure/philosophical mindscrew movies that make money, they also throw whatever subtleties of character and/or morality into the dualistic meat grinder of populist Hollywood screenwriting, that is, Affluent Heterosexual White Males are Powerful and Bad, everyone else is weak and Good, and exists solely to be rescued by white people -- they can't do it by themselves. Homosexual men's love is truer, realer and in every way is more special than heterosexual love, as long as one or both of them dies by the end of the movie. Also, Asians are more powerful and money-hungry than White people, unless they're sweet and noble girl servo-replicants (we do have a Bechdal test winner, however). Love triumphs over all, Big Oil is ready to risk nuclear cataclysm in order to cement its hegemony over the energy industry, and The Weak are Meat for the Strong to Eat, except that you, yes, you, know better. Get that?
Pardon me if I'm not flattered. If anything, history shows that the Oppressed and the Oppressors, the civilized and the backwards, tend to switch places over time: the Fertile Crescent was one of the wonders of the world, until the Persians invaded, and then fell to Alexander's Greek armies, only to rise to prominence once again under Islam, and from thence, to the uneasy place they are now. In some ways this is true of this movie: Halle Berry is clearly of a much more advanced part of the world than Tom Hanks in the post-future segments. However, she still needs rescuing while she deals with mountains and cannibal rival tribes, and ultimately begs for him and his daughter to come with her because the Star People have lost their mojo or something, and need him to come and teach them how to live on a new planet.
Then there's the supposedly mind-bending fact that every actor plays several parts, to at least nod to the structure of the book, with men playing women, young people playing old people (and somewhat vice versa), and everyone pitching in as a Korean. To which I say I liked it better in "Angels in America", where I really could believe Emma Thompson could play an Italian-American nurse from Noo Yawk, Merryl Streep as a rabbi, and everyone pitched in as an angel. We may have gone past the era of blackface in American entertainment, but somehow Asians are still fair game, and having everyone wearing rubber masks just doesn't cut it. On the other hand, we have Doona Bae, the sole actual Asian, playing a middle-aged Latina woman, and doing so with panache (though trying to cast her as a Sweet-Young-Thing in '49er San Francisco just doesn't cut it either.)
This film was supposed to have cost $100 M to make, and it shows. The Neo Seoul parts are take-your-breath-away gorgeous, for about five minutes, and the Merchant Ivory-like story with the composer made me want to run in and snatch their lifestyle. The Seventies police/journalist procedural looks just right, all earth tones and car chases (like Bullitt). But most of the film, especially after the first hour and a half, is just pointless: having scrapped the simple Matrioshka doll plot structure in favor of elaborate flash-forwards, flash-backs, and flash-arounds, sympathy for the characters erodes to the point where you wish the stupid replicant chick would quit yammering Solzhenitsyn, and die already. In a fire. Screaming. In agony. Begging her captors to spare her.
What is being underlined here is the problematic relationship between big-budget and high-concept films: given the nature of the film industry, it's natural that studios will want to get their money back on a film that could have funded ten less ambitious movies. But in order to do that, they have to put backsides into seats, and the way to do that is to dumb down the content, throw in car chases, shootouts, and kung fu, include shoutouts to random target audiences like "recovering people" and "born-again Christians" (remember "Wilson" in "Castaway"?) or bend plots to skew towards the lucrative young male demographic (the whole book "Forrest Gump" is based on the notion that he finally turns her down, not that he gets her, only to see her so conveniently die, thus heading off any question of how they're actually going to live together). Or, to pick a non-Tom Hanks film, how the original story of "Total Recall" would have worked better with Rick Moranis (yup!) than with Schwartzenegger: it's supposed to spotlight an unlikely hero, not someone with ACTION HERO written on his forehead. We can have our eye candy, they seem to be saying, huge budgets, exotic locales, and special effects galore, or we can have actual stories and characters. But at what cost?