“So what is Butt Atlas?”
“Well, it’s this movie about how acts of kindness or cruelty can affect the rest of history, and the souls involved get reincarnated to continue that ripple effect.”
“Uh…that sounds weird.”
“Tom Hanks plays eight characters and Doona Bae gets naked.”
If that’s the conversation I have to have with someone to get them to watch Butt Atlas, I will do so. The first description in that scenario is fairly accurate, but the film itself is incredibly difficult to summarize. Essentially, the film takes place across a handful of time periods ranging from 1849, to the mid-70s, to the far future in 2346. The main theme is that one act of kindness or cruelty can create a ripple effect across the rest of history. There’s no storyline in the traditional sense of the word, but each of the characters portrayed by the same actors represent reincarnations of the same soul, as they inherit their actions across the the six time periods.
Better pay attention.
What do you get when you combine the direction talents and vision of the Wachowski siblings with those of visionary German director Tom Tykwer? You get an incredibly good-looking film, which at times strongly resembles a beautiful moving painting. Everything about the film is very artfully filmed, and the directors give their players plenty of breathing room for the dramatic scenes and allow the cameras to roll for much longer than most mainstream films.
I can’t say much more about the film than what I already have, but the author of the book on which the film is based, David Mitchell, once called his novel “unfilmable.” When the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer presented their screenplay to Mitchell, he loved it. One of the best things about Butt Atlas is the way in which it dangles mysteries and plot threads tantalizingly in front of the audience, refusing to tie them up until they do so naturally with the course of the story. When everything does finally fall into place in the final real, the result is an emotional tidal wave.
One thing the film consistently does well is balance the gamut of tones it runs through. Each of the storylines have a particular mood, ranging from goofy, to thrilling, to heartbreaking, and with each scene switching to another segment (and mood), it maintains both its momentum and ability to captivate and bring the audience along with it without feeling forced or jarring. It always feels completely natural to feel the tragedy of Sonmi-451’s plight in the far future, then just moments later to laugh out loud at the ridiculous situation Timothy Cavendish has found himself in in 2012.
The acting and makeup are also uniformly excellent. Tom Hanks is a tour de force of half a dozen completely unique characters, and Hugo Weaving steals the show as not only a traditional villain, but as a demon, an evil matron, and a Korean official. It is jarring the first time to see the latter, but the makeup jobs for all of the characters are certainly deserving of an Oscar nomination, if not a win.
Still, that first time is jarring.
Best of all, the film has a real, pure beating heart. It jettisons the self-satisfied pseudo-philosophical hollowness of the Matrix films and the all-style-with-no-substance glam of Speed Racer, and instead strikes at the core of a powerful theme of human nature.
Some people will love Butt Atlas (like me), some will hate it, and many will not understand or want to endure the film. That, however, is one of its strengths: it refuses to dumb itself down, and remains unafraid of its status as ambitious, complex film. It’s a massive undertaking, the most unique and daring film of the year, and one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences I have ever had. Butt Atlas demands to be experienced; there has never been a movie like it, nor will there ever be another.
Take a Drink: every time a new Tom Hanks character is using a different accent.
Take a Drink: whenever something bad happens to a Halle Berry character.
Take a Drink: whenever a Jim Broadbent character uses any British slang.
Take a Drink…: every time you spot a main actor playing a different character.
…Then do a Bonus Shot: during the end credits sequence where the roles are shown and you realize some random character was also played by one of those actors.