The Final Cut, as in the 2004 science fiction movie, not the 1983 Pink Floyd album

>> Tuesday, July 27, 2010

So I'm trying to figure this out. This past weekend, I watched The Final Cut, a 2004 science fiction film starring Robin Williams, and I'm trying to figure out why I didn't like it even though it's objectively a fairly good film.

The movie sort of just jumps into the premise without a lot of chatter or exposition, which is something I like in a movie like this. Set in what should be taken as an alternate universe, Cut asks what would happen if every minute of our lives from birth onward could be recorded and then transferred to a playback device upon death to be processed and edited for viewing by the decedent's survivors. Alan Hakman (okay, so we wince at the name), played with unusual restraint by Robin Williams, is a top-notch "cutter" or memory-editor with a guilty childhood secret. Something of a MacGuffin shows up in the form of the sinister Fletcher, played by James Caviezel, a retired cutter who is now leading an anti-memories-reclamation radical group and wants the recorded memories of Hakman's latest project, the late chief counsel of the company that owns the memory-recording process, in the hope of finding dirty laundry that can be used to publicly humiliate and discredit the company. Complications ensue.

As I said, the movie doesn't waste a lot of time with exposition: we're basically dropped into the setting and asked to go along with the flow, with the occasional-but-spread-out reference to what has gone before, but writer-director Omar Naim happily spares us the frequently-used trope of beginning the movie with a couple of characters talking about things that are a common fact of life in their world. (Imagine, if you will, a movie set in our world that begins with a couple of people talking about how cars were invented and became popular and are now owned by many people and have altered the world, and you get an idea of just how stupid expository clichés are if you hadn't thought about it already.) And the movie smartly goes about presenting the setting as our world, only off in various little ways arising from the magic memory technology, which helps skillfully ease us into the premise.

One way the movie goes about presenting the world as familiar-only-different is by going with a very, very warm look: almost everything that isn't a memory has nice, earthy tones, slightly-golden lighting and plenty of earthtones. A lot of the props, in particular the "guillotines" (as the memory-editing consoles are called), are made of wood instead of the plastic and chrome one might expect in an SF movie; if you're not lusting for Hakman's hardwood laptop, there's something wrong with you. Naim was able to get Tak Fujimoto to shoot the picture and it looks gorgeous.

The movie is solidly-acted, too. Robin Williams can be a bitter pill to swallow--he has a tendency to overact and to treat a set and a character like he's still doing coked-up stand-up circa 1985; it's very easy to forget that when Williams is good, he's very, very good, and his performance as Hakman is wonderfully shy and introverted, showing a restraint that is anything but synonymous with his name these days. James Caviezel is effective as Cut's antagonist. The supporting cast, including Mira Sorvino is excellent.

And the script is smart, actually. It's not just that the movie handles the premise deftly enough, and that the twists mostly work even when they're expected. The movie also wants to be about big ideas... and this may be part of the problem with it, actually.

The Final Cut can be taken as a movie about movies, for a start. While we may think of film as being an objective perception fixed to a medium, in fact what we see when we watch a movie is not just how shots were subjectively framed and lit when the images were formed, but how those images were assembled into a storyline in an editing room. Hakman's job, like a film editor's, is to take hours and hours of recorded footage that may add up to nothing and transform them into a narrative--one that may not reflect what was actually recorded; indeed, what makes Hakman good at his job, we're told, is that he's able to peel out the awful things someone did in their lifetime and frame the remaining good parts as a gloss on the subject's life--he turns assholes and monsters into dearly-remembered saints. Driving the point home, the guillotines used to edit memories in Cut are consciously modeled on an Avid rig, a computer setup used for film editing.

Or Cut can be seen as a statement about the surveillance state, and the consensual and non-consensual loss of privacy in our current age. If all memories are recorded and can be accessed later, then everything anyone ever said or did is possibly subject to public exposure in much the same way that corner security cameras and Facebook walls have made privacy seem a bit so-last-century. This seems to be the main beef of the anti-memory-reclamation group led by Fletcher.

Cut also wants to say some things about memory and loss, and about how some things in life are best forgotten. In one of the movie's most powerful scenes, Hakman compares what he does to a sin-eater, claiming that his selective editing of a dead person's memories on behalf of the survivors is a form of absolution. Hakman himself is driven by a terrible and consuming regret.

So The Final Cut is a well-acted, well-made, well-written movie with some big ideas. And yet I find that while I don't dislike it, I also didn't like it very much. And it wasn't just the ending, which I won't spoil but which somehow felt like a little bit of a cop-out in the very, very final scene.

I mentioned that the several big ideas may be a part of the problem. I think that one of the thing that undercuts Cut's effectiveness is that there are too many interesting notions that never really seem to be developed or go very far. Maybe it's just me. It seems to me, though, that any one of the ideas I mentioned above--how editing shapes perception, the demise of privacy, memory and forgetfulness--might have made a really interesting movie but when you add two or more of those ideas together, they start stepping on each other's feet and none of the big concepts ever seem as important as they ought to be. I thought Cut came off as a movie that had all sorts of interesting stuff it wanted to say, but I'm not sure it actually said anything.

What's sort of interesting here, and part of the reason I'm writing a review-muddled-think-my-way-through piece about a movie that came out six years ago and I just finally watched on DVD, is that I think these exact same themes were all addressed by Inception, only Inception held together better, somehow, and seemed to be provocative in an effective way. Which, as I think through this, may contradict my last several paragraphs: Inception can be taken as a movie about filmmaking, about privacy, about memory and loss, and yet those themes all seem to work to the same end, so why do they seem to be at cross-purposes in The Final Cut?

Here's another part of the problem in The Final Cut, and I'm not sure if it's the key to anything or not: the MacGuffin in Cut, as I said, is that there's this radical protest group that wants this dead lawyer's memories in order to discredit the company that makes the memory-recording technology, because they hate the memory-recording technology and thinks it sucks. This serves a useful function in terms of plot, because it gives Hakman a reason to run away from people and run around looking for information and to do things that end up leading to plot twists or to nifty bits of onscreen business. But I also spent much of the movie trying to figure out exactly what the group's problem was; I mean, I get that they don't like the idea that their private moments will be on playback after somebody dies or they think people end up obsessing over memories instead of the present or they feel that editing the memories is a form of dishonesty (yes, at various points it's made clear that the protesters are against every single major theme of the movie), but it's not really clear that there's an actual point to any of their hostilities or much rhyme to their reasoning, whatever it is. I got their agenda without grokking it, in other words, and so they never just seemed that credible.

Maybe this is what Inception did better, actually. Inception doesn't bother presenting "for-or-against" arguments about any of the business at hand, it just sets it out there and lets you deal with it if you'd like (or to merely marvel at how cool that zero-gee hallway is if you wouldn't). I guess I would have been happier with The Final Cut if, instead of setting up a party of antis that is arguing with little credibility against the movie itself but not really anybody in it, Naim had just done a movie in which Robin Williams is having a hard time editing memories, or an easy time with the technical elements but is getting all angsty about it, or starts learning about himself while editing movies, or--maybe you get the idea. I think the protesters and dead lawyer in Cut are supposed to be a MacGuffin, but inadvertently end up becoming a Chekov's gun that does indeed fire in the last act, but only a blank, with much noise but unimpressive effect. Maybe this is what ultimately undermines the whole project for me.

Or something. I don't know. I feel like I should have loved The Final Cut, but I definitely didn't.

If you've seen it and can put your finger on why I didn't like it very much, please feel free to explain it to me. My only request is that you not include any spoilers: not many people saw Cut, and it probably is worth seeing (maybe), and I'd hate to ruin it for anyone. At the very least, the movie does have some interesting ideas, a nice look and solid performances, so there's that much.

Any thoughts?


Leanright,  Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 11:08:00 AM EDT  

I have not seen it, but after reading your post, I'm certainly adding it to my Netflix queue. I'm guessing it didn't spend much time on the big screen.

Tom Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 12:12:00 PM EDT  

I haven't seen this either, and don't remember any buzz about it, but your post makes me want to see it.

When you first introduced the rebel group who are against memory reclamation, but who want to reclaim this certain guy's memory, I felt a dissonance. Like peaceniks who absolutely want to bomb Iraq and Afganistan to nuclear hell so we can have peace.

But I don't know if that kind of underlying dissonance would detract that much from the movie. I do plan on getting the DVD, so I'll let you know if I have any further thoughts. I'm also planning on going to see Inception, based purely on your report.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 10:45:00 PM EDT  

Then there's the marvelous Japanese movie After Life, where you end up after you die reviewing your life so you can film one scene, with simple sets and props, which will symbolize your life. Sort of. (grin)

Dr. Phil

Leanright,  Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 3:34:00 PM EDT  

Okay...last weekend I watched the film, based simply on this post. I too, was disappointed in the film, and it's very difficult to explain my reasons without spoiling it for any other readers. Of course, I don't know that many of your readers are going to go back here and anytime soon.

I'm pretty sure I didn't answer your question; let's chalk it up to: I was bored.
I felt the film to be dark, and Robin Williams to be too restrained. It seemed to me that he wanted at any moment to break the constraints the role puts him in. I found that some of the scenes within the film never developed and we never seem to find out answers to a lot of questions.

I really only found myself rivited when Hackman has a realization of himself that he'd not known until one particular moment.

I'd kind of like to have that 1 hour and 40 minutes of my life back.

Eric Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 7:59:00 PM EDT  

Sorry, Dave, if I caused you to watch this one--but I did say I didn't like it too much.

It's definitely a slow-paced film, and not always in a good way....

Leanright,  Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 12:27:00 AM EDT  

I don't blame you. I actually was curious. The premise of the film sounded great. I believe they could have done a much better job with the picture.

I still have a few unanswered questions about the film. Suppose I have to wait for the sequel. ;-)

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