The movie opens with a young man sitting alone on a beach singing The Beatles song “Girl” to the viewer. This is the first sign (to anyone who did not know, i.e. me) that Across the Universe is a musical. Not just a musical, a musical about the 60s, and yet another commemoration of the summer of love. The next scene and the biggest tip-off that this musical is trying too hard is a montage of hippie protesters and newspaper headlines mashed on top of the crashing waves of the ocean. This film is not just a story about the characters but also a story of a generation – but unfortunately, the generational story was created at the expense of the personal one.
Across the Universe is a love story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), the dockworker from Liverpool and the North Eastern American princess, as they grow to know each other in the new bohemian world of sex, drugs, and political rebellion in the East Village. The tale of Jude and Lucy is introduced simultaneously. Jude leaves his girlfriend and mother behind to make the voyage to America while Lucy loses her boyfriend to good ol’ Uncle Sam. Jude travels to the states only to arrive at Princeton (and ridiculously enough, the thrill of seeing your dorm/school on film never gets old) looking for his long-lost father and befriends Max (Joe Anderson), a Princeton rebel (hits golf balls off the roof, the bane of every Princeton professor’s existence, basically a bad-ass) who conveniently enough happens to be Lucy’s brother. Max pulls a Fitzgerald, hightails it out of Princeton and the two boys travel to the vibrant East Village where they move in with a bohemian mix in a tenement house with an aspiring rock star landlady Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Lucy soon follows her brother to New York (after her boyfriend dies in Vietnam) and somewhere in the midst of the new sexual, political liberation falls in love with Jude. Somewhere along the way a collection of misfits trickle into the apartment, like JoJo (Martin Luther) the guitarist reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix who eventually dates Sadie, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) the former cheerleader who pines after Sadie for the entire film. While Sadie and JoJo embrace the new musical scene, Jude follows a love of art and Lucy becomes increasingly passionate about the anti-war movement, while her brother Max gets drafted.
The film is a fantastical mix of reality and fantasy played to a Beatles soundtrack (the film includes 33 Beatles songs). The songs are often repositioned and slightly altered in tempo, but to all true Beatles fans, do not despair, because the characters’ singing abilities are not memorable enough to ruin the songs. But unfortunately, the new alterations of the songs are incredibly plain and are used so predictably and translated so literally that all I could do was groan as each song began.
If considered scene by scene, Across the Universe has a few gems, but overall the film is a flop. The characters are introduced haphazardly and often through song, which does not create the sort of character development that the director must have believed it would. For example, the viewer is suddenly introduced to Prudence about 20 minutes into the movie with a shot of her singing a pining rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to a beautiful blonde girl on her cheerleading team. She walks through the slow motion football practice as they spring dancer-like around her, which is visually enticing but still leave us wondering, who is this girl? What does she have to do with Jude? And yes, she likes girls, but why do I care? By creating a movie from ready-made songs, the viewer does not feel as if they are learning anything about Prudence (or any of the characters for that matter), but instead hearing her sing a poor version of a song already familiar to us. I want to sing along to The Beatles, I do not want to sympathize with the plight of the forlorn lesbian.
Each scene seems to be placed side by side without true transition, leaving the viewer exhausted from the almost random jumps from Prudence to Jude to Lucy. As the story progresses, the characters’ relationships appear to leap forward, leaving us in their dust. Suddenly Jude is interested in Lucy and then they are together, and then they are in love. But where is the development of their relationship? If the writers had spent less times inserting random (though at times enticing) scenes of pretend psychedelia and instead created characters with some sort of personality, maybe I would care when they fought or when they broke up or even when they got back together? Instead I found myself looking at my watch wondering when the movie would end. And while Evan Rachel Wood is pretty, why do I care when her boyfriend dies? Yeah, I’m sorry, it’s sad, but we have only known each other for about 30 minutes and all I know about you is that you can sing…and that you have a cute brother who I wish actually went to Princeton. But wait, the director attempts to create depth by splicing the death of her boyfriend with a scene of racial tensions and terror somewhere in the deep south (set to a boy hiding in terror singing “Let it Be” in a slow tempo that had been recycled from an earlier song).
Not only is the movie just a mash of separate scenes, it is a mash of formulaic scenes. I imagine the directors sitting around a table saying “we need the obligatory, everybody’s life has gone to shit scene, a montage of anger and dismay set to an angry song after which we need a heartwarming father-son moment and then maybe a sad downtrodden scene, and then things go uphill again right? WAIT! It’s about the 60s; we need to throw in some hippie-ness, drug scenes but only the trip…not the drugs, black lights, a circus, duplication…and a random incongruous road trip. Good? Great. Oh and wouldn’t it be clever if the character’s are named after Beatles songs. God, we are geniuses.”
And so I sat in the theatre watching the characters scream and cry and rant, and all I could think was: seriously, when are they going to sing “Hey Jude.” Come on, at least throw me a bone and play “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which, by the way, does not even factor into the movie, but is instead the ending credits song. But I think this may have been a purposeful choice on the part of the director, seeing that Lucy was about as interesting as a dishrag, and by comparing her to the fiery magnetic Lucy of The Beatles would have been a disgrace to both LSD and The Beatles.
The movie is a musical, but also an experiment of magical realism (prompted by the drug culture of the 1960s). The fantasy scenes are stuck in at random, and although they can be slightly incongruous to the plot, it seems as if the directors were using this as tool to represent a greater idea; an idea of the freedom and the confusion and the hope of our parent’s generation, of a time of political naiveté and artistic liberty. But the few scenes of trippy drug induced fantasy are too forced, as if it were a middle schooler’s imagined idea of an acid trip. The movie practically yells to the audience that the main characters are on drugs without showing any actual drugs – the one scene where Max and his friends smoke a roach is filmed so poorly that it is clear that the characters are merely pinching their fingers together. But there are also moments of some beauty and interest. Jude reaches the pinnacle of his artistic dreams with a canvas of bleeding strawberries as he sings “Strawberry Fields Forever.” This one scene in particular seems to encapsulate the merging of fantasy, reality, and music that this film so desperately strives for, but it still slightly misses the mark because it fails to evoke a sympathetic character.
The movie is just too long, and even after the very long 2 hours and 24 minutes, I still had no interest. Everything is pretty to look at, but there is no depth or personality or plot or message. This movie is about as deep as a music video and the only way to truly reach any sort of connection with the 1960s or the characters in this film is to see it high. What is unfortunate is that this film had the opportunity to create something different and bizarre and interesting, but instead resorted to the most obvious, literal, predictable choices. As a representation of a time period that trumpeted freedom and difference, Across the Universe is about as formulaic and insipidly Hollywood as it gets. And the most depressing thing is that I can just imagine the producer sitting somewhere thinking to himself “I just made a film that captures a generation.”