Each passing day, month, even year, does not make the unfortunate loss of Robin Williams any easier. Whether you knew him as Mork, Popeye, Dr Malcolm Sayer, the Genie, Mrs Doubtfire, Sean Maguire or just as a master stand-up comic, Williams was a versatile and daring performer with a unique inventiveness and a mind that worked at superhuman speeds.

Throwback Review: Being Human (1994)

That role call is also fitting for today´s subject, as Williams was regularly trying all sorts of different roles and projects throughout his career, instead of settling into a groove like many comedians (See Sandler and Murphy). He’s done anti-war and technology satire in Toys, life in the Jewish ghettos in Jakob The Liar, questions of the metaphysical and the afterlife in What Dreams May Come, and even the blindly canonising powers of media in World’s Greatest Dad to name a few. In 1994, he teamed up with Scottish auteur Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero) for a special film: a sprawling tale, spanning the ages, looking at vignettes in the lives of several men (all played by Williams) across history. We cover the Early Human, Rome, Medieval, 17th Century and Modern Day, each one bleeding into the next as the eternal Hector deals with a new type of dilemma relating to family, duty and responsibility.

It’s no surprise to confirm that Williams gives several masterfully restrained performances as the various incarnations of Hector, never once going as over the top or wacky as you may think with such a roster. Be it a hunter, slave, nobleman or as just a modern working Joe, Williams gives Hector a likability and amiability that sells the fundamentally good nature of the character, as well as give a little more weight to his struggles against the world. Joining him are the likes of John Turturro, Robert Carlyle, Vincent D’Onofrio and Hector Elizondo, who all do well and help give the film´s scenarios a little more life and energy than it possesses, but are not given many standout moments as the assorted friends, enemies and superiors of Hector.

Throwback Review: Being Human (1994)

Alas, the positives of Being Human end there. Many of the film’s issues can be traced back to Warners’ meddling in post-production, cutting the film´s runtime in half and adding narration. As a result, the whole affair lacks focus, meandering at times through the vignettes and never fully exploring any of its powerful ideas about life, death and existence. Whatever Forsyth wanted to say about human nature just comes off as trivial or obvious (like our capacities for love or cruelty, and how unfair social structures can be). This is not helped at all by the overbearing, spoon-feeding narration that borders on patronising and pretentious at times, rambling on about ‘stories within stories’ in a monotonous drawl.

And even ignoring that and just focusing on the individual vignettes, they are still problematic;  the weak ‘first story’ perfectly sets the stage, with a ‘Hunter era’ that looks more like a glorified Flintstones Halloween party, with rather poor costuming and location choices that just feel cheap. Visuals aside for a moment (though I´ll dissect them in a moment), the drama just isn’t terribly compelling here, amounting to little more than Hector’s family gets snatched, and he cries. That’s it.

Touching?

Throwback Review: Being Human (1994)

I can´t even give the direction points as, for a studio film with a veteran director, Being Human is directed rather laxly. At times it ends up feeling much more like a TV movie, with a lot of flatly lit day scenes and severely under-dressed sets for a period piece, with Forsyth often getting stuck in a lot of wide shots and mid shots, as if the film doesn’t want to get close to the people in these stories all about human nature. Ironic, isn´t it? Even the score by jazz veteran Michael Gibbs is dull and without any sense of character.

Perhaps someday, given the treatment other noted flops like Heaven´s Gate and Revolution got, Criterion or Masters of Cinema will get their hands on this film, cut a deal with Warner Bros and release the original cut of the film. Then,w e may be able to understand what Forsyth was going for in all this rambling. Until then, if you want a sprawling epic about human nature and our many capacities, just stick with Cloud Atlas.