Is this actually Hamlet? It depends on who you ask.
In 2000 AD, Denmark is not only a country, but a massive business founded in New York City. Hamlet, an aspiring film student, is suspicious about the marriage between his widowed mother and his uncle, the new CEO of Denmark. His father’s ghost appears and tells Hamlet that the death was foul, and that his uncle is to blame. It’s the basic Hamlet plot right?
The director creates a New York that is familiar (Blockbusters and skyscrapers litter the landscape), and creates this almost futuristic setting, making it sleek and black (like Ethan Hawke’s other movie Gattaca). The movie evolves in a way that makes NYC feel recognizable, but also strange at the same time. In the film, Hamlet says “time is out of joint”, which makes sense because it seems like sci-fi, yet everyone speaks Shakespearean English. We think we recognize it, but we really don’t, just like the story of Hamlet.
The plot also utilizes futuristic tools to move along key points: King Hamlet’s ghost is seen through a security monitor and communicates through computers and fax, Ophelia is wired during her conversation with Hamlet so that Polonius can hear, and Hamlet speaks into a camera constantly throughout the movie. We catch the utilization of these video diaries when he watches them by himself. They act as confessionals and easily replace his infamous monologues in a way that makes more sense in the year 2000.
One thing I love about this movie is the fact that they made Hamlet a film student. Which makes perfect sense when you take into account the characters indecisiveness and pompous manner of speech. Also, Hamlet’s classical obsession for power can be seen through his use of cameras and technology to spy on everyone around him.
Hamlet is also hurt by having too much of a good thing. I liked the idea of the film, but while watching it, it felt like the director was constantly trying to flaunt how he updated the original text. It makes the production feel like it was based around some core ideas and that was it. Almost as if someone was like, “Dude, what if instead of having a play within a play, we had a movie within a movie?” and then made a film based on that and a couple other loose concepts. Hamlet is sloppy and feels uneven when major ideas come together like planes landing on a freeway. Also, having Hamlet recite the famous speech on indecision of “to be or not to be” while wandering the aisle’s of Blockbuster is clever, but seriously? It hurts to think about it.
Although the original play was 4 hours and this adaptation was only 2, I’m glad they cut-and-pasted the movie, because I wouldn’t have been able to last that long. Hamlet is interesting, but in no way is a substitution for the original, mostly due to how shallow and basic it is. For example, the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes makes barely any sense, since a duel in a futuristic society is a stupid concept, and since it doesn’t even finish the fairly important scene (it is interrupted when Laertes pulls out a gun). So what was the point?
During the movie I pondered what the target audience was. Those who are somewhat new to Hamlet will have a hard time understanding anything besides what they already know and what is most obvious. Yet, for those who know the play like the back of their hand, they will be revolted by how the movie cuts out key scenes from the original. Also, besides the excision of dialogue, the main characters are static and the supporting cast are relatively pointless in the plot.
All in all, it is a challenge to combine the needs of today’s shallow audience with a 400 year old text written for an orally-oriented audience. If a new adaptation doesn’t show relevance for or add perspective to an audience’s understanding, then the movie will feel like a waste of time. In this film, the loss is more tragic, since Hamlet could have been so much more than it actually was. If you want to watch Hamlet, I recommend viewing Mel Gibon’s (1990) or Kenneth Branagh’s. (1996)