Cloud Atlas

I will not be subject to criminal abuse

I have a single question about Cloud Atlas, the near-three-hour epic by the Wachowski siblings, and it’s a question I hoped I would not have to ask: what’s the point of it?  I know what it’s going for, but I’m not sure it ever gets there.  The film, despite being independently produced, is exactly the kind of problem-film crowding every marquee and raking in the cash, and in that sense, it’s doing Hollywood’s work free of charge.  It’s high on spectacle, short on depth (and take “depth” as every kind of depth – character, moral, story, philosophy).

Cloud Atlas is a successful genre-sampler; that is to say, it gives its audience a taste of a few different kinds of generic film-genres without actually delivering an entire movie of any type.  To its credit, it interweaves the narratives of six small stories and remains impressively easy to follow, and it’s emotionally gripping when it really wants to be, but in the end, our engagement, attention, and (perhaps) tears reward us with little more than exhaustion.  This is not to say that any of the widely diverse cast of actors do a bad job with what they have (quite the contrary), but recognizing so many missed opportunities and narrative dead-ends in a movie so long is a bit frustrating.

The actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Zhou Xun, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and David Gyasi – each play five or six characters in different ages of the world, perhaps with the intention of a “shared souls” type of connection that we’re never made consciously aware of.  Some of these transformations lead to the film’s greatest pleasures: Hugo Weaving as a brutish female nurse, Tom Hanks as a psychotic Scottish (?) author who responds to critics by murdering them, Jim Sturgess as a Korean secret agent, Halle Berry as a male surgeon, and so on.  While I’m not completely comfortable with actors playing other races, none of these race/gender transformations are done with the intention of humor, and the Wachowskis (mercifully) understand that blackface (i.e. a white person portraying a black character) isn’t acceptable, and dodge a bullet.

The main stories/roles are as follows, in a chronology not completely obvious at the outset: a lawyer (Sturgess) travels home from a slave plantation while being poisoned by a greedy doctor (Hanks) and befriending a stowaway slave (Gyasi); a 1930s love affair between a young composer (Whishaw) and a scientist (D’Arcy) is conducted by letter as the former attempts to write his masterpiece in the company of a hubristic musician (Broadbent); a 1970s investigative journalist (Berry) sabotages an oil company determined to halt nuclear energy progress while being stalked by a deadly assassin (Weaving); a present-day (2012) publishing mogul (Broadbent) deals with the consequences of his hackneyed business decisions and attempts to escape a home for the elderly in a comic counterpart to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cloned “fabricant” in 2044 “Neo-Seoul” (Bae) makes a Plato-esque exodus from her life of servitude and sparks a failed revolution that will eventually lead to her being revered as a goddess, and finally, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii,  a mumbling would-be warrior (Hanks) attempts a mutually beneficial partnership with one of the last members of a dead technologically-advanced society (Berry) while seeing hallucinations/visions of Old Georgie (Weaving), an incarnation of the devil, who tries relentlessly to convince the former that this partnership will result in the ultimate collapse of society, and not salvation.

These stories in and of themselves are imaginative, tense, and fun to experience.  The most rewarding part of the film is imagining that the characters who share faces also share souls – look at the evolution of each actor’s various characters in the timeline.  Look at where they end up.  This also raises some questions, however, such as why every single one of Weaving’s characters is pure evil.  Most of the actors play both good characters and also those who start out on the “wrong” path but are redeemed in some way.  Weaving plays a violent assassin, an unsympathetic slave owner, an unfeeling corporate board member in charge of ordering executions, the aforementioned brutish Nurse Ratched clone, and finally, the devil.  Is the idea that the devil makes his way into every story, reinforced by the fact that he has the same face?  The film is populated with these types of religious overtones, and the straightforward idea that “Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb, we are bound to each other, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future” is shopworn, unsatisfactory payoff for such an ambitious narrative, and more or less turns the film into 160 minutes of buildup.  The most satisfying bit of connection in the film occurs when we see how different cultural fragments, including phrases, lend different meanings to different peoples and settings.  Cavendish (Broadbent) shouts to a clerk in the nursing home, “I will not be subject to criminal abuse!”  We laugh as he huffs and puffs his way out the door.  Later, Tom Hanks plays an actor playing Cavendish in a movie based upon his life, and delivers the same line in a posh-looking mockup of the nursing home, and when Yoona (Xun) watches the film and shouts the very same line to a real-life diner customer who abuses her, the line finally achieves the meaning and impact Cavendish intended for it.

There are two gay characters, and both end up with guns going off in their mouths.  There are egregiously derivative sub-narratives, including concepts from Soilent Green and Blade Runner.  The made-up dialect of the post-apocalypse Hawaiians is corny and shows a very fundamental lack of knowledge about the evolution and digression of language (whether this is the fault of writer David Mitchell or the screenwriters, I couldn’t tell you).   There are two attempts at image patterning (one is teeth, and the other is a birthmark shared by several characters through the ages), but they are abandoned for hours of reel and hurriedly scraped together later for the illusion of plenitude or meaning.  Payoff would have been the prevention of Frobisher’s suicide after wondering for three hours whether he’d go through with it.  Payoff would have been a real revelation about why Berry’s character in the 70s recognizes a symphony composed by Whishaw’s character in the 30s.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times before I die: you cannot write with the intention of having an audience interpret what you mean.  Deliberate ambiguity is cheap and irresponsible.  It appears as though the Wachowskis haven’t grown out of that since the final Matrix film.  Additionally, Cloud Atlas is excessively violent, which strips away much of the film’s wonder and fantasy.  I’m not particularly squeamish (I’ve continuously named True Romance as my favorite movie), but I’m averse to gratuity, and plenty of the more grisly moments here could have been depicted off-screen for the same (or arguably more impactful) effect.  This, along with the unrealistic portrayal of sex (both dangerous in a movie teenagers will be sure to flock to), is a trap the Wachowskis are known to fall into, but they’ve avoided it before – look at Speed Racer.

Such an ambitious project, occasionally rewarding and entirely captivating in the moment, deserves better.  Did I enjoy seeing it?  Yes, very much.  But films should seek to achieve more than spectacle and the simple enjoyment of experiencing it the first time.  You get far more out of a book the second, third, and fourth time you read it, and if films want to be considered “art,” their creators should set aside their own self-importance and give this concept some thought.  I know, I know.

Cloud Atlas (2012); written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tim Twyker; adapted from the novel by David Mitchell; starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Cloud Atlas […]

  2. I also enjoyed it, and that’s what matters.


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