Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas Movie Review

As a film critic I would love to have the luxury of seeing every new film and writing about it. As this is not a paying job for me, I have to pick and choose what I see, mostly based on personal preference, but often choosing films that are popular or important benchmarks. The subject matter of Cloud Atlas hardly interested me, although the filmmakers involved certainly did. The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) brought us The Matrix trilogy, the first installment of which I think is filled with wonderful vision, a great story, and brilliant use of visual effects. I found Tom Tykwer deeply intriguing as a filmmaker with both Run, Lola, Run and The Princess and the Warrior, although admittedly I know nothing of his work in the past decade. Together these three directors decided to bring David Mitchell’s complicated 2004 novel which involves six stories in different time periods and characters that exist as alternate versions of themselves across time and space.


The novel is structured such that five of the stories are split in half, the first halves laid out chronologically, the sixth presented in its entirety as the centerpiece, followed by the second halves of each of the other five in reverse chronological order. A summary of the various stories is not really the point, but it’s the connecting themes that are of greatest interest. Most involve, in one way or another, a kind of imprisonment and attempted escape. The first takes place in the mid-19th century, mostly on an ocean-bound ship, where a young man who’s come into a recent fortune is slowly poisoned by a doctor looking to rob him. The second is Cambridge in the 1930s with a young composer working as an amanuensis to a renowned composer. He also has a secret love affair with another young man. In San Francisco in the early 70s, a journalist is about to uncover a major oil company scandal. In the present day, the most whimsical of the tales has an elderly man tricked into becoming an imprisoned resident of a retirement community. In a Korean dystopia around the mid-22nd century, engineered clones are used as service workers and callously disposed of. Finally, in the far distant post-apocalyptic future, humanity has been reduced to warring primitive tribes on the Hawaiian Islands.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis hit upon the idea of using the same cast members across multiple stories. So the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and Hugh Grant appear in all six stories, crossing ages, genders and ethnicities. Additional cast members include Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw (5 story appearances); Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and James D’Arcy (4); and Doona Bae (3). The protagonists of each story are connected by a comet-shaped birthmark, worn through the ages by (in chronological order) Sturgess, Whishaw, Berry, Broadbent, Bae, and Hanks. They play supporting roles in the other stories. Some of these actors were so well hidden behind makeup, wigs and CGI that I was shocked to discover their true identities in the closing credits. There are connections to be found and explored among all the characters as well as broad character arcs that stretch from 1849, where Hanks is a petty thief and murderer, through the final story in which his character learns courage and sacrifice. On the flip side, Hugh Grant’s characters progress from a charming Reverend to a literal cannibal without moral compunction.

I knew fairly early in the film that I would need to see it again to understand the story’s flow and the character connections. By the film’s end, I knew a second viewing might not add a great deal and also that I had no interest in devoting any more time to it. The directing trio (who also wrote the screenplay) lifted the stories from the novel without alterations, but they have meddled, to great detriment, with the overall structure. They felt that audiences couldn’t sit for 90 minutes to see a story end only to have another one begin. Makes sense and I think they’re right. But if they had retained the novel’s precise ordering of chronology, you would be waiting with bated breath for each story to resume so you can put the pieces together. Instead they have edited together a jumbled mishmash that is exceedingly difficult to follow. As the film progresses, the jumping around from story to story becomes faster and more staccato. Every time I found myself in a new time period staring at different characters (but the same actors) I had to think for a moment about the year and what happened previously in the story. With a structure more in line with the book, five of the stories would be broken at only one point, making it far easier to follow the thread.

You absolutely can not fault Tykwer and the Wachowskis for lack of vision and ambition. This is one of the more audacious film projects I can think of in recent decades. From everything on the screen it is clear they’ve put their hearts and souls into it and made an intriguing and very fine looking picture. I have no doubt there are riches to be unearthed within the nitty-gritty of this film, but not only do I found its general New Agey-ness a major turnoff, I just don’t think I could summon the patience to sit through Cloud Atlas again.

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