Films We’ve Watched: Cloud Atlas (2012)

2 Nov

I was drunk. So maybe it was that. Or maybe it is just that Cloud Atlas is one of the most frustrating, agonizing movie watching experiences in recent memory. Disjointed. Overly convoluted, careless. These are all adjectives. And, to a certain extent, facts about Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s latest endeavor.

Now, first, I want to let the actors off the hook. I really do. For instance Ben Whishaw’s turn as a troubled, closeted pianist is one of the most heart wrenching, emotional character arcs to hit theatres this year. In fact, I find myself more then anything wishing that his story, “Letters from Zedelghem”, could appear as a stand alone short film. Jim Broadbent’s turn as a man wrongly imprisoned in an English nursing home is also incredibly entertaining, a sort of senior’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And, of course, you can always count on a character actor like Hugo Weaving to get the job done. Again, most of the cast is, by and large, not terrible. And yet the writers and directors somehow reduced America’s greatest living actor, Tom Hanks, into a caricature of his most memorable roles. The portions of the film that take place in the future seem like he was copying his own performance in Castaway. Halle Berry looks lost most of the time, like even while they were shooting she was thinking, “Really guys? This is it?”. Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant are in there too. For some reason? After a certain point it becomes a game of trying to figure out which other role each actor has. Jim Sturgess, who plays the titular sailor in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, suddenly turns up in a futuristic Seoul as a police interrogator. Hugo Weaving plays a nurse, a slave trader, an assassin, and what may or may not be the devil. Doona Bae is a Korean clone, a white abolitionist, and a Mexican woman. As entertaining as it is to try and see who is who in each scene, a movie cannot stand on acting alone.

And despite the strong makeup and costume design (for if Cloud Atlas can be praised for anything, surely it deserves the likely Oscar nods for these), one can’t escape the feeling that all these individual parts add up to a whole that is ultimately meaningless. The fundamental premise of Cloud Atlas is that these same six people keep interacting through hundreds of years. The same couples keep falling in love, actions that one performs in one life bleed into others, that we are all connected. If it had done this, if it had intelligibly threaded together all these different vignettes, if it had clearly demonstrated the ability to not just talk about stories but tell one, then it would rightly be considered a triumph. But it doesn’t. Each story appears haphazardly thrown together, with nothing really connecting. Some, like the aforementioned “Letters from Zedelghem” are beautiful. Others, like “Sloosha’s Crossin’”, which finds Tom Hanks and Halle Berry running from savages in a post-apocalyptic Earth, are simply confusing. I constantly found myself questioning what was going on. What was the point? Why did that plane blow up? Why was that man being poisoned? How did it all fit together? Because despite the fact that this film’s marketing campaign relies heavily on that promise, that “We are all Connected”, Cloud Atlas never manages to explain how, only merely hinting at it, as though even Mr. Tykwer and the Wachowski’s didn’t fully grasp the enormity of what they were trying to capture.

I’m sure that Cloud Atlas is a great book, where being hundreds and hundreds of pages long is an acceptable narrative style if the payoff at the end is sufficiently rewarding. But as a three hour event, the movie does not quite do Cloud Atlas justice. I walked out of the theatre ultimately feeling unfulfilled. Films such as The Lord of the Rings or Kingdom of Heaven justify their run times by rewarding the viewer for their patience with not only great costume design and great acting but a complete story. Cloud Atlas does not.  It is a beautiful movie, but not as beautiful The Master. It is epic in scope, but not in the same way as The Dark Knight Rises. It it is human, but not as much as films like Robot and Frank or Sleepwalk With Me. It brings up profound questions, but not as well as Looper. On a very basic level, Cloud Atlas wants to be all these things. It wants to be visually stunning, it wants to be grand in scale, to have heart, to raise questions, and maybe individually the different stories do these things, but taken as a whole, it simply cannot compare to the other films released this year.

Maybe given time people will look fondly back at Cloud Atlas as that oddity that strove to do so much. Without a doubt it was a brave film. It defies the norms of both a big budget release and an art film released during Oscar Season. It took risks, attempting to adapt a sprawling, well received novel, limiting itself to such a small cast, and taking on huge philosophical questions. And yes, in the era of sequels, reboots, and rehashes, risk taking should be rewarded. But sometimes when you take a risk, the reward fails to materialize. Cloud Atlas is another one of those films that has huge potential, but simply fails to live up to it.

– Nico

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One Response to “Films We’ve Watched: Cloud Atlas (2012)”

  1. John Bradley November 3, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    I am consistently amazed at what I see as the gross failure to grasp the lucid and grandiose arc of this film. It is the most intellectual and complex film I believe I have ever seen. The connections are all there, often made by subtle visual cues. The round yellow shapes of the restaurant in New Seoul are evoked in the yellow eggs being made in the sweatshop in 1972. On the wall of the retirement home is hanging a picture of Haitian slaves. The Wachowski brothers make the argument that we are seeing 6 stories that are essentially the same. The film is a grand call for empathy, an attempt to strip away the physical form and circumstance that hides the gut wrenching terrifying truth that we live in an age in which people are slaves, butchered and imprisoned in a pattern perpetuated by society. Hugh Grant’s character is in my mind one of the most interesting arguments for what makes this film interesting. If you read the best selling German novel Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit about the Fascist psyche that sought to reduce the world to a “bloody mass,” you begin to see a connection between that man made death incarnate, and the “normal male” sexist psyche. They are both attitudes of oppression. Grant plays just such a Nazi figure in the future world, killing, raping, murdering, and a mildly sexist CEO in 1972. Tom Hanks’s character is also subversive, calling in his personal evolution for a refutation of the “the weak must be meat” conservative mentality. Here as with everywhere in this movie, a grand thesis is being presented, a call to arms being made. And it is such a current message. From the gay pianist committing suicide as we struggle with gay marriage, to the idea of a hidden butchering of an exploited class as we obsess over upgrading iphones built by assembly line workers revolting against the mind numbing exploitation of their bodies. This film is high art giving the viewer the benefit of the doubt in daring to be commercial. No one has the right to critique it as entertainment alone. The Wachowski brothers must feel like Maximus. Are you not entertained? Personally I’d like to see David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest made into a movie rather than Mission Impossible 5. For god sake America, open your eyes, this is great stuff! – John

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