29 October 2012


If I may steal from Tolstoy: competently-made movies are all alike, ambitiously messy movies are all ambitiously messy in their own way. Which is as much to say, Cloud Atlas is basically a disaster, but it's a disaster that held me in a complete rapture for the entirety of its beyond-bloated 172-minute running time, and a disaster that could never have happened if talented people with bold ideas hadn't been willing to spend a ludicrous amount of other people's money to realise their visions at the cost of anything else. It is a disaster that I loved like I have loved few other movies in 2012 and if personal edification were the only component in selecting a numerical rating, would give this a 10.

That would be poor reviewing, though, and the fact of the matter is that I can't imagine who I'd recommend Cloud Atlas to, any more than I can imagine who I'd recommend should definitely avoid it. That's the problem with absurdly singular movies: they aren't comparable to anything else.

A collaboration between the seemingly unlikely talents of Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and siblings the Wachowskis, of The Matrix and Speed Racer, the film is adapted from an unadaptable 2004 novel by David Mitchell (Tykwer's been to the "unadaptable" well before, but Cloud Atlas does a better job of it than Perfume), which tells six stories in a nested, ABCDEFEDCBA structure that could be recreated in a cinematic form, but would undoubtedly not be very exciting if it was, and so instead the movie Cloud Atlas opts for the simpler shape of intercutting between those stories in grand old D.W. Griffith fashion. The other notable trait of the book, that each of the six stories is written in a completely different voice and style, is translated rather more directly, so that each of the six narrative threads in the movie is represented as a different genre.

And that's how we end up with a sea-going adventure about a mad doctor and a young businessman set in the South Pacific in 1849, a gay love drama in Belgium in 1932, a political thriller about a crusading journalist in 1973 Southern California, a "quirky old Britishers" comedy in 2012, a future-shock action movie in "Neo-Seoul" in 2144, and a post-apocalypse adventure set in what appears to be, possibly, the ruins of New Zealand "106 years after the Fall"; Tykwer having directed the more generally realistic 1932, 1973, and 2012 segments, with the Wachowskis taking over the more nutsoid period/sci-fi episodes.

In all six of these stories, characters are played by a cluster of actors who appear in wildly different forms: Tom Hanks is a scientist here, a tribal leader there, a hotel manager in another place; Jim Broadbent is a venal composer, an addled writer, a ship captain; other actors in for the fun include Halle Berry, Ben Whisaw, Bae Doona, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving, the last of whom comes the closest to playing the same character in all six episodes in that he is fairly consistently a bad guy. Men play women, women play men, white people play ethnic mutts in a future Korea, Koreans play whites in a past San Francisco, middle-aged people play old people in make-up so unbelievable that makes me sorry for all the mean things I said about Armie Hammer in J. Edgar. All of which actually serves to make the movie stronger, in at least this regard, than the book; for the book could merely posit that these characters are interrelated across time, while the movie can dramatically demonstrate how personalities re-occur throughout history, and thus strengthen very much its them of something kind of like reincarnation but not exactly that, in which patterns happen over and over again, and people are linked by their place in that pattern, retelling the same kind of emotional journeys in seemingly irreconcilable locations and cultures.

Sure, it's one part New Agey hokum, and one part sentimental overkill - the film's overriding message, never exactly obscure, but pounded into the viewer's face like a wrecking ball in the final 20 minutes ore so, is that love transcends all things, time and space and death - but Tykwer and the Wachowskis are fiercely committed to fleshing it out anyway, and far better to have hokey sentiment treated with enthusiasm and passion than to have anything that only approaches its theme with subdued conviction. The one thing that can never be said against Cloud Atlas is that it lacks conviction: even the things about it that are the worst, such as the clumsy attempt at writing dialogue in post-Fall vernacular (inherited from the book, where it worked better), the parts of the make-up that are fucking awful (Grant as an old man, Bae as a Caucasian), or the weaker performances (Hanks and Berry, both of them owing in no small part to those actors being stuck with some of the loopier parts to play), are all victims of proud ambition, not of weak half-measures.

And the parts that work are so much better than the parts that don't work: the strange meta-criticism of the 2012 sequence, which mocks its genre even while indulging in its worst tendencies; the rich, wholly unmodulated emotions of 1932 (the best segment, in my estimation); the over-the-top CGI in Neo-Seoul (my least-favorite, but with the most imaginative and engaging visuals) that manages to look unreal in a way far more artistic and deliberate than most blockbuster films that only want to use visual effects in a leadenly photo-realistic manner; the score by Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek, which serves a key narrative function (the title comes from the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", composed in 1932), and if it is not as life-altering as the script wants it to be, it's still one of the few truly beautiful scores to come out of a year that has been, so far, a low water mark for film music; the cutting together of moments from across the six stories, sometimes tied together by visual elements, sometimes by emotional beats, sometimes by narrative links, sometimes just in service of a jolt of momentum; Broadbent, who hasn't been this alive in ages and ages; and the sheer puzzle-box fun of keeping track of who's playing who and what lines and concepts get repeated, a game that does not as far as I can tell deepen the meaning of the film at all, but is much more fun to play here than in e.g. a po-faced Chris Nolan picture.

Movies this idiosyncratic don't get made all that often; movies this idiosyncratic on a budget this inflated don't get made but once every handful of years, and on that front alone, Cloud Atlas is essential cinema: genuinely visionary, to use a word that gets crapped out too often with too little understanding of what that word means, and wildly varied in the nature and style of those visions without ever feeling like a patchwork made up of disparate and incompatible elements (so visionary, in fact, that it's made me want to re-appraise Speed Racer, which does similar things aesthetically): in fact, one of the most impressive things about the film is how well it all fits together despite two distinct authorial voices working in multiple genres. It is, I think, a hard film to like but an awfully easy film to love, and almost as easy to deeply hate. Better by far that than just another chunk of respectably forgettable Oscarbait, of that I have no doubt.



David Greenwood said...

I have had a field day listening to all the twenty something internet film dorks pontificate about the unfathomably deep meaning and significance of this film. I enjoyed just seeing three directors work in six different genres simultaneously and somehow creating a comprehensible narrative.

My ass did begin shifting uncomfortably in my seat about two-thirds of the way through, however. And when the movie really began spelling out it's simplistic morals with a god damned neon sign I began to veer from admiration and joy into outright irritation. Coincidentall, I also felt like that was about the point that the score went from being gorgeous to "Spielbergy".

But seriously, what a movie! Problems and all, I'm just happy that people make films this bonkers and over-stretching. And yet... Doona Bae as a Ginger? That image will haunt my nightmares for weeks.

Jeremy said...

Didn't like this one. Felt like trailers for movies that give away the whole plot, but with their clipped nature and haphazard editing, you can't connect to any of the characters, and the stop-start-run!-stop-stop-start nature of the narrative prevented the film from carrying any kind of momentum to sustain it's VERY long runtime.

I want to give this movie props for ambition, and it's marvelous editing. In fact, I'm a little sad it's floppin' at the box office, because it just cements the Wachowskis as box office poison...but I cannot confuse aim for accuracy, and I can only admire this film from a distance, like a cool museum piece. Fleeting beauty, and then disappears from the mind. I mean, if I had to choose between seeing this again or some other slick, mediocre big budget film like The Amazing Spider-Man or Total Rehash, I'd go with Cloud Atlas every time, but...

If I was a top ten movies of the year kind of guy, it would be in the honorable mention sections. "Swing and a Miss" section.

Unrelated Tim, but I just don't GET your Twitter. What's going on with that.

Tim said...

David- No two ways about it, it's too long. And I think it veers from philosophically trite to philosophically incoherent way too often to call it "deep", but I was having too much fun to care.

Jeremy- "Honorable Mentions - Swing and a Miss" seems just about right; I adored it, but the last thing it is a flawless, intelligent work of art.

As for my Twitter feed: it started off as an I-hate-Twitter attempt to demonstrate that 140 characters is insufficient to create meaningful communication by breaking Moby Dick into little meaningless chunks; that ceased to be amusing after about five months, and it has since devolved into a chore that I only keep up with because if I don't get to the end of the book, I'll feel like Twitter will have beat me, and I'm certainly unwilling to let that happen.

Jeremy said...

A man with an insane quest to finish, despite all logic saying otherwise.

You have actually BECOME Ahab.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I found it more impressive than successful. The gooey pathos and "Love Endures Through All" messaging were more irritating than I expected, but the film was far more genuinely suspenseful and engaging as a story qua story than I had anticipated. I actually felt pangs for the characters despite the at times terrible acting. Something about the editing across the sextuple storylines and that great score create this terrific sensation of tension and imminent disaster that never lets up, somehow even surviving the conclusion of the film. There are no endings, indeed.

I really adored how the film used Cavendish's storyline--and the film-within-the-film dramatizing his life that Sonmi watches--to highlight how manipulative melodrama can be, and yet how important even treacly, sentimental art in the sweep of history if it elicits the right response from the right person at the right time. Everything that happens in the "future" storyline weirdly collapses into Cavendish's tale, implying that the rise of the corporatocracy and its eventual fall were dependent on a critic giving a hack memoir a bad review in 2012. Boggles.

But, Jesus, that yellowface. So distracting and just awful.

Ryan Elliott said...

I wish the script had gone with more gusto towards connecting the various strands in a more philosophically interesting and coherent way than 'love transcends individual lifetimes', or whatever that message was. Like you said, Tim, several techniques — visual connections, directly referencing other storylines, mere tonal continuity, etc. — serve to glue them all together; but the flimsiness and arbitrariness of those segues left me feeling as if there was very little in the way of an overarching spinal column. The result is, like Ignostic pointed out, this absurd notion that the future conflicts collapse down to or pivot around Cavendish's cheesy, Chevy-Chase-esque storyline, which gets kicked off by a bad review.

My solution would be something the directors actually thought about, if a recent piece on the film by the New Yorker is to be believed, namely the idea that someone can possibly move from the morally bankrupt edge of the spectrum (Tom Hanks's venomous doctor) to the more heroic side (Hanks's tribal guide), over the course of several tries cum reincarnations. It's the notion of Eternal Recurrence, but turned against Nietzsche in a ghastly way: his idea was that ER was an appraisal mechanism of someone's life, by asking if they would want to live the same experiences over & over & over; while the Wachowskis (the eternal recurrence idea was theirs, by recasting the same actors across the timelines) use it as a kind of afterlife, or another shot at being 'good'. That would've been quite an interesting way to do it, but it doesn't pan out very well, except for Tom Hanks and Hugo Weaving (the latter being an example of someone who becomes more sinister over recurrences).

In any case, the arbitrariness of how the story lines were connected, and some tonal gaps between them (Cavendish's retirement home jailbreak was quite the oddball) kept me at a distance, in this kind of detached space from which it was impossible to feel strongly towards anything in the movie besides how awesome Hugo Weaving and Keith David are. David, especially, needs WAY more attention: he's a marvelous actor and such a powerful presence and his VOICE.

hayley said...

Ditto, I don't think they quite got there, but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless.

One of the things I had problems with was the "love transcends lifetimes" message, which was not a theme that was implicit in the book. A couple of the storylines had their endings changed to accommodate this new direction. Now normally, I don't mind filmmakers putting in different interpretations to their film adaptations, but in this case, I actually think it hurt the real theme, which is "human nature is universal, no matter the time, place, make or motivation." That was the whole point of telling six interlocking stories, and it's somewhat undermined so that the filmmakers could tack on their, "love, it's like the most super important and it will save our souls and it like goes on and on forever, dude" message. No, the novel posited that love is one of the driving forces in human development, but it certainly didn't say it was THE main driving force.

Tim said...

Ryan- Wow, no, they totally did not communicate that theme AT ALL.

But anyway, I do not pretend that my love for the movie - still a 10/10 on a "favorites" ranking, even after four days - has anything to do with anything besides how hard it brings the pretty. Because the script really is just ludicrous.

Douglas Peters said...

The visual effect was stunning. I did not get how the plot actually fit together. However, it elicited emotions from almost directly from my subconscious. Conclusion: I will see it again and enjoy it more.

franklinshepard said...

In an interview, the Wachowskis said that they can't really divide who directed what up, but this was the only way the DGA would allow all three of them to be credited. Apparently, they all storyboarded together, and they all were always on set. They were forced to put the directing credit like that.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Is it really a disaster Tim? I'm afraid to read reviews of this and other than knowing what a few have written, and the general premise that it got mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (which is not really a barometer of much)I've not sought out reviews.

I just saw this, and not because I need validation, I was so curious to see what someone else thought. I want to say I'd give this 9/10 because - I don't know - it's hokey but it just gripped me and even as I was aware of the time towards the last fifteen minutes I don't think it ever felt long to me.

I feel I need to mull it over before deciding but I don't know, on one hand I want to read the negative reviews to know what the objections are but on the other I don't want to spoil the image of it in my head.

(Weirdly, I really liked Berry here. Hanks is probably my least favourite - not bad but not great - but she was probably near my top.)

Tim said...

Disaster being relative. I don't think that the film "works", insofar as it cleanly achieves what it sets out to do, but I very much enjoy it anyway, as much as I've flat-out enjoyed anything all year. Which maybe means it does achieve what it means to. Honestly, I tend to respond to messy films with too many ideas a lot more than other kinds.

zimnomel said...

I was positively terrified that you were going to tear this movie a new one, listing brilliant agrument after brilliant argument why it's an overblown piece of pretentious trash that only easily-impressed hipsters enjoy, proving once and for all that when it comes to cinema, I have absolutely no taste whatsoever.

I'm so happy now.