Cloud Atlas

Synopsis: From acclaimed filmmakers Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, the powerful and inspiring epic drama “Cloud Atlas” explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present and the future.

Action, mystery and romance weave dramatically through the story as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future.

Featuring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.
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Cloud Atlas 7.5

eyelights: multiple roles for each main actor. the filmmakers’ intention.
eyesores: shoddy-looking cgi. the sometimes crummy-looking makeup. the action-oriented dénouements. the nebulous connecting tissue.

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime; and every kindness we birth our future.”

I should probably like ‘Cloud Atlas’ more. Lord knows I wanted to. With a tagline like “Everything is Connected”, I hoped for something profound. And with Tom Tykwer, as well as Andy and Lana Wachowski at the helm, at the very least I expected to be wowed.

I never was. Not once.

Not only that, but I found film’s  message unsubtle at best. Granted, the intention of the original author and the filmmakers was noble, but their attempt at profundity was marred by a delivery that felt over-bearing, as though they felt the need to drum it over our heads.

It’s not the passenger that I decry (I am, after all, a fan of such movies as ‘Le battement d’ailes du papillon‘), it’s the vehicle.

What bothered me most is that it was all packaged in gloss, depending on action sequences to get its audience through the movie: each story had a certain amount of violence, if not flat-out action – including the modern time one with a 65-year-old literary agent. No joke.

Perhaps the filmmakers felt that audiences couldn’t possibly be interested in a six-layer deep motion picture that is woven together over the course of nearly three hours. Perhaps they felt that mindless action would draw crowds to what is ostensibly a more human, more spiritual journey. And they may be right: North American audiences, in particular, frequently want to be spoon-fed their entertainment – they don’t want to have their minds stimulated.

However, in so doing, they also diluted their message. What should have been a moving pastiche of humanity’s best and worst, a tale as timely as it is timeless, ended up being submerged in artifice such as gun fights, car crashes and various other fireworks. One could hardly expect any different from the Warchowskis, but I was hoping that they would mostly bring their financial clout to the picture, not their penchant for extravagance.

To be fair, though, I must confess that, despite the aural overload of ‘Cloud Atlas’, I found that the film was quite the sight. It was nothing especially exceptional (in fact, most sequences reminded me of something else I’d seen before), but it was nonetheless put together admirably well – the so-so cgi effects excepted, mind you (nota bene: I rarely find that cgi effects look realistic).

What made the film intriguing to me was how they directors re-used the same cast over and over again for each of the six stories. This was fun on two counts: first in a “Where’s Waldo?” kind of way, because it was tons of fun trying to pick them out, but also because it tested each actor’s capacity to immerse themselves and inhabit new characters.

For the most part, they succeeded quite well. The thing that hobbled them the most, quite frankly, was the lacklustre prosthetics and make-up used to mask the actors from one segment to the next. For instance, to me, it was painfully apparent that Hugo Weaving was dressed in drag (he made for an unusual-looking woman!), or that Doona Bae was not Caucasian.

Still, I have to give everyone some slack for at least being playful in this fashion – it was brave and bold at once, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. It was the one thing that brought joy to my viewing of ‘Cloud Atlas’ and it’s the only true connecting thread that I could see between the various tales (although I admit that I may not be observant enough to have noticed the more subtle ones).

‘Cloud Atlas’ is composed of six distinct, but somewhat connected, segments:

1. One tale takes place in the United States in the mid-1800s. A lawyer is convinced by a runaway slave to hide him on his ship, and he himself eventually manages to have the man included as part of the crew proper. Meanwhile, on their way to destination, he falls ill and his life rests in the hands of the slave that he freed.

This one was okay, but I didn’t find it especially moving or novel. In my mind, this had all been done before.

2. This story takes place in the mid-1930s. A gay composer finds work in the home of a world-renowned, but now creatively bankrupt, composer as his secretary. As he works for the older man, rekindling his fires, the young man writes his own masterpiece, a work called ‘The Cloud Atlas Sextet’. But not everything will go quite as planned…

I liked this one. There’s nothing new here either. I enjoyed it mostly for Ben Wishaw, who was the star of ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer‘.

3. The early ’70s segment featured Halle Berry as a journalist who stumbles upon a major news story – a conspiracy that has something to do with a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, shady powers are trying to prevent her from getting access to pertinent information – her life, as well as those of her contacts, end up in grave danger.

This one hit home a bit more than the others. I suspect that it was due to the mystery behind it; at least it wasn’t just straight-forward like the others.

4. Our present-time story features Jim Broadbent as an aging literary agent who inadvertently gets caught up with the criminal underworld and finds himself tricked into a senior’s home by his own brother – from which he, and a few new-found friends, attempt to escape. However, the odds are against them as the head Nurse and her cohorts attempts to foil the plan.

Of all of them, this is by far my favourite bit: it was quirky and humourous and I connected with it a bit more, even though it was slightly exaggerated and had to be resolved with violence.

5. The futuristic Neo Seoul segment gave us a dystopic vision of the world, one where clones are kept like cattle to serve humans like slaves. It’s the story of one particular slave, who discovers that she has a larger purpose in life than she ever could have imagined. With the help of a revolutionary, she escapes her captors and spreads a message that will have ripple effects for years to come.

As directed by the Warchowskis, it felt very much like a shadow of ‘The Matrix’, stylistically. Perhaps this was the intention: in tying the Warchowskis to that bit, there may have been an attempt to pull fans of the series in. It didn’t work for me; it was too slick and the cgi wasn’t immersive.

6. The fantasy/sci-fi blend of the final segment, which takes place in a post-Apocalyptic future, brings together a crude forest dweller with a more technologically-advanced woman who is looking for a long-lost station from which she might be able to send a communication to space. Although he is reticent to lead her there, he falls indebted to her and risks his life to help her.

This one is interesting for the mixes of worlds, but is chiefly intriguing for the use of a futuristic English that became difficult to decrypt at times; I was able to understand what was going on, but the details were lost on me (I suspect that I got 70% of what was being said). But I’ll give credit to the filmmakers for trusting the audience to be intelligent enough to figure it out – instead of treating them like dummies, like most Hollywood productions do.

What I find especially ironic is that, while the movie didn’t fear challenging its audience by giving them a more complex language or even subtitles for that segment, it hammered them over the head with its message, as though it wouldn’t be clear enough. The whole way through, I kept answering them in my head with “Yeah, yeah… I get it: we have to struggle to speak the truth. We can’t allow ourselves to be oppressed. You have to fight even when you know you can’t win. Because everything is connected. Yeah, yeah.”

Basically, I think that ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a splendid idea that lacked subtlety and depth. I love the conceit that every action has repercussions and, thus, we need to choose every move wisely, and for the betterment of all. But it could be done in a less explicit way than this. In fact, I think that it would be much more successful both as a film and as a messenger if it resonated on a more profound level, if it struck a more emotional chord instead of trying to entertain all the time. The problem is that the fireworks diverts the viewers’ attention to the air, instead of keeping them grounded.

Perhaps there is a method to it that escapes me, but I feel that there is a reason why some films force us to reflect instead of trying to slip a few flash-thoughts through our minds between set pieces. Even some of the darkest and/or least accessible pictures gain popularity because they have a message to deliver and don’t get distracted by trying to pander to the lowest common denominator. Since they included multiple references to ‘Soylent Green’ (an imperfect film filled with thought-provoking ideas), you’d think that the Warchowskis and Tom Tykwer would have understood this.

In the end, would I recommend ‘Cloud Atlas’? Not really. It’s an okay film, but it’s nothing remarkable. But would I dissuade someone from seeing it? Not in the least bit. It has something to offer that most of its peers can’t even be bothered to consider: that is, a message worth contemplating. It’s just a shame that this message is lost in a sea of banalities and clichés that are all-too-infrequently spruced up by minor sparkles of ingenuity. Clearly, this is not what the filmmakers intended, but, to me at least, this is exactly what they ended up doing.

“What is an ocean but a multitude a drops?”

Date of viewing: November 9, 2012

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