Movie Review: Cloud Atlas
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski
Reviewed: 4 August 2013
Cloud Atlas, the unique cinematic wonder based on the novel by David Mitchell, soars with ambition and style, telling a breathtaking nesting-doll series of tales that touch on the nature of good and evil, power and slavery, friendship and love, as well as the notion of eternal return. It is rare to see filmmaking this bold and daring. Using special effects to blow up a major American city is not daring. In the modern age, to see a director work with such a sprawling canvas and tell a complex, layered story in an equally challenging way is daring. Darren Aronofsky proved up to the task in The Fountain in 2006, and more recently, Terence Malick engaged the creation of the universe juxtaposed against a 1950's Texas childhood in Tree of Life. Despite its stumbles and obvious inferiority to its source material, in Cloud Atlas, the three directors have crafted a triumphant film, elegant in its construction and profound in its use of a marvelous team of actors. The creators of The Matrix and Run, Lola, Run have united their sensibilities to create a unique vision.
Dividing the film into pieces, giving the Wachoswkis three eras to film and Tykwer three as well. Assembling Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Susan Sarandon and adding them to Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim D'Arcy, Keith David, and the great, great Hugo Weaving. Constructing six different films taking place on a sailing ship on the Pacific, in Scotland at a composer's mansion in the early 20th Century, in San Francisco on a corporate murder-mystery in the 1970's, inside the world of publishing and family in 2012 Scotland, amidst a fabricant-filled future in Neo-Seoul, as well as the pastoral yet violent tribes of The Big Island of Hawaii. Editing six different narratives together in unconventional and surprising ways that focus on theme and image as well as plot. Scoring the film to the Cloud Atlas sextet, a haunting and beautiful piece of music created in one of the stories. It is breathtaking to describe the process of assembling this great film.
"Travel far enough, you meet yourself," states David Mitchell in his novel, and the reoccurring motif is exemplified most through the recasting of actors and actresses, shifting genders, nationalities, and sexualities. Tom Hanks plays both a saavy goat-herder on a Hawaiian Island and a bullish Scottish writer with crazy facial hair, a manager at a boarding house and a scientist with a conscience. Not only is it fun to see the actors stretch from scene to scene (some with more success than others), the Wachowskis and Tykwer also demand the audience to stretch to locate the actor or actress, amidst stunning set and clothing design and unnerving use of make-up. Is it this person or that one? What are the echoes or the ripples from story to story? I thought the performances were fantastic, and it was particularly fun to see Tom Hanks and Halle Berry working with such strong guidance, taking such risks as performers. Broadbent is always joyful to watch, and I want see more of Ben Whishaw. Keith David and Hugh Grant are quite fun too. Hugo Weaving gives a tour-de-force performance, in many ways anchoring the film.
I feel like I am dancing around this film instead of fully engaging it in this review. How do I fully capture a film whose intertextuality touches on Defoe, Melville, Bradbury, Kesey, Lowry, and other great authors? Having read the book this past summer and loved it, I was inevitably let down at moments by this film: clunky narration giving the major themes of the film more than once, some sci-fi chase scenes that seemed lifted from Speed Racer or The Fifth Element, several stories not paying off as well as I had hoped, and some inevitable editing for length excised a story line that I particularly loved. Yet, there is a lightness to the camera in so many moments with crane shots that view the characters from the sky from different perspectives, a beautiful arrangement of color and light in many scenes (the alarming red of a scene set in a stalled elevator; the tumbling of a car off of a bridge with the camera inside of it; the electric blue of nighttime Neo-Seoul), and a warmth to its performances that never feels stilted or stuffy. The film earns its 2 hours and 52 minute running time, though I wonder if a miniseries of 6 or more hours could have been a different, more satisfying avenue to take given the narrative.
The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer add a frame narrative to the story (much like Baz Luhrmann did to The Great Gatsby) that offers a further layer of hope and possibility. I cannot criticize them and the editor Alexander Berner (whose task was Herculean) for choosing to immerse the audience in the highly fragmented narrative early on, to weave in and out of each story with little consistency instead of keeping it separated into five or six chapters. They adapted a beloved novel with its our sense of geography and parameters and love of wordplay into a film in love with its own construction and performers and symbols. Using the conventions of film, they shifted the story and rightly so.
I go to the movies to be dazzled, to be touched emotionally, to see things that I have never seen before, to experience stories of, as William Faulkner wrote, "the human heart in conflict with itself." Cloud Atlas succeeds in wrestling with titanic themes and ideas, but I think I will always remember the intersection of these individuals, the way one generation reads a previous one or experiences it through film or video, the way chance encounter can lead to a radically different future. Mitchell's book puts it best: "Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. That each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction."
I am grateful for this new potential direction in cinema.