What do you do when you want to make six movies but only have time for one? Combine them of course, but does it work? That’s the question boldly being answered by Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run and Perfume fame as well as Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix trilogy. Unlike other films that try to tell a bunch of stories at once like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cloud Atlas actually has rhyme and reason for doing so. I assure you it’s a far better looking and far more coherent film than any of the Transformer films, but the grand scheme and objectives of the film show a lot of strain caused by the filmmaking process.
It’s hard to talk about this like a normal film review, so I’m going to jump right into the meat of the story by breaking it up into its individual components. Be aware that the film jumps wildly back and forth between these stories and they are not presented in any particular chronological order.
The story “begins” with sick lawyer Adam Ewing on a voyage to San Francisco with Dr. Henry Goose and a stowaway slave. The tale is a classic of greed, hidden enemies, and newfound friendship in the context of early American slavery. The story works fairly well on its own two legs and out of the stories seems to show the most progression of its characters, it also forms a link to the next story in the chain through Ewing’s journal. There’s not terribly much else to say without spoiling things.
The Not So Past
A story about Robert Frobisher, a poor aspiring music composer in love with Rufus Sixsmith, working as an aid to famous living composer Vyvyan Ayrs (That’s a lot of diagonals for your buck). Here he composes what he calls the “Cloud Atlas Sextant” which finds itself floating in the films entire background. Out of the six stories this is certainly one of the stronger ones which not only tells a compelling story but also really ties strongly to the film’s concept of transcending time, life, and death. While Frobisher comes off a bit unlikable to start you really feel for his love with Rufus, which is consistent with the exception of one very out of place, straight from left field moment that had the whole theater awkwardly asking “Wait… what?” softly under their breaths. That moment aside, this story blends very well with the next step.
The Almost Present
Using Rufus as a link, the film travels to the hip 70’s which follows reporter Luisa Rey on an investigation of a power conspiracy. The story here very much fits a hard nosed detective story of intrigue and thriller moments, plus it begins to bulk up the film’s action set-piece quota with some shootouts and hip iconic cars (I chuckled when I saw a lookalike to Steve McQueen’s Mustang Fastback from Bullit or a Taxi Cab that likely wasn’t but could have been an homage to Taxi Driver). This story also helped “finish” the story presented between Frobisher and Sixsmith. Only real snag here was the story was at times distracted from what the overall goal of the movie was and “some kid” who showed up just to be a plot device.
I’ll cut to the chase, this was easily the strongest of the five tales. This story could have easily stood on its own and certainly held my attention the best. I often found myself wondering when we would next see the antics of Timothy Cavendish, a publicist who finds himself sticking his hand further and further into a hornet’s nest. There’s a strong tonal shift with this story, being almost slapstick comedy, but also a directorial shift. It almost felt like it was the Wachowski’s trying to imitate a Wes Anderson film without the distinct artistic style. Unfortunately to compound the issue raised by this shift, the Cavendish story had possibly the least to do with with rest of the stories. Sure there were some recurring themes and a callback dropped here and there, but there wasn’t much of a direct link to other stories. It felt more like, “This film is too serious, and it’s three hours long, enjoy this comedic break.”. I don’t care, though, I would definitely watch an entire film of this delightful bumbling but charming character.
Okay this is where the movie goes absolutely bananas. If there was any part of the movie that deserved to be axed it was this portion. Set in a future where South Korea has an undefined totalitarian society of genetic segregation, a test-tube created fast-food worker Sonmi-351 tries to escape in order to help a rebellion simply called “Union”. I’m sorry but this portion of the film always had me shaking my head in disbelief. It’s not downright awful but it does seem to cram the worst parts of Equilibrium and The Matrix sequels into a very cliche and summer movie action style science fiction story. All the cliches are present here: technobabble, strange ways of saying things, faceless enforcers wearing long black coats and motorcycle helmets, hovercars on “light-highways”, a strong message of consumerism, juice boxes that come in triangle boxes instead of squares, and to top it all off some pretty lousy uses of laser guns and pulling people back with wires during explosions. I might have been laughing too hard at the total shattering of realism (there’s a lot of moments you’ll find yourself asking “Why?”) but I was completely lost as to what this all had to do with the other past stories or even what the message was at first beyond a vague Soylent Green analogy and the classic fears of capitalism and eugenics that have been explored in science fiction to death. The sight of the fast food joint itself brings up haunting flashbacks of Speed Racer…
The FAR Future
So remember future South Korea I was talking about? Well now it’s gone and you’re left with a weird hybrid of a fantasy movie and Mad Max. Zachry is trying to survive as a simple goat farmer who inexplicably has settled and herds his goats where horseback riding maurader/cannibals patrol. Along the way Meronym comes along to find a set of ruins that will save her people from radiation or something. This is another weak link of the story as it really only connects to the future story as well as some brief fears of nuclear fallout presented in the 70’s story. It’s certainly not as bad as the last part of the story but somewhere it was decided that in the future we speak a very strange cockney dialect, like a drunken light form of Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange. I really had to concentrate hard to dechiper what the characters were mumbling and while I got the overall gist a lot of it was lost on me. This is the story the film opens with,an old Zachary telling a metaphorical tale in this weird altered language spoken in a low grumbly voice the microphones had trouble picking up. I don’t know, maybe I’m just deaf.
With that all out of the way we can look at the whole film as a whole and whether or not the components worked. If there’s anything to be said the production certainly tried its hardest to make it work. Given the high quality production and use of some very clever visual effects, as well as some very expensive ones, I was shocked to find the film only had a budget of $102M. It’s still a big chunk of change but given what the film accomplished it’s certainly a lot of bang for buck. If you ignore some of the oddities of the more futuristic scenes the overall film is very pleasing visually. Each story had a very distinct color palette appropriate to the era it was portraying, aided by the well designed art direction.
The biggest achievement of the film was in the makeup and costume design. All the actors appear through all the stories as various people and the challenge was to make them blend from one story to the next. This of course was to reinforce the idea of reincarnation and such but it was honestly more of a technical demonstration, but a very good one at that. Not only did characters change in age, but also in race and in gender. One minute Hugo Weaving is a corporate hitman, the next he’s Baron Samedi, soon he’s a Vulcan posing as a Korean, and then he’s a very Mrs. Doubtfire-like nurse. This last one put a smile on my face because I thought this was an homage to Priscilla Queen of the Desert. After realizing that most of the actors have a gender swap at some point in the film I realized this was more of a message or wink to Lana Wachowski who herself came out as transgender recently. I’m not upset by this portrayal at all, in fact it was fun trying to figure out who was who, but I was a bit bummed that it wasn’t likely a direct homage to Priscilla. While the gender swapped worked fine even if it wasn’t 100% perfect, the race swapping was a bit more apparent. You find yourself trying hard to believe that one actor can appear Korean, or how another can appear Caucasian. In the end the makeup is a highlight of the movie and a positive point.
Bringing up Hugo is a nice lead-in to the rest of the cast. The star studded lineup includes, among Mr. Weaving, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Keith David, James D’Arcy, David G’Yasi and some small roles by Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. The cast all did an excellent job given the scope of what they set to accomplish. Any faults of the film that I’m complaining about had nothing to do with the acting talents. Understandably its quite a challenge to portray so many characters in one film but I get the feeling this was a big reason people signed up in the first place.
So why is it that I left the film feeling that it was “okay”? It looked nice, it was professionally done, I got my money’s worth, what was the problem? Cloud Atlas, simply, is a big blockbuster trying to pose as a cerebral arthouse film in the same vein as Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Malick’s The Tree of Life. I’m not criticizing Tykwer or the Wachowskis for trying to make a film with a deep meaning, I encourage them to, but this film shows that old habits die hard and their film backgrounds (especially in the case of the Wachowskis, I can almost pinpoint who had influence over what portions) came back to haunt them. The whole film is shattered by ham-fisted moments of monologues of deep philosophy being juxtaposed by brain-dead action scenes that roughly move together. The disconnected nature of the film left little time for meaningful arcs to develop among the characters, resulting in either binary changes in characters or barely any change at all. The film had a sort-of unifying arc but I’m hard pressed to explain it after only one viewing They put all these stories and ideas into a blender and the end result is chunky and unsatisfying. Worst off is that the apparent message I was lead to believe the story was about by its trailer, that is a story about love and life’s transcendence through time, was barely a strong part of the film. I really felt it when watching Frobicher, but it felt slapped on for any of the other stories (especially the Cavendish tale).
I now know this was based on a novel, which I naturally haven’t read. I’m sure that by reading the novel I would gain a better understanding of what the film tried to accomplish in its three hour running time, but I really don’t think reading the source material should be required to enjoy a film. This also may be a case where a second, third, or even forth viewing would help both my understanding and my appreciation for the hard work done here. Maybe by catching some of the details that whizzed over my head I’ll be able to grasp the themes and message with more clarity; it took me several viewings of The Fountain to fully grasp it. But as far as an initial first-viewing it left me with a fairly apathetic view of the film. It was better than I expected it to be (It wasn’t nearly as pretentious as I thought), but it’s not going on any Top Ten list I don’t think.
Should you see it? Hard to say as this is going to be one of those movies that’s polarizing among audiences. I can already hear the screaming of fans telling me I’m too dense to understand, that I’m horrible at paying attention and should have gotten it all on one pass, but I think the majority of movie-goers are going to leave this one scratching their heads afterwards. Not in a “What if this is all a dream like Inception” kind of way but in a “What was the point” kind of way.