Cloud Atlas

The Nominations:

  • None. Review written Jan 2, 2013, prior to the nominations being announced

The Black-and-White:

A contributed review by cb450sc

In Brief: 7 out of 10. A stunning film with great promise that reached for the sky, but just missed.

Cloud Atlas was one of the films I was most eagerly anticipating this year, based on previews offering some great cinematography and the promise of deep thematic elements. The film has an award-winning cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, as well as Doone Bae (a well-known Korean actress). It also has some famous directors: the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and was known to be based on a novel of fiendish complexity. This one had “Oscar buzz” written all over it from day one.

Cloud Atlas is based on an award-winning 2004 David Mitchell novel of the same name. It’s impossible to discuss the movie without discussing the novel as well, but I note here that I have not read it and rely primarily on book reviews and synopses. The novel is considered a tour de force in modern avant garde story-telling. The novel is structured as six separate stories spanning 500 years in time, and located in the south seas, the UK, the United States, Korea, and a post-apocalypse Hawaii. The same characters appear essentially as reincarnations in each story. Each story is interrupted near it’s climax, at which point the novel jumps forward in time to the next story. After reaching the post-apocalypse, the novel “rewinds”, each story being completed through a literary connection to the previous. Here this refers specifically to two novels, a symphonic piece entitled “Cloud Atlas”, a bad movie, and a speech recorded on video. The underlying theme is one of karmic interconnection, and of repetition through history based on underlying human nature. It’s certainly not the first novel to use this approach – I note that a very similar idea appears in Madeline L’Engle’s “A Swiftly Tilting Planet”. However, it’s audaciousness lies in the sheer complexity of the story.

Which, of course, makes it an incredible challenge to bring to the screen. True to the concept in the original novel, the same set of principal actors appear in each segment, and play at least six roles each. In some cases this necessitates some rather surprising race and gender changes on the parts of the actors. And it is truly a credit to the actors and the makeup artists that in some cases it was really non-obvious who they were (“wait a minute, is that Halle Berry???”).

The film is visually stunning. There are many, many sets, including (for me) a truly fantastic sci-fi segment in the 22nd century.

The directors decided to abandon the two-way chronologically linear storyline, presumably because they were afraid the audience would forget details over the three hour course of the movie. Instead, each storyline is revisited many times, often in segments just a few minutes in length. In effect, all the storylines appear simultaneously in a dizzying, machine-gun fashion. The film still retains it’s puzzle-like nature – it’s clear something is going on, and the old wheels in the brain start spinning overtime trying to figure out what it is.

Unfortunately, this is where the movie starts to trip over itself.

The tools available in a film are just not the same as in a novel. The film viewer can tell all the stories relate somehow to each other, through the obvious point that the actors are the same. But what exactly connects them is really unclear. There are a few elements in common between some of the pairs of the stories: the same person appears in two of them (Sixsmith), Sonmi appears both as herself and the savior of a future religion, the Cloud Atlas sextet appears as music in the neo-Seoul segment, etc. But there is no commonality. If you read the novel, you would know what the connecting elements are meant to be. But in the film, for example, if you blink you’ll miss the that the book from story one is propping up the furniture in story two. Over and over, the plot inter-connections from the book are presented, but lost in the viewing of the film. There’s way, way too much going on. I found myself multiple times looking at the clock and wondering how there could still be an hour left, since we were already saturated with at least three films’ worth of plot. It doesn’t help that the directors have paid a lot of attention to detail, and those details create an illusion of meaning that in the end just isn’t really there. In other words, they are red herrings.

In particular if you watch it with one idea in mind about what the film is about, you discover at the end that you were going down a blind alley, have missed key clues, and the film makes little sense. For example, you might try to see if it is really the same story repeating over and over, which would make sense from a reincarnation standpoint. But you would be pretty much totally wrong. Likewise, you might try to link themes together. But you really can’t. The film seems to indicate (directly, through voiceovers) that the film is about how ones’ actions ripple forward in time, forever. But there’s also a theme about anonymous actions (the abolitionist story) becoming a force in history. But then we have a competing theme from the neo-Seoul story that each revolution begins with the actions of just one individual. Or maybe it’s about the strong eating the weak (literally!), also repeated by multiple characters in different timelines. What the theme was of the nuclear reactor storyline I still have no idea.

All of this is probably exacerbated by the fact that the Wachowskis and Twyker directed the segments separately. The result is distinctly that of six separate stories, with some common elements, but none of it really hangs together correctly.

Last but not least, there were some truly awful issues. The use of yellowface was truly offensive. There’s a long history of this in television and cinema (witness Mark Lenard in Hawaii Five-0 and Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice). But at least in those cases there was a vague justification offered. In this case, there is absolutely no excuse for this – it would be totally reasonable to believe that in Seoul in 2144 there might be some caucasians around (there are a few now, after all). Instead, we are treated to Hugo Weaving with a makeup job so awful that he looks more like a Romulan than a human of Asian ethnicity. There were also numerous examples of whiteface, and I was more than a bit weirded out seeing Hale Berry and Doona Bae turned into freckled redheads. In a similar vein, I can’t stand to see people of African descent used as Polynesians. This was like a throwback to the 20’s. And I understand that the whole thing was filmed in Europe, but the “Big Isle”, which is explicitly the Big Island of Hawaii because it references Mauna Kea, is obviously not. The trees are all wrong, and the characters are scaling granite cliffs, a type of stone which not exist in Hawaii. Just plain sloppy film-making. Also don’t get me started on the entire segment set in some sort of futuristic pidgin – great for atmosphere but awful for story-telling. At that point its just self-indulgent.

So in the end, a great attempt to do a really great film, but it just didn’t quite gel for me.

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