Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cloud Atlas: A Tough Map to Follow

Cloud Atlas
Written and Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer
Germany/US 2012, 172 mins
Available on DVD/Blu-Ray

One of the six interwoven stories in the Wachowskis' & Tom Tykwer's Cloud Atlas features a piece of music called "Eternal Recurrence." That "eternal recurrence" is also, essentially, the three-hour epic's main thematic conceit is a testament to how on-the-nose the film can be. I haven't read the David Mitchell novel on which the film is based, so I can't say how much of this is carried over from the source text, but what strikes me most about this frustrating but occasionally brilliant film is the way it holds the audience's hand in the wrong places, spoon-feeding us its thematic material while its plot tosses us hither and yon through space and time with only minimal explanation. Having faith in the audience is one thing, but whether asking them to take so many leaps over such a long running time is commendable or certifiable is another matter entirely.

The film's plot(s) are difficult to sum up. Suffice to say that it is a story about telling stories, composed of tales that span the centuries, from the diary of a lawyer on a 19th century Pacific expedition, to the oral tradition of a post-apocalyptic society on Hawaii's Big Island in 2321. Throughout the stories, actors reappear as different characters, readily switching age, nationality, and even gender through make-up and prosthetics to fit each section's demands. Some questionable choices and a few less-than-stellar make-up jobs aside, this works far better than it should, a qualification that also holds for the film itself.

Within each story, characters find items that relate to them the story that precedes theirs in time. Ben Whishaw's 20th century composer reads the journal of Jim Sturgess's 19th century lawyer, while Halle Berry's 1970's journalist reads Whishaw's correspondence, while Jim Broadbent's contemporary publisher reads a manuscript based on Berry's adventures, while Doona Bae's rebellious 22nd century clone watches a film based on Broadbent's capers, while Tom Hanks's 24th century neo-primitive society takes Bae's manifesto and testimony as scripture. If that set of threads seems like it would be hard to follow, well, it sometimes is.

As I understand it, the novel breaks each story except the last in half, nesting them within each other but otherwise leaving each largely uninterrupted and digestible. The film, meanwhile, cuts from each to each in ways that don't always make sense from a story or chronological perspective, though they may relate on a thematic or emotional level. There is an underlying framework in most of the stories about predation and exploitation, one occasionally restated as "The weak are meat the strong do eat." Such key words, phrases, images, and works of art recur throughout, suggesting a connection between souls that transcends time—a connection that copious voice-overs hammer home again and again—such that the voice-over from one plot can be matched to the on-screen action of another.

This episodic structure necessarily creates issues: While running time is well-balanced between the six stories, on the whole, it is inevitable that audience members will like some stories more than others and be less invested in the rest. Similarly, each segment has a tone and style befitting its subject matter, from detective thriller to sci-fi spectacle, from dark farce to period drama. Frequent cuts between these wildly-divergent tonal palettes can be jarring. That Cloud Atlas manages to hang together as well as it does—leaving aside the film's muddled opening, which could easily alienate the audience before they are accustomed to the film's rhythms—is a testament to the writer-directors' skill and that of editor Alexander Berner. But audience members might be left cold by the time spent away from their favorites, or grow tired of the number of cliffhanger cutaways and repetitive moments required by the film's epic sprawl (to say nothing of those who are put-off before they come to care about any of the characters and, as such, never find a foothold in the film's labyrinthine depths).

That being said, the direction, cinematography (by Frank Griebe and John Toll), and set design are all spot-on and perfectly-pitched for each story. Special effects and CGI are well-deployed and executed, by turns restrained and spectacular as needed. Everything looks and feels as it should, which is a feat in and of itself considering all of the balls the production team must have had in the air at any given moment. Some actors acquit themselves better than others: Sturgess, Whishaw, and James D'Arcy strike the fewest false notes, while Bae and Berry are endearing throughout. The whole cast is game to try even the craziest of things, which had me willing to forgive when, say, Hanks's (British? Irish?) thug-cum-author basically falls flat, or Hugo Weaving's Nurse Ratched impression simultaneously puzzles and beguiles. Still, the cast and crew's ambition for fulfilling the material's scope does them credit.

Unfortunately, ambition isn't enough. Given the structure of the source material, I'm left to question whether film was, ultimately, the right medium for this adaptation. Not to say that it isn't cinematic; it is, often breathtakingly so. It's just that three hours is a long time, especially for a film that asks as much of its audience as Cloud Atlas does. Even with the rise in home viewing, theatrical films still must be consumed in a single sitting, and this is a film of such varying pace and tone that sitting through it all can feel draining. The fact that each segment also gets bogged down in one or two places (in order to allow our focus to shift to the others without too much tension) certainly adds to this draining sensation. I can't help but wonder if Cloud Atlas would have worked better as a limited television series, with each section split into two episodes and nested chronologically, just as in the novel. This would have allowed the audience the luxury of greater focus and plot clarity while simultaneously allowing each segment's restatement of the whole's "everything's connected, everybody lives again" theme to emerge more organically (and feel less overstated in the process).

But in spite of Cloud Atlas's ungainly length and occasional bloat, it is still a movie unlike any other I've ever seen. Elements of it have stayed with me, and I expect they will linger for some time. While what it has to say about the human condition is neither as new or as profound as the film seems to believe, at least it is trying to say something. I would infinitely prefer to watch movies like this, movies that try to do something new while taking advantage of cinema's capacity to transcend place & time and comment on the nature of storytelling itself, than by-the-numbers blockbuster or indie fare. Just don't ask me to sit through it again anytime soon.


  1. I had some of the same thoughts, but not nearly as good or concise as your thoughts. I actually never finished Cloud Atlas (and, frankly, forgot I hadn't finished it... sad) but you've convinced me to finish it and look at it a bit more deeply. :)

    1. Thanks for saying so. It's worth finishing, if only to see the humanism and optimism that start to seep in towards the end. Not saying everything ends happily, exactly, but it's a bit more positive than it might at first appear.