While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flashbacks and flash forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks I believe that if you, dear Reader, can extend your patience for just a moment, you will find that there is a Method to this tale of Madness.
Timothy Cavendish, Cloud Atlas
The film opens with these instructions on how to watch it (well, they come after an unintelligible monologue from Tom Hanks and a few other frenzied flashes, but close enough) on how to bare it’s narrative trickery. They are a necessary warning because this is after all a film about a man sick at sea in 1850 whose diary is read by a brilliant but ostracized British composer who writes extensive letters to his gay lover who later in life is embroiled in a gritty crime conspiracy that is later turned into a book and published by a down on his luck agent ( the one who gives this piece of meta-advice among others, including the provocative “What is a critic but someone who reads quickly, arrogantly but never wisely?”) who is accidentally admitted to a nursing home, his exploits filmed as a comedy in a far future where slaves are bred and a second strain of abolitionist rebellion is brewing, one that may or may not lead to the ruined and then regrowing earth in which one such slave is revered as holy, her tale scribbled down as primitive scripture and read by a man who later, on a planet far away will be telling of his own grand adventures in an accent unintelligible to all.
*Hough* yeah, that’s the shortened and simplified synopsis of the story, the sections all spiraling out much deeper during the viewing of the actual film, but surprisingly given all that my main issue with the film was over its over-simplicity. I sincerely would have liked it were the thing just a little more complex. Now no, that’s not as crazy as it sounds because logically speaking diversity as grand as this can only come at the cost of depth. So by trying to be everything for everyone it ended up seeming to me like a lot of nothing much; just as a cloud, which seems so corporeal from down on the ground, dissolves and disappears when you get right up close to it.
Firstly the film is tonally too free if you ask me, these boundaries exist for a reason. Cutting from Jim Broadbent’s Cavendish escaping a nursing home to scenes of synthetic slaughter in the dystopian future or the climax of a conspiratorial seventies political pulp is always going to be jarring but because of the way that the film realizes these worlds – in blunt, broad strokes – the jolt is so striking that it is more often than not a comedic one and worse it happens at the end of every second scene. It would be hard enough to throw out the exasperation’s elicited by such silly stories were they stand alone, but when they are stacked in such short succession it becomes all but impossible to allow yourself in to the events.
Much like a lot of the ensemble dramas currently airing on cable television I think that this adaptation of Cloud Atlas made a mistake in sectioning off its stories into such small chunks; when told this way they simply lose the engrossment and impetus required of a good story. Mystery’s are never as enticing when they are one among a hundred questions currently unanswered, suspense is never as thrilling when the story stops and starts in a seemingly random way and characters are not as compelling when they appear and reappear in contrasting, contradictory ways.
On the other hand the approach taken in this adaptation (The book on which the film is based begins and ends each story in whole chunks, whereas here they are weaved together) does allow for the film to make the connections between the different era’s all the more explicit and ultimately connection is what this story is supposed to be about. When there is a potent but minute juxtaposition to make this treatment all of a sudden seems worthwhile, but at all other times it leads the film to focus far too much on the idea above the audiences involvement, our intellectual reaction over our emotional involvement, but for me the former so much relies on the success of the later that shorting one only serves to sever the connection of both.
The other trick employed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski bro-… siblings is the much publicized use of multiple roles, giving certain actors a number of different characters to play. Not only does this allow the actors to have a bit of fun and show off their range but it draws direct parallels between certain characters, parallels that may or may not have been made clear by the story alone. During these moments of clarity the stunt casting feels a success, but at all other times it simply makes the film feel silly; seeing Hugo Weaving in rather racist Asian garb or garishly dressed as a woman gets a chuckle but I’m not sure that laughter was the trio’s real intention for the film.
Well then what was? Well this at least is pretty cut and dry, to them Cloud Atlas is about showing the permeability of boundaries, about poking holes in the notions that age, race, gender, sexuality or origin of birth (any singular identifying concept) are corporeal and rightly constricting, that there is no omniscient order, no heralded hierarchy or proper path to take; a message obviously close to Lana’s heart. The make up is a part of this, allowing the actors to transcend their own age, race and gender as the souls of the character’s supposedly do ( I’m not sure that this notion actually tracks consistently throughout, no matter how many gaudy graphs fans and filmsites may want to make).
While this may seem a massive message, given the scope and scale of the film it actually feels a little too simple, a little forced and thus it falls flat. To most people liable to view such an arty film this kind of truth would be self evident and thus telling it to us for two and a half hours is ultimately rather redundant: we know that slavery is wrong, that racism is real evil and that sexism and issues of sexuality are built on similar foundations. Just as easy to swallow is its entirely unconvincing idea of love ( which as you may have guessed, ultimately conquers all); a word that the film constantly uses but never truly earns. There is so much philosophical potential in this premise that seeing it spent on a simple idea like is a shame.
That said the film is never actually all that bad, the claims that it is a grand creative failure (such as the one Time made when they called it the year’s worst film) are plaintively insane. Regardless of how well the film actually works as an emotional experience or an intellectual treatise it does at least try its best for both, aiming higher than most of the movies that were made in twenty-twelve and not missing altogether; that alone should earn it respect enough to stay off of all such lists. The most damning thing that I can say about Cloud Atlas is that for two and a half hours it was a consistently solid telling of six separate slightly sub-par stories, that it was good when it could have been great. I kept expecting that moment when the movie would all come together but instead it simply ended, trailing off rather than reaching a transcendent climax. I extended my patience but found no such method revealed to me as was promised in that initial entreaty; the film entertaining but empty.