Based upon the novel by David Mitchell
Written and Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
"12 souls from now U and me will still be here"
-Prince "7" (1992)
Ever since the conception of Savage Cinema, I have often lamented about the pathetic lack of cinematic risks taken in our 21st century motion pictures. Certainly some films and specific filmmakers who have achieved creative autonomy combined with box office clout are able to get films that are completely unlike the bulk of what is typically released. However, and sadly, those days when studios seemed to nurture and even champion filmmakers as artists feel to have long abandoned us all. So when a truly risk taking film does indeed arrive, I often find something to truly celebrate as I have seen so many films throughout my life and I am aware to the point of fatigue with all manner of contrived and cliched film storytelling conventions, that I am always on the lookout for something truly special.
With the arrival of "Cloud Atlas," the first filmmaking collaboration between The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, it seemed as if something special was definitely ready to grace us all. I deeply appreciated the level of risk and ambition it unquestionably took to try and adapt a novel that most felt to be unfilmable. But, we do have The Wachowskis who between the years of 1999-2003 gave us the game changing science fiction/philosophical/martial arts fueled "The Matrix Trilogy" plus the politically charged comic book thriller they wrote and produced, "V For Vendetta" (2006) and the unfairly maligned psychedelic family film adaptation of "Speed Racer" (2008). Tom Tykwer is best known for his outstanding, ferociously paced existential race against time "Run Lola Run" (1998), truly one of my favorite films from the 1990s. With these filmmakers, we have been given their unique blending of genre stylistics and cosmic musings that perhaps working on a project like "Cloud Atlas" would play to their strengths handsomely. Well...yes and no and I will elaborate in full very shortly. But, I will first announce to you that I did not feel necessarily disappointed with "Cloud Atlas" and I do not think that it was a bad film by any means. In fact, I do think this is a film I would easily see again in the future. But, as for all of you, dear readers, I think purchasing a ticket to this cinematic odyssey would depend upon your individual tastes, patience and willingness to try something that it defiantly not able to describe in one digestible sentence. And truth be told, "Cloud Atlas" is not even an instantly digestible film as there is so much to chomp upon. That said, the end result and my emotional reaction to it was surprisingly muted and underwhelmed when I am most certain that The Wachowskis and Tykwer desired to blow my cinematic mind to the furthest reaches of the cosmos and back.
To give you a sense of what the experience of "Cloud Atlas" entails, I will first inform you that the film has no basic plot structure whatsoever as it crisscrosses between six different narratives, with interconnecting themes and concepts, that stretch over time and space. But, here is the breakdown...
1. The Pacific Ocean 1849-Where we are immersed in the socially conscious evolution of a naive notary (Jim Sturgess), his friendship with a slave (David Gayasi) and battles with a duplicitous doctor (Tom Hanks).
2. Cambridge 1936-Where Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a penniless musician, is hired by the famous, elderly composer Viyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) to work as his transcriber and the powerfully emotional and creative relationship the twosome forge.
3. California 1973-Where we meet intrepid journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she begins to uncover a lethal mystery.
4. London 2012-Where we find ourselves in the wild, whimsical tale of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) who runs afoul of his gangster/author's (Tom Hanks) brothers, goes into hiding and ends up trapped inside of a nursing home facility
5. Neo Seoul 2144-Set within a totalitarian society, we meet Sonmi-451 (an effectively haunting Bae Doona), a clone being interviewed before her execution due to her seismic role within a rebellion.
6. The post apocalyptic Earth, 108 Winters After The Fall-After and unknown cataclysm, society has returned to primitive life as we encounter tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks) and view his fight for survival against violent tribes as well as his budding relationship with Meronym (Halle Berry), a representative of an outside and more technologically advanced sector of the planet.
Throughout all six stories, we see how certain patterns of human existence are repeated, challenged, upheld, broken, paralleled and divided. We also are asked to regard how these characters and stories, and furthermore, all of human existence itself, are all linked together through our behaviors and how the seemingly disparate objects like lost letters, recorded music, film adaptations and previously hidden manuscripts serve as conduits to bind us together.
"Cloud Atlas" is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of the human condition which contains many of the concepts and themes that I have cherished quite often on this site. The wonders of inter-connectivity and just adhering to an overall uplift of humanity are themes to cherish in the movies and I deeply applaud the Wachowskis and Tykwer for joining forces to create a film that is not a cynical exercise and is actually quite earnest in the hopeful messages they are attempting to convey. Additionally, "Cloud Atlas" is a visually dynamic experience. It is a veritable feast for the eyes presented with the stunning cinematography we have come to expect from these filmmakers plus a gorgeous attention to period detail for all of the film's eras, which makes "Cloud Atlas" always feel authentic while also existing as if inside of a dream. The structure of the film is always coherent and cohesive. I never felt lost in the shuffle of stories for a moment and I also have to say that for a film that has a running time of a hair under three hours, "Cloud Atlas" flows smoothly and rapidly.
Throughout the film, as I would think you may have been able to gather from the film's description, several of the film's actors take on several roles regardless of age, race and gender as well. With this tactic, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have worked diligently and have also taken a tremendous risk by illustrating and emphasizing the soulfulness of the work rather than the standard storytelling job of focusing on characters to get their existential points made. What we are witnessing are situations and behaviors which we can easily place ourselves into for the myriad of souls that populate "Cloud Atlas" represent everyone watching the film as well as the characters within each individual story. Again, I greatly appreciate these filmmakers for desiring to take on the GIANT SIZED themes so passionately.
Now, the closest film comparison I would gather anyone would make with this film would have to be Writer/Director Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" from last year. Yet, where that film was indeed an art film with a capital "A," "R" and "T," which did leave audience members frustrated due to it's somewhat impenetrable framework, "Cloud Atlas" attempts to take on the exact same concepts but with a more accessible and populist approach. (Hey, when you have flying cars and laser gun battles, you can't leave the fanboys out of the mix even when you are exploring the meaning of life.) But, this approach did present a major problem for me as I watched "Cloud Atlas," and that was simply the following: Where "The Tree Of Life," while extremely esoteric, spoke to my soul and gave me an experience that was essentially primal, "Cloud Atlas" picked up the BIG bat and took a MIGHTY swing at the grandest concepts of all but it was somehow a surprisingly shallow experience that never spoke to my soul and only offered nothing more than greeting card platitudes.
Oddly enough, and in addition to "The Tree Of Life," what I thought about the very most during "Cloud Atlas" was the television series "Lost"! Now, that was an extraordinary way to have something populist and genre specific to science fiction, action dramas and even some pulpy romance and also explore themes of good, evil, heroes, villains, morality, faith, reason, loyalty, community, inter-connectivity, crime, punishment, and redemption through characters we witness in the past, present, future and even through alternate realities and quite possibly the after-life. That show, while it entertained me tremendously, also shook my soul to its core bringing me directly in touch with those exact primal emotions I felt while viewing "The Tree Of Life." I mention "Lost" to show that merging high concepts with accessible storytelling can be done successfully and I just didn't think that the Wachowskis and Tykwer accomplished this feat nearly as well as they had hoped.
On the one hand, I am not quite certain what went wrong and I do feel that, again, the film's trailer may have had something to do with my underwhelmed response. "Cloud Atlas" the motion picture was indeed preceded by "Cloud Atlas" the six minute trailer, which I viewed three times in a row when it premiered on-line. I just sat open mouthed, with chills running up and down my spine, completely confused with what I was watching but undeniably in awe. That sense of awe never arrived at any point during the entire opus of "Cloud Atlas" the motion picture and I could not help but to wonder if the people who made the trailer somehow made a better movie than the finished film itself!
Aside from the battle between coming attraction trailers and the completed works, there is the problem that not all six storylines are equally compelling. I'd say about half of the stories felt to be wondrous enough that they could have existed as full length features of their own. My personal favorites were the tales set in 1936 Cambridge (which explored inspiration, creativity, and a truly heartfelt and romantic homosexual subplot) and the story set in present day London was so unpredictable that I was just carried away with its audacity. The high point of "Cloud Atlas" for me, was certainly the story of the clone rebellion in 2144 at that film explored the classic science fiction issue of non-humans gaining humanity and the dark turmoil their lives become. Here, the Wachowskis and Tykwer worked at their very best giving me a story that reminded me often of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and even this summer's "Prometheus" as well as Steven Spielberg's incredible and deeply disturbing "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (2001).
On the other hand, we have the story set in 1973, featuring Halle Berry's journalist character pursuing some major story while evading certain death time and again and it all felt to function as nothing more serious or interesting than a tired old Nancy Drew novel. Even worse, we have the post-apocalyptic tale in the far future. For that segment especially, I had the feeling that perhaps it was something that worked better on the page in the novel rather than something to be visualized and acted out. Those stories, plus more than a few moments contained here and there throughout, felt to be quite silly, thus robbing "Cloud Atlas" of its full cumulative power.
And then there was another and crucial element of "Cloud Atlas" that was not nearly as successful as I would gather the Wachowskis and Tykwer had hoped would be. Since Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and others are each portraying up to five or six different roles each throughout "Cloud Atlas," we have to witness the limitations of make up artistry and I have to say that the plethora of funny wigs, nose and teeth prosthetics and other accouterments were quite distracting and at times ridiculous (Hanks as a cockney voiced gangster was not one of the film's high points) to the point where they kept taking me out of the experience the Wachowskis and Tykwer were obviously working so furiously to deliver rapturously. Where I was indeed swept away by the variety of performances given by Broadbent, and especially Hugo Weaving as the film's purely malevolent force regardless of storyline and time period (although Weaving in drag as an evil nurse was a big mistake), only Hugh Grant seemed to transcend the cosmetics and lose himself in whomever he was portraying. Grant was indeed consistently unrecognizable.
Flaws and all, I knew throughout "Cloud Atlas" that the Wachowskis and Tykwer were not resting on their creative laurels one bit and they obviously poured every bit of themselves into every single frame of this lush and luxuriously mounted motion picture. I loved the risk, the boldness, the brazenness, the heft and the level of ambition was near inspirational as well as a reminder to all filmmakers that when you have the means and opportunity to make a movie, then grab it with both hands tightly and go for it for a gift like this is not ever meant to be wasted. This is precisely the type of talent and commitment that should be celebrated by anyone who loves the movies.
But even so, I wished that I was as swept away with the final result. Now that would have really been something to celebrate.