Cloud Atlas Review By Adam
Cloud Atlas is a difficult film to review. It is a film of colossal ambition and, as such, it feels wrong to make a snap judgement on it. When a film is this weird, epic and disjointed (and, trust me, few films have ever been this weird, this epic and this disjointed), people often fall into two categories: those that proclaim it to be a work of genius and those who dismiss it as trash. I find that the first reaction is often born out of intellectual intimidation – people are confounded by what they have seen and don’t want to be lambasted for not ‘getting it’. The second reaction (no matter how uninformed or close-minded) comes from the gut. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle on Cloud Atlas. The film is brimming with invention, risks, brilliant actors and stunning visuals, yet it is also preachy, muddled and pretentious. But above all is my gut – how did Cloud Atlas make me feel? The answer: not a lot of anything. I think that for all of its bells and whistles (which are a lot) Cloud Atlas fails on a basic, storytelling level. This is a film that is too complicated for its own good.
How complicated? Well, the film operates between the years 1849 and 2321. It has six main narrative threads – an ocean-bound slavery drama set in 1849 (think: Amistad), a music-infused romantic tragedy set in 1936 (think: a gay Atonement), a political thriller set in 1973 (think: Silkwood), the escape of involuntary patients of a retirement home (think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), a futuristic thriller set in ‘Neo Seoul’ (think: Logan’s Run) and, finally, a low-tech, post-apocalyptic adventure where everyone speaks in Pidgin English (think: Cast Away written by Robert E. Howard). If you think that paragraph is confusing, wait until you see the fucking film. Here is the real clincher: they film plays the narratives concurrently.
With a film like Cloud Atlas you can either talk about the film’s content or your reaction to it, you can’t do both (if I did, this review would run 8,000 words). I have little doubt that Cloud Atlas will be the subject of many a film student’s thesis, as this is a film that actively encourages film theory. Herein lies my first problem: this is a film that requires multiple viewings. I’m all for complexity, layers, narrative trickery in film – in fact, most of my favourite films are overwhelmingly dense (Fight Club, Zodiac) – but I strongly disagree with films that purposefully attempt to confound the audience. David Lynch often annoys the shit out of me because he operates in the surreal. He makes films that are so fucking weird that I’m not sure that even he has a clue what is going on. That said, Cloud Atlas is not outwardly surreal (though Hugo Weaving dancing around a Polynesian Tom Hanks while dressed up like that ‘eels’ dude from The Mighty Boosh is pretty fucking surreal). Atlas’s opaqueness comes from its editing. We lurch form era to era with alarming frequency. Every time we become emotionally invested in one of the narratives, the rug is pulled out from underneath us. It is apparent that writer/directors Lana (formerly Larry, don’t ask) and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer are attempting to tell all of the plots (of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel) concurrently. In theory this could be a masterstroke, especially if the stories hit emotional crescendos simultaneously (like Requiem for a Dream). But despite some recurring motifs – oppression, sacrifice and injustice – the connective tissue between is tenuous at best. For example, one character exists in a novel being read by another, while another exists in letters being read aloud. It is this lack of explicit connectivity that renders some of its notions impotent, stuff like: ‘Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.’
Cloud Atlas’s kaleidoscopic nature is not only contained to its worlds. In a brave move, the filmmakers have chosen to cast their main actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant) in a multitude of roles. Using elaborate (and often jarring) prosthetics, the actors manage to transcend race and gender (just wait until you see Halle Berry as an old Asian man). While the film does contain moments of uncanny familiarity, this choice is not explicitly implying re-incarnation: the same actor often plays heroes, villains and everything in between. It is a great showcase for actors that are primarily known for playing a variation of themselves (Hugh Grant as a cannibalistic tribal leader, anyone?), but like the film’s mosaic structure, it often leads to a sense of puzzlement. This choice isn’t just strange for the obvious reasons; the choice of actors is also perplexing. When describing Cloud Atlas’s stars the last word you would reach for is ‘chameleonic’. Tom Hanks often plays a variation of, well, Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump is just Hanks post brain injury), and Halle Berry has been out-acted by Damon Wayans (in The Last Boy Scout). I understand the appeal of breaking the constraints of your star persona, but the film makers have given the actors too much rope, and some of their characterisation falls into farce. That said, there are sparkles of damn fine work, but when you throw this much shit at the wall (or the audience) some of it is bound to stick.
The actors aren’t the only thing prone to drastic change in Cloud Atlas; the film often lurches between completely different visual aesthetics. The kaleidoscopic nature of the narrative (and having two separate directorial units: one, the Wachowski siblings, the other, Tom Tykwer) creates a wide visual canvas, and more often than not, Cloud Atlas is an ocular marvel. Taken on a purely visual level, the film abounds in brilliantly realised moments: from futuristic battles to the conquering of an imposing mountain. Shot by two cinematographers (John Toll for the Wachowski’s segments, and Frank Griebe for Tykwer’s), each one of the film’s narratives is visually idiosyncratic. And thank God for that, because with a film this ambitious and sprawling any kind of waypoint is appreciated.
Your appreciation for Cloud Atlas will hinge on many factors: how do you feel about new age philosophy? Do you hate non-linear films? Can you believe Hugo Weaving as a woman (see above)? Do you like your films three-hours long? For viewers who have an aversion to the weird and are simply going ‘to see Halle Berry’s boobs’ this could very well be the worst cinematic experience of their life. But for adventurous viewers who are willing to dip into the well more than once, this film might just be their cinematic mother lode. Therein lies my main problem with Cloud Atlas: I strongly believe that every single film, be it a sequel, prequel, reimagining (whatever the fuck that means), and most importantly, an adaptation, should be digestible in a single viewing. I didn’t say easily, just digestible. Most people only got to the cinema once or twice a year and to present them with something that requires the luxury of multiple viewings seems overtly indulgent. For many, Cloud Atlas will be a five or one star film, as it is a film seemingly built for contention. I, however, am smack-bang in the middle. Will I watch it again? Sure. Am I looking forward to it? Not really. Hence, my noncommittal score of…