Article Title
Article Title

A "Cloud Atlas" Atlas

by Mike Anton

Cloud Atlas, the latest from Matrix writer/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski – in conjunction with writer/director Tom Tykwer – is an event film. It's too large and too ambitious not to earn that title. And it's a good movie – not great, or at least not as great as the the creative heads of this $100 million indie epic would hope it would be, but definitely worth the nearly three hours of your time (I did say “epic”). But because it's so sprawling, and its trailer so frightfully ambiguous, people have had a hard time trying to grasp what the hell this movie even is. So I figure it's best to inform you on what the film is and what it isn't, as a normal review of this sprawling, six narrative, 400-year-spanning film just wouldn't suffice.

- It is three hours long. That's what you get when you take the original novel and its 368 pages and transfer it to the screen. But it doesn't feel that long. The various narratives have enough punch that it moves briskly with nary a snag. At least throughout the story (more on this in a bit). It held my attention admirably throughout. That does seem pedantic, but you probably didn't see Alex Cross. I did.

- It isn't too difficult to decipher. Each of the six narratives has its own distinct tone and look, wearing its influence on its sleeve. Halle Berry's trek through '70s San Francisco is reminiscent of Zodiac and Dirty Harry; the trip through futuristic Neo Seoul (no involvement from Erykah Badu) strike a Blade Runner/Attack of the Clones vibe; Ben Wishaw's turn as an up-and-coming composer apprenticing for an older Jim Broadbent in 1930s Britain feels distinctly like a proper costume drama.

- For all of the disparate stories, there isn't one giant unifying element that brings them all together. At least not obviously. There are certain tokens that span the breadth of the film: a birthmark that resembles a comet on certain characters, a blue sapphire pendant, some love notes written and read throughout generations. At first blush they don't have any specific significance outside of a mile marker on a highway: it's a reassuring measure from the filmmakers to let you know, "yes, we do know what we're doing."

- There is, however, a unifying idea: humanity will forever yearn to be completely free, and those in power will always refuse to let this occur. Be it through race, gender, age, sexual preference, or a scientifically imposed barrier, there is always one group holding down another. The film constantly takes the underdog as our hero, using the downtrodden to show what devastation can come if this sort of tyranny goes unchecked.

- But this theme is trampled on by the movie itself. It isn't fully about unity, because certain people have to be disposed of. And man, are they ever disposed of. Every single one of the six stories, including the lark, feature at least one grizzly murder. A young girl bears witness to a savage slaying and no one seems to even bother to mind that she saw it. It's hard to take seriously a film that insists "we're all the same" when you're busy killing anyone who isn't exactly on that same page.

- Make no mistake: this is an actor's film. Each of the principals (Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Hugh Grant) play multiple roles that are not governed by their gender or race. While this is impressive from an acting and make-up standpoint, and does help further the overall theme, it does take the audience out of the story. Instead of immediately relating to a new character, you're preoccupied trying to figure out who's playing that character, sucking you directly out of the illusion (which defeats the whole purpose). Sometimes it's far too easy (Halle Berry does not a white 1930s housewife make), sometimes you have to wait for the final credits sequence for the "a-HA!" to take shape. It was an admirable effort, but too often you're trying to identify who's playing the character rather than identifying with the character.

- The film is mostly in English. At least, proper English. There is a section between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry that takes place after "The Fall" of man (and technology) where they speak a simplified English. But it doesn't much matter. This is Hanks' strongest acting in the flick, and matched against Susan Sarandon and Halle Berry, you don't need perfect clarity to figure out what's going on. It's probably the bravest choice in a series of exceedingly brave ones, and comes off much better than, say, Asian James D'Arcy.

- The most common comparison to this movie coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival was with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gives Cloud Atlas way too much credit. Atlas doesn't attempt to change the very form of filmmaking as Kubrick's masterpiece did. In the end, this is a melding of six 40-minute short films with distinct styles, not a complete re-imagining of how one structures a narrative. It'd be too simplistic to say “It's a lot like Pulp Fiction,” but it's not too far off.

- If there is one element that will make or break the film for people, it will be its fluctuating tone. For Will Leitch, it was a bridge too far, ping-ponging between Broadbent's whimsical current day jailbreak out of a nursing home and the deadly serious extinction elements in Neo Seoul. For me, it worked as a nice respite from the heavier bits of drama. It definitely keeps you on your toes, but experiences may vary.

- Don't let any of these criticisms sway you from the main point: this is one impressive film. It's so ballsy, and so out there, and so fantastic in its scope that it's hard to resist. Ebert saw it twice, so over the moon he was. I wouldn't go that far. This was a really enjoyable film, and I would give it a solid B. But like the oft-referenced comet, I'm happy to have experienced it streaking across the sky just once in my lifetime.

Image courtesy of Geek League of America

 

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Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive and a contributing writer for The Film Stage. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants.