February 27, 2010 / Filmwell
James Gray’s latest wraps three distinct, remarkable characters around a haunting question. It may make you miserable while you watch, but it will stick with you like few love stories do.
December 3, 2012
(ed. note: This is a review from Andrew Welch, please see our updated contributor page for a bio.)
I took one note during Cloud Atlas, just one: Tom Hanks babbling like an old fool. And he does, many times over, but especially in the film’s first few seconds, as the camera pans down from a swirling galaxy glowing against the ink black sky to his severely aged face bathed in firelight. He’s speaking to us, so we first assume, and what we hear is the English language run through a Cuisinart – words clipped, syntax jumbled. He looks and sounds like the kind of man you cross the street to get away from. But he’s not from our time, he’s from the future, and like Homer beseeching the Muse, he’s laying the groundwork for a story that will span human history and end a world away.
But that one note , as critical as it sounds, doesn’t really tell you what I thought of Cloud Atlas, or at least not in a truly nuanced way–I was just too overwhelmed from then on to bother. I can’t even begin to chart all the connections between one character and storyline and another. Like The Tree of Life–and I’m not sure how often those two will get mentioned in the same breath–Cloud Atlas’ fractured narrative rolls at you in waves. You can either fight it, or lay your notebook down and let it take you where it will.
Except, you’re never fully taken in. The filmmaking trio of Tom Twyker (Run Lola, Run) and Andy and Lana Wachoswski (The Matrix trilogy) take a significant risk employing their actors in so many roles, some crossing genders and races. At no point are we fully invested in the story. Often, we’re scanning faces, playing “Guess Who” with even the smallest background character. And yet, remove the gimmick and Cloud Atlas unravels. The narrative pairings lose their resonance, their urgency, their sense of cause and effect. With the repetition of faces past, present, and future, the Wachowskis and Twyker have created a microcosm of our world that feels complete and self-contained. These characters aren’t merely part of the world, they are the world. If that brings a shallow, Michael Jackson-esque optimism to mind, it’s balanced by an eternal threat from those with money, power, and a sense of their own rightness.
In that sense, despite the jumps from one story to another–like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond – Cloud Atlas tells just one story: powerful figures do wrong, and ordinary people challenge them. It’s there in the past with the story of the dying traveler and the runaway slave, the gay musician and the reclusive maestro, the investigative reporter and the nuclear reactor. In the present, it’s there in a more derivative way in the story of the old man and the nursing home and then more thrillingly in the future with the replicant’s voyage through Neo Seoul, a neon city that looks like it was lifted out of Tron: Legacy. It’s even there, but less so, in the far future as the last of humanity protects themselves from painted cannibals on horseback.
The Wachowski’s and Twyker have distilled each story, taken from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, down to what I would imagine are their most basic elements. Each one by itself would make a good standalone story with complex characters and challenging struggles, but sewn together as they are in Cloud Atlas, they just skim the surface. We don’t feel each one as deeply as we should.
But then, I’m not sure if we’re meant to. The purpose, after all, of telling six stories with the same cast is to promote a larger unifying theme. That’s why, for whatever its missteps, I admire the filmmakers’ ambition. How many wide-release films strive to be about something in the way Cloud Atlas does? How many make the bold assumption that you can be mainstream and arthouse at the same time?
The vision of Cloud Atlas is stark yet hopeful. With every story it asserts that progress isn’t the end of oppression but the evolution of it, the passing on of the torch from one group to another. In the future, we don’t become enlightened, we just find a new group to victimize. And yet, there must be more – an after. Is it heaven, or hell? The filmmakers equivocate–the opening of a new door is enough. This bland appeal to a generic one-size-fits-all spirituality is something we’ve seen before, and it’s a cop out, especially if you hold to a specific vision of one kind or another. But don’t judge too harshly. The gulf between imagination and reality is a deep one, and the pictures we create will pale when compared to the true true, to borrow from Hank’s old storyteller. For a culture that looks askance at faith and believes firmly in nothing beyond life’s borders, maybe the opening of a door is a good place to start.