Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and James D’Arcy
The Plot: Spanning millennia, Cloud Atlas is a cine-mosaic of six stories – a slave trader’s journey across the ocean, a young composer’s stormy apprenticeship with a feisty genius, a journalist’s liaison with a nefarious oil corporation, a book publisher’s run-in with East End gangsters, a synthetic human being’s escape from the society that owns her, and a goat herder’s journey up a dangerous, superstition-laden crag – each set in a different location and time period, as familiar actors jump into different lives and different translations of the same basic blue-print of captivity, danger, and liberation through companionship and love.
The Film: It’s easy to get a little anxious concerning the solidarity of Cloud Atlas’s final product when watching the six minute(!) extended trailer for the movie. This is a huge film, with huge ideas, stretched out over a huge blanket of time and space. If our recent history with the Wachowskis has taught us anything, it’s that when these guys go big, they usually go bust.
Don’t blame yourself for having flashbacks of the seven minute speech by The Architect at the end of Matrix Reloaded. Cloud Atlas is dealing with similar themes and doctrines. Existentialism, reincarnation, and destiny are heavy subject matters to juggle, and strained through the consciousness and scriptwriting software of the Wachowski kids, they can gain a few hundred extra pounds each.
Truth be told, that seven minute oral onslaught by The Architect has now been stretched out into three full hours of motion picture. Though it isn’t nearly as awkward to endure, and has more than its fair share of moments of fragility and majesty, it still manages to take the longest possible route to say absolutely everything and nothing at all – all in the same windy, uninterrupted breath.
There are six stories here. The real stand-outs make the thin threads of Cloud Atlas seem that much weaker. Jim Broadbent’s modern day tale of a London book publisher running afoul with a murderous, East End gangster, (Tom Hanks – pretty much heisting the entire movie with this one role and scene) and ultimately ending up caged in a retirement home, is the pick of the litter. It has much more charm, levity, and controlled mania than its five brothers (maybe we should call them “siblings” now) combined, and could have been its own 90 minute movie altogether – and probably would have made a great one. Looking at the tone of the rest of the film, at least the episode with Broadbent locked away in an old folks home has a sense of humor – Hugo Weaving doing his best Mrs. Doubtfire impersonation and all.
The other installments could have been made into their own films as well – though familiar ones. Doona Bae’s story of a rogue Fabricant in Neo Seoul looks absolutely stunning – but when held up against the light and compared to work like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or even the Wachowski’s original Matrix, comes off as a minor league SyFy.
And yes… I used that detestable network acronym to prove a point.
The film attempts to connect its many, contrasting histories with each other, (from what I could gather through the imprint of the same genetic birthmark many of Cloud Atlas’s characters share with each other) but don’t expect to understand the correlation between what makes a story about a journalist’s battle with an oil empire in the 1970’s (the fattest hunk of Atlas, one that should have been shaved off neatly during the film’s editing process) relate to a story about a goat herder’s battle with cannibals set somewhere after the fall of society..
Of course the goat herder’s tale is a distillation of David vs. Goliath – they all are in Cloud Atlas, even that miserable part set in the 70’s – but does a film really need six different versions of the same story to sell its ideology?
And since I brought this chapter of the film up… don’t expect to fully decode the vernacular concocted for this section of Cloud Atlas’s story. Subtitles – as much as Americans might bitch about them – can be an indispensable tool to get your point across. The portion of the movie set after the fall of society looks fantastic, and contains some of Cloud Atlas’s best action/adventure set-pieces – but thanks to the mutilated dialog, it’s also completely fuddled.
I can honestly say that I grabbed about 20% of what Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were talking about. It still didn’t do anything to explain why Hugo Weaving was dressed as the Green Goblin, or why he was constantly hissing in Hanks’s ear during this branch of the movie.
If there is one shining light in Atlas it’s that the Wachowski’s and Tykwer smartly decided to cast the same six actors in six very different roles. If they did this to keep things interesting – to keep a dry movie from mummifying – then more power to them. It can feel like pageantry at times, but the ruse largely works. Most of the fun in Cloud Atlas is trying to find the actor hidden underneath the make-up, wigs, and (often suspect) dialect.
On that account, stick around for the credits and prepare to be surprised once or twice.
Ultimately, with this film you’ll have more questions than it could ever hope to answer in three hours. None of them important. Most of them resulting from the haphazard translation from book to functional film narrative.
Try to think of Cloud Atlas as a posh cocktail lounge where existentialism and destiny meet, get sloppy drunk together, and clumsily make out till last call.
The Verdict: I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call Cloud Atlas this generation’s Ishtar so early in its run on the film market – or so soon after Mars Needs Moms – your support of the movie will decide if it shares that fate or not. But there’s a good reason why I thought of Elaine May’s 1987 power-flop while watching this new Wachowski/Tykwer conglomeration. Cloud Atlas stumbles into that same dodgy territory where impossible budgets, cumbersome exposition, and reckless daring collide to create just as many box-office nightmares as they do fantasies.
Think I’ve got it all wrong? Check out my fellow Seattle Film Examiner Brian Zitzelman’s slightly more positive look at Cloud Atlas right here.