Monday, October 29, 2012

A Blockbuster Store in One Blockbuster: Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas switches storylines, timelines and genres like someone flipping through their multi-channel Starz package. There's a 19th century historical drama that unfolds on a sailing vessel against the backdrop of slavery. There's a 1930s star-crossed romance between two young men that plays like art-house fare. There's a 1970s journalist-detective story that inspires memories of The China Syndrome. There's a modern tale of elderly mischief that feels like a black comedy sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There's a 22nd century Asian sci-fi adventure-drama that punctuates lengthy exhibitions of monotone dialogue with bursts of neon violence. And, finally, there's a post-apocalyptic yarn that feels like the offspring of Waterworld and Battlefield Earth, with dialogue written by Adam Sandler's Cajun Man. About the only time you'll see this much cinematic variety in a single production is when Billy Crystal kicks off the Academy Awards with one of his trademark tour-of-the-movies montages, except this time it's Tom Hanks and Halle Berry popping up in each distinct vignette. Adapted from David Mitchell's novel by Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, and spanning almost three hours, Cloud Atlas clearly intends to dazzle with its size and scope. But marveling that so many storylines, timelines and genres can coexist within the same movie is like marveling that so many different movies can fit inside your television. It's only an accomplishment if you believe in imaginary constraints.

So it is that Cloud Atlas pushes the edge of the envelope of convention but not cinema. From one point of view, its shape-shifting narrative is perfectly suited to cater to and reflect this era of stimulus-starved multitasking and attention deficiency. But from another angle, it's behind the times: in an age of amateur mashup artists, the Wachowskis and Tykwer are asking audiences to be awestruck by a magic trick that has been demystified by DIY editing suites and YouTube. Obviously, Cloud Atlas is working on a much grander scale than the average fanboy tribute, but the technique is essentially the same. To the credit of the film's three principal creators and editor Alexander Berner, the transitions are never jarring — indeed, each story evolves according to both an individual and collective momentum. Alas, the transitions (and juxtapositions) are never particularly illuminating, either. The vignettes are loosely strung together, with bits of narrative memorabilia from one subplot popping up in the background of another, and with repeated nods toward romantic themes of cross-generational interconnectivity and the nobility of risking one's life for a cause, but these storylines don't lean on one another in any load-bearing way. There's nothing in the 19th century episode that deepens our appreciation of what happens in the 1930s romance, for example, even though a character in the latter spends his nights reading the autobiography of a character in the former. And if you were to remove, say, the 2012 nursing home jailbreak storyline altogether, Cloud Atlas would still be a sprawling, mystical mashup — just a shorter and less humorous one.

Maybe I missed something amidst the Tilt-A-Whirl storytelling and the mumbled and jumbled dialogue, but, so far as I can tell, the only thing holding these pieces together — beyond the editing, of course — is the omnipresence of the actors. Hanks and Berry appear in all six vignettes, along with Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving, while Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, James D'Arcy, Susan Sarandon and Ben Whishaw appear in the majority of the subplots. Sometimes the actors have large roles. Other times they're little more than extras. Sometimes they are heroes. Other times they are villains. Sometimes they play races other than their own. Sometimes they play sexes other than their own. Frequently they are under heavy makeup that makes them almost unrecognizable. But almost always, in the foreground or the background, these actors are there, allowing the filmmakers to represent the movie's core theme of interconnectivity — "from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present." But to what end? What does it mean if "Hanks" is a scoundrel in one life and a hero in another? How does "Berry's" role as a Jewish woman in 1936 inform her embodiment of a male Asian doctor in 2144? If there's no karmic carryover from one life to the next, are we actually bound to others, womb to tomb, past and present (and future)? Or, if all that's handed down from one generation to the next are ideas, words, music, buttons and other non-spirit artifacts, is the Cloud Atlas philosophy nothing more than fortune cookie wisdom presented amidst an extravagant meal?

For all the ridicule Christopher Nolan gets for creating puzzle movies like Inception that require his characters to incessantly describe the narrative's architecture in order for the movie to have shape, at least the yammering in his pictures adds up to something that can be retrospectively understood. Here, the philosophical blathering is never convincingly tied to the on-screen action in a way that harmonistically realizes something deeply meaningful — and that's assuming you can understand the blathering in the first place, which is no guarantee, particularly in the post-apocalyptic chapter, in which even a transcript might not be enough to decode the menacing threats delivered by Weaving as an Alice Cooper-meets-Jiminy Cricket spirit-goblin that haunts Hanks' goat herder for reasons I couldn't begin to explain. The actors must see the bigger picture, because they're consistently game, vacillating between solemnity and cartoonishness, as the situation requires. But I'm left wondering if the repurposing of the actors is truly meaningful or merely a gimmick designed to make the film seem ambitious — implying a thematic unity that isn't really there.

Certainly, there's some meta pleasure to Cloud Atlas' intentional absurdist casting — in what other film would Hugh Grant get to play a horse-riding cannibal wearing war paint and face tattoos? But sometimes it can be difficult to tell when we're laughing with the film or at its expense. Strangely, one of the strongest vignettes is also perhaps its most expendable: the 2012 story in which Broadbent plays a man forced into a nursing home by his brother (Grant, under heavy makeup, looking like a cross between Robert Loggia and James Caan), setting up a madcap escape; no tonal ambiguity in that one. But I get the sense that the film's creators think the heart of the picture is the futuristic story about a fabricant (think: quasi-human) waitress who discovers the ugly reality of her eventual fate and becomes an overnight spiritual leader for truth. Alas, in that chapter, as in much of The Matrix trilogy, talking about things with an air of profundity isn't the same thing as being profound. Similarly, complicating traditional narrative technique isn't the same thing as being complex.

7 comments:

jake said...

Ugh, I was hoping to hear better things that I've been hearing about this one. I love David Mitchell and just finished re-reading "Cloud Atlas" to refresh my memory.

First warning sign for me was the casting of these huge actors for this type of project. It seems tough to stomach Hanks and Grant in particular when it comes to left-field roles like this. I kind of cringe a few times while watching the trailers.

But the real shocker in my opinion is that "Cloud Atlas" is the first Mitchell novel to make it to the big screen! The most unadaptable one of the bunch. When I finished reading "Black Swan Green" after it came out, I thought surely it was only a matter of a few months before this amazing story is turned into a movie. It's simple and heartfelt and linear and would make a wonderful film. But "Cloud Atlas??"

But I still can't wait to see it, out of sheer curiosity, and thanks as always for the review.

Marilyn said...

Jason - I wonder how you would compare this film to Holy Motors, which also seems to flit through genres with two characters offering a throughline and without caring whether there are any intellectual takeaways from the film? I loved HM, haven't seen this one, and wonder if we are entering an era of a new kind of anthology film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: For what it's worth, I'm getting the sense that people who have read that novel are finding a lot more depth in the film than I did -- perhaps because the novel fills in some of the gaps. Keep an open mind on it. I will say that while I think the casting winds up implying a connection in these six stories that isn't actually meaningful (thus a sham), I enjoyed seeing the actors in these parts, even when it didn't work.

Jason Bellamy said...

Marilyn: So here's what I know about HOLY MOTORS to this point: (1) It's "unusual" (as your comment suggests); (2) Many of the people I follow on Twitter are excited about it.

I will see HOLY MOTORS as soon as I can -- hoping that by the time I go into the theater I know as little about it as I know now. I'll review it, I'm sure.

All that said, I do find the concept of what you're proposing -- "(I) wonder if we are entering an era of a new kind of anthology film" -- interesting and exciting, even if CLOUD ATLAS didn't work for me ... perhaps because I'm not sure it's anything more than a typical network narrative, but it seems to imply that it's MUCH MORE than a typical network narrative. But maybe I'm just misreading its intentions.

Hokahey said...

Yes, Hanks is mostly unbearable in this film and the post-apocalyptic segment is hard to enjoy because of the language. (Unfortunately, the film BEGINS with Hanks mumbling about telling a "true true" story, but you can't understand half of what he says Bad start.) You aptly say that this segment is part Waterworld and part Battlefield Earth, but don't forget The Postman, which I found myself thinking of more.

As for the cinematic variety, I enjoyed it and I was engaged by what the film did. I thought the editing was excellent; the cuts themselves created thrills and suspense. I found the Sonmi-451 episodes to be viscerally and emotionally engaging although I wish the tapestry as a whole had delivered more of an emotional payoff.

The film is elusive about how the "womb to tomb" thing affects the lives of characters in subsequent episodes, but I believe the casting is misleading and is not meant to imply that the Tom Hanks of one segment is reincarnated into the Tom Hanks of another. Seems more like an opportunity to give multiple roles, and chances to ham it up, to performers who have not had many casting opportunities lately.

Jason Bellamy said...

" I believe the casting is misleading and is not meant to imply that the Tom Hanks of one segment is reincarnated into the Tom Hanks of another."

OK, so this inspires two questions ...

1) If you're making a movie that strongly and repeatedly implies connectivity across time, wouldn't it be idiotic to cast actors in multiple roles if you don't mean to imply a connection? Point being, if the Hanks characters (to pick one) aren't connected, wouldn't that rank up there as one of the most absurd cinematic decisions of all time?

2) If, on the other hand, the characters are linked, then what do we learn by the linking? I'd say nothing, which leads me to this: So what's the dazzling connection between the stories themselves? Am I supposed to be blown away that this movie explored similar themes in six different genres? Truly, I don't get it. I can't tell what the film's Big Idea is, because it all seems like a bunch of half-developed mini-dramas edited together in a quasi-compelling but redundant way.

Jeremy said...

"2) If, on the other hand, the characters are linked, then what do we learn by the linking? I'd say nothing, which leads me to this: So what's the dazzling connection between the stories themselves? Am I supposed to be blown away that this movie explored similar themes in six different genres? Truly, I don't get it. I can't tell what the film's Big Idea is, because it all seems like a bunch of half-developed mini-dramas edited together in a quasi-compelling but redundant way."

That was my big takeaway from my viewing, and nothing has really changed it. Six mediocre films stitched together, that never produce into anything particularly interesting or profound.

Points for ambitions, but I can't give it much else