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.