Guest Movie Review: Cloud Atlas
What do a greedy doctor, an unscrupulous hotel manager, a nuclear physicist, a gangster novelist, a biopic actor, and a guilt-ridden tribesman at the end of time have in common? The answer can be found in Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, in which all of those characters are played by one man, Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks. Based on the critically-acclaimed 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the film follows six interconnected storylines as the directors weave their way through the past, present and future. The people in each tale are connected to the other timelines via karmic lives, letters and messages, with those in earlier eras becoming the inspiration to their counterparts in the future. If it sounds confusing, I understand. Neither Tykwer nor the Wachowskis are strangers to ambitious projects; Tykwer directed the groundbreaking Run Lola Run and the Wachowski siblings of course brought to us the legacy that is the Matrix trilogy. But can the trio of directors really keep six concurrent storylines going in a coherent and consistently entertaining spectacle?
Obviously, the biggest challenge when it comes to imparting the many stories of Cloud Atlas is keeping everything about the six different tales interesting and distinct while also at least tangentially connecting them to one another. As noted, the method often involves letters, books, or other messages left from one generation and rediscovered in the next. Often, the best times in this movie are the subtle, delicate moments to which we are made privy. But even these associations feel more important for setting up a continuity than for creating any real connection between the characters of different eras. While the hero of an earlier scenario might influence the beliefs of someone else down the line, there’s never any direct impact on anything. Any connect-the-dots connections between all these lives (a major factor in the trailers) are tenuous at best; the directors never really commit to pushing the concept. On the flip side, there is one overarching theme to the tales (in deference to those who have neither read the book nor seen the movie I’ll avoid spoiling it) so plainly and often stated that by the halfway mark you’ll be well-versed as to what the whole thing is supposed to mean. While I appreciated the methods and varied ideas through which Tykwer and the Wachowskis sought to explore this message, it was a little too dumbed-down for the intellectuals in the audience to appreciate.
Also, while the stories are certainly diverse and complex, not all of them are really worth watching. Worst is the centrally-binding arch, told from the setting of a post apocalyptic wasteland; it is by far the least bearable, for a multitude of reasons. Focusing on Tom Hanks and Halle Berry as two survivors of a nuclear holocaust (known as The Fall) who search for a new land in which to live, the script transforms the English language into something nearly impossible to understand. That may have been the point, but the actors work so hard to adapt to this new way of speaking that their delivery suffers as a result. It’s not the only bad era of the film, and while the earliest (set in 1850) sequence of an ill lawyer (Jim Sturgess) returning home across the Pacific Ocean is pleasant enough at times, the Wachowskis can’t get past the fact that more than 80% of the scenes in that time period involve showing Sturgess being sick, and nothing else. Both of those time periods were among the three directed by the Wachowskis (we’ll discuss their third effort soon), who try to be a little too clever putting visual cues and gimmickry into their scenes.
On the other hand, everything Tom Tykwer touches in Cloud Atlas is just about flawless. His half of the film utterly lacks weakness, with his best portion arguably being the one featuring Jim Broadbent as a book publisher on the run from the mob. Each scene from that sement is either comic gold or classically inspired, and a penultimate moment (about three quarters of the way through the movie) brought forth a round of cheers and applause from my audience. That’s the type of power Tykwer commands, easily compelling. There are two more excellent sequences from him; one focuses on talented composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), whose excellent “Cloud Atlas Sextet” forms the basis of the movie’s soundtrack, while the second has Berry as an investigative reporter searching for the truth about a nuclear reactor run by a ruthless criminal organization. In both, character and art meld in fascinating ways, and the combinations make you wonder why this director hasn’t achieved mainstream success before now. Certainly he earns it here.
All of the directors try to connect the different realms by reusing the same actors in different roles, relying on makeup and prosthetics to not only alter their appearance, but also to change their racial orientations. For instance, Berry plays both a Korean man and a Caucasian woman, while both Whishaw and Hugo Weaving change sex at least once each. Even Hanks, not exactly a complex performer these days, surprised me more than once with his ability to become something so utterly un-Hanks-like. These were unusual efforts, both ambitious and interesting – there’s far more going on here than just changing the way actors look. Tykwer and the Wachowskis bring together an amazingly talented group of actors; apart from those I’ve already mentioned, the cast features Hugh Grant, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and James D’Arcy. Hollywood newcomers Bae Doona (whom you might remember from Korean monster film The Host), David Gyasi and Zhou Xun add their considerable talents to the pool, and the result is one of the sharpest ensembles I’ve seen this year. Their ability to completely alter themselves from scene to scene is one of Cloud Atlas’ major strengths, and arguably its biggest success.
Unfortunately, it also leads to one of the movie’s major problems. You just knew I was going to delve into the controversial “Yellowface” story, didn’t you? I promised myself that I wouldn’t take more than a paragraph to have my say on the subject, especially since there are organizations and people more qualified than myself to address the issue with the attention it deserves. In the third of the Wachowski scenarios, the ideology is fine on paper: it’s a dystopian near-future, and the action is right in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi/action wheelhouse. The special effects are amazing, the acting is solid, and with the film’s emphasis on re-using the principal actors from timeline to timeline, it’s not all that shocking that they decided to put Sturgess, D’Arcy and Weaving in makeup for major roles in the futuristic Neo Seoul, Korea. But there are two problems. The first is that the prosthetics put on those actors (and to a lesser extent, Keith David) look horrible. White Chicks horrible. Especially with Doona (an actual Korean actress) in the lead, there’s no way the filmmakers thought they were fooling anyone into thinking Sturgess and company would be convincing as Asians. The second is that despite the script’s major Asian storyline, so few Asian actors were involved in the cast. You might argue that Doona and Berry play white women in some scenes, but Caucasians don’t exactly have a history of being marginalized by Hollywood; there are plenty of Asian actors, including Aaron Yoo (21), John Cho (Star Trek) and Ken Leung (Lost) who could have filled in for Sturgess. If blackface is no longer considered acceptable (and surprise, surprise, it never occurs in Cloud Atlas), then yellowface shouldn’t be either. The directors really should have known better than to think it was okay to do this.
Controversies aside, Cloud Atlas remains just over two thirds of a great movie. The good far outweighs the bad, and even with an insanely long 172 minute run time (be sure to visit the restroom beforehand), there’s no way you would want to leave, for fear of missing something wonderful. It would have been nice to see what would have happened had Tykwer directed the whole thing (amazing feat though that would have been), but I can content myself with a film that is good, if not the masterpiece many have claimed it to be. There’s every chance we could be seeing this title again come award time, though that’s more due to the fact that 2012 has so far been a weak year in the Oscar Bait category. Bridging the gap between book and screen is always a difficult process, and what Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done succeeds far beyond some of our wildest expectations.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. He is the webmaster at Hello, Mr. Anderson, where he keeps most of his movie reviews. You know, just in case you’re interested.