I may be taking a chance by running a poll about ‘Cloud Atlas’ today. As I write this post on Saturday morning, before any box office numbers have been released, I’m not sure how popular or widely-seen the movie will be. Analysts have predicted a soft opening, and I suspect that they’re right. Nevertheless, this is one of the most ambitious and interesting films of the year, whether you wind up loving it or hating it. If you saw it, what did you think? If you didn’t see it, tell us why not.
[A quick warning: This post may contain some minor plot spoilers, but nothing that should hamper anyone's enjoyment of the movie, and nothing you couldn't piece together from watching the trailers anyway.]
This one’s a stumper. I’m not sure what exactly I expected ‘Cloud Atlas’ to be. I went into the movie assuming that it would be either really great or really terrible, with little middle ground in between. I came out of it feeling that it has both parts that are really great and parts that are really terrible, but altogether isn’t either. Ultimately, I think that it pulls together, and my final impression is more favorable than not. It’s not a masterpiece, but I’d be willing to see this again.
‘Cloud Atlas’ interweaves six radically different storylines across six timeframes: In 1850, a young American merchant has a difficult sea voyage home from New Zealand; in 1931, a poor musician takes a job as assistant to an over-the-hill composer; in 1975, a journalist investigates shady happenings at a nuclear power plant; in 2012, an elderly publisher gets mixed up with gangsters and hides out at a “hotel” that he soon learns is really a nut house; in the dystopian 22nd Century, a genetically-engineered clone servant leads a slave uprising; and finally, in the distant post-apocalyptic future, a primitive tribesman is visited by a member of a more technologically advanced civilization.
Three of the storylines were directed by the Wachowski siblings, and three by Tom Tykwer. All of the storylines feature recurring actors (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving) in different roles, usually in elaborate (often unconvincing) makeup prosthetics.
Aside from the cross-cutting between wildly different stories and genres, this isn’t nearly as much of a “WTF?” movie as I’d assumed. In fact, most of the storytelling is surprisingly straightforward and conventional. Both of the sci-fi segments were clearly directed by the Wachowskis, and both suffer from moments of ridiculous cheesiness. (Most of the action in “Neo-Seoul” is very videogame-y.)
The makeup is frequently distracting, to the point that I spent more time trying to figure out which actors played which roles than I did paying attention to some of the storylines. Both Hanks and Berry seem miscast in most of their stories. (Berry is only prominent in two of them.) Almost everyone in the cast swaps race and/or gender at some point. If the idea of Hanks in blackface, or Berry playing both a white Jewish woman and an elderly Asian man sounds borderline offensive, by far the worst offense involves Hugo Weaving in drag. That’s not nearly as funny as Tom Tykwer apparently believed.
All of the storylines have at least tangential connections to each other, though some seem more consequential than others. I’m not entirely sure what the point is of a couple of the stories. With all that said, the thematic cross-cutting is sometimes amazingly effective (as I understand it, the original novel had a very different structure), and the nearly three-hour length never drags.
‘Cloud Atlas’ isn’t a perfect film. I don’t think that any of its messages (one person can make a difference, love transcends time, etc.) are nearly as profound as the filmmakers (or the novelist) believe. However, it’s very emotionally engaging, and I think worth seeing.
One thing I found interesting: Most of the stories involve characters who try to better the world, yet the further we progress chronologically into the future, the more it seems that their efforts all fail. The 19th Century character becomes an Abolitionist, but slavery returns a couple centuries later. The reporter stops an intentional nuclear meltdown, but most of the world is eventually destroyed in an apocalypse anyway. History keeps repeating itself, and nothing anyone does seems to have a lasting effect on that. If this was an intentional theme of the novel, I feel that it could have been developed a little more clearly in the movie.
Where do you fall on ‘Cloud Atlas’?