Movie Review: Cloud Atlas
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant
Plot: The many different lives of people crisscross in many different eras.
In 1849, Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, is travelling back from the Chatham Islands while suffering a debilitating disease. In 1936, a bisexual man befriends a struggling composer to help write his last movement. In 1973, an intrepid journalist finds evidence that a nuclear energy company is covering up some of the facts. In 2012, a book publisher is tricked into entering an elderly living home. In 2144, a fabricated human being works as a waitress at a high tech diner. On a post-apocalyptic Earth, a tribesman helps one of the technologically advanced “Prescients” reach the top of a forbidden mountain peak.
Cloud Atlas is based on a very popular book of the same name. Each storyline involves some kind of story-telling: journal, letters, novel, screenplay, recording, and campfire story respectively. What is being written in one story is being appreciated in the next. That is the simplest way the stories are connected, but the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer take it a step further. They also reuse actors in each story implying some kind of reincarnation. There is a really great opportunity here to develop characters over the course of different stories. Unfortunately, most of the variety in the characters each actor plays is only skin deep. Their appearances change even taking on different ethnicities and genders, but their archetypes are pretty much the same. It doesn’t really matter what story we are in Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are probably playing bad guys, while Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess are probably playing a naive hero of some kind. The only time they get to play against type is when they play a bit part in one of the other storylines. Tom Hanks is really the only person who gets varied personalities on top of varied appearances. His characters when lined up even have a rough arc.
This isn’t the only thing they change from the book. The book tells each of the individual stories stopping right before the end and continuing with the next. When they get to the last story they reveal the end of each story. It is an interesting alternative structure, but the filmmakers here take it a step further (again!). They chop up all the stories and dovetail them together so we spend most of the runtime bouncing back and forth between each of the six stories. It leaves it a muddled mess. The tone and pacing of each story is so incredibly different. The 1849 story is a slow moving period drama. The 2012 story is a screwball comedy. The 2144 is a sci-fi actioner. They can try and connect with similar language and themes that spark the change, but the stories make for an unhappy marriage. They seem to suffer from the same problem that most cinematic anthologies do. As soon as one of them starts getting interesting, it switches to a story already in progress. It felt more like channel surfing. It was very distracting.
That is not to say the movie isn’t beautiful to look at. The set pieces are fantastic, and the special effects are also quite good. The facial prosthetics could be way better. Sometimes the rubber noses were just way to noticeable to ignore.
I can see why the Wachowskis were drawn to these stories. Each of them deals in some way with the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed. It tends to be a recurring theme in many of their movies, except they never take advantage of it in Cloud Atlas. It seems to only serve as a backdrop for them to preach the message which is, “everything is connected!” It isn’t particularly interesting or heartfelt. It just is. It isn’t a theory or a philosophy to explore; it is a religious doctrine. It gives us a whole lot of answers for questions we are never given a chance to ask. Even as the narrative continues, the filmmakers seem more interested in cosmic coincidence than karmic reparations, which is sad. The filmmakers set up a lot of pins, but they are not interested in knocking them down. They gild them and hold them up to show everyone how clever they are. I’m just not buying it.
The first Matrix was really awesome, but ever since the Wachowskis’ career has suffered from wasting good ideas on hollow projects.