*NOTE: I haven’t even touched the Cloud Atlas book, so everything in here is solely related to the film and its content, I have no clue how the book differs and I couldn’t care less*
Cloud Atlas is an interesting film for the medium, at least due to its form and execution, rather than any stylistic flourishes or new implementation of special effects. It’s being put forth as a “must see” film, divorced from any quality of content, but as a film that does something new or different within the medium. We were here in 2009 with Avatar, where that movie was exalting its special effects, film style and the harnessing of the capabilities of 3D. I’d imagine it’s a tough sell to convince people to see Cloud Atlas, due to its running time, people’s confusion over what it exactly is, and what its about with seemingly so many random elements in it. The box office figures ($9.4 Million over its first weekend) seem to back this up, but I’m actually more interested in the film itself and how the film had me in its hand, then proceeded to drop me.
Cloud Atlas is so wide and sprawling in its storylines and featured genres that it would take me the rest of this review to summarize it all. But, the film consists of several storylines, ranging from sci-fi, comedy, mystery, relationship drama and one that takes place on a ship in the 1850s. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw and a bunch of others each play different roles in each of the storylines, changing their face with make-up and effects and even having them play different races, which I’m not going to get into the social politics behind, but it didn’t really bother me.
The film clucks along just fine as its introducing each of the storylines, its not at all hard to follow, and once you get your bearings within each one, everything seems to be moving along just fine. Then around the half-way to about two-thirds mark, the storylines run out of steam and coast while nothing really happens, as they wade through enough time until the end when it’s time to wrap up each storyline. Although there is six different stories to get through, there’s isn’t all that much substance of story or dense plotting, it’s all very surface level stuff, allowing the Wachowksi’s and Tykwer (although more so in the Wachowski’s directed stories) to beat you over the head with the themes and meanings, their point to the film. The film is overlong, and unlike other long films where the three hours just flies by, you’ll be aware of every minute of it in this one. The Wachowski’s have never been good with dialogue (see Bound as a prime example), as it’s very simplistic, and eye-roll worthy with some of the cliche phrases and language to make sure you get the obvious point they’re trying to make. While it’s easier to differentiate and critique the Wachowski’s and Tykwer in regards to their directing, as we know which ones directed each storyline. I hold out some ambivalence to the writing, as I’m pretty sure they collaborated on the whole thing, and I don’t want to critique one member for something that could have been perpetrated by the others. The film had me, lost me with its over-obviousness and lingering on with stalling plots, but still retained enough caché to remain an above average film.
Lastly, I want to touch on the themes and purpose of the film as it was a major reason the film started to lose me, as they became so obvious and simplistic when revealed and set upon. Not that your themes can’t be simplistic or have to be a deep coded message, but the Wachowski’s and Tykwer present them with no subtlety and lays everything out on the table. This isn’t a hard movie to understand, it’s no Inception (even though Inception is actually rather easy to follow) or Memento, puzzle type movie where you have to try and fit all the pieces together for it to work. There’s some inter-connectedness (a theme of the film) of the storylines, but it’s more of an easter egg type discovery and not a real key to understand the grand scope of the film. The main idea that the Wachowski’s and Tykwer are getting at is the strength of humanity, the perseverance of the human condition, and equality. One of Ben Whishaw’s characters is saved by a slave, and thus goes against his father-in-law over the treatment of slaves. In one of the sci-fi storylines, a clone is helped to rebel against the society which created and lied to them, using them as pawns and in a cycle of production. Even in the comedic storyline, where Jim Broadbent gets stuck in an old folks home, underneath the comedy there’s a runner of how degrading and trapped they are in this “prison”. Everything is so on-the-nose that it starts to become a blatant message film, where you keep going “Ya, ya, I get it, people are great and we’re all equal and deserve the same things”. I understand the intent, but having it so obviously placed robs us of any further depth that lets us apply our own thinking and provides a viewing experience with everything set out for us, while we just skim through it.
Even through my problems with the films’ handling of its themes, I did still enjoy it for the most part and would very much like to view it again and see how it holds up. I would recommend seeing this film to anyone who is interested in film and it as a medium, but casual viewers might find it a bit tough to slog through, but on the flip-side its generalizations could provide an easier watch than other “epic” films. I think Cloud Atlas is too divisive and different to be a legitimate contender for the big awards at the Oscars. I’m sure it will get nominated a bunch of times, but there seems to be too much depth in the various fields for it to even have a fighting chance, and deservedly so.