The Huge, Ridiculous World of 'Cloud Atlas'

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There is no more ambitious, well-intentioned, or wider-reaching movie this season than Cloud Atlas. There is also no more bumbling, frequently inept, and downright bizarre movie this season than Cloud Atlas. Clocking in at nearly three alternately engaging and punishing hours, this gargantuan movie, co-directed by the Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer, is too big and unwieldy to ever really get off the ground. But it's such a gentle giant, such a dumbly lumbering creature that squishes everything in its path with a warm smile, you can't help but feel some affection for the thing. A dreamy if heavy-handed meditation on the connectivity of people and deeds, Cloud Atlas wildly overstates its case, but there's something strangely exhilarating about that wildness. Say what you will about Cloud Atlas' myriad failures and oddities, at least it swings for the fences.

Based on David Mitchell's 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas spans some 500 years of human history, from a Pacific voyage in 1849 to the vaguely post-apocalyptic ("after the fall" is the terminology) 24th century. Mitchell used recurring themes and motifs and callbacks to link his six different time periods together, a subtle technique that is a bit difficult to translate to film. Which isn't to say it can't be done, but it does prove beyond the scope of the Wachowskis, who crafted the large, loud, blunt Matrix pictures, and Tom Tykwer, a grand visualist (Run Lola Run) who struggles when presenting actual feeling (Heaven). Had they perhaps employed a more delicate and precise screenwriter, that person could have woven everything together intimately like threads on a loom. But alas they did not, and so we are left instead with big lumps of crudely modeled clay. (Sorry, this movie has me mixing my metaphors.) As a way to bonk us over the head with the Wonderful Interconnectedness Of It All, the filmmakers chose to cast the same actors in multiple roles; some actors, including the strangely cast Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, play as many as six different characters, a bold if literal choice that proves fascinating to behold as an oddity but disastrous to the film's stabs at profundity.

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The makeup. We must first talk about the makeup. Some of it is done well — Hanks goes from wicked, big-toothed old doctor in the 1849 segment to badly goateed British brawler in the present day leg of the tale to haunted, woodsy, tattooed future-man in the 24th century bit. It's all done believably enough (though the British brawler getup is ridiculous, it's supposed to be) and only minorly distracts from the action. But some of the other makeup work goes so far afield that the movie becomes at times simply a game of spot-the-actor. How is Halle Berry going to factor into the 1936-set story of a gay English grifter/musical prodigy (the lovely, gifted Ben Whishaw) working as amanuensis for a codgery old composer? As it turns out, they're going to whiten up her skin and give her a prosthetic nose and have her play the German Jewish wife of said composer. How will the film's largely white cast be incorporated into a segment set in "Neo Seoul" in 2144? Well, in the film's biggest misstep, they're going to give them hideous approximations of "Asian eyes" and put them in straight black wigs. I kid you not. The sight of Jim Sturgess (whose main segment is the 1849 story) as a Korean freedom fighter named Hae-Joo Chang is so unnerving, so decidedly off that it near about derails what is one of the most compelling of the film's six storylines. I don't want to get into a whole conversation about racial insensitivity — I mean, in the interest of fairness, at one point the mesmerizing Korean actress Doona Bae appears with red hair, green eyes, and freckles — nor do I want to spoil all of the "Ohh, is that him??" surprises in the film, but just know that the decision to have actors recur throughout the film in different storylines is followed far too literally and just about turns the whole thing into an unfortunate Norbit-style joke. A little cast continuity is fine, but not when it starts to turn your mostly serious film into a skit about makeup and weird accents.

As for the plot mechanics of the film, well... It's a jumble. We've got a young doctor learning the horrors of slavery on a South Pacific isle. There's the gay genius-drifter facing an inexorably tragic destiny. Halle Berry plays a dogged reporter investigating nuclear malfeasance in 1973 San Francisco. Jim Broadbent and some other old coots (and Hugo Weaving in drag) do high comedy in a present-day nursing home. Bae and Sturgess fight for "fabricant" (basically clones) rights in oppressive future Korea. And a neo-primitive tribesman (Hanks) teams up with a woman from a more advanced group (Berry again) to scale a mountain, fight murderous marauding tribes, and possibly save humanity. These divergent tales are held together by some common themes: love, revolution, compassion, equality, commitment. If those sound kinda general and non-specific, well, yeah. It's hard to tell exactly what most of the segments have in common, thematically or emotionally, especially when you've got all the gimmickry of the casting filling up most of your imagination. Near as I could tell the overall portrait is one of human decency and bravery echoing (a word the film uses) throughout generations. There is talk of ripples, of drops in the ocean, of karma, of the afterlife and reincarnation. This is a spiritual inquest, but it's hard to decipher just what we're inquesting about. The way these directors have crafted their film (the Wachowskis did 1849, 2144, and the 24th century, Tywker was given 1936, 1973, and 2012) does disservice to the deeper, more pondering aspects of Mitchell's novel (as I understand it, I have not read it), while annoyingly playing up action sequences and, bizarrely, comedic bits. I suspect there's something soul-stirring and we-are-one to glean from this material, but when rendered on film by this whizz-bang trio, it's a lot of pomp and very little circumstance.

Why, for example, does it matter what kind of bad deed the nuclear company is doing in 1973 or that the reporter, named Luisa Ray, is the daughter of another brave reporter who saved a guy who would later save her? What does the big, reverberating revolution of the 2144 timeline have to do with Jim Broadbent escaping an elder care facility in 2012? And, most frustratingly, what is the importance of this brief, lilting piece of music composed in the 1936 segment? It must be pretty important, as this "Cloud Atlas Sextet" gives the film (and the book) its name. We don't get satisfying answers to these, and other, questions, nor do we even get tantalizing philosophical bread crumbs. Instead it's all rather flatly presented and by picture's end we're supposed to have tied all the ragged edges into some perfect, obvious knot of understanding. "Oh, we watched this all because... slavery is bad." "Aha, people are sometimes capable of doing great good for some reason." These are not thrilling notions or conclusions, and are made ever more pat and obvious when they stand in such ludicrous contrast to their cacophonous, ornate packaging. It feels like some important little details, subtleties, and nuances were lost in the page-to-screen translation. We're given the implication of depth, but never really shown it.

Still, though. Still it feels somehow wrong to be too hard on this odd omnibus movie. I say that the 1936 segment proves especially frustrating because, other than its ultimately muddled philosophy, Tykwer has created, within the walls of the stiff Edinburgh manor where Whishaw's character, Robert Frobisher, takes residence, the most gentle and stirring of the film's parts. It helps that Whishaw has such a beguiling, elfin presence. He's got a Loki-like flicker in his eyes that makes you question your immediate impulse to play with his pretty hair and give him some tea. He's delicate and hurt and worth comforting, but also possibly dangerous. It's the best acting in the film, especially in his frequent voice over, which is lilting, lyrical, and bitterly sad. Whishaw is well matched by Broadbent, here inhabting Frobisher's hectoring employer by effectively dialing down his usual genteel Broadbentian dodderingness. The segment feels far more elegant and mysteriously thoughtful than the rest of the film — again what is this intriguing "Cloud Atlas" tune — and I must say that it's admirable how frankly Frobisher's sexual orientation is handled in such a big-budget, action-packed movie. Here we have the film's most aching love story and it just happens to be about two men. Feels almost revolutionary!

Speaking of revolutionary, the film's second-best segment is the Wachowskis' 2144 vision of the future, a place that's both sleek and gritty, tinglingly alive but alarmingly inhuman. Here James D'Arcy, who plays Frobisher's lover, is an (unfortunately makeup-ed) archivist interviewing Sonmi-451, a fabricant, about an act of rebellion that seems to have had some major societal effects. We learn of Sonmi's deliverance from her carefully controlled clone life to the broader world, and in the process witness an individual realize her humanity and share it with a world that has forgotten its own. It's in these pieces that we get the major heft of the film's bigger messages, and I just wish they'd teased them out a bit more. There's some actually rather urgent point about existence poking its head out of Neo Seoul by the end of the film, but it never quite makes it to the light. Still, the Wachowskis know their way around a harrowing, futuristic action sequence and Doona Bae makes for a terrifically engaging wide-eyed explorer of a brave and terrible new world.

The rest of the segments are all well-meaning in their way, and one must respect the filmmakers for taking on such big and disparate milieux, but none fully connect. Worst of all is the 24th century storyline. Just as you've gotten over Hanks and Berry talking in silly patois to each other like a coupla Nells, you're forced to deal with Susan Sarandon playing a shaman priestess seer type who lives in a hut. It's just about impossible to take this whole world seriously, especially when it closes the film on a patently ridiculous note. The final line of the film is so jarringly corny that I was sure I missed something. But no, I didn't. That's really how the Wachowskis chose to end their big time and space adventure. Ah well.

Despite all that, I've no ill-will for this film. In fact I wish it well. It's huge and goofy and sloppy and crazy and weird, but that, really, is just fine. In a world, and more specifically a movie season, filled with hardness and cynicism, here's a movie that aims to give the world, and us, a big wet kiss. You may want to wipe most of the slobber off your cheek afterwards, but the affection, and the effort, is appreciated just the same.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.