It has been somewhat fashionable in the run-up to Cloud Atlas's release to pin the proverbial "unfilmable" label on the David Mitchell novel from which it is inspired. Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski have proved that theory partially wrong. Cloud Atlas could, in fact, be made into a movie. Whether or not it could ever be made into a good movie remains to be seen. This version, a cross between Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States, is not just a bad movie. It is a half-dozen bad movies for the price of one.
The novel and the film contain six stories. In the first, an American aids a runaway slave in the South Pacific and runs afoul of a doctor with sinister intentions. The second takes place in the 1930s and consists of letters sent by a bisexual composer to his lover while he is working on a musical composition with the same title as the film. In the third, a 1970s investigative reporter uncovers a conspiracy surrounding attempts to create an accident at a nuclear power plant. In the fourth, a scenario set in the early part of the twenty-first century, a book publisher attempts to escape a nursing home. The fifth storyline consists of the pre-execution statement of a genetic slave (called a "fabricant") who has participated in a rebellion set in the future of Seoul, South Korea. In the sixth and final segment, a post-apocalyptic "valleysman" meets a refugee from a technologically advanced civilization.
The novel's central conceit is that each story is being "read" by a character in one of the future stories. This device helps create structural unity, since these stories span centuries—the earliest is set around 1850 and the most distant is "106 autumns after 'the Fall,' an event that the film dates sometime after 2144. That loose structural unity is undercut by the film's more frequent cutting between the stories, especially toward the end when the constant ping-ponging between storylines exacerbates one of the worst tendencies of modern action movies, that of requiring multiple climaxes. The series of false endings building upon one another is tiresome enough in an individual plot; multiplied by six it ends up looking like twenty-one action endings in search of a beginning (or even a middle).
The increasingly frequent cuts between storylines is necessary, though, because it masks just how thin and uninteresting all of the stories really are. Film critic Roger Ebert once famously opined that films with multiple or alternate storylines can only be as interesting as each story would be if filmed separately. Tykwer and the Wachowskis (who share screenplay as well as directing credits) suggest some typological and thematic connections by casting the same actors in multiple storylines and having key pieces of music and dialogue repeated, but after the first hour or so this ends up feeling more like a cinematic version of "Where's Waldo?" than an intentional device that actually means something. We are told that "all voices [get] tangled up into one," that "separation is an illusion," "death is only a door," and "we are bound to others." Well, yes, we are, but how? I half expected the film to conclude in solemn tones with an admonition that "wherever you go, there you are."
If there is a dominant thematic connection between the storylines it is more political (or ideological) than spiritual. "The weak are meat and the strong do eat" one character says, explaining his malevolence. In another storyline, a character's dead body pointedly assumes a spread-arm, crucifixion pose, suggesting the character's fate is analogous to Jesus's and (probably unintentionally) hinting that the archetypal elements of the religious narrative are narrowly understood as being just one more story of (relative) innocence persecuted by corrupt power. It is worth noting that while the post-apocalyptic storyline uses biblical language (it refers to some sort of natural, cataclysmic disaster as "the Fall"), the increasing diminishment of institutional religion as a presence in each chronological advancement subverts rather than underscores that language's historical meaning. Adam (one of the characters), sacrificial deaths, even "the Fall" are not singular events in history but patterns repeated in an endless historical cycle.
The frequent cutting between storylines also highlights the stylistic differences between the collaborating directors and tonal contrasts that are less problematic in the book. The nursing home escape feels particularly slight in comparison to stories of mass slavery, potential nuclear explosions, and attempted revolutionary war(s). Comic relief is welcome, perhaps necessary, in a film that spans nearly three hours, but the editing comes across like the different sections, however they were conceived, were made in a vacuum. The Neo-Seoul sequence has the color palette and broad action strokes that we might expect from the pair that made The Matrix and Speed Racer. The corporate espionage segment has the cleaner, more structured mise en scène (and deliberate pacing) that we would expect from the director of The International and Heaven. Those who only know Tom Tykwer from Run Lola Run might have predicted that his style would go well with the Wachowskis', but even that film had interludes from its more frenetic episodes that humanized its characters and situated Lola's runs within a plot that made them consequential. When Cloud Atlas cuts from one storyline to another, it feels like a car shifting gears from fifth to second—you can practically hear the gears grinding.
It is hard to think of another film in recent memory in which the accumulation of so much talent has rendered so little. Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent, for example, have five Academy Awards and twelve nominations between them. Andy and Lana Wachowski were nominated for Hugo awards for their screenplay work on the adaptation of V for Vendetta. Cloud Atlas is a big disappointment from everyone involved, but it is perhaps the biggest for fans of Tom Tykwer. Just ten years ago, Tykwer appeared poised to succeed Krzysztof Kieslowski(whose script he used for Heaven) as one of cinema's most respected directors who wrestled with spiritual themes. Since then he has helmed a segment in Paris, je t'aime and directed Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The International, and Three. While he continues to show stylistic flair and technical ability, his choice of material evidences an increasing interest in coincidence over providence, a privileging of the themes of determinism and fate over free will, and an increasing despair that any alternatives to violence are possible to correct the ills of a fallen world.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Is the film's worldview providential, deterministic, or something else? Which of the six storylines has a positive resolution? Is there any significance to which stories have a more positive resolution, or are the respective characters simply pawns of fate?
- In one of the final narrations, one of the storytellers says that "separation is an illusion." What does this quote mean? How do the respective storylines illustrate this claim?
- What does the film's use of the same actors in different story arcs symbolize?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Cloud Atlas is rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, and some drug use. The violence is typical of an action movie and is present in each of the storylines. One man is poisoned to near death. Another is thrown off the top of a building. There is plenty of point-and-shoot gun violence, particularly in the future segments. One man shoots himself in the mouth (the camera cuts away but we see the aftermath). The fabricants (genetically engineered clones) are shown being sexuality exploited and euthanized. Nudity is not excessive by contemporary Hollywood standards, but it is somewhat gratuitous and hence more noticeable.
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