Cloud Atlas (2013)
After the delirious plunge from quality to curiosity following the third installment of the Matrix trilogy – yes I’m one of the strange drones who still quite likes The Matrix Reloaded – it didn’t seem as if the secretive Wachowski siblings would ever wield a super-budget again. After the erotic noir stylings of their debut Bound, a sexy thriller with a genre challenging androgynous subtext they swiftly ascended stratospheric heights with the first installment of their cyberpunk pilfering triumvirate, culminating in one of the most mauled and muddled final franchise episodes in SF movie history. Nevertheless a global haul of $1.6 billion can still ease the purse strings of a greedy studio executive and their follow-up project was dully greenlit, whilst it has its admirers Speed Racer was also savaged by the press and barely recouped its production budget, banishing the duo to director jail to lick their wounds whilst dabbling with the odd production credit on a handful of forgettable pictures. Nevertheless the Wachowskis are clearly not content to return to the days of miniscule budgeted neo-noir as they have now embarked on their most impassioned project to date, a screen adaption of the multi-strand, ethnically diverse and structurally significant Cloud Atlas, an endeavour which proved to be so ambitious that they needed yet another director, the German helmer Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame to assist with herding the digital cats into their narrative bags. In the new era of studio austerity the producers had to go cap in hand to private investors, raising the reputed $100 million dollar production budget from a panorama of private investors before Warner Bros. stepped in to handle global distribution and marketing duties. This welcome intervention was potentially powered by the studios reputation in supporting the artistic vision of their creative vassals, but remained a relatively significant risk as the film was a difficult to market product, a movie which seems to once again have evaded the popular audience despite its global possibilities. With glaring reservations I was one part bemused and embarrassed to two parts genuinely and incrementally impressed, like many of its sprawling kin Cloud Atlas is a big, bold yet ultimately flawed mosaic, with an impressive sense of scale which doesn’t always quite gel.
Based on the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell Cloud Atlas is split between numerous time frames and character streams, lilting and lurching from one stand of storytelling to another like a storm-tossed schooner, with many of the same actors playing different iterations of friends and foes across oceans of time and memory. In the reserved 1930’s East Anglian England a gay musician struggles with social persecution as he assists an aging, bullying maestro in composing his new masterpiece, in 2012 a book publisher flees leering gangsters to accidentally bivouac in a suffocating elderly care centre. A 19th century gentlemen nascently involved with the slavery trade is slowly poisoned by a greedy doctor on board ship whilst befriending a negro stowaway, in 2142 a genetically birthed clone ‘fabricant’ leads a revolution against corporate inhumanity. In 1973 a San Francisco based Journalist stumbles across a radioactive conspiracy whilst millenia hence an off world, posthuman colonist revisits the Earth which has descended to quasi-feudal cannibalism in order to discover her destiny. From the future to the past, from the micro to the macro, from the fantastic to the formulaic it glitters with an all-star cast, I won’t spoil the fun by specifying who appears in which streams but we’re talking about (deep breath) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy and Menagerie favourite Keith David, heck even Susan Sarandon gets a occsaional, if unfavourable look in.
Well, the first thing Cloud Atlas should be celebrated for is its sheer, unimpeachable and unadulterated ambition. It is very difficult, almost impossible (apart from maybe Inception) to identify any contemporary filmmaking north of the $50 million dollar signpost which isn’t culled from an existing franchise or cultural instrument, either comic book or video game, a remake or a ‘reimagining’ of previously successful fissile material. Now, yes, the film is based on a successful ‘cult’ novel but we’re not exactly talking about a Twilight or Harry Potter cultural phenomenon here, and the fact that they have approached the story as presented in the book (albeit with some crucial differences) by interweaving a sextet of interlocking and consorting strands into one homogenous whole would be laudatory if it were attempted at a student level, let alone a fiscally eye-watering nine figure star laden super-production. As I suspected some of the strands work better than others but I must admit that as the film got into its rhythm initially tiresome storylines waxed and waned to eclipse the primarily engrossing arcs, it deftly cuts and dances through the competing tales in a voracious vortex that successfully grips and maintains the attention, with some terrific specifically match cuts which I won’t spoil here, other than to say that on a structural level alone Cloud Atlas is worth the price of admission. The first film which leaps to mind is of course Griffith’s epic Intolerance which for its period was a game changing scope of attack, including parralell cutting across numerous timelines and stories, with the global theme of, well, tolerance surprisingly enough, and in that sense both films share a formal and thematic DNA.
Going into this I had some strong suspicions that the movie couldn’t succeed due to its numerous fractured timelines, such a broad spread of narrative streams should dilute any emotional engagement and could prove frustrating as one favoured strand gets going only for the flow to move to another thread, thuis whittling away the chance for any incremental empathic investment. Although I was admittedly wrong on that point I was correct in a roundabout way, the tempo is such that in some sections three or four strands can be juxtaposed within a couple of minutes of screen time and comment and refract on each other – corporate malfeasance throughout the ages, how one person can make a difference, how rules and regimented boundries are meant to be transgressed – the problem for me pulses at a more fundamental level within the nucleau of some of the stories, but we’ll come back to that later on. Visually the film is cornea striking, a spectrum of colours and textures that pirouette across the eyes, I’m looking forward to freeze framing a few shots on Blu-Ray to absorb some of the background detail of 2144 Neo-Seoul which is essentially Blade Runner meets Logan Run with a mash of Soylent Green, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this was the most successful story strand for yours truly. Far less successful was some of the deeply distracting casting decisions, whilst I don’t fully agree with these accusations of ‘whitewashing’ scenes by having some actors scrunched into oriental make-up or amending the skin pigmentation to reincarnate characters across the timelines perhaps the Wachowski’s could have treated the audience with a little more intelligence, the garish signpost of the cycles in time is deeply distracting and throws you out of the picture, alas in places it becomes a point and stare oddity which provokes laughter rather than lustre. As others have remarked Tom Hanks as an Oirish geezer is terrible and I was embarrassed to watch his (thankfully) one scene appearance, even if he does have a rather amusing method in dealing with critical dissent which must be a daydream of many a mauled film director, one things for sure that this will go down in the history books as the Tom Hanks movie when the wholesome type shockingly barks two of the most offensive words in the English language, y’know the ones that rhyme with ‘tigger’ and ‘hunt’.
What the hell was that ochre coloured Alice Cooper apparition doing in the aeons ahead future strand? Never explained nor required, I also struggled to understand much of Hanks slurred speech and that ridiculous futuristic argot, it’s very strange angles and creative decisions like these which ensures that the film has cult oddity written all over it, with its shocking lapses in taste and distracting choices, its spectacular breadth and demanding design. There has been a bit of a trend for this breed of global cinema recently, ever since the Oscar storming Slumdog Millionaire Hollywood reared creatives have not been afraid to target to international audiences over indigenous purses through tales which preach a homogenized humanity, that we’re all the same deep down with the same fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, as an aside I recently watched the deleted scenes for the film Looper (in itself an instructive exercise to see what was unfortunately culled) and the fact that the film had scenes featuring the Oriental wife specifically shot and inserted for the Chinese release is kind of fascinating, a sign of the times in a globalised entertainment market. I am slightly mystified then at the films lacklusture box-office, we know the release was butchered in North America but I would have thought this would have picked up support in the Far East markets, but perhaps this is why I’m not an international studio distribution executive…..
The films innocent plea for tolerance and understanding across the aeons finds some fruitful roots, and it’s a banally obvious point to make but LanaWachowski’s recent gender reassignment of course shadows the whole enterprise with a non-fictional functuality, it’s not difficult to see what she and her brother saw in the source material that they wanted to bring to the screen and parley with a potential global audience. ‘Everything Is Connected’ yells the film’s tagline but alas in the Wachowskiverse acute visuals and bold ambitions don’t always overcome juvenile thematics and simplistic moralising, and crucially there are some plot strands that I just couldn’t care about – 1973 San Francisco went nowhere and had a stupid action scene bolted on to raise the stakes, 2012 Jim Broadbents hilarious bumblings were about as funny as a HIV epidemic with some Scottish racism thrown in for good measure. At the risk of sounding derogatory this is very much a film which will appeal on a philosophical level with the type of creatures that gravitated towards The Fountain, live and let live is my motto and whatever floats your boat, but the lesson that souls are reborn throughout time and love can conquer all is patently ridiculous to me, but then again I’m a black-hearted nihilist who tends to view existence as an elaborate cosmic joke with a meaningless death as the punchline and your mileage, as they say, may vary. It’s a three star film if you don’t take it too seriously or dwell on its feeble philosophical assertions, maybe a 3.5 as it does have Keith David in it, worth seeing for the visual acuity and sheer spiring ambition, a rewarding three-hour picture which is worth an investment of your time;