Monday, October 29, 2012

What is Any Ocean but a Multitude of Drops? CLOUD ATLAS

Starting with nothing less than a Homeric incantation in which a white-haired old man stares into a crackling fire and seems to summon the fiction into being, Cloud Atlas, an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s tricky novel, is the kind of movie that’s easy to recommend and admire, if for no other reason than that nothing quite like it has ever existed and is unlikely to come around again any time soon. It wobbles at times, but luckily it’s ultimately better than the sum of its gimmicks. This is a complicated film about simple truths: love, ambition, knowledge, power. A major motif is a musical composition that one of the characters writes called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” It’s a lush, haunting piece of music that winds its way through the soundtrack and, by its very nature, echoes the major structural conceit of the film. A sextet is a piece of music to be played by six musicians. This film – like the novel before it – contains six stories, any one of which could easily expand into its own film, but together combine into one gorgeous whole.

Spanning centuries and genres, the film breaks apart the book’s chronological and mirrored presentation and instead places the six stories parallel to each other, cutting between the stories with a gleeful, witty, dexterous montage that recalls D.W. Griffith’s 1916 feature Intolerance in the way it so skillfully weaves in and out of varying plotlines. A massive undertaking, three directors, Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (of The Matrix films and Speed Racer) split the six sections among them, adapting and directing separately but from a shared common vision so that the story flows both stylistically and emotionally. Like some strange geometric object with many sides and layers, the film grows all the more epic by expanding outwards through time and space.

It takes us to the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth century aboard a ship sailing towards America. Then, we’re in Europe in the 1930s, following a disinherited, but ambitious and talented, music student to the home of an elderly composer. Next, we’re in 1970s America, following an intrepid reporter into a conspiracy at a new nuclear power plant. On to the present, where we find a publisher who is the victim of a mean brotherly prank and stuck in an unexpected place. Then we’re to the future, where a clone slave describes her story of finding awareness of the consumerist dystopia she lives in. Finally, to the far future, where we find a post-apocalyptic world that has returned to clannish living in the wilderness, where the peaceful people are terrorized by a tribe of aggressive cannibals. Tykwer and the Wachowskis present each setting with handsomely realized production design and detailed special effects. Moving between them is anything but disorienting; it’s, more often than not, invigorating.

Almost too much to handle in one sitting, this film is a rush of character and incident, themes and patterns, echoes upon echoes, all distinctive melodies that fade and reoccur time and again. Some sequences play more successfully than others, but the film is largely fascinating and generally gripping as it becomes a symphony of imagery and genre, returning again and again to mistakes humankind makes, the benefits and constraints of orderly society, and the way underdogs try to find the right thing to do against all odds. The themes play out repeatedly in a flurry of glancingly interconnected genre variations. What appears as drama later plays as comedy, as action, as mystery, as tragedy. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have put the film together in such a way that the editing escalates with the intensity of each plotline, bouncing in an echoing flurry during rhyming plot points (escapes, reversals of fortune, setbacks, reunions) and settling down for more languid idylls when the plots simply simmer along. By turns thrilling, romantic, disturbing, suspenseful, and sexy, there’s a fluidity here that makes this a breathless three-hour experience. The film moves smoothly and sharply between six richly imagined stories that connect more spiritually and metaphysically than they do literally, and yet artifacts of one story may appear in another, sets may be redressed for maximum déjà vu, characters in one story may dream glimpses of another. This isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but rather a stylish assertion that people are inescapably connected to their circumstances and to those who lived before and will live after.

In order to underline its insistence upon the connectedness of mankind then, now, and always, the film features the same cast in each story, making it possible to get a sense of the progression of a soul through time, each reincarnation living up (or down) to the example of earlier experiences and choices. Through mostly convincing makeup, actors cross all manner of conventions, playing not just against type, but crossing race, gender, age, and sexual orientation in unexpected ways. (Some of the biggest pleasant surprises in the film are in the end credits, so I’ll attempt to preserve them.) For example, Tom Hanks appears as a crackpot doctor, then again as a thuggish wannabe writer, then again as a haunted future tribesman, among other roles. This is a large, talented and eclectic cast with Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant delivering strong performances, appearing over and over, sometimes obviously, sometimes unrecognizably or for only a moment. This allows the filmmakers to dovetail the storylines even further, for what is denied in one (lovers torn apart, say) may be given back in the space of an edit (lovers, not the same people, but played by the same performers, reunited).

Though some will undoubtedly be turned away by its earnest (if vague) spirituality and messy philosophical bombast, this is the kind of film that, if you let it, opens up an endless spiral of deep thoughts. You could think it over and spin theories about what it all means for hours. To me, that’s part of the fun. It’s a historical drama, a romance, a mystery, a sci-fi epic, a comedy, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy all at once. In placing them all in the same film and running them concurrently Tykwer and the Wachowskis have created a moving and exciting epic that seems to circle human nature as each iteration finds characters struggling against societal conventions to do the right thing. The powerful scheme and rationalize ways to stay on top; those below them yearn for greater freedom and greater meaning. There’s much talk about connection and kindred spirits; at one point a character idly wonders why “we keep making the same mistakes…” It accumulates more than it coheres, and yet that’s the bold, beautiful mystery of Cloud Atlas, that it invites a viewer into a swirl of imagery, genre, and character, to be dazzled by virtuosic acting and effective filmmaking, to get lost amongst the connections and coincidences, to enjoy and perhaps be moved by the shapes and patterns formed by souls drifting through time and space.


  1. I feel like this must be a tremendously difficult movie to review without spoilers, but you've done a fantastic job. I've read a dozen reviews of the movie today (having finally seen it last night) and yours is my favorite.