Cloud Atlas (2012)
A mighty tall order, mostly filled.
Cloud Atlas is the story of six individuals. One is an American lawyer from the mid-1800s whose health becomes jeopardized during a Pacific expedition. One is a struggling composer trying to make a name and a life for himself in England during the 1930s. One is an investigative journalist in 1970s who puts her life on the line to uncover the truth behind a potential nuclear catastrophe. One is an aging publisher who finds his good fortune turn sour and his life turn upside-down in modern-day England. One is a “fabricant” who gains sentiency beyond her programming in the Orwellian future of Neo-Seoul. And one is a “tribesman” struggling with his own demons in the post-apocalypse of Hawaii. Though their stories seem separate, their souls are intertwined, and from one era to the next, they to continually cross paths and realize themselves in both good ways and bad.
If there’s anything to be said of Cloud Atlas, it’s that it aims awfully high. I mean, why tell one story when you can jump back-and-forth among six? In your face, every other movie ever made! Yup, definitely not the storytelling we’re used to in any medium, but by the same token, that’s what’s so refreshing about movies like these: even if they end up crashing and burning in the long run, at least they went big and gave us something new. Points for trying, right? Not to say that aiming high and starting fresh has ever been a sure thing, but every once and again, the strengths outweigh the shortcomings and we get something that lives up to its ambitions of grandeur. Enter Cloud Atlas, the ambitious son of a bitch it is.
So, of all the books I read this year in preparation for their big-screen adaptations, not a one matched the many payoffs that came with giving Cloud Atlas a go. Before I get to the adaptation, allow me to set the mood. Cloud Atlas is unlike anything I’ve ever read. On top of that, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. As you can guess from the synopsis, it’s essentially six separate novels written into one with each story written in a different style and voice, and each stemming from a different genre. Yet, they’re all connected, and figuring how they’re all connected is one of the most extraordinary things about it. It’s one of those novels that book clubs probably go ape over (like I have any idea what goes on in a book club) as there is much to discuss and nothing all that straightforward about it. Cloud Atlas is a true feat of structure and storytelling, I couldn’t put it down, and even if you’ve already seen the movie, I’m gonna be That Guy and suggest that you still read the book anyway. And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, trust me, the book helps.
Although much as I adored the book, not once was there a time where I envisioned it as a movie. It worked as book because books are a more flexible medium to work with. For chrissakes, you can write a chapter in Powerpoint slides if you want to. As anyone who’s ever tried writing a script can attest, movies don’t have this luxury. There were stories that stopped short mid-sentence by page 56, only to start up and conclude 400 pages later where that mid-sentence left off. Not to mention that whole six characters across six stories thing. I mean, one writer/director has a hard enough time telling one story about one character without screwing the pooch and bankrupting a studio. I’m all for taking risks, but I had no effing idea how three writers/directors, even with $100 million at their disposal, could make something functional out of this. Man, if Naked Lunch taught us anything, it’s that some books just don’t need to be movies.
Then again, here we are, and needless to say, there is a lot to cover.
Unsurprisingly, not everything made it to the final cut, but considering what Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings were working with, it’s hard to be critical of what did make the cut and how inspired they were in bringing it to life. The individual story lines follow their inspirations quite closely, and the liberties that are taken are done with a clear respect for author David Mitchell’s vision. The best example of which is probably how they decided to cast this movie. It takes a little getting used to, but I really, really dug their recycling of actors to play different characters across different story arcs. See, Cloud Atlas is a story about history repeating itself, about the will of good overcoming the timelessness of evil, and about facing those evils head-on from one reincarnation to the next. With that being said, it makes absolute perfect sense to go the route that they did. Sure, you could just cast 30 more actors to fill all these roles and I don’t think it would detract from anything in the long run. But the fact that they went for the unconventional speaks volumes about the respect these film makers have for the unconventional brilliance of their source material. As a result, everything feels far more connected than it otherwise would have, and lest we forget, that is what this story’s all about.
And as challenging as it must have been to put this movie together from top to bottom, there is so much artistic potential that they take full advantage of. This is a gorgeous movie with makeup, costumes, and set pieces that will flat-out effing astound. Doesn’t always work when they start making people look like other races or genders, but there are a bunch of times where you’ll have to squint like a mofo just to recognize the actor you’re looking at. Hugh Grant especially. Something tells me that dude practically lived in the makeup trailer. Plus, the whirlwind structure works far more effectively than I could have imagined as it continually, beautifully transitions from one story to the next without skipping a beat or dropping the pace. It’s a lot to take in and it’s a lot to keep track of, but the way it’s put together, it’s somehow easy to play along. Given that this was far and away the biggest hurdle these guys had in front of them, it’s pretty amazing the way everything comes together.
And I totally forgot how good the Wachowskis are at filming action scenes. How in the hell did I forget that?
Alright, I should shift gears before I ramble any further about the film making here. In short, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything by any of these film makers, but damn, do they still got it and do they work well together. What can I say, it’s always great to find film makers who are fans of the source material. After all, it’s not like Hollywood was on phone ’cause Cloud Atlas was flying off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. These film makers wanted to do this project, and they made it their own while honoring what drew them to it in the first place. Instead of seeing difficulties, they saw the possibilities, and for all the liberties they take, the payoff makes it worth while.
And as for the cast, everyone’s pretty solid. No one really stands out more than anyone else, but that’s alright. They’re all good, and since this isn’t really their show to begin with, “good” goes a long way. If I had to pick one of ’em, I guess Jim Broadbent was the most memorable of the bunch. Doesn’t hurt that his was the only story that was better on film than it was on paper. Really wish I could say the same about Doona Bae’s story line, but that one kinda deserves a movie entirely unto itself.
As much as I’d like to recommend Cloud Atlas for everything that makes it the special story it is, it’s a hard one to recommend at all. Having read the novel beforehand gave me a much clearer picture of everything that was playing out before me, but it also made it hard to assess what it would have been like going in blind. The heart and soul of the novel are very much here in the film, and that makes all the difference. As for the finer details that highlight the importance of each character, event, and thing being said, those might be harder to pick up on and could in turn muddle the film as a whole. But that’s the thing about Cloud Atlas: it’s an incredibly subjective experience, one that’s difficult to break down objectively because everyone’s going to react to it differently. I can give it my stamp of approval and tell you to keep an open mind, but as much as there is for some to admire, I can imagine there’s just as much for others to be baffled by.
Whatever side of the fence you wind up on – and chances are you won’t end up in the middle – Cloud Atlas is an experience. For me, it was a very special experience, one that may not have resonated as much as its source material, but one that resonated all the same. As a true believer in karma and the afterlife, the themes and notions that tie everything together here are ones that rarely find their way into movies, and they’re ones that I try to live by. Might not hit the nail on the head with each swing it takes at wisdom, but to call this movie unique is to call a rainbow monotone. More movies should strive for this kind of ambition. Still, some may say its grasp was bigger than its reach, and in some respects, they’re probably right. Make no mistake, this is one lofty, epic, metaphysical bastard of a movie, but hey, that’s exactly what I loved about it. For that matter, a lot of things I liked about this movie were things I liked about the book, and at the end of the day, that’s an awfully satisfying feeling to leave with. Can’t remember the last time three hours went by this fast.