Monday, November 12, 2012

Cloud Atlas

At times, watching CLOUD ATLAS is like being at the mercy of someone else who has dominion over the remote control. Constant switching among disparate tales set in very different time periods. One second you're watching the travails of a stowaway slave in the mid-nineteenth century, the next you're following the sad fate of a Korean fast-food worker in Seoul, 2144. There's also the shadowy tale of an investigative reporter, who in San Francisco in 1973 uncovers a heinous plot involving a nuclear reactor. A bisexual composer in Scotland in the 1930s. An aging English publisher who attempts to escape a nursing home in the present day. And finally, a tribesman on a Hawaiian island in post-apocalyptic times (a century after "The Fall") who is visited by a woman who seems to be one of the last citizens of a technologically advanced society. The film is episodic from opening to fade out.  But are the stories so dissimiliar?

The connections are there. The "Cloud Atlas Sextet" is composed by Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) as he apprentices with elderly maestro Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in 1936.  Some other connections are overt, like a character (Frobisher's lover, Rufus Sixsmith, played by James D'Arcy) appearing in 2 different segments. Most connections are thematic, metaphoric. The themes of freedom from oppression and individual voice snake through all 6 tales. The entire film is designed to outline how the actions of centuries ago can inspire the rebels of tomorrow. How individuals transform from evil to good and perhaps set in motion a chain of events that may cause a phoenix to rise from the ashes. Several of the actors appear in most, if not all stories.  Sometimes, they're under layers of prosthetics.

 If I watched this film again, I'm sure I would recognize many more threads. The mosaic that is CLOUD ATLAS is so vast and ambitious that you couldn't possibly get it all in one viewing.  Problem is, I have little desire to sit through this movie again.

Initially, I was excited and intrigued to see that the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy,  best known for the MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN) shared directorial duties on this movie (they helmed different episodes). Each director has had his/her share of misfires over the years. This time, the collective imagination should've resulted in something, well, better. The 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell is said to be a challenging and untenable work. I read an interview with the Wachowskis, who've stated more than once that they are bored with traditional filmmaking and storytelling, that Cloud Atlas was a irresistible challenge to adapt. Its very nature is perhaps doomed to failure. Why hasn't anyone adapted Gravity's Rainbow? Someone tried The Bell Jar once, with mixed results.

CLOUD ATLAS does somewhat successfully weave its stories together in the macro sense, the overall message. But the individual episodes, other than the Neo-Seoul segment, are half realized, dramatically incomplete. Any one story could've been its own film. As intriguing and occasional exciting as the 1973 segment (with Halle Berry as the reporter) is, it felt like a puzzle with several missing pieces. Not necessarily complicated, just lacking in explanation. The story was lightly developed at best.  The 2012 segment, with Broadbent as the poor shlub who is trapped in a nursing facility, is clearly intended to lighten the movie with its (mostly) comic tone. Football (soccer) fans may especially enjoy that story's climax, but while this story did fit in with the filmmakers' philosophical m.o.,  it just feels frivolous.

But what I think really does in this movie is the "After the Fall" piece, featuring Tom Hanks as, Zachry, a clan leader of a Neanderthal-like tribe who continuously fights bands of ferocious cannibals and visions of an evil, overgrown lepracaun looking fellow who is apparently meant to represent either Zachry's guilt or dark side. This episode will tie the movie together in ways that I found clumsy and flat, though the ideas behind the "Cloud Atlas" area Zachry and Meronynm (also Berry), a "Prescient" (part of an advanced society elsewhere) search for are fascinating. It's too bad that this entire part of the movie is so campy and dull. Plus, the primitive dialogue spoken by these characters gets annoying quickly, even when it's unintentionally funny ("Tell me true-true"?!). It at least confirmed to me that the English language will finally, entire degenerate after years of the continued infantilization of society.

It's all too bad, because this had the makings of something special, especially with the assembledge of talent. I'm tempted to call it a noble failure: grand, heartfelt intentions and many good (some even borderline great) scenes, adding up to a real mess. The mid-section of the film does have some effective editing and at times becomes quite exciting and even exhilarating. The 2144 segment is easily the most successful, the most grim, and appropriately forboding. CLOUD ATLAS finally just feels like a misguided gasp of miscellany, a project that may well have proven unfilmable. But it is worth at least one look. There's the problem: this movie needs more examination than a single viewing can allow. Check back in 5 years.

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