Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Great art is the result of the tension between the creator's ambition and their ability to realize it. Many artists shoot for the stars, filled with grand ambition of creating a magnum opus that will be the culmination of everything they think, feel, and are. Look throughout the history of any form of art - literature, poetry, film, television, sculpture - and you'll find works that are ambitious in their design and intention, with varying degrees success in realization. But even if the result is messy and chaotic, it doesn't mean that it's "bad;" even failed ambitions can create fascinating works of art. Sometimes, these works are even all the better for it.


I begin with all of this because Cloud Atlas, adapted from David Mitchell's novel of the same name, is nothing if not ambitious. From the moment it was published in 2004, the novel was deemed "unfilmable." The story is a collection of six separate stories spanning centuries, from a 19th-century voyage in the Pacific to a post-apocalyptic landscape. Sibling directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) were no strangers to heady science-fiction, and co-director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) had a number of thrillers to his credit. In making the film, they would reorder the events of the novel (which ran in chronological order to the post-apocalyptic story, then moved in reverse-chronological order back to the 19th century) and use the same core cast members in the different roles in each story. By doing so, the filmmakers hoped, they could highlight the theme of the interconnectedness of existence, a "journey of souls" that could be physically represented.

The result, as you can guess, is a mess. But it's an incredibly fascinating one.

More after the jump.


The sextet of stories are as follows:

  • Pacific Islands, 1849. American lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) arrives on a Pacific island to court a reverend (Hugh Grant) on behalf of his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving). On his return home, he assists a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) and is poisoned by the ship's doctor (Tom Hanks), who hopes to take Ewing's wealth after his death.
  • Cambridge, 1936. Composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) accepts a job assisting fellow composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in finishing his latest piece, "The Cloud Atlas Sextet." Frobisher writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) while also forming a relationship with Ayrs' wife (Halle Berry). Frobisher and Ayrs compete over who deserves credit for writing "The Cloud Atlas Sextet."
  • San Francisco, 1973. Journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) meets Sixsmith (D'Arcy, in old-age makeup), a nuclear physicist who leaks to her a story about a new nuclear reactor being built by Lloyd Hooks (Grant). A hitman (Weaving) hired by Hooks attempts to assassinate her, but she receives help in uncovering the conspiracy from another scientist (Hanks) and a bodyguard (Keith David).
  • London, 2012. Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) finds himself in trouble when the gangster author (Hanks) of a bestselling book murders a critic, then sends his brothers to collect Cavendish's cut of the book's sales. Timothy's brother (Grant) tricks him into hiding in a retirement home, where he's abused by the head nurse (Weaving) and plots his escape.
  • Neo-Seoul, 2144. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is a cloned slave who works at a fast-food restaurant. As she is interviewed by an archivist (D'Arcy), she recounts her daily routine and how she learned about liberation and rebellion from a movie about Timothy Cavendish (played in this story by Hanks). She then tells him about her connection to rebellion leader Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) and her exposure to the ills of society.
  • Big Isle, 106 winters after the Fall. After most of humanity has perished in an unknown event, Zachry (Hanks) survives in a primitive society. Zachry has visions of a demonic figure (Weaving) and lives in constant fears of being attacked by the cannibalistic Kona, led by a fearsome chief (Grant). A visit from a member (Berry) of a more-advanced society gives him a mission to assist her in her quest to send a message to the Earth's extraterrestrial colonies.
The film's successes are, first and foremost, the achievement of a crack editing team. Though the filmmakers divvied up the directing responsibilities (the Wachowskis handled "Pacific Islands, 1849," "Neo-Seoul, 2144," and "Big Isle," while Tykwer shot the remaining three), all of these stories have clear visual through-lines that connect them to each other. Remarkably, the editing team of Alexander Berner and Claus Wehlisch manage to take all of the cross-cutting through these six stories (seven if you included the prologue/epilogue) and making them fit into a coherent narrative, like a photo-mosaic where a bunch of smaller photos make up a larger one. There's no real reason to believe that such a technique would work, yet it does so with incredible grace.


Here's where things get messy, though. Casting well-known actors in these roles means that there's a lot of "-face" makeup, with white (and black) actors playing Asian characters, Asian actors playing white and Hispanic characters, and more. This is, on the surface, concerning, but it fits within the grander tale of what film is attempting to do. The main message of interconnectivity wouldn't be as strong if different actors had been cast for each role, and by having them swap race (and, in some cases, gender), it further highlights the idea that we should be watching the "souls" beneath the exterior, rather than the bodies themselves. Out-of-context, it would have been disastrous. But in context, it's functional.

Since watching the film, I've been back-and-forth about how effective casting familiar faces like Hanks and Berry really is. On the one hand, by including someone as recognizable as Hanks, it allows the audience to be able to clearly follow the passage of his character throughout the centuries. His familiarity is essentially a totem for the audience, allowing us to re-orient ourselves within the story at hand (the same is true of Berry and the severe-looking Weaving as well). This is in addition to my previous point that it better illustrates the film's main theme.

Yet it also can prove to be distracting. Hanks, particularly, never really embodies a particular character apart from Zachry, and even then, it feels more like "and now Tom Hanks is ______" than a believable person (nothing, however, is as bad as his awful accent in the "London, 2012" passage, though that's mercifully brief). Berry and Broadbent have an easier time blending into their roles, and are at their best playing truth-seeker and clown (in "San Francisco, 1973" and "London, 2012," respectively). Whishaw and Sturgess aren't particularly well-known, and both have an easier time differentiating their characters. But the MVP of this cast is Bae, who's given the film's most bleak arc in "Neo-Seoul, 2144" but perfectly channels Sonmi-451's determination and will to be free.


As a film about interconnectivity, of course it often touches on the ideas of determinism vs. free will. Two of these stories directly confront the institution of slavery, both past ("Pacific Islands, 1849") and future ("Neo-Seoul, 2144"), while two others contemplate imprisonment both literal ("London, 2012") and figurative ("Cambridge, 1936"). And while these stories seem to indicate that destiny can be changed, there are two ("San Francisco, 1973" and "Big Isle") that show that change happening. This leaves the film with a rather interesting thematic statement: hope springs eternal, because our souls are constantly reborn. And each rebirth provides the opportunity for change. 

For a blockbuster-budgeted science-fiction epic, this is a deeply spiritual film. This is sort-of surprising, given that the Wachowskis borrowed heavily from existential philosophies by Descartes and Kant for The Matrix, and now Cloud Atlas borrows with equal weight spirituality from Hindu and Buddhist faiths. But in doing so, the filmmakers have created a film that's deeply humanist as well, with a deep belief in humanity's ability to change for the better, even when it's at its worst. It may be a more optimistic approach than the filmmakers are known for, yet this interest in spirituality befits them.

Cloud Atlas is great art. It likely won't be remembered as the Wachowskis' or Tykwer's best film; those distinctions will likely go to the much-better-received The Matrix and Run Lola Run, respectively. But it does deserve to stand as their magnum opus. Together, they crafted a film that was enormous in its ambition, messy in its execution, but ultimately affirming in its intent. It's a work that's meant to, like its many interconnected characters, be rediscovered again and again. A

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