by M. Faust
It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to throw things at the screen as much as I did at the end of Cloud Atlas.
I have not read David Mitchell’s well-regarded novel on which this film was based. I know some people who have, and they are looking forward to the film. I wish them well: They at least have a fighting chance at making sense out of it. But I don’t think I’m being too much of a curmudgeon to feel that a mass-market movie ought to be comprehensible without requiring that the audience do some preliminary reading. It’s not Die Nibelungen, after all.
Mitchell’s book tells six stories set in different eras: the 1850s, 1930s, 1970s, the present day, a dystopian future, and a post-apocalyptic period. As I understand it, the first six chapters of the book tell the first half of each story; the rest of the book concludes each story in backward chronology.
The author himself says that he thought the book was unfilmable. Not so Andy and Lana Wachowski (who used to be the Wachowski brothers, but that’s another story), who became enamored of the book and determined to film it. (Apparently Mitchell has never seen The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, or he would have realized that comprehensibility does not rank highly in the Wachowski oeuvre.) With the aid of German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), they devised a script that told the six stories more or less simultaneously, sometimes in large chunks, sometimes rapidly cutting between different eras.
The stories concern, in chronological order, a young scion’s voyage on a slave ship, a homosexual musician who becomes a ghost writer for an aging composer, a reporter investigating a coverup at a nuclear plant, a publisher who is confined against his will at an old age home, a clone fighting for the right to live as a human, and a tribesman’s encounter with a survivor of a destroyed civilization.
The tones vary from chamber drama to farce to special-effects extravaganza, and the effect is like randomly switching among six cable channels for three hours. They are only minimally linked: The fact that a leading character in the second story shows up as an older man in the third story is the only overt plot connection, an unintentional red herring that, if you’re like me, may make you think you’re watching one of those movies that slowly draws a bunch of disparate stories together. You’re not. The more you struggle to put them together into a whole, the more frustrated you’re going to be.
But I sat patiently until the end, expecting that the filmmakers would make their goal apparent in the closing moments. As the music became especially overpowering, that moment was clearly near.
And what did I get? Characters delivering metaphysical banalities that would embarrass a freshman philosophy major. Such as:
“My life exists far beyond the limitations of me.”
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to each other.”
“Death is only a door: When it closes, another opens.”
Or this exchange: “Whatever you do, it will be as a drop in an ocean.” “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I waited patiently for 172 minutes for that?
What makes Cloud Atlas maddening to watch as it unspools is the multiple casting of the film’s leading players (who include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and the Korean star Doona Bae). For some reason, the Wachowskis and Tykwer felt it would help maintain the novel’s themes by having all of the actors appear in each story. Never mind that each story doesn’t have the same number of major characters, or the same gender and racial mixes: Call in the makeup people so that everyone can cross ethnic and sexual lines.
In some movies that kind of thing can be fun. (Check out John Huston’s The List of Adrien Messenger, from 1963.) Here, in a film that is already asking you to juggle six wildly disparate stories, it is a hugely miscalculated distraction. Some of these appearances are in small roles and pass by unnoticed. Some of them test and exceed the abilities of the actors, none more so than Hanks, who must feel like he has had his worse ever experience on Saturday Night Live. But at least you always know it’s him. The tactic is at its worst with characters like the nurse at the old age home, who seemed “off” in a way that kept taking me out of the story. (She turned out to be Hugo Weaving in drag.) It’s a jokey gimmick that clashes with the pompous self-seriousness of the film as a whole.
I didn’t know about this gimmick when I was watching the movie. I mention it only to save you the distraction, but I’m aware that you may be equally distracted trying to spot the disguised faces. It’s a lose-lose situation. (If you must play that game, let me warn you that not every player is in every story: Broadbent has only five roles, Sarandon four.)
Before anyone who has read the novel corrects me, I should admit that there are subtle connections among the stories. One becomes a film watched by a character in a later tale; another a book we see in a later character’s room. I’m sure there are more, just as I am sure that there are viewers who will devote themselves to tracking them all down when this comes out on DVD.
But if Mitchell manages to make a whole out of these parts, the film never does. I can’t deny the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s ambition in wrestling this Brobdingnagian beast onto the screen. But though I have no desire to undertake the task myself, I suspect that connecting all of its dots would be the equivalent of slaving over one of those all-white jigsaw puzzles: All you get for the effort is a big blank.
Watch the trailer for Cloud Atlas
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