“It’s two movies,” I overheard a member of the press saying as I exited Tabu a month ago. American audiences won’t get around to arguing the bifurcated structure of that film till next year, but such works have often been met with such reactions, sometimes with good reason. Many portmanteau films such as Sin City and Paris, je t’aime are fractured decisively as works of multiple directors, but Tabu is certainly not a portmanteau, both acts being part of director Miguel Gomes’ vision. Cloud Atlas is not a portmanteau either, but for different reasons. Adapted by a focused group from a novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is more in line with the likes of Magnolia and Short Cuts, depicting the lives of many separate individuals as influencing each other in unseen ways. That notion cleared up, I cannot honestly describe it as a singular work of filmmaking.
While many quip it as six films, a rather concrete way of looking at it, I don’t personally buy into that. Certain vignettes are undeniably weaved upon each other in pursuit of imparting metaphysical themes. Founded upon the concept of the human spirit rippling through time and space, that theme comes into play clearly through juxtaposition of stories. It’s which stories most strongly play upon each other that emphasize the divides in the film, marked by two directorial visions on this project. Directors Tom Tykwer and Andy & Lana Wachowski’s collaboration was an attempt to show a common light of human spirit in two separate styles of filmmaking, but it turns out as a somewhat fascinating, if incredibly taxing, exercise in cinematic montage.
What ties the six stories together is an ensemble cast proliferating every time period the film dabbles in, drastic makeup going towards depicting them in different genders, ages, and ethnicity. The three tales the Wachowskis aim to tell represent a straightforward story of reincarnation and sacrifices that are rewarded in eternity. Much of their focus is spent mirroring the enslavement of waitress clones in the dystopian future with the prejudice against African natives being shipped across the sea to the new world. It’s the kind of juxtaposition that could be subtly inquisitive or manipulatively topical, and the Wachowski’s penchant for visual flair tends to overpower that delicate potential. The tale of the powerful bond a lawyer at sea forms with a black stowaway grows unbearably maudlin as the film wavers along (not unlike France’s current Foreign Language Oscar bid), as does the arrogantly assumed romance between the two Asians in the future.
There’s no shortage of eye candy in the neon-emphatic future of high-speed chases, bright lights, and poppy explosions, but these sequences rely too heavily on implied affinity towards the characters, simply because we experience several different versions of them. Quantity certainly does not hold more weight than individuality. Of course the assured-in-advance destiny portions of their Jim Sturgess centric arcs are relatively cautious in comparison to the woodland post-apocalypse that takes up an absurd amount of screentime.
Cloud Atlas‘ spastic jumping through time may cause occasional difficulty catching up with events onscreen, but the dialogue in the distant future segment is almost entirely unintelligible. A highly degenerated form of English with a crippling southern drawl attached to it is admittedly an ambitious move for the crux of your storytelling vehicle, but one that requires more delicate handling than the “Yoda-speak” treatment it’s given. Though I can’t say Tom Hanks babbling at a Hugo Weaving portrayed hallucination is something worthy of being understood. Hanks’ adventures with a white-spandex decked out Halle Berry are a devastating nonstarter. The film opens and closes with this future, an incredibly oppressive notion in relation to the rest of the film, desperate to escape the self-indulgent trappings of Tom Hanks’ elderly storyteller.
Tom Tykwer, in the meantime, is much more interested in playing up the consequences of misdeeds in past lives, however known or unknown they may be. The stories he tells lean less on implied emotional connection and focus upon the forming of connections powerful enough to last through time and space. The story of an ambitious young composer in the 1930s whose legacy and work is threatened by scandal, relayed through letters to his gay lover, led by the most impassioned performance of the film by Ben Whishaw. A thriller espionage story where a journalist finds herself whisked away by a higher calling thanks to the previously stated gay lover of the composer’s story. That journalist’s manuscript falling into the hands of a publisher who hilariously finds himself held hostage at a nursing home, planning a daring escape with the elderly folks within.
Needless to say that Tykwer is not interested in epic struggles of massive importance, thankfully so. While the Wachowski siblings are busy resting the fate of humanity and the world upon the shoulders of ridiculously sentimental individuals, Tykwer wants us to care about his characters because of who they are rather than what they’ve done. Most of his vignette work perfectly fine on their own, and are sorely missed whenever aboard the Wachowski vessel. It allows him to focus on specific emotional beats for each respective story, milking lurid romanticism, cooky farce, and intensifying mystery to their most heightened cinematic potential. If there’s an oppressive flaw to Tykwer’s segments, it’s that they require viewing alongside aimlessly pontificating drudgery as the Wachowski’s feature.
What had the potential to be a masterful showcase of skillful editing simply did not know when to cut to which layer of the action, never with any semblance of intuitive juxtaposition. We spend too long missing certain portions of the film, and the general conclusion it leads to is that Cloud Atlas needed to be the work of a single directorial vision. There is very little mind to structural integrity, with the occasional exception here and there. One character thought dead for much of the runtime makes an unexpected return that revitalizes the storytelling just enough for the final stretch. It’s there where the great length proves purposeful, but with much endeavor on the audience’s part.
If simply being from different directors isn’t enough reason to consider Cloud Atlas an amalgamation of two separate films, perhaps the fact that both directorial teams use separate crews for each production. The easily manufactured latex costumes of the Wachowski eras are far less flourishing and jovially eccentric than those crafted for Tykwer’s period-centric short stories. Even the makeup design, rampant and pointlessly re-purposing actors in meaningless roles for the Wachowski’s ridiculous Asian future (do they really have to be reincarnated as Asians?), finds more sensually indicative results through Tykwer’s hand. Halle Berry and Ben Whishaw are nearly unrecognizable in certain periods, the latter acting an amusing revenge of sorts upon Jim Broadbent for an indignity in a past life. And though Hugo Weaving is often painfully evil in most segments, he has a hilarious presence in the nursing home sequence.
Cloud Atlas seems entirely confronting to the idea of critics picking it apart piece by piece, repeatedly asking the audience to indulge its crazy tale of karma and past lives. If you have to ask, you’re often doing something wrong. The film goes so far as throwing a critic drastically to his death, a move likely to turn off as many critics as it does ironically amuse. Though you can consider me in the former party, I cannot say Cloud Atlas is a worthy venture to make in a crowded theater. Were Tykwer and the Wachowskis to have gone their separate ways, showing their works separately from one another, this would be a much less taxing matter. After all, studios nowadays jump at the chance to cut a film in half for more money. Needless to say that ambition and just plain stubbornness are what condemned this theatrical venture.
Bottom Line: Cloud Atlas is a unique piece of filmmaking, suffering all the lamentable consequences of over-egged ambition with only a few of its treats.