[US/Canada - 26th October, 2012]
[UK/EU - 22nd February, 2013]
Directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski
Written by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, Susan Sarandon & Hugh Grant
Creating films adapted from well-loved stories can become very problematic, very quickly. Cloud Atlas, while not as widely read by the populous as something like Twilight or Harry Potter, is a weighty volume of fiction that its readership hold in the highest regard. David Mitchell’s seminal novel has often been referred to as “unfilmable”, and you wouldn’t struggle to see why. The book consists of multiple characters and multiple stories (six in total) all happening at different points in time that are all linked together via theme. While you could argue that there are films like this that already exist, the way Cloud Atlas chooses to play with this dynamic is vastly different from your standard “multiple stories” film. Or, at least that’s what you’re led to believe.
At its core, Cloud Atlas most certainly shares the DNA of some of the more trite indie dramas (360 being a recent case for comparison), but it attempts to portray it at a much larger scale, both thematically and aesthetically. It’s a lot like an independent drama wrapped up in a heavy blockbuster sheen.
It’s clear that The Wachowski siblings were aiming for the stars when they decided to tackle this project. Accused of being one hit wonders (rightfully so) with The Matrix (even though that’s showing its age) and…nothing else. The sequels were dreck and while there was definitely some merit in Speed Racer, (it was a sumptuous visual feast after all) it lacked any sort of depth or a real sense of quality. However, this time they aren’t alone in their filmmaking endeavours, enlisting the help of German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (the mastermind behind the classic Run Lola Run) who co-directed and even composed the film.
Cloud Atlas features a myriad of actors who all take on roles of multiple characters. This is an effective mechanism to allow people to draw comparisons between story arcs without having as much room for explanation as the book does. The way these actors perform so many roles is through the frankly astonishing makeup work. While there are a couple of slight wardrobe malfunctions, the makeup and costume department are flawless here, allowing actors to transcend both race and gender effortlessly. If you ever wanted to see Halle Berry as a tanned caucasian woman with blonde hair or Bae Doona as a convincing Victorian-era caucasian woman, or maybe Hugo Weaving as a scarily lifelike female nurse, or maybe you’d prefer him as a soulless Asian man? There are a wealth of weird mash ups and honestly, some of them are for such small, seemingly needless parts that you get the impression that the filmmakers are just showing off. Watch the credits, no matter how good you are with actor’s faces I guarantee there will be at least one character that you didn’t realize was “that guy”.
While this is a very entertaining aspect of the film, it’s also worth noting that it can feel like you’ve become a permanent resident in “uncanny valley” at times, which can be distracting from the overall message of the film.
The performances across the board are pretty stellar, with the exception of Tom Hanks, a man who just tries too hard. He’s an excellent mimic, who can understand and act out all the movements and eccentricities of a character, but what he lacks (and has always lacked) is conviction. Looking into his eyes, he’s still Tom Hanks and not whatever character he’s meant to be. Accents are another thing he can’t do. While he manages pretty well a lot of the time, the scene that requires him to play a raging Irish author is ridiculous and almost devolves the entire film into a farce. He can’t master the accent so he decides the correct course of action is to horribly over emphasise (read: shout) everything he says, twisting his face to ridiculous proportions in order to hide his very obvious American accent. Thankfully this scene is brief, as it only serves to act as the catalyst behind Jim Broadbent‘s publisher character arc.
Standout performances belong to Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy, both of whom are excellent and are the only actors capable of wringing genuine emotion from their stories and characters.
The problem with Cloud Atlas isn’t that it’s ostensibly bad: not at all; its problem is a resounding lack of depth. The Wachowskis seemed to have mastered creating the illusion of depth without actually offering any, continuing on their established trend from The Matrix. When you compare Cloud Atlas to, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi-perspective masterpiece Magnolia it comes up very lacking.
All of the six stories in Cloud Atlas are thin and transparent. Yes, there are overarching themes, but that doesn’t mean anything. Any creative mind can create themes around any set of circumstances. This does not constitute depth. I’ve thought about Magnolia in depth for the last few years, whereas when writing this review I find it difficult to muster thinking anything close. The characters are merely caricatures propped up by the eye of the camera and the belief of the audience. As soon as the camera is off them they may as well not exist. The only story that has any long term resonance is the story about James Frobisher and Rufus Siksmith. James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw are incredible here and out-act the screen veterans with which they share the film by a long shot. Their story was the only one that managed to elicit any kind of emotional response, whereas all the other scenes fell flat.
Another criticism would be that the worlds feel extremely empty. With Neo Seoul, the Wachowskis went to great lengths to build an impressive visage of a sprawling futuristic city, but it feels strangely desolate and abandoned, derelict almost. To bring up Magnolia again, all of the stories in that film have complex and realistic characters. Anyone of those stories could have been made into a full feature length, because while they may not be doing crazy things these are REAL people going through difficulties. Comparatively can you honestly say that any of the stories in Cloud Atlas could serve as their own feature?
While this all seems very negative it should be known that Cloud Atlas is a film that is worth experiencing, if only once. It’s a beautiful and striking film that while somewhat ponderous and thin, will resonate more-so with certain audiences. If you don’t mind long movies I would recommend that everyone give it a shot.
Cloud Atlas is an incredibly ambitious undertaking for a huge blockbuster, and while it’s only partially successful at creating something meaningful; it manages to overcome a lot of obstacles that often plague Hollywood productions.