Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas

I think I aged roughly a year watching all three hours of the Wachowski Sibling's "Cloud Atlas".  This is a long movie, and an emotionally draining movie.  I don't think a film this complex has been attempted since "Inception", and even that when you get right down to it was a heist movie with a SciFi setting.  "Cloud Atlas" is not one movie, but six movies spliced together for three hours fading back and forth continuously as each story progresses simultaneously.  The best way to simulate this experience would be to watch "Mutiny on the Bounty", "The Pianist", "The China Syndrome", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Blade Runner", and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" on six TVs all playing at once.  That way you could properly recreate this movie's combination of adventure, romantic drama, spy thriller, dark comedy, SciFi action, and post-apocalyptic fantasy all at once.  You'd probably get a splitting headache at end and be confused as Hell, so I'd recommend that you watch "Cloud Atlas" instead.

"Cloud Atlas" is easily one of the most ambitious movies I've ever come across, and that usually doesn't translate well into a positive viewing experience.  Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" was definitely an attempt at a post-modern satire on post-9/11 politics and culture in a giant blender of SciFi and absurdity, but that also made it one of the worst movies I've ever seen - so confusingly terrible on every level as to not even be hilariously bad.  I assumed going into "Cloud Atlas" that it would be a movie I more respected than actually would be able to enjoy.  From the trailer it appeared to be a movie about everything, and it actually was a movie about everything.  You have a recurring cast of actors moving through a cycle of reincarnation across six completely different stories linked by only the faintest of references.  Each story looks different, has a different tone, and even are from different genres entirely.  And I was pretty sure that the end result of this would be an incomprehensible mess of impossible-to-follow ideas with all of the stories contradicting each other in an unwatchable disaster of pretension.  What did I expect to was instead a masterpiece of editing, where each of the stories in fact manages to (and I know I sound like an art major git right now) rhyme with the others, and together they add to the greater whole.

Now, obviously "Cloud Atlas" is not a movie for everybody.  In fact, its probably not the movie for 99% of the population, it was a huge flop.  Its challenging, its bizarre, I could not imagine any way to try to market this to another person, its enough of a problem trying to review it.  The trailer, actually, is an excellent cross section of the actual movie.  If you enjoyed that, you'll enjoy the movie, because even though the transitions aren't quite that often, the movie actually does flip all around each of the six plotlines very frequently in what feels like almost an endless montage.  I don't know how many people can manage to keep track of six storylines at once, if you had trouble following "Inception", this would be hopeless for you.  But even so, there is real beauty here.  Not many movies would dare try to the cycle of reincarnation for a few characters over 1000 years, and if they did, they would probably take a more traditional linear approach.  I don't think a movie like "Cloud Atlas" will ever be made again, its an epic milestone in storytelling art.  Even I'm not sure of every detail of this film, I'll have to see it again to appreciate it more deeply, yet I still rank this as easily the most interesting movie made in 2012.

I was thinking before I saw "Cloud Atlas" that I would be disappointed in this movie and would hope that the DVD release would come with a re-edit, possibly presenting the stories in a linear fashion.  And I'm still not 100% sure that the editing style was the best choice by which to present this movie.  They were attempting something that had never been done before, and for the most part they succeeded in telling the stories with this "throw six scripts in a blender and tape them back together" approach, but I don't know if the movie would have been better served by keeping all six storylines separate in an episodic style.  The original novel "Cloud Atlas" uses a similar style, giving you first the first half of all six stories, then ending with the other half in reverse order.  However, that did not happen, so instead I have we can only discuss the movie that was actually made.

The editing, however, is still a major success.  Not many movies could possibly mix together as diverse elements and genres as these fix storylines, but somehow it all manages to work.  We have six tales:  the story of a sick lawyer on board a 17th century slave ship befriending an African stowaway, the story of a 1930s homosexual British pianist attempting to write his masterpiece, the story of a 1970s reporter uncovering a nuclear energy conspiracy rife with murder and intrigue, the story of a 2012 elderly publicist on the run from the British mob being trapped in an old age home, the story of a 2100s genetically-engineered slave girl working in a Korean fast food restaurant running to freedom, and the story of Tom Hanks after the apocalypse on a quest to save the world.  The only thing these stories share in common is the same cast, which is a gimmick that will require further discussion in a moment.  But they are all traditional linear stories with the traditional sequence of introduction, rising tension, false climax, rising tension, climax, and conclusion.  Each of those storyline sections are mixed together so even as these stories do not share very much in common, you get similar moments in both.  So when two characters fall in love in one story, two different characters will fall in love in another.  Chase scenes from several stories are mixed together.  And sometimes the editor just throws a montage of images from all across each of the six together in a montage as one character narrates philosophically.

Ultimately the editing works because even though the tones of all these movies are different, the mixing is actually tonally appropriate.  Exciting moments are spliced with exciting moments, slower moments are kept with other slower moments.  Even though its six stories mixed together, "Cloud Atlas" still has the traditional flow of a linear narrative film.  And the separate tones of the individual stories actually do add flavor to the overall whole.  The humorous 2012 story gives comic relief after the high drama of the 1930s story and the bleakness of the future stories.  There's an overall visual richness from all of these genres coming together, turning "Cloud Atlas" into a giant feast of film.  Its a film buffet, everything you could ever want is right here.  We have the entire spectrum of the movie experience coming together from high budget SciFi blockbuster to even period-piece Oscar Bait and an absurd comedy.  The editing's rapid movement also adds to the pacing being continuously smooth and thrilling.  Its like switching the channel between six movies at once on TV, and somehow managing to keep pace of all of them.

And indeed, most of the six stories of "Cloud Atlas" are very very good movies.  Obviously some of the stories are better than others, its an inevitable effect of personal preference.  The nursing home story is pretty clearly the best in my opinion, while the 17th century adventure comes off as rather preachy.  There's one line at the end which is basically "you'll never succeed at stopping slavery, you're nothing but a drop in the ocean" and the main character responds with the pathetically lame retort "the ocean is nothing but a bunch of little drops".  I groaned at that point.  But other than that one line, the rest of the movie was competently written.  The tale of the pianist actually was a rather beautiful introspective story with a great performance by the new Q from James Bond.  Also, the combination of a "Brave New World"-style SciFi nightmare just to make cheap labor for a fast food restaurant is a chillingly effective SciFi concept.  I even liked the Tom Hanks story taking place after WWIII where everybody speaks in a strange dialect of English.  Any of these movies on their own would have been great full-length movies, but together they're made into something more.

The main theme of "Cloud Atlas" is that all of the members of the main cast are recurring souls that are fated to interact with each other again and again over the course of history.  This leads to interesting events such as a tragically broken love story in one era being consummated in another, or characters who in the 17th century are despicable greedy monsters becoming heroic people.  The reincarnation aspect isn't that deeply pushed upon you, as there are only small moments where characters recognize each other or know a piece of music that they never should have heard.  Some stories, bizarrely, are transformed into works of fiction in later tales, so the poor Korean slavegirl can watch Tom Hanks recreate the 2012 nursing home story as if it were a dramatic criminal law story. Or strangely, characters have visions of the future, which doesn't really make much sense to me.  Its a haunting unexplainable detail.

Unfortunately in order to clarify the reincarnation aspect, the relatively small cast of twelve or so actors have to play the entire character roll of hundreds of people.  This leads me to "Cloud Atlas"' gimmick - race lifting the actors all across the racial spectrum.  In a few cases this is a believable effect like when an Asian actress becomes a middle-aged overweight Mexican woman or Halle Berry becoming an Australian Aborigine, the rest of the time its various shades of unbelievable.  For the most part its merely a distracting effect, like Halle Berry's transformation into a blond White woman*, though she's still winds up looking more Indian than European.  In those cases, much like bad old make-up, you merely have to suspend your disbelief for the story.  The race-lifts to Asian are all uniformly awful.  Jim Sturgess looks unchanged except for slanty eyes, another English actor looks like a monster, Hugo Weaving looks like an Asian Spock, and then there's Asian Keith David.  Asian Keith David is the funniest goddamn thing I have ever seen, it is an effect so hilarious that I am laughing right now thinking about it.  But that's not even the most unintentionally humorous part of the movie.  Hugo Weaving shows up in drag playing Nurse Ratchet, and then plays a demon who haunts Tom Hanks in the future, who is also a Leprechaun.  I'm sorry, "Cloud Atlas", but there is no way around that, these are awful effects, and hilarious.  At least the Nurse Ratchet bit was supposed to be funny since its in the comedy portion, but Asian Keith David??  What were you thinking??

By the way, Asian Keith David is almost worth the price of admission alone.  Its that goddamn funny.

The weird thing is that beyond the race lifting business, most of the make-up effects in this movie are appropriate and effective.  It was some kind of mad hubris that led the Wachowski Siblings to attempt effects that were simply impossible, even at their massive $100 million budget.  When Tom Hanks gets a scar across his face, the make-up effect is flawless.  Jim Broadbent becomes three separate people, all very different looking, and they're all fine.  Tom Hanks shows up a Cockney bruiser, and despite his hammy acting, its a perfect effect.  This is an important lesson, there are things you can do with make-up, and things you can't do.  Sometimes you just have to hire an Asian actor to play the part of an Asian man.

Now there has been some needless discussion of racism on the part of the filmmakers because they dared attempt race lifting in a movie.  Typically in the past race lifting has been associated with outright offensive Blackface, or the more subtly prejudice found when back in early eras of film, they would hire White actors to play non-White parts.  I think everybody remembers Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's", which is easily the most hateful thing to Asian people that America has produced behind the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Interment Camps.  But obviously racism is not the issue here, some people just love getting offended.  This isn't Johnny Depp playing an Indian stereotype, its an international cast of just about every race all mixing together for the overall theme.  People who think otherwise can respectfully go fuck right off.

Back on the topic, "Cloud Atlas" is not going to be a much-loved movie.  Its a niche film, and a very imperfect film.  The make-up is questionable, the story is too complex for everybody, and its not a movie that holds its audience's hand.  But still, if any movie other than "Cloud Atlas" wins Best Editing at the Oscars next year, then that is a mistake and a crime.  "Cloud Atlas" is a risky challenging movie, which is shocking since so much money was put into it.  I know if I were a studio exec, I would probably prefer to make an easy money-generator like "Twilight 6" than some strange experimental film based off a somewhat obscure novel.  And based off the box office results, a movie like this isn't going to be made again.  The market decides what it wants, and "Cloud Atlas", for better for worse, is not what we want.  Still, its a fascinating film.  Whether its for you or not, I'd say its worth viewing.  Maybe I'm alone in this, but I legitimately enjoyed "Cloud Atlas", more than I thought I would.

And if you're looking for art films, you can do a lot worse than this.  You could be watching the new Terry Malice movie.  *Shudder*

* Which isn't too unbelievable since Halle Berry is basically the Whitest Black woman ever.


  1. What if Terry Malice were to win Best Editing?

    1. He won't be. To The Wonder got booed and laughed out of Cannes. Pretentious pricks pretend to perceive the precious purport of the pointless plot. But we all know they're full of it.