TIFF 2012 Review: Cloud Atlas

Where to begin with Cloud Atlas? The interminably long film is basically the Voltron of off-beat science fiction movies. This is what happens when you take five (or six) familiar genre-stories and juxtapose them (ok, put them in the blender and hit frappe!) in an effort say something profound about the human condition. That the end results is merely a structural confection, its ambition successful in making all the pieces fit more or less together into a grand puzzle but sacrificing the very reason why we like these tales. The sacrifice on the altar of science fiction grandiosity is empathy, character development and me ever giving a damn. The films basic ideas and premise agree with me: That social boundaries are made to be broken (as per director Larry Wachowski crossing genders to Lana); that we process the human condition through narrative; that we’ve not grown as much as we like to think as a species over the past few thousand years, and maybe, that we never will. These are all great things to tackle in your science fiction blockbuster, yet each and every one of them is treated here in the most facile (and banal) fashion. Remember all the flat, unnecessary shenanigans in The Matrix Reloaded around the Zion (The dreadlocked rave, Link’s domestic situation, et cetera)? So much of Cloud Atlas felt that way to me: Lifeless and tedious. In blockbuster adventure movie terms, it makes the handsome, turgid pile of good intentions that was John Carter seem as fresh and rollicking as The Empire Strikes Back.

In all of its 2 hour 45 minute run time, the only real surprises, you know, those big ‘Ooooh!’ moments in any film (either pop art or art house) are during the closing credit sequence when you discover how the make-up department slapped on goop and facial prosthetics to disguise each member of its ensemble. This is a fundamental problem, one of Python-wannabe-ism and Cloud Atlas ends up an act of accidental and unfunny sketch comedy. Even if it has little in the way of intentions to be funny, outside of the thread where Jim Broadbent is imprisoned in an old age home by his brother, too much of the generic story telling in each of the individual stories comes across as half-sketched ideas where gimmicks and not actual humanity, are the glue that binds. One can only take so many cringe-worthy Tom Hanks accents in a film. The most egregious of these is his Tru-Tru speak as a middle aged man running around in rags with Halle Berry in a Ridley-Walker-lite post-apocalyptic world (which is not even Earth, but who cares at this point, right?) I’ve always wanted to see an attempt a film of that iconic yet ‘unfilmable novel,’ and it pains me here to see the form used just as a mere building block. The filmmakers reach very much exceeds their grasp and they are so swallowed by the breadth of their ambitions that they lose sight of the very humanity they are trying to encompass. The film decides that one trip with Jar-Jar-Hanks is not enough and so revisits the character as a goofy old codger. A storyteller that Hanks ‘matures’ into after ‘winning’ Cloud Atlas’s karmic video-game (Spoiler Alert – A typecast Hugo Weaving and a surprisingly versatile yet often unrecognizable Hugh Grant come out as the big karmic losers.) Hanks’ is the Ur-narrator, the everyman, even though his thread is end-story chronologically, it is also the most primitive. Get it? Get it? Any time in human history, we have the same problems and we strive onward and that the striving may seem futile but it is not. I like the idea, but this is kindergarten Buddhism in the telling.

I think there is some self-awareness of the shallowness on display. In another thread, the contemporary one, Hanks plays a Cockney writer (that accent and pencil moustache, that mercifully only appear for a few minutes) who acts to challenge criticism of the Clod Atlas. It happens right in the text of the story (subtext be damned!) Offensive as this sort of knee-jerk reaction was in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 re-envisioning of Godzilla, it is so much worse here due to the likelihood that Cloud Atlas is aiming to be a slightly more high-brow work of science fiction compared American-Kaiju flop; especially since Godzilla writer Dean Devlin deigned to erase any science fiction thematic material from the Japanese original. But I digress. In an effort to scale Cloud Atlas to a universal truth, the film sacrifices every engaging manner of the specific of why we want these stories. Everyone in this film is a cipher and the filmakers seem powerless (or don’t give a damn) to cure this problem. Insights about transcending barriers are trite because it only goes after ones that we’ve already, more or less in the developed western world, transcended. This makes everyone involved late to the thematic party, or simply too cowardly. Remind me if there is a white character in black-face? Halle Barry as a 100 year old Asian surgeon, or Air-Doll’s Doona Bae as a ginger Victorian house-wife (curiously still with Japanese accent) will have to suffice, in spite of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess are less Korean in the future set Neo-Seoul story then they are bad Star-Trek aliens. The make-up works marginally better than the thematic significance.

A common statement that I overheard after my screening, particularly from those familiar with the source novel, is that, considering the size and scope of the book, things could have been worse. To wit: just because the adaptation could have been worse, does not make this adaptation better! If a film is judged on how it goes about itself rather than what it is about, then the film is an abject failure to any film-going audience other than the comic-con set. In fact, having not read the book (not a necessity for analyzing a film adaptation) my guess would have been (in absence of awareness of the book) that Cloud Atlas was originally a beloved graphic novel along the lines of Watchmen or Kingdom Come. The constant changes of story timeline from cut-to-cut seems more suited to panels on the page which can be considered longer by the reader than as a film medium where everything whizzes by. What might viscerally wash over some is sure to be tedious to others. The editor, Alexander Berner (who often edits Paul W.S. Anderson films) and filmmakers Wachowskis and Tykwer do a good job of assembling all the different-in-tone parts in a more-than-coherent manner. They even go so far as to sneak in a baton of sorts, a symbol or object where one story directly connects to the story that precedes it. The assembly, and more importantly the thematic connections made by the editing, for all its symphonic bravura, are nevertheless trivial and trite. Consider Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance or Peter Brooks Mahabharata – a universal Ur-Text if there ever was one! – as far superior in their execution of both storytelling and theme. Brooks even does the ‘multi-racial’ casting to denote the every-man/every-woman to far greater effect. Hell, even more superficial films like Mr. Nobody and Southland Tales have more compelling images, editing and characters (not to mention ideas) running around in a more feverish fashion than Cloud Atlas.

So what are we left with? With these eyes and ears, the only thing to come out of Cloud Atlas was an echo chamber built inside a hall of mirrors. Reminders of better individual films (yes, even Soylent Green) were the best the film could accomplish. I would love to hope on the bandwagon-of-love for this film, as this genre is so far up my alley, I pretty much sit with my back to the wall in an la-Z-boy chair and a cup of hot coffee. I would love for experimental big budget science fiction films that mingle action and thought to continue on in the tradition of Inception, Sunshine and Looper. None of these are remakes, sequels, reboots, sidequels (E-quels?) or prequels. But just because Cloud Atlas aims to be original, it certainly doesn’t make it good. Sadly, it’s Tru Tru.

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.