Everything is connected” is the tagline to Cloud Atlas, a movie that is as ambitious as it is long. Adapted from the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas carries three directors, six storylines spanning centuries, and 12 actors, all playing multiple roles. A large-budget film with lofty ambitions, Cloud Atlas aims to not only adapt a beloved novel but to illuminate while entertaining. It does manage to entertain, which is necessary for a film with a three-hour running time, but its illuminations are superficial at best.
Cloud Atlas comes with a very dense, almost labyrinthine plot. I suspect that the reason for this is to keep the audience members hooked on a series of cliffhangers. The film does not move through each story or time period to its conclusion before it moves on to the next but crosscuts between them all. It would be impossible to summarize the plot without having to divulge important information, but a quick recap of the six different stories. The first story, set in the 1850s, concerns a man trying to protect an African on a slave-trading vessel bound for New England. The second, 1931, is of a closeted homosexual who assists with an aging composer who is house-bound. The third, 1970s, concerns a reporter investigating an energy company. In the fourth, 2000s, an aging publisher is imprisoned in a retirement house. The fifth, set in a dystopian future of Seoul, Korea, is about a man trying to rescue a fabricant woman while a fascist society hunts them down. The six, set in the distant future, is about a group of natives trying to survive in a post-Fall world. All of the stories are connected through letters, journals, a mystery novel, a movie, and each one carries its story from this time to the next. One character asks why the other is reading the letters over and over again, the reply, “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.” Each story is unique to its time and place, but the players and the struggles are always familiar. To quote Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
People who like Cloud Atlas will have the unenviable task of explaining why to the people who did not. Cloud Atlas is a mess. It’s not a great mess of profound ideas that never fully form, nor is it a terrible murky mess. It’s an interesting mess, with the negatives almost zeroing out the positives. The positives first: editing and make-up. The editing is incredible and impressive, considering that the film had three directors, but Alexander Berner handled the cutting himself. Conventional editing is a change of perspective in space without a change in time. Wide shot of a ship at sea, cut to a medium shot of a man standing on said ship, which informs us that there is a ship at sea, and this man is on that ship. Even though time elapses while we, the viewer, watch the two shots, our brain pieces the two shots together, and we view them as happening simultaneously. This is the basis for most forms of editing, particularly montage editing made popular by Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock. Cloud Atlas employs this form of editing but also crosscuts between the different time periods. An action is started in 1970, continued in the near future, and completed in the past. Snippets of scenes run up against other ones, sometimes cutting back and forth between two periods as if we are watching a chase that inhabits the same time and place. The shifts between the scenes sometimes create a disjunction in tone, but they are never confusing. They are almost used like a shock mechanism, snapping your brain to attention. Second: the make-up. All the principal actors take on multiple roles. Some play very different types of characters in very different time periods. Some play the exact same character type, sorry, Hugo Weaving. This also manages to create another form of a shock mechanism: a new character walks onto the screen. Who could it be?
The negatives are numerous, but they never veer the film to a point where it crashes and burns. The story of the aging publisher trapped in an old folks’ home was funny and garnered a lot of laughs from the audience, but didn’t seem to add much else, as if its sole purpose was levity. In a three-hour film, I don’t need levity, I need to go to the bathroom. Then there are the thematic inconsistencies. “Everything is connected,” the poster promised me. Apparently, everything is connected, but not everything matters. If the film is about the connective nature of everyone and everything, then it needs to show that and not simply state it. In the 1970 sequence, Tom Hanks and Hallie Berry have a cute meet but must separate. Hanks catches a flight that night, and Weaving plants a bomb on the plane to rub out Hanks. The bomb explodes during take-off, and all aboard die. In addition to Hanks, there were maybe 50 passengers and crew members on that plane. Fifty families have now been impacted, 50 people who will no longer be in a position to help someone or stop something, or do anything. The movie then carries on as if nothing of any real significance has happened. In a film focused on two characters, it is all right, even necessary to ignore side characters. In a film attempting to rationalize how each action and each life is connected, then ignoring significant events like this is a violation of the theme.
But what of the message, what does Cloud Atlas wish to say about all these different time periods and characters? It seems that they are all connected through oppression. The oppression of slavery, the oppression or repression of homosexual love, the oppression of big business, the oppression of age, the oppression of government, and finally the oppression of nature. These come off as superficial clichés thrown about to make us think that we are experiencing something that we are not. Part of this problem may be that the film has three writers and directors. Lana and Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. The Wachowski’s made their name with The Matrix Trilogy (1999, 2003) and Twyker is most known for his film Run Lola Run (1998). In a traditional sense, films are viewed, criticized, and judged through the veil of their director or a singular voice speaking through the film. What was it that attracted The Wachowski’s and Twyker to this project? Why did they decide to share the film? It is possible that whatever ever each Wachowskis and Twyker wanted to add to the film was then diluted with what the others wanted. Maybe there is simply too much story here to be handled properly. Three directors, six stories, twelve actors pulling down multiple roles… Cloud Atlas might have just bitten off more than it could chew.
Going too big and too ambitious can be a problem. Illuminations don’t come very easily. Last year, The Tree of Life was also a film that tackled human problems set against the backdrop of the creation and destruction of the world, but it managed it in a way that allowed the film to resonate. In Tree, writer/director Terrence Malick focuses on a family in 1950s Waco, Texas, and watches their struggles develop. They are the same struggles of all things, and Malick reminds us by silently showing it. He does use the beginning of the world and the reign of the dinosaurs to color that theme, but his main focus is a small family in Texas. He keeps his canvas small and allows his message to get as big as his canvas. In Cloud Atlas, The Wachowski and Twyker simply paint too big, and it gets away from them. I don’t want to suggest that one should not paint as big as they can, but merely to remind that the human story is a big story but played out in very small parts.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Written and Directed By: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Based on the novel By: David Mitchell
Produced By: Stefan Ardnt, Grant Hill, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Hallie Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturges, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
Warner Brothers Pictures, Running Time 172 minutes, Rated R, Released October 25, 2012.