dir: The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer
There’s something so evocative for me about the sentence fragment ‘Cloud Atlas’. I’m serious, I’m not taking the piss. When I first heard it, and I can’t remember the context, whether it was in regards to the novel this movie is based on or not, I thought it was a poetic piece of brilliance. A juxtaposition of words so simple yet so meaningful/meaningless that I couldn’t help but love it.
Maybe it’s pretentious twaddle. I don’t know. All I know is that I love the name Cloud Atlas. Imagine such a thing; an atlas, whose purpose is to define and formalise exactly what is where in a landscape, yet of the clouds, of something ephemeral and ever-changing. Ironic juxtaposition of contradictory elements or what?
Everything I’ve said there is as much meaning as I ever derived, further on, once I actually read the book and then watched the film, at a much later stage.
The book? Eh. It had its moments.
The film? Well, that’s going to take me a bit longer to unravel.
I don’t think it’s a stretch, or at all unfair, to say that the film, as a film, is a total fucking disaster. I don’t think that’s overstating it at all. As a translation of a complex book to the screen, I swear they tried as hard or harder than anyone else could have, but the end result is a terrible waste of an audience’s time. If I had watched the film without reading the book, I wouldn’t have had a single fucking clue as to what was going on or what any of it meant. Even after having read the book and watched the screen version, I am clueless as to why they imagined audiences would thrill to this story, this interweaving of stories, this agglomerate vomiting of stores as is realised here.
Cloud Atlas, the book, has a nested narrative, comprising six stories that are tenuously linked. It starts with one story, which seems to end abruptly without resolution, then another story starts, then another then another, and so on. Each one is connected to the other, but then after the ‘last’ story, set way in the future, the recursive self-referencing reverses the order until the book finishes with the story it started with. It’s ultimately very well done stylistically, though I’m not entirely sure it succeeds thematically, and it has its own obstacles in the way of a reader really being able to see it as anything other than an experiment.
Cloud Atlas in filmic form explodes all the stories and pieces them together in a way that coldly stops any reasonable audience member from understanding why they bothered to make the film in the first place. I can think of dozens of reasons why they couldn’t follow the template of the book, but the way they’ve put it all together doesn’t help a thing.
It feels like, despite the linkages, despite the same actors playing multiple roles in all the stories, like you’re watching six separate films spliced together so that you rarely have time to appreciate what’s happening in one story before it’s interrupted by scenes from another one. Actually, it’s more accurate to describe it as the longest trailer for six films that you’ve watched only because you were flicking between six different cable channels at a time.
It’s not an enjoyable experience, doing that. It’s not edifying or illuminating, despite what the makers think. They’re sure the philosophical points the story/stories make are worth making, but they know practically no audiences will figure it out cold. So there are these regular summary points where voiceovers tell us what we’re supposed to be working out from all this dribble.
Yep, it’s about as deep as a Sony commercial. Which Sony commercial? The ones that used to say “We are all connected” as they were hawking their shitty wares. The point the film is allegedly about is that we are all connected to each other, our stories repeat and intertwine, that we are all one, that our fictions and truths intertwine such that they’re indistinguishable from each other, that past and future occur simultaneously making our present resonate in ever direction forwards and backwards, and that shitty people can do shitty things in multiple storylines.
Yeah, and don’t piss on the electric fence. That’s not in the flick, I just think it’s more relevant and sounds like something else they could have intertwined with all the billions of kitchen sinks smeared throughout the thee-hour debacle.
Ton Hanks is usually not the kind of chap you usually associate with such an ‘experimental’ or high concept film. He plays more characters than I can count, and is the first one we see, with a bald head, old guy make-up and a hideous scar across his face leading to a milky eye. He mutters in some strange dialect that makes him sound like he’s either a hillbilly from the Appalachians or someone with fearful drain bamage. But hark! I know what he’s talking about, because I’ve read the book. He’s Zachary, from the far future, when humanity has reverted to savagery, after The Fall, giving us an inkling as to what is, improbably, to come.
But then Tom Hanks is on a beach, digging up middens of human teeth, in the 19th Century! And then Tom Hanks is a nerdy scientist at a nuclear power plant! And then he’s a skinhead thug / author in our contemporary world! And then he’s the sleazy proprietor of a hotel in the 1930s!
Is there nothing this man can’t do? Wait, that’s a double negative. Is there anything this man can’t do? All these prosthetics, all these fake teeth and lumpy noses and bad skin, all make it look like Tom Hanks didn’t have a clue what was going on around him. And so, so many bad accents. With some the excuse is the wicked prosthetic teeth, but a lot of the time there are just horrible approximations of what he thinks are Irish or Scottish or Welsh accents that are so amateurish they’re almost endearing.
Everyone else is pretty much in the same boat. Halle Berry gets to pretend to be a white German woman, a gritty 70s reporter, a willowy future-scientist type and probably one of the pot plants in someone’s office. Hugo Weaving, at least, gets to play a villain in each and every story, which is consistent with his history, but kinda unfair typecasting-wise. A lot of other people play multiple roles, since it’s all about human existence as an endless repetition, as an unending sequence of ironies and tragedies repeating and repeating in ways that are unsatisfying and ultimately pointless.
Ben Whishaw, for me, is perfectly cast as Robert Frobisher, in at least one of the stories, as a young decadent music composer whose lust for life and music brings him undone, as well as the fact that he’s at the mercy of sadistic people, which doesn’t serve him well. He I could take seriously, but whenever I would start enjoying some aspect of his story, like a hammer crashing through your sunglasses, another story would intrude in the rudest and most ungainly of manners. It didn’t matter if the element in the other story seemed relevant either seriously or superficially. It never helped, and would perpetually remind you that you’re watching a fiction. Suspension of disbelief under these circumstances is virtually impossible.
The sequence set in the far future (not the furthest future with grizzled, one-eyed Tom Hanks) with Sonmi-451, the fabricant, is the story I thought the Wachowskis would be most suited for, since it’s an opportunity to use whatever leftover Matrix ideas they had lying around. It doesn’t disappoint. I mean, it is disappointing to us, the viewers, but that much of the imagery could have come straight out of the Matrix means at least that there’s some action to make up for all the empty pantomime going on.
Sonmi (played by Korean actress Bae Doona) probably has the only story that deserved to be its own film. None of the others would qualify for that, gutted as they are of significance or meaning, delivered in bite size portions interrupted with seemingly random edits, but her and her story I thought could have been big, could have been devastating. She’s great in the role, as a synthetic human who tries to undo the hideously totalitarian underpinnings of her wretched corporatist society, but the film left me thinking that no-one watching the flick would grasp why she was such an important character. The complexities of her story are also elided in order to make room for more motorbike-hovercraft-gunplay sequences, which clearly everything needed.
The funniest sequence in the book, being The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, almost comes through all right in Cloud Atlas The Movie, with Jim Broadbent doing well as a bit of a publisher rascal, bit of an old grump at the mercy of the powers that be, but they fucked the climactic ending up at the pub. It could have been a bit stronger as a finisher, but that’s the least of the flick’s problems.
Imagine you go to a decent restaurant. You look at the menu. You see six main courses, all of which you’re told are excellent. You don’t get to order, though. They prepare the six meals, then throw the meals together in a gigantic bowl, then they throw the fucking bowl at your head for three interminable hours.
Yep, it’s about that enjoyable. Every nuance, every element worth preserving comes out saturated by everything piled on top of it. I applaud their ambition in trying to put this together. I cannot, in all conscience, applaud the result.
4 times I yell at the heavens “what were they thinking?” out of 10
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” – well that’s a stirring message to take away from the theatre, when they could have just yelled ‘fuck you!’ at the audience instead – Cloud Atlas