Wednesday, January 2, 2013

'Cloud Atlas' (2012) directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

It's difficult to know where to start. 'Cloud Atlas' tries to do so much, some of the time it succeeds and some of the time it doesn't.  The film, adapted from the book of the same name by David Mitchell, tells us a series of stories that manage to both interconnect with each other while remaining almost entirely separate.  On a surface level they couldn't be more different, ranging from a 1970s detective story to a light-hearted escape from a Scottish retirement home to survival in a primitive post-apocalyptic tribal society.  The film cuts between these stories freely, and by cleverly cutting between different sequences the directors subtly link actions a millennia apart.

Our cast is scattered across time, every actor playing multiple roles as they crop up in each story.  For example, Halle Berry plays Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist in 1970s New York, but also Meronym, a scientist in a post-apocalyptic future.  Both of these characters bond quickly with Tom Hanks' character, and seem to share a determination and curiosity even across time.  But aside from these two, Berry shows up throughout the film, even if it's only for a split second, as say, a native slave in the 17th century, the wife of a Scottish composer in the 1930s or a cybernetic surgeon in futuristic Neo-Seoul.

Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) and Ovid (Halle Berry)
This approach has mixed results.  Watching the same people recurring across time and space explicitly underlines a continuity throughout humanity.  It's touching (in a temporally mixed up way) to see people we know fall in love in one time meeting in another and feeling some instant, inexplicable spark between them.  The actors look like they're having an enormous amount of fun getting to play some much weirder characters than they'd normally be cast as.  Tom Hanks in particular seems to take great relish in playing a violent Irish gangster novelist, or a demented ship's doctor.  Hanks, for better or worse, does tend to play a lot of 'Tom Hanks roles', and although he's obviously fantastic at them, it's great to see him ham it up a bit.

But this tactic of casting the same people across time becomes a little distracting, and eventually starts to distract from the film itself.  Very quickly you begin to play "let's spot the actor", with the result that you spend time trying to work out who is buried under a mountain of prosthetics and makeup rather than on what's going on in the scene.  It gets to a point where casting, say Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratchet type, feels more like stunt casting than something that compliments the themes of the film, particularly as the prosthetics he gamely performs through aren't particularly convincing.  

Jim Sturgess as a Scottish rugby fan about to bonk Hugo Weaving's Nurse Noakes on the head.
'Cloud Atlas' relies on these prosthetic masks a lot, frequently to the detriment of the performance underneath.  For all the film's bombast and scope, the stories nearly all focus on small, interpersonal developments between a duo.  When one or more of their faces is hidden underneath a big blob of latex it's difficult to tell even what expression they're making.  The principle offender in this regard is Jim Sturgess' 'Hae-Joo Chang', a revolutionary in future Neo-Seoul.  He looks distractingly weird, less like a Korean and more like something out of Star Trek.  This very strange prosthetic never stops looking extremely odd.  The cherry on top is the constant awkward feeling that having a white actor playing a Korean man feels like a strange choice to make in 2012.  'Cloud Atlas' is genuinely thematically progressive when it comes to race: we have Halle Berry playing a white socialite in the 1930s or Doona Bae playing an English wife in the 18th century.  This is a film that posits a 'post-racial' philosophy, which is admirable enough, but it's not being released in a post-racial culture, and so the way the character of 'Hae-Joo Chang' is presented is inescapably problematic.

A uh.. futuristic Korean, apparently.
These problems are distracting but fortunately they don't overwhelm the film.  At its finest moments it's unexpectedly and disarmingly touching.  One of the main reasons I was anticipating this film was because of how much I adored the highly under-rated 'Speed Racer' (2008).  That film is a kaleidoscope of intensely kinetic action sequences and cutting edge editing.  'Cloud Atlas' takes an entirely different tack altogether, the few big action set pieces are competently put together, but nothing to write home about.  Where the film shifts into high-gear is when the emotional stakes are raised.  My favourite performance in the film was Ben Whishaw's 'Robert Frobisher', a young bisexual composer in the 1930s struggling to complete his masterpiece symphony, the 'Cloud Atlas Sextet'.   He's racked with  depression as he's exploited and blackmailed, but even as the character reaches the end of his rope we still sense the bright young thing we met at the beginning of the film.  He's brilliant here, talented but flawed and desperate.  'Cloud Atlas' is a long film, but it's worth it to let performances like this breathe.

This is not a film for everyone, on its release last September in the US it was greeted with what can charitably be described as mixed reviews.  But it's difficult not to be admire the sheer gumption of some of the decisions and ambitions that went into this.  For example, the far future society speaks a garbled, slangy version of English:
"Prescients come barterin' twice a year. Their ships creep-crawlin' on the waves, just floatin' on the smart of the old ones."
The film opens with dialogue like this, a lot of which is mumbled by Tom Hanks in a low voice.  There are no concessions to the audience in trying to work out what's going on, and on first viewing you'll maybe understand half of it, if that.  Forcing an audience to concentrate on what the characters are saying isn't necessarily a downside, it emphasises both the alien nature of the primitive world of the characters and their connection to our world.

Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) and Rufus Sixmith (James D'Arcy)
The contrasts in tone between these stories are hugely impressive, particularly the way in which 'Cloud Atlas' cuts between the micro and macro scale.  So we get an action-packed adventure through a futuristic city, complete with hoverbike chases, huge explosions and martial arts gunplay, and then without skipping a beat we'll be in a contemporary retirement home in Scotland plotting a 'jailbreak'.  It's like going from 'Minority Report' to 'Last of the Summer Wine' in the blink of an eye.  This isn't some refuge in audacity to distract from any failings, it actually works!  Emotional high points in each story coincide with each other and there are myriad ways each the time periods subtly link together (this is definitely a film that benefits from multiple viewings).  One stylistic choice the directors make is to shoot everything in the same way, with no concessions made to making the past seem distant, or the future especially visually confusing.  The upshot is that there's a continuity to the visual style, which goes a long way towards making the film one larger story rather than six short films.

This all feeds into the messages of the film, namely that there are certain universal human qualities that transcend time and space.  Everything about the way the film is constructed underlines this message: race, age, period and gender are irrelevancies as far as 'Cloud Atlas' is concerned.  What's important are acts of kindness big and small, and co-operation and trust between people.  Each of the stories examined features a series of collaborations between people, and over and over again we see great acts and works produced when people work together and tragedy striking when people act in their own self-interest at the expense of others.

Hugh Grant!
The structure of 'Cloud Atlas' diminishes the role of the individual in the grand scale of things explaining that no-one can achieve greatness on their own, everyone stands on the shoulders of others.  This sounds pretty straightforward and sensible, but puts the film in philosophical opposition to vast tracts of Western cinema, which tends to prioritise the Campbellian journey of the individual.  'Cloud Atlas' defiantly refuses to have a protagonist, and goes to great lengths to blur the line between heroism and villainy through the multiple roles each actor plays.  In one story Jim Broadbent might play a bumbling loveable grump who learns the importance of co-operation, and in another a hateful, blackmailing old miser living leechlike off someone else's talent.  Both characters share aspects of their personalities and so we have to evaluate why one is sympathetic and one isn't, and what choices led them to that point.   Inevitably if you're thinking like this you begin to analyse yourself; what impact have the choices you've made had on your personality?

There is also an absolute smorgasbord of visual loveliness in this film.
'Cloud Atlas' is far from a perfect film, or even a great one.  But with its wild ambitions and earnest optimism it's difficult to dislike.  I'd much rather see a film that's a bit hit and miss than something glossily successful that achieves its limited goals.  They don't make many films like 'Cloud Atlas'; too unselfconsciously weird to be taken entirely seriously; too serious and moral to be made fun of.  Sure it's butt-numbingly long, and at times it consciously sets out to alienate and confuse the audience, but for all its flaws the film is stuffed with moments of genuine lyricism that make it a must-see, if only to appreciate the scale of the cinematic ambition present in every frame.


'Cloud Atlas' is on general release from 22nd February.

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