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Movie Review: CLOUD ATLAS

November 3, 2012

In the relatively brief history of cinema as a storytelling medium, it seems like it’s been easy to pick out the major landmarks along the way, especially in the last few decades. Everyone who saw STAR WARS knew it had changed everything; a generation later, JURASSIC PARK would inspire similar awe and achieve equally enviable success. You see a film like THE MATRIX and you know, in your bones, you’ve just seen a new way to use the medium, something that will change its course forever.

Then again, sometimes it’s not so obvious. Sometimes a film takes its time to find its feet. THE WIZARD OF OZ; CITIZEN KANE; BLADE RUNNER — all classics of the medium, all flops upon release. But they withstood the test of time and are now appreciated and revered for those exact qualities which most likely alienated the contemporary audiences.

As of this writing, CLOUD ATLAS is performing poorly at the box office, taking in only $14.5 million in its first week against an estimated $100 million budget. But you would make a tremendous mistake to think this is a reflection of its quality.

Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski — the directing duo behind the MATRIX films and SPEED RACER — in collaboration with Tom Twyker — best known in the U.S. for RUN LOLA RUN — the film spans a period of several centuries, following six stories intercut together, all occurring in different times and places, all related thematically and by the presence of common actors playing (different) characters in each story.

If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a man who believes the Wachowskis can do no wrong. Bring up the MATRIX sequels and you’ve probably got about thirty seconds of discussion before I become unreasonable. And I’m about to squander any and all possible film snob cred by stating that I didn’t think much of RUN LOLA RUN, either. The trailers for CLOUD ATLAS were certainly ambitious, but did little to inspire my interest. Ultimately I went to see it because I try to see all the major releases like this, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.

Joyfully, I got the best. CLOUD ATLAS is my favorite film of the year.

CLOUD ATLAS is a film that requires your full attention, but will reward you for it in the end. It jumps, sometimes extremely quickly, between its six stories, but — as the movie itself assures us early on — there’s a method to the madness. It’s not stylized for no reason — in fact, considering the other films on the Wachowskis’ resume, the filmmaking aside from the editing is surprisingly conventional. But, as we know from the Kuleshov effect, editing is where the story is really told.

The plot of CLOUD ATLAS defies easy summary, comprised as it is of six disparate storylines. From the Wikipedia article:

  • South Pacific Ocean, 1849. Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement for his father-in-law. He meets Dr. Henry Goose who offers a cure for the parasitic worm that is seemingly eating his brain. While ashore, Adam learns about the enslavement of the Moriori tribe and observes a slave being whipped. The slave, Autua, stows away on the ship and Adam reluctantly keeps him hidden.
  • Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland, 1936. Robert Frobisher, a gay, penniless, young English musician, finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” while his master attempts to take all credit for the Sextet as his own.
  • San Francisco, California, 1973. Luisa Rey, is a journalist, sent to write a story about a new nuclear power plant. She meets Sixsmith, a respected nuclear physicist who decides to help Rey expose a conspiracy regarding the safety of a nuclear reactor. In the meanwhile, a hitman, hired by oil lobbyists, attempts to silence the exposers.
  • United Kingdom, 2012. Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old publisher, flees the associates of a jailed gangster author and ends up confined against his will in a nursing home from which he attempts to escape.
  • Neo Seoul, (Korea), 2144. “Old” Seoul has sunken partly beneath the rising seas, which are now held back by colossal sea walls that protect the rest of the city. Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered fabricant (clone) server at a hyper-fast-food restaurant, is interviewed before her execution. Sonmi rebels against the totalitarian society that created and exploited her kind.
  • On one of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands on post-apocalyptic Earth, a tribesman named Zachry living a primitive life after most of humanity has died during “The Fall” is visited by Meronym who arrives on a fusion-powered hover-yacht, and is a member of the “Prescients,” the last remnants of a technologically-advanced civilization. After Meronym saves Zachry’s young niece, he agrees to guide her into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost and station where many unburied dead bodies lay, where she hopes to send a message to people who have left Earth and are now living on other planets.

The stories are connected in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is that the main character of each story comes to know the story that preceded, and discovers this story at a crucial turning point in his/her own. The experience of the protagonist of the prior story heartens the protagonist of the next and leads them to take the action that will inspire the next. CLOUD ATLAS is a story about why we tell stories, and how our actions affect each other down the generations in unexpected ways.

The execution of CLOUD ATLAS makes it also an exploration of how we tell stories, intercutting the action of the stories together in ways that at first seem inexplicable, but then it slowly becomes clear they are thematically, and structurally, related. The stories are told in a mostly linear fashion within themselves, but sewn together in the most astonishing example of vertical storytelling I’ve ever seen. We jump rapidly between time periods as each story reaches its second act break, its bad guys close in, its dark night of the soul. Despite the different times, places, antagonists, and explicit goals of the protagonist, underneath it all the experiences are fundamentally the same. In each case a story about love and trust, in each case a story about defying the so-called “natural order” which is revealed to be a mere construct of those who most benefit from the status quo.

Even the name itself hints at this notion — a “cloud atlas” is a visual guide to identifying the various types of clouds (cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, etc.). The clouds come in various shapes and sizes, can be classified as different from each other, but ultimately they are all made of the same stuff. They are all, despite their appearances, identical. They can change from one to the other over time, combine, disperse. Change, indeed, is the only true “natural order.”

The name appears in the 1936 storyline, when the composer Frobisher writes the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a symphony played by six instruments. The structure of the film follows this same conceit — six stories, with recurring motifs that follow, transpose, reinterpret each other as the work progresses, each traveling, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in discord, through the major movements of modern storytelling. The structure of the film is perfectly literary, perfectly musical, and perfectly cinematic all at once. I have honestly never seen anything like it.

CLOUD ATLAS has come under a bit of fire for its race-bending — Caucasian actors portraying Korean characters, in particular — but in this film’s case it is thematically appropriate and (from my privileged white person’s perspective) respectful. The same actors portray characters in different eras, jumping across lines of age, of race, of gender — another way of making the statement that under our different appearances, we are all in fact the same. Recasting just for the purposes of the different ethnicities would in fact have undermined this aspect of the story. It should also be noted that Korean actors portray Caucasian and Hispanic characters, and in the far-future story, the primitive culture is light-skinned and the advanced dark-skinned, a quiet inversion of the slave-owning white culture portrayed in the earliest time period. It’s not about how you look, or even really who you are. It’s about what you’re made of.

There are gunshots and car-chases and VFX aplenty, but this is not turn-off-your-brain moviegoing. This is a crank-it-up-and-sit-up-straight experience, a movie that asks you to meet it in the middle. It wants to tell you a story — six stories about one story, more specifically — but it wants you to engage with it, to be an active participant rather than a passive observer.

Studios don’t make movies like this anymore. The studio penguins think the audience can’t handle it, won’t try. So they produce movies full of color and light and sound and fury all signifying nothing. A movie has arrived at last that trusts and respects its audience, that delivers all the spectacle but believes in the audience’s intelligence rather than insulting it. And I despair that the box office is on track to prove the penguins right.

I have little doubt CLOUD ATLAS will be recognized twenty years from now as essential viewing for all serious students of the art of cinema and storytelling. But will it be to study the moment the path of blockbuster filmmaking was altered, for the better and for good? The film that proved style and substance, thought-provoking and profit, need not be mutually exclusive? Or will it be to speculate, and lament, over what might have been?

Vote with your wallet. Go see CLOUD ATLAS.

From → reviews, story

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