Cloud Atlas: A Review of the Film

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I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas for quite a while. The concept of interwoven storylines and a futuro-sci-fi setting intrigued me, and the Wachowskis have made a few films before of similar scope that I enjoyed, most notably V for Vendetta.

Released in 2012, and one of the most expensive independent films ever produced, the story of Cloud Atlas is actually several interwoven stories that explore similar or related themes and characters across time. The idea is, in some cases, well utilized in its attempt to thread separate narratives along a single flow of action.

Of the things I liked in the film, I enjoyed the cast the best. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry are the standouts to me. Normally I don’t find Halle Berry to be all that engaging an actress, despite being an Academy Award winner, but her performance here was quite good. Tom Hanks is always a pleasure, and Hugo Weaving always brings a menace to his villainous characters, and he does it so well.  He even crossdresses to play one of his characters, a little reminder of his adventures in the desert with Priscilla.

In fact several of the cast assume roles as different genders. Across time and place, the cast is consistent, which helps establish some continuity for the audience to follow. A great deal of makeup and creative wardrobe were used to evoke different times and personalities. The makeup in particular has received criticism, especially when depicting a futuristic Korean society with several of the actors wearing prosthetic face pieces to make them look Asian.

I didn’t find this offensive as it was clear to me that the actors were meant to be recognized across time regardless of race or gender. Had this movie been animated, I doubt people would complain if characters were drawn as different nationalities in different settings.

The movie is quite long, and sometimes the cuts between stories can be frenetic, but the build up through the first half works out quite well. The latter part of the film, though, does begin to buckle under the strain of the ambitious scope. This is mostly because the focus is frayed among the different strands of story that suffer from a lack of priority.

There are some clear themes that provide a strong framework for all the plots, such as equality and disenfranchisement, with slavery, race, and sexuality being some specific applications. Tom Hanks’ character also follows an arc of redemption that is fairly good, a testament to his acting skills.

Otherwise the stories all start to congeal at the end as if the effort to adapt everything from novel to screen had created a great wound, and things just never healed properly. The climaxes mostly seemed to go by a check list of things that needed to be complete, rather than express any culmination of plot and theme.

The film’s tagline, “Everything is connected,” is basically a by the numbers promise, and yes that much is delivered, but not with nearly as much flair as the build up seems to indicate. In fact, most of the characters never develop. Instead they merely get things done in order to ensure that things do connect.

This is why I mentioned this film lacks priorities. Perhaps in the novel the author was able to imbue all of his narratives with equal power. This is not so in the movie, and some storylines could have benefited from more editing, and even one storyline, Jim Broadbent’s main one, could have been cut out entirely despite its light-hearted feel providing a counterweight to some of the heavier plots.

One story’s climax in particular was emotional, the one where a homosexual composer, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw,  commits suicide. Watching his lover cradling him moments after the deed was heartbreaking, but slightly aggravating as well for two reasons.

The first reason is that this is just another example of depicting homosexual love as being fraught with tragedy. Yes, this character was a “product of his times” and all that jazz, but it is just too convenient to make homosexuals these tragic, troubled, unhappy creatures.

The second reason is that the surviving lover plays an important role in another, chronologically later story, but there is no reason depicted as to why his lover’s suicide was a catalyst for his later actions. That character barely had enough screen time for us to even see how events could have affected or changed him.

And therein is the flaw of this film. We are shown *what* happens, but very little of *why* things happen. I’m not sure if it was an oversight of the adaptation process, or if the filmmakers didn’t think an audience would much care for more in depth exploration of the characters’ motives, but the reason why someone pursues something is just as important as the plot itself, and provides the relevance that makes it engaging.

Telling me that within three hours you are going to weave together a handful of seemingly separate plots isn’t an example of good filmmaking as much as it is an act of sleight of hand.

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