Reporting Eric Henderson
How often can you say that an “A” for effort is attached to an “F” for achievement? Cloud Atlas — an indisputable folie a six — comes close enough to earning both those marks to incite genuine awe. If this isn’t my favorite terrible movie of the year, may Tom Hanks toss me from a balcony window.
Adapted from a new age portmanteau novel by David Mitchell and directed by no less than three people, this sci-fi fantasy drama comedy adventure sermon is something akin to Avatar meets Master and Commander filtered through The Parallax View by way of Gattaca as seen through the eyes of Maurice … and then chopped up into Shrinky Dink bits and funneled into a kaleidoscope powered by faux-omniscience.
Ain’t no way this Spruce Goose was going to get off the ground in one piece, which is I imagine what inspired Lana and Andy Wachowski (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer (whose Run Lola Run was a major shot of adrenaline back in 1999) to try to pre-digest as many of the original book’s six separate storylines into the “D.W. Griffith on happy drugs” cosmic slop as they did here.
A brief rundown of the six plot threads:
- The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a stowaway slave saves the life of a young man slowly being poisoned by a grizzled pirate;
- Letters from Zedelghem, a young, gay composer-in-training cozies up to an established musicians and writes a revolutionary symphony;
- Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, a Nixon-era whistleblowing reporter investigating a nuclear lead finds herself pursued by a shadowy gunman;
- The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, an old book agent swimming in personal debts is institutionalized by his rich, vindictive brother;
- An Orison of Sonmi~451, a clone toiling (like everyone) in New Seoul finds love with a militant rebel and, thereby, becomes the voice of a new uprising;
- Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, tribal folks sure talk funny in the post-apocalyptic future, and that’s the true true.
Because the themes that tie the stories together are so general and jejune — rising against oppression, remaining true to your moral compass, never rejecting true love — the cross-cutting techniques that bind them together are largely window dressing. In quite a few cases, mere matches on action are meant to convey the oneness of all humanity and the unending continuity of history, the hallmarks of spirituality without the rigor of actual religion, and also a pretty heavy burden to place on the fact that someone in 1931 brushed his hair away from his face in the same way a fabricant did over two centuries ago. Does the fact that I had pizza for lunch also place me directly within the halls of the Roman Senate? Does my subsequent dyspepsia somehow, somewhere emerge from the creation of the La Brea tar pits?
The one aspect of Cloud Atlas that’s most likely to get pilloried is the decision to have its large cast play multiple characters throughout the six different stories, a choice that requires a number of them to transform (vis-à-vis makeup effects) not only nationality but, in some cases, gender. Though it works on a cis-level — Lana Wachowski recently underwent a sex reassignment transition after spending much of her life as “Larry” — it also gives us the spectacle of Halle Berry playing an Jewish émigré on the eve of Hitler’s ascension,
Hugh Grant as a Hawaiian, post-Apocalypto warrior in full battle regalia,
Jim Sturgess appearing as a Korean freedom fighter from the future,
Hugo Weaving getting campy as a prim and vengeful neo-Nurse Ratched,
and so on and so forth. (The tactic reaches its nadir with Hanks’ appearance as an Irish bloke pugilist-cum-writer.) Misguided as it seems, the movie’s game of “Identity Alphabet Soup” is probably the least objectionable manifestation of Cloud Atlas‘s unrelentingly dippy assimilation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s philosophies.
That said, I can’t name very many other terrible, 3-hour films that kept my fullest attention from start to finish.