One of the greatest pitfalls of film criticism is the tendency for critics to approach movies from the standpoint that we are smarter than what we are watching. Nowhere does this seem more evident than with Cloud Atlas — the mammoth collaborative effort of Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. Frankly, I don’t know when I’ve seen so many superior-toned reviews that read like pronouncements from on high that ought perhaps be followed by, “Zardoz has spoken.” And, in all honesty, I think the negativity is largely knee-jerk tut-tutting over the filmmakers daring to make something strikingly different that is too accessible and insufficiently grim. Cloud Atlas’ great sin may just be that it’s too entertaining for its own good — too concerned with being a movie rather than a film, with all the weightiness (real or imagined) that the latter implies. The fact is that Cloud Atlas really is a movie — and one of the most remarkable and exciting ones I’ve seen in some considerable time. If this is moviemaking and not filmmaking, I say let’s have more movies and less films.
The idea of a movie with six intercut stories sounds more daunting and more revolutionary than it is. A fellow by the name of D.W. Griffith tried something like it with four intercut stories in a movie called Intolerance way back in 1916. In theory, this isn’t all that different — nor are its aims of conveying a fairly simple message through the ages. But Cloud Atlas is a different proposition in part just because there’s been nearly a hundred years of movies between the two. The thing is that Cloud Atlas is as much about movies — about what movies have been, are and will continue to be — as it is about its stories, which themselves riff on what we expect from each genre employed. It’s essentially six movies on one theme — love and transcendence — that attain an unusual power, less because of what they contain and more because of how they’re presented. As the ebb and flow becomes (generally) more rapid, the effect is perhaps more akin to a symphony than a movie. Complaints that without this structure the individual stories wouldn’t amount to much completely miss the point. The structure is the movie. The very ambition of the undertaking is amazing. That it works is close to a miracle, but if you look at how the film interconnects, it’s a miracle made from a lot of hard work.
I suspect I’m making this sound a lot harder to get into and follow than it is. Overall, Cloud Atlas is easy to follow and easy to get sucked into. Just go with it. Don’t — at least on a single viewing — overthink it. As a story — or series of stories — it’s fairly transparent. At bottom, you have six stories. One is about a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) on a business trip in 1850 who becomes involved with a “self-freed” slave (David Gyasi) and a venal, murderous doctor (Tom Hanks). The next (which owes a lot to Ken Russell’s 1968 TV film about composer Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby) is about a young homosexual composer (Ben Whishaw) in 1930s England, who offers his services as amanuensis to an aging composer (Jim Broadbent). The next — set in 1973 America — involves a crusading reporter (Halle Berry) uncovering the truth about a dangerous nuclear power plant. Then there’s a modern day tale about a publisher (Jim Broadbent) being committed to an abusive retirement home. This dovetails into a futuristic story about an artificially created woman (Doona Bae) in a futuristic setting of the dystopian variety, and this leads into a story set in a much distant post-apocalyptic future.
That description of the very bare bones of the overall movie might be a useful guide, but it conveys nothing of the beauty, power or creativity of the movie. The touches that connect the stories are often sublime, as are many of the transitions between stories. That so many of the roles are played by the same actors as different characters is more than just fun (though it is fun). After all, aren’t the movies themselves the story of seeing the same actors in different roles over the years? (There’s even a terrific bit in which one of the stories is itself made into a film with a different actor playing the role.) Go see Cloud Atlas and see for yourself. You will not see anything like it this year — nothing so grand and ambitious — and you may never see anything like it again. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14