Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

    The simple fact of the matter is that you need to see this movie…

    Every once in a very rare while, we get a work of art that changes the game completely. They aren’t always universally loved, and they aren’t always successful (creatively or financially), but their sheer ambition and audacity are clear indicators that this is the beginning of something. That many works that follow will be touched by their influence forevermore. Cloud Atlas is one such piece of art - a sweeping, epic, bold and beautiful mess of a film, the likes of which we haven’t really seen before, and likely won’t see again for some time.

    Make no mistake: this is very much a “love it” or “hate it” affair. The film operates on a very distinct wavelength, and if you don’t take to it in the first 30-40 minutes of its nearly three-hour runtime, its likely you never will. I would only hope that viewers not taken with the style would at least appreciate its novelty. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, three filmmakers whose entire careers have been based on breaking down and rebuilding cinematic barriers, have found in David Mitchell’s exquisite 2004 novel the perfect vehicle with which to make their ultimate statement on film and filmmaking: that the narrative conventions that have continually tied down films since their inception can be broken free from; that you can take those tried-and-true tropes and reassemble them into something wholly different and completely new.

    To fully explain the intricate plots that make up the basis of Cloud Atlas would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say that the film is made up of six completely different storylines, taking place in different time periods and various genres. On the surface the stories are barely related, but the virtuoso editing and the same cast playing different roles across the stories implies connections that otherwise would go unnoticed. Because this isn’t really six different stories - it's one story. The ultimate story, really. The story of humankind, and all of the love and heartbreak and joy and horror that goes with it. If all that sounds pretentious and weighty, well… It is. But for all its complexity and labyrinthine structure, the core themes running through the film are relatively simple. It’s in the telling where they gain their true power - where the innovative, ground-breaking techniques used serve basic, humane ideals. For example, one character late in the film explains all of a person’s efforts to change the world amount to little more than a drop of water amidst an ocean. Another character posits that, what is an ocean if not a million drops? It’s an idea so rudimentary, a child could conceive of it, and yet here it is; beautiful in its simplicity.

    One element working in the filmmakers’ favor is the excellent cast they’ve assembled. Much like old epics such as The Longest Day or The Greatest Story Ever Told, Tykwer and the Wachowskis stack the deck with some of the finest actors working today, and the ensemble has a field day playing the various roles throughout - playing their roles with the excitement and vigor of kids being let loose on the playground. Big-time Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry do some of their best work in years, while relative newcomers like Bae Doona and Jim Sturgess show depths of talent previously unplumbed in past films. The two performers likely to leave the biggest impression however are Hugo Weaving, who gets to play several villainous parts (ranging from a dark trickster devil to a totalitarian nurse in a retirement home) with much relish; and Jim Broadbent, who showcases an uncanny ear for tragedy as an ailing musician, and comedy as a bumbling, modern-day book publisher. Regardless, all of the performers involved are fantastic in their various roles that see them change race (and sometimes sex) through make-up effects that range from impressive to dodgy.

    In my review for Argo, I talked about the greatest special effect in the filmmaker’s arsenal often being the editing. Cloud Atlas is no exception; although some impressive computer wizardry aids in creating the various worlds throughout, the element that provides the most sheer excitement is in how scenes are edited together for effect. I routinely found the hairs on the back of my neck standing up through some of the edits here, as the film transitioned between stories - cross-cutting scenes taking place hundreds of years apart and thus providing small connections otherwise unseen. Indeed, the most miraculous part of Cloud Atlas is the careful, measured balance of tone. The nature of the film and its stories of differing styles and genres means that one minute you’ll be laughing your ass off, and the next on the edge of your seat during some breathless escape or another. It would have been very easy to drop the ball during any one of these segments, as nothing cuts the umbilical cord between the audience and film like an abrupt change in tone. But it works here, primarily because its all in how we perceive the different stories. One person’s tragedy is another’s comedy; one society’s revolutionary worker drone is another’s god. 

    Like Metropolis or 2001 or Blade Runner before it, I suspect Cloud Atlas will become a touchstone for future generations of filmmakers. I also suspect it will befuddle just as many as it dazzles, and won’t receive any love from the Academy come Oscar-time, and very possibly will make just as many “Worst of-” end of the year lists as it does “Best of-”. But its influence will be felt for years to come (for better or for worse), and in time Cloud Atlas will join the hallowed ground that the films mentioned above hold. Don’t you want to say you were there when it happened?

    * The reviews so far have been decidedly mixed, as expected. I can understand and possibly even get behind many of the criticisms being thrown the film’s way, but many negative reviews have taken the rather depressing stance that, for all the complexity of the technique, the film is in service of rather common themes - questioning the necessity of such an elaborate film for such a basic and simplistic purpose. But in a world where governments and junk-food mega corporations alike fight to deny people their basic human rights based merely on their sexual orientation, is there anything more necessary?

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