Monday, 11 March 2013

Cloud Atlas Review

Cloud Atlas is about a tribal man in the post-apocalyptic future and the more advanced woman who makes him question his religion; which speaks of a blade-runner-style "fabricant" in the pre-apocalyptic future who is driven to revolution by a film; which shows an imprisoned publisher plotting to escape a modern-day nursing home while assessing a manuscript for a mystery novel; which follows the adventures of a plucky '70s journalist whose investigation into industry corruption leads her to some old letters; which were written forty years earlier by a lovestruck composer struggling to make his mark on the world who finds an old sea journal; which was written by a budding 19th Century slave-trader who forms an unusual friendship.

All these stories are intercut from the very beginning. We are not introduced to them chronologically, and the first scene we see of each is never from its start. At least two stories are recounted from their own endpoint, with one actually cutting forwards and back to an interview throughout. Many have narration; some even have flashbacks. Some events reappear as a film within the film, performed by different actors, and we sometimes see that version before the "real" version. One character describes dreaming the events we saw happening hundreds of years later, while two other characters feel déjà vu because we already saw them meet later on. And, as my genius girlfriend pointed out, the ending actually loops back into the beginning.

Did I mention that the same actors play multiple characters through the different stories and timelines? Because there's that, too.

The fact that this works at all is worth praising. The fact it works really really well feels like a minor miracle!
Directors Wachowski and Wachowski (of The Matrix fame) and Tykwer (of less fame) have woven a rich tapestry of information from what could easily have been a tangled mess. Using matching dramatic or visual cues from each story (two moments of happiness here, two similar lines of dialogue there) they cut back and forth between the six - mixing and jumbling the stories, but never at risk of losing the audience. The construction is brilliant and inventive and, somehow, never really draws attention to itself - we're simply watching six tales at once, and we quickly forget how unusual that is.

One thing helping the audience hold onto all six parts is that the same themes crop up throughout - oppression and injustice, and the struggle against them - though they each handle this in very different ways. Two are tragic, three are hopeful, and one is even a flat-out comedy!
Though the film cuts constantly between these stories, it selectively ignores the ones that don't fit the current overall feel - maintaining a consistent tone from scene to scene, even when those scenes are centuries apart. It's not unusual for entire narratives to drop out of the film for half-an-hour at a time, because their tone doesn't fit with what's happening at this point in the other stories. There's a definite arc to the emotions of the movie, even while the stories are separate and unconnected.

It's a testament to how well-constructed the film is that it isn't until afterwards, leaving the cinema and thinking back, that you realise how slight each of those stories actually is. Cloud Atlas is just under three-hours long, which is a meaty length for any normal film, but in this particular case amounts to under half-an-hour per story. It's more like six short films - or, in the case of the present-day and '70s segments, more like episodes of TV shows. Some of these short films would have been massively engaging on their own, but some would barely register (the slave-ship particularly suffers).
But, again, you only realise this coming out. When they're on the screen in front of you, the power of each story elevates those around it. Drama and tension from one story (aided by the impressive musical score) is carried across the cuts and breaks, instilling the next section with those same emotions, even if it hasn't earned them itself. I don't mean any of that as a negative, either, as it is very much to the movie's credit - this is genius-level filmmaking!

Also genius is the decision to use the same actors again and again through the different periods. Whether this is more confusing or less confusing, I'm not sure, but it works to tie the otherwise disparate stories together. The feeling here (heavily implied if not stated) is that the actors represent individual "souls", reincarnated throughout history. Each face (sometimes under heavy prosthetics, often a different race and occasionally even a different sex) always plays a character with the same values and morals. An actor playing a selfish character in one story is generally selfish in the others. A kind "soul" will continue to be kind. At one point, an actor even appears as the actual Devil - and it still matches the other characters they play.
There are a couple of characters for whom this does not hold true. In most cases this amounts to a basic character arc within just one of the stories. The selfish "soul" that I mentioned, for instance, learns to think of others over the course of one story (and I don't think it's a coincidence that that's the last story, chronologically, in which that particular "soul" plays a meaningful part).
Tom Hanks, however, is a curious anomaly. The "soul" that he represents goes through various different attitudes and values. In some ways he feels like the main character - the only "soul" with an arc that spans the whole film, rather than just one of the stories. It certainly makes him the most interesting. The problem is that there's no way to figure that arc out until afterwards. The disjointed, non-chronological presentation - which works so well for most aspects of the film - means that we see six different parts of that arc at any given time, but never understand all of it until the very end. Even then it's still a jigsaw puzzle that needs fitting together. It can't feel like a true character arc, but it thankfully never feels too out of place, either.

As I understand it, the structure of the source novel is a very different beast to the movie. The stories are split into only two parts, with each story appearing half way through the previous story - nested like Russian dolls.
All the intercutting and criss-crossing is down to the directors, skilfully adapting the experience into something much more filmic. This is the movie's great strength, but also its eventual weakness. Because the stories are so interwoven in their editing, we automatically expect their stories to weave together too. That's just how films work - we know this on a primal, unconscious level.
Unfortunately these six tales remain largely unchanged from the book, where they were separate entities. Themes and motifs are repeated, but the actual narratives never touch. While those motifs are enough to make it work, we're still just watching six slightly similar but ultimately unconnected stories. Though they orbit each other throughout, they never come together in any meaningful way. There are six small dramatic payoffs, where cinematic language tells us there should be one big climax.

Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly designed, clever film with strong messages and symbolism. Ambitious, but never overreaching. It's stunning to look at, well directed, and has layered six-part performances that go far beyond being a gimmick. It doesn't have many problems, and the ones it does have are mostly imperceptible until after-the-fact - hidden behind spectacular editing and a powerful thematic arc. In the end though, despite the unified themes and message, there's no hiding the fact that this is six films and not one.
The final product, then, is a rare construction; no more or less than the exact sum of its parts. But, make no mistake, they are very high-quality parts.

As a final note: something very strange is happening with Cloud Atlas. This film had a massive release in America last year and made decent, if not amazing, money. But, like many 2012 films (including Wreck-It Ralph, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty), it was pushed back until 2013 in the UK for some reason.
When it finally did appear, to very little fanfare and almost no advertising, it was impossible to find. Of our three local cinemas, only one began showing it, and then only once per day. This is bizarre - it's a hundred-million-dollar sci-fi blockbuster from the people who made The Matrix, for gods' sakes! The screening we did eventually go to was packed, and the audience was entirely captivated - so it's clearly not a problem with reception or demand. It's just plain weird!
If you can find a cinema that's actually showing Cloud Atlas, it is well worth seeing. It's just a shame that you may have to hunt for it.