Saturday, 16 March 2013

Cloud Atlas Revolutions

I'm still not happy with my Cloud Atlas review. I saw the film on Wednesday, and intended to have the review up by Friday, but it ended up taking twice that long. And I still wasn't happy with it.
Perhaps it's apt! The review makes a lot of points that all mention the same ideas, but I could never make them come together into one complete thought. It's a lot like the film itself - except that I was more than happy with the film, because it's excellent.
It's just such an unusual movie that, beyond basic technical stuff, the normal rules for assessing it don't apply. The "story" in particular is hard enough to describe, let alone measure. It's so strange, in fact, that it defies comparison. At least, I thought it did.

Normally I'd put a spoiler warning here, but Cloud Atlas might be impossible to spoil. There are story-beats mentioned below, but you won't know which of the six stories they fit into, and any character-traits that I mention are self-evident from the moment you meet those actors (even in the trailers). Nothing mentioned should damage your first-watch enjoyment.

I was telling someone that Hugo Weaving is basically playing Agent Smith in this, and I joked that Agent Smith could actually be another incarnation of the same "soul".
But, you know what? He really could! The Matrix (another film by the Wachowskis) could be edited into this film and wouldn't be at all out of place.
We know that civilisation collapsed at some point between the two future-set stories - maybe "the Fall" that Tom Hanks and Halle Berry talk about is The Matrix's Machine uprising. They do say that civilisation fell foul of its own "smart" (and that's the "true true"), so it does fit!
It also fits thematically. The Matrix deals with the same cycle of oppression that Cloud Atlas explores. The Machines rose up from oppression, and became the oppressors themselves, fuelling further revolution. It's the same cyclic story we see repeat throughout history in Cloud Atlas.

For The Matrix to truly fit into Cloud Atlas, we'll have to recast. The main characters in each story share the same actors, so that will need to be true here, too.
Hugo Weaving is perfect in the role of... well... Hugo Weaving. It does beg the question of Smith, a Machine, having a "soul" - but that's exactly the sort of thing Cloud Atlas is asking anyway. So, what about the other characters?
The core story of The Matrix actually resembles one of Cloud Atlas' other stories quite closely. That story revolves around Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae - lovers and freedom fighters for a repressed minority (there's other spoilerific similarities, too). In this case, though, Neo (the new, highly important rescuee) more closely matches the characters of Doona Bae; meaning Trinity (the hardened warrior, but also a figure of kindness) is Jim Sturgess in drag.
Keith David, a mentor figure throughout Cloud Atlas, plays Morpheus - with Susan Sarandon, a symbol of wisdom, backing him up as the Oracle. The traitorous Cypher is played by Tom Hanks, volatile throughout the six stories - his relationship to Trinity mirroring the same relationship to one of Jim Sturgess' past lives. Which, I just this moment realise, means Tank is played by David Gyasi, sharing in that same past relationship.
At a stretch, Hugh Grant (the powerful bully character) could even play the Sentinels - it fits, but it's more just because I want to see Grant's face on a giant robot squid.

There's similarities in all the Wachowskis' films, actually. The three Matrixes (Matrices?) and V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced) all deal with similar themes of oppression. Even Speed Racer, which I haven't seen, seems to deal with inequality and injustice in a similar way to Cloud Atlas' '70s sections.
There's the same character links, too. In Vendetta, the female lead, Evey, has much in common with Halle Berry's characters. This initially made me think that V (the titular revolutionary) must be Tom Hanks, but there's a lot of ways that doesn't work - he much more closely fits with Keith David's mentor figure. James D'Arcy takes the Steven Fry role; Jim Broadbent is John Hurt's dictator, with Hugo Weaving (who, confusingly, actually plays V in the film) as his enforcer.

This is getting silly now, but I'm going to make it sillier. Luke is Doona Bae; Leia is Halle Berry; Han is Tom Hanks. Vader is Hugo Weaving; Tarkin is Hugh Grant (he even looks a bit like Hugh Grant). Obi-Wan is Keith David (or possibly Jim Sturgess, but that's a little creepy).
Frodo is Ben Whishaw; Sam is James D'Arcy. Gandalf is Keith David again; Aragorn is Doona Bae (which presumably makes Arwen Jim Sturgess); Boromir is Jim Broadbent. Gollum, of all people, is Tom Hanks. Galadriel is Susan Sarandon and, incredibly, Hugo Weaving actually kind of works as Elrond.
To really take this too far, Bella is Ben Whishaw and, depending on your reading of Twilight, Edward is either James D'Arcy (romantic hero) or Jim Broadbent (controlling abuser).

Far from defying comparison, as I said at the start, or even just comparable to stories dealing with oppression, Cloud Atlas is comparable to every other story I can think of. The story itself is every other story. There's an unlikely friendship doubling as a horror, a tragic romance, a procedural thriller, a comedy caper, a bloody revolution/war/chase movie, and an epic fantasy quest. Likewise the recurring characters are the same characters we see throughout most stories.

I realise that I sound like someone who just discovered Joseph Campbell for the first time - this is basic Hero's Journey stuff, I know. In Campbell's seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he claims that all stories are essentially the same and that they all have the same basic set of characters. That's similar to what Cloud Atlas is doing, but there's a subtle and important distinction.
Campbell's Hero's Journey always assumes a Hero, for one thing. Applying the Hero's Journey to Cloud Atlas gives us six different actors playing the Hero, even though each actor plays one consistent "character" throughout. There's an argument that Hanks is playing the Hero for the whole film, as his arc is the one that goes through the most change, but he only really "answers the call" in the one story where he is playing the lead. The actors in Cloud Atlas are playing the same archetype in every story - but none of those archetypes are "Hero".
The other difference is that Campbell defines all the other Hero's Journey characters in relation to the Hero (Mentor, Herald, Guardian, etc.), where Cloud Atlas (already lacking a clear Hero) defines them by their attitudes and morality. It doesn't matter that Hanks is a danger to the protagonist of some stories and an ally to others - he is still playing the same archetype. Jim Broadbent is a villain in one story, and an unlikely hero in the next - but he's still playing the same archetype. Even though I have called Keith David's character the "mentor" a few times, I meant only that he is an experienced character who passes on knowledge - not necessarily to the Hero, as Campbell's Mentor does.

I've always disliked the Hero's Journey for precisely these reasons. Calling Luke the Hero diminishes Han's arc, which is actually the more interesting one. It's even worse in ensemble pieces and long-form stories. Who's the Hero in Game of Thrones, for instance? Is it Jon? Daenerys? Tyrion? Arya?
There's an argument that in big ensemble stories, each character undergoes their own Hero's Journey. Meaning that each character has their own Mentor or Herald, which can sometimes be other characters' Mentors or Heralds, or even other Heroes themselves. But that gets messy quickly. Worse, it views the story as a bunch of different stories - never as a whole.

Which brings us back to Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas is a perfect example of the problems with the Hero's Journey, while also presenting a brilliant alternative.
When we label a character "Hero" and define them, and others, only by their impact on the story, the Cloud Atlas experience is a disjointed one - six separate Hero's Journeys that don't really come together. But when we define characters by their innate nature - by the way they interact with everyone, not just the Hero - the film becomes one whole entity. This is where the emotion, strength and depth of the story come from - where the Hero's Journey is useful only to describe the events that happen.
To me, Cloud Atlas' approach is more interesting, but also more useful than The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I actually do prefer The Various Characters with Six-or-Seven Faces - though the name could probably use some work.