What if there were like a book of maps, only it was made out of the sky? That would be weird.
Well, anyway. At a climactic point in CLOUD ATLAS a character talks righteously about freedom, and about refusing to accept boundaries. And that’s what Lana and Andy Wachowski (who directed this along with Tom Tykwer) have done with their lives, their careers and this movie in particular. If you haven’t heard what CLOUD ATLAS is, it’s a nearly 3-hour epic based on a supposedly unadaptable book. It takes place in a bunch of different time periods ranging from the age of slavery to a dystopian future to even a post-apocalyptic future after that. But not in order – it jumps around from story to story, like a bunch of unrelated movies edited together as a weird joke on Youtube.
All of the stories have a character rebelling against some imposed restriction (you are a slave, you are an indentured servant, you live in a nursing home). I think they all have a love story too. Each has a character with a birthmark shaped like a shooting star. And to further illustrate the interconnectedness of people across time, and possibly reincarnation and shit, the main actors all play several characters. Most play at least one character of a different race or gender. Not all are recognizable. It’s like an Eddie Murphy movie, except funny.
Nah, that was a cheap joke. It’s a very earnest and un-self-conscious movie, which makes for some really goofy moments, but I respect it. And it would be cool if Eddie was in it, that would’ve really confused people, you’d have to figure out if he was being more serious than usual or just not being funny, as usual.
I love that they made this movie, but I gotta admit I didn’t love watching it. I tried, man, I really did. But it took me probly more than half the movie to start connecting with it. Yeah, it’s a little confusing to keep track of everything, but I don’t think that’s my problem with it. To me it’s pretty boring, without many likable or interestingly unlikable characters. Like I said it’s a bunch of movies smashed together, and most are not movies I’d like on their own. Not the Miramax Oscar bait type movie about the gay visionary indentured to the mean old has-been composer. Not the middlebrow comedy about adorable elderly people staging a “jail break” from the nursing home while Hugo Weaving in drag as a mean nurse chases after them. You’d think the post-apocalyptic journey to the mountain top would be one of the best, but I don’t know man, that didn’t have that much to grab me either, and it had an evil Devil guy in a top hat, which anybody who knows me would tell you I have always been against.
Oh shit, you know what it is? It’s like skipping through an entire season of Amazing Stories! They had some good ones but you never knew when it was gonna be some condescending treacle about magical elderly folks.
The other sci-fi one (Wachowskis did the two sci-fis and the slave ship) is the most exciting, but there’s a pretty big issue with it – the hero is Jim Sturgess made up as an Asian, and I tried to go with it, but man. He sometimes reminded me of Mike Meyers playing Asian on SNL, but more often of a kid I grew up with who was born with alot of birth defects. There are exciting sci-fi action scenes with laser guns and hover bikes and shit, all really well done, but it’s hard to get behind when the guy looks like that. Christian Bale yelled it best, it’s fucking distracting.
I guess it doesn’t look horrible in this picture, but it’s worse when he’s moving and talking. Or maybe it’s not even the makeup, maybe he’s just too much of a weiner. I don’t know, but they weren’t as successful in making this guy cool as they were with Keanu Reeves.
I’m not saying it’s offensive. They’re careful to go different ways. They have Asians playing white people too, and Halle Berry with darker skin, and the great Keith David playing black and Asian. Actually the most befuddling is when Doona Bae plays “Mexican Woman,” speaking Spanish with a Korean accent, as directed by a German. I was so confused. The subtext of this approach is that race and gender are a distraction, we’re all the same underneath. But there’s also an accidental subtext of “Boy, we sure do look different,though. There is just no way to use makeup to change somebody’s race without looking creepy and fake. It is a really, really bad idea to try to do that a whole bunch of times in one movie because, jesus.”
I guess I should say the cast is good. They’re all game, anyway, doing crazy shit for a crazy movie made by crazy people. In a good way. I noticed they got Jim Sturgess who I never heard of before ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and Ben Wishaw, who I never heard of before THE TEMPEST, so I guess somebody on this production likes Julie Taymor movies like I do.
There are plenty of things I like in the movie. There is some beautiful imagery, especially in the futuristic-but-not-post-apocalyptic parts. The part that was in the ’70s, with Keith David dressed as Shaft, helping Halle Berry in some kind of “reporter gets too close to the truth” conspiracy thriller, that was pretty cool. The part where Tom Hanks played some kind of Cockney gangster… well, “liked” is not the word for it, but I was weirdly fascinated by how much I could still like ol’ Tom while watching such an air ball of a performance. (This Vanity Fair piece, by the way, describes the character as “African-American”! So whatever he was going for it must not have come across to one of us.)
My favorite story detail might be that the oppression faced in Neo-Seoul (a futuristic city, not to be confused with the works of Eryka Badu and D’Angelo) is not against a race but against a servant class. (Well, also specifically against women.) They grab her ass and make obscene gestures because she’s just a waitress, they can get away with it. Her crime is standing up against a customer who degrades her. I don’t think I’ve seen another story where a waitress gets fed up and leads a revolution. That’s great.
But then there’s a big reveal of a shocking brutality that goes on in this society, and it’s a good moment, but then I couldn’t help but think about the similar revelation in THE MATRIX and realize how much more powerful it was when I was invested in the characters and the premise too. Not just the structure and the subtext.
Because I couldn’t get into the stories individually, the unique structure and the connections had to be fascinating or moving enough to make up for that, and for me they were not. This might be partly my fault: I didn’t understand until hearing an interview with the Wachowskis that the journals and compositions and things that are passed on from time period to time period form a direct line from one person’s act of self expression in the first time period to a revolution in the next to last (and the saving of the human race after that, I think?) This is a beautiful idea but I didn’t piece it together while watching it, I just got bored with people looking at old journals. I’m sure plenty of people understood this while watching it, so I will cop to a failure as a viewer and not blame it on the Wachowskis and Tykwer not communicating it clearly enough. But if I’d gotten it I don’t know if that still would’ve been enough.
Something has just occurred to me that’s gonna sound more harsh than I want it to, but I gotta say it. There is kind of a similarity between this and SOUTHLAND TALES. They’re both kinda crazy ambitious how-did-they-expect-to-get-away-with-this type of epics. CLOUD ATLAS seems way more focused and coherent in what it’s trying to say, and I could understand loving it more than I could understand loving SOUTHLAND TALES. But to be honest I was less bored by SOUTHLAND TALES (admittedly on home video with a day long intermission between halves).
Bringing this up probly sounds like an attack on CLOUD ATLAS, but actually I think it’s more of a “maybe I should be more open to SOUTHLAND TALES” type of notion. But that could be foolish. I better be careful about that.
I feel like with CLOUD ATLAS I might like it more on a second viewing, but I also suspect I’ll never feel like sitting down and making that second viewing happen. I might just have to leave this review to inspire some future generation to write a song about it that will be decoded hundreds of years later and adapted into a cartoon that will be beamed into space and then aliens will create a monument that later is uncovered by colonial archaeologists who will be inspired to watch CLOUD ATLAS again and find out if they like it better than I did.
Some of the debate on this movie I guess is whether the “everything is connected” theme is profound or just corny. My feeling is that there’s not alot you can say about life that’s gonna truly blow people’s minds. But you can say something that rings true and you can say it in a clever way, and I think they’ve accomplished that here. For me personally the implication of reincarnation makes it a little more new agey than I would prefer, but it still works poetically. We are still affected by slavery and by old records and ideas and what we do has the potential to affect the future and that’s all the more reason to be good to people and to fight for freedom for ourselves and others and to do what we can to make the world a better place. Just yesterday I heard a guy babbling about how he didn’t care that much about the elections ’cause he had maybe 20 years tops to live and doesn’t have any kids so why should he care? There’s a motherfucker that should see CLOUD ATLAS! (also, even if you’re selfish why don’t you give a shit about the next 20 years at least? I don’t get that.)
I love the Wachowskis, and I’m gonna be re-visiting the MATRIXes soon, so look forward to explaining to me again why the part where they dance is so offensive. One of the main things I love about them is that they’re fluent and groundbreaking in the filmatistic language of sci-fi/action spectacle, but that it’s important to them to add layers of meaning and push the boundaries of audience expectations. That’s why their weirdo kiddie movie SPEED RACER fascinates a slowly growing cult and two of the most sure-fire, highly anticipated sequels outside of the STAR WARSes managed to be full of crazy action and envelope pushing effects work but still confounded and perplexed the world. And now this one that pushes it too far for even me to follow them all the way.
But they made it completely independently and obviously without compromise. I wish it had somehow been a financial success just to find out what the hell somebody who pulls that off decides to do next. They’ve taken alot of risk and maybe the first MATRIX is not enough to keep fueling this type of crazy ambition of big budget arthouse spectacle, but even if they never got a movie funded again it would be incredible what they’ve accomplished.
So, I’m sorry to say CLOUD ATLAS didn’t do it for me, but I’m glad there are crazy motherfuckers out there making movies like this. If they keep doing it maybe the next one will be more my speed.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.