Film Review: Cloud Atlas

I’m not quite sure when “multiple story threads woven together around one theme” became such a thing in cinema. Probably before I started paying attention to it. Famous examples include Love Actually, its predecessor (which I personally prefer) Playing by Heart, and Crash. So far, of the variations on this structural choice that I have seen, I think Thirteen Conversations About One Thing has done it best. Cloud Atlas does not use the technique particularly effectively. I watched Cloud Atlas with my husband, and when we discussed it briefly afterwards, he pointed out that unlike the other examples of “multiple story threads woven together around one theme” I like to bring up, Cloud Atlas does not tell its story chronologically; the threads are woven together not by geographical location or consistent character interactions (all of the threads are separated in time, sometimes by decades, sometimes by centuries) but by themes of exploitation, resistance to oppression, courage, and love. My husband argued that the jumping backwards and forwards in time was confusing. I didn’t have much of a problem with that – the mise-en-scène of the different threads differed dramatically enough that I was able to follow which thread was being dwelt upon at the moment without too much difficulty – but I must say, the voice-over narration at the film’s start which acknowledges that such flashbacks and jumps forward are gimmicky but promises that they’re done for good reason in Cloud Atlas is misleading. The techniques, while not strictly gimmicky because they are done for an artistic reason beyond “this looks cool”, are still distracting and in my opinion detract from the strength of the themes they are meant to highlight.

Plot

Will humanity return to tribalism in three centuries?
Will humanity return to tribalism in three centuries’ time?

Cloud Atlas traces the outline of one possible version of Western civilization, from 1849 through present day and into a far future time when the Common Era system for tracking time is no longer used. (Note that the creative team tried, to some extent, to represent the lingual shifts that would happen over this kind of time jump, but the future language came across as slurred mumbling most of the time, punctuated by understandable speech just often enough for my ear to not be able to adjust to it… and heaven forfend they include subtitles! This feature of the far-future storyline really irritated me.) In each of these storylines, a main character is pitted against an oppressive social force: slavery, homophobia, corporate monopoly of energy, ageism, bias against “fabricants” (getting into future time here), a yawning social split between pre-industrial valley-dwellers and technology-wielding “prescients”. In each of these storylines, the main character commits rebellious acts that defy the social order. Sometimes these acts are successful beyond the character’s wildest dreams. Sometimes, the consequences are fatal and the character’s story gets (mostly) buried.

Two sets of stories are more closely connected than the others: a secondary character from the “gay musical genius storyline” gets trapped in an elevator with the main character from the “investigative reporter” storyline, and the main character from the “dystopian Neo-Seoul” storyline is worshiped as a goddess by the time the “after the fall of civilization” storyline rolls around. The other two stories – the “slaveowner finds a conscience” storyline and the “cranky publisher escapes a nursing home” storyline – are mentioned in the other threads only as inspiration via written and filmed evidence they leave behind. It is my considered opinion that these two less-connected threads could have been left out of the movie easily to create a more manageable runtime (172 minutes is an excessively long runtime for such little artistic payoff beyond saturation), and the two sets of stories that were more tightly connected should have been separated into two separate films of their own. There’s enough meaty dramatic material in both the “gay musical genius/investigative reporter” tale, and the “dystopian Neo-Seoul/after the fall of civilization” tale, to get two movies out of the experience, and those movies would be more richly textured emotional experiences with room for subtletly and nuance rather than cherry-picked moments of high dramatic tension.

Characters

Reusing actors across timelines can get complicated.
Reusing actors across timelines can get complicated.

I really did not find any of the characters in Cloud Atlas particularly compelling, with the possible exception of Hae-Joo Chang, the action hero/revolutionary Pureblood who rescues and individuates the fabricant Sonmi-451 in the “dystopian Neo-Seoul” storyline. His willingness to make idealistic love personal kind of reminded me of my husband, or maybe it was the dark hair, dark eyes, and slim build. At any rate, there simply wasn’t time for me to get attached to any one of these people. The brief flashes given of moments of high tension in their lives reduce them to manifestations of themes. That’s supposed to be the point, I guess, but I’m at a point in my own artistic journey in which I don’t want to view people as interchangeable manifestations of themes anymore. I want my films populated with fully-fleshed out real humans who have, to reference an old standby monologue that I memorized decades ago, “a fat stomach, chafe marks where my jeans cut in, bad breath from eating the wrong stuff, and my underarms are stubbly”. That’s what I care about. I think turning people into abstractions is dangerous and socially irresponsible.

Themes

Does the future look like fetishization?
Does the future look like fetishization?

Cloud Atlas is a movie that lives and dies by its themes. I’ve already mentioned them previously in this review: exploitation, resistance, courage, love. Many epic films have been made about these themes over the course of cinema, and Cloud Atlas certainly wants to have an epic scope. It is sweeping in its grandeur. But “more” does not necessarily equate to “better”. Way back in the day, when I was in high school, someone I knew had a sentence on her online profile: Too much of a good thing is still too much. These themes could be expressed just as beautifully in a more restrained fashion and I would not have been left feeling dazed, desensitized, and overstimulated.

I rented Cloud Atlas because, when I saw the preview for it last week, I drew the conclusion that it would deal with some Buddhist doctrines that I find poetically beautiful if not scientifically evidenced – karma and rebirth. This material was dealt with only tangentially in Cloud Atlas and that was very disappointing to me. I wanted the links between the stories to be more solid; I wanted the cloth to be more tightly woven. I also wanted a film that was about an hour shorter, and upon reflection, the “cranky publisher escapes a nursing home” storyline really didn’t enhance the film in any way. All in all, I think the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer dropped the ball with this project.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.

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