REVIEW: ‘Cloud Atlas,’ A Symphony of Love in Six Eras

Hugo Weaving Cloud Atlas

Now that I’ve seen Cloud Atlas, I wish I’d made more of an effort to attend one of the screenings around town recently, which were followed by Q&As with the Wachowski Siblings.  I would have asked something unabashedly unprofound: “Just how much fun did you guys have making this?”

I suspect that, despite the colossal effort to mount this epics of epics—the narrative scale of which I am still at a loss to find a reference in dusty film archives of my memory—they had a great deal of fun.  And that exuberance shows in every frame, whether the film is teetering on the brink of genius in some moments, or doing a backflip into a puddle of camp and trite in another.

The more serious professional critics are going to hate on this, or hide behind ambivalence—they can’t like it; it’s too messy, too unprecedented (it pays to remember that Roger Ebert once wrote for Russ Meyer—he’s a little out there).   If I were to close my eyes and imagine the impact Cloud Atlas will have on critics as if the film were embodied by a person, I see a nine-foot-tall tattooed tranny dressed in a garish costume that pays homage to centuries past and future, ambling into the hyper-exclusive Knickerbocker Club in New York, and not only insisting she be served the same drink as Mrs. Astor, but sitting down and playing bridge with her.

This is a bull through the china shop of every critics’ society in the West, and just to make sure they get the point, there’s even a scene in which a china shop is rapturously destroyed.

I’ve written about my history with the book before, but I’ll recapitulate.  After reading it just after it came out in 2004, I gave it to my partner, the novelist Jonathan Kemp, who summed up my feelings, too, when he finished the last page and threw it against the wall, hissing, “Bastard.”  The reason for the envy is not so much the prose—Jonathan can hold his own against David Mitchell in that respect—as it is the plot, which is so inventive, convoluted and well knit it’s staggering, and as a writer you know experientially just how much blood and pain seeping through your fingertips and out of your brain it took to create that.  It is the sort of inspired narrative that a writer is lucky to concoct once in his lifetime, and most never achieve.  It is almost on a par with Middlesex, and for me that’s saying a great deal—Jeffrey Eugendies’ masterpiece is one of the five best books I’ve ever read.

Doona Bae as Somni 451

When I first heard the announcement that this film was being made at the Cannes film festival two years ago, I was skeptical of how it could be done, but intrigued by the powerhouse combination of the Wachowski’s and Tom Tykwer as co-directors.  I’ve got mixed feelings as to how that powerhouse came together; for the most past, their styles manifestly complement each other, but there are also moments when the two grind together noisily, most glaringly in their differing approaches to metaphysics: the Wachowskis are so Cali airy-fairy, and Tykwer is so German rational.

Novels are particularly hard to adapt to the screen, and ones with six narratives written in six different styles—and there aren’t many—are particularly troublesome, and usually unsatisfying.  As John Le Carré once said, “It’s like turning an ox into bouillon cubes.”

I’ve never adapted a novel for the screen before.  I agree with Le Carré that it would be a reductive process akin to butchering a large animal and cutting it down to its choicest components.  At this juncture, with so many scripts under my belt I’ve lost count, I’m pretty sure I could do as good a job as any, but I wouldn’t relish doing it to a novel I enjoyed as much as Cloud Atlas; I’d rather keep the beast alive as a pet.

Short stories and articles are far more conducive to adaptations.  I was commissioned to adapt an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story this year, and that is already coming in at close to one hundred and twenty-five pages, or over two hours of screen time.  I haven’t written a script that needed to be that long since I first started out as a screenwriter.  Cloud Atlas is about twelve times the scope of what I had to do on the Fitzgerald piece—I can’t even wrap my mind around it.  Hats off to them for pulling it off so smoothly and joyously.

Indeed, the Wachowskis and Tykwer did a stellar job of transposing the ornate plot to the cinematic medium using their own particular styles.  In three moments during the film I felt queasy from professional admiration—the transitions between  scenes are that clever, and the way the narratives are spliced together flows with balletic fluidity.  During those queasy moments, I sighed “shit” under my breath as the film leaped gracefully from one century to another in a single cut, without the benefit of a dissolve or a title card explaining where you were.  In that respect, I cannot think of a film that has been made that is so audacious—and it pays off.

Tom Hanks Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks is finally enjoyable again

What hobbles it are the metaphysical speeches the Wachowskis cannot resist.  That and one of Tom Hanks’ characters bookending the film, as if the whole thing is told as a campfire tale far into the future.  It’s just as well that the actress playing Somni 451 has a Korean accent, because when she said, “I believe that when one door closes, another opens elsewhere,” I groaned.  There are a few clunkers like that throughout, the same sort of self-righteous bromide that made the second and third Matrix films almost unwatchable.

I can tell you who is in the film—Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving (sometimes paying homage to his appearance in The Matrix series), Susan Sarandon, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw, to list the more obvious names out of many—but it would be pointless to name their characters because most of them play different roles, to varying degrees of success depending on how good their accents or how believable their prosthetics are.  Even when the prosthetics fail, you allow the artifice the same way you suspend disbelief for the sheer joy of an over-the-top drag performance.

It is this notion of casting the same actors in various roles across the six interwoven narratives that is the cleverest homage to the book itself, although I would rather it not have been tied in with a crypto-Tibetan sub-theme about the eternal reincarnating soul.  Given the nature of the book, how the narratives are interconnected by some object or place left over by the one that came before it, the multirole device is possibly what makes this one of the most effective book-to-screen adaptations ever; Tykwer and the Wachowskis have used visual mnemonics inherent in the medium of cinema (and all performance) to boost the central premise of the book: That everyone and everything in history is interrelated (which is not the same as reincarnated, but never mind).

Dang, but those Wachowskis love, love, love their spiritual platitudes.  Unfortunately, most of it is bunkum from a rational, scientific point of view, and it coats parts of the film with a bad case of teen acne and braces.  Having said that, I can think of a number of people who might enjoy those speeches, which might as well be straight out of an imaginary Beginner’s Guide to Transcendental Thought.

Indeed, the book is far more political than it is about the transcendence of love, if it has anything to do with love at all, and I don’t remember that it does.  This hindered my appreciation of the film somewhat because I’m in one of my extended periods of not giving love much credence, while conversely being in a constant low-level love-worn state over someone, which probably only adds to my irritation with that most toxic and curative of feelings.  In other words, I sat there throughout the film going, “I love this, I love it not.  I love this…”

Despite the sheer quantity of makeup involved in this production, I’m not sure that it will win the Oscar for that category; the prosthetics don’t even try to be realistic.  They are often just rubberized masks.  As for Best Picture… at this juncture of the race, I haven’t enjoyed any possible contender as much, but it will depend on whether the Academy is as appalled as the critics.  I wanted this to be a shoe-in, a definite contender; if you take inventiveness, craftsmanship and ambition into consideration, which seemed to drive last year’s win for The Artist,  then Cloud Atlas should win.  But I don’t think it will. (I love this, I love it not. I love this…)

Defying age and the ages: Halle Berry shows black don’t crack.

Just writing this review was like watching the film itself: The thoughts about it came rushing in so jumbled and plentiful, I had to leap forwards and backwards making notes, scribbling unrelated paragraphs, and then cobble it all together afterwards.  This is something I’ve never had to do before.

If I were still the dreamy young man I once was, who spent much of his day lost in an imaginary world, I would be even more over-the-moon about Cloud Atlas than I already am.  I suspect this is going to do gangbusters in Asia and with the Lord of the Rings crowd in the West, who helped make The Matrix a colossal success.  I might be wrong.  Anything could happen with Cloud Atlas, but at the end of the day, had I made this movie, I would be extremely proud of the achievement, regardless of whether it wins awards or not.

Yeah, it’s just so hard to say how Cloud Atlas will do.  It may build considerable momentum among the fanboys who made V for Vendetta a cult hit, and even reach a broader audience than that.  The audience clapped after last night’s midnight screening at the Arclight, and I spoke to one guy afterwards who hadn’t read the book but had already seen it three times—he somehow managed to sneak into the premiere on Thursday night.  I’ll see it again at some point, and I rarely see films more than once; it’s that enjoyable as pure entertainment.  It is certainly worth the price of admission.  At close to three hours—a length many people, Tuttle among them, find challenging—it leaves the gate at a gallop and doesn’t relent.

Ordinarily, I would penalize a superior film one star for making such an egregious choice in deviating from the original text and adding that juvenile metaphysical pabulum.  Again, that’s a subjective assessment, if you also think that God’s existence should be considered subjective.  So I would have given this a Nice after penalty, but my film-person’s opinion is that with the directors’ combined skills, and the solid, often amusing performances, and the sheer power of the serpentine narrative, minus the claptrap this would have been a masterpiece worthy of a Bravo.  Therefore, I give it a:

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