If I came outta nowhere and basically caused a small cultural paradigm shift, I’d probably just put my feet up and mess around for a few years. The Washowski siblings, after unleashing The Matrix onto an unsuspecting world, took about a decade. Look, I’ll defend Reloaded and even Revolutions to a degree, but the one thing we all agree on is that like a good opium habit, the first hit from that pipe was the best.
Following driving their once proud achievement into the ground, the siblings seemed to just put their feet up and indulge themselves. A decent-ish comic-book adaptation that ultimately felt like a de-fanged but at least well-intentioned take on the source material here, a movie based on an old cartoon that felt like being trapped in a centrifuge with ten strings of Christmas tree lights there. It was all fun and ambitious in its own way.
But apparently the Wachowskis’ vacation is over, because there’s nothing “its own way” about their new (on dvd and blu-ray) pic Cloud Atlas. This sucker isn’t just plain-ole ambitious, it’s prolly the most ambitious movie of the past few years.
And yes, I know Cloud Atlas is still an adaptation but it’s still ambitious. All you need to make Speed Racer is a bunch of speed lines and a chimp. This thing took cajones to even try.
The basic set up is this: multiple actors including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw and Doona Bae all play multiple characters, (often characters of different ethnic groups or genders) heavily implied to be reincarnated versions of themselves, in a series of smaller narratives taking place in different eras and story genres. One’s a 70s-set thriller with car chases and assassins and secret plots, another’s an adventure on the high seas type-thing, another is a effects-laden sci-fi Blockbuster that seems like a bastard child of that godawful Total Recall remake and that one segment in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, another is a post apocalyptic adventure that seemed to foreshadow After Earth and Oblivion, and there’s even one of those British “old people doing outrageous things” comedies you rent for your parents on rainy days.
The stories are all told basically at the same time, cutting from one to the other often mid-scene, and there are subtle links tying them all together, as well as recurring themes of unity, love, peace, freedom and all that other hippie bullcrap.
It’s the kind of creatively mind-boggling endeavor that doesn’t make me at ALL surprised that every major studio passed on it like a bottle of extremely expensive champagne that may explode in your face that gets passed around at one of those parties rich bored people throw.
Does it work? Yes, surprisingly it works. Does it work perfectly? No, not really.
The thing you’ve probably heard most about in connection with the movie is the political shitstorm that blew in when it became clear that Caucasian actors Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess would be using makeup and voice affectations to play Asian characters in of the time periods, leading to widespread accusations of “yellow-face”. Now, in principle I have no problem because one of the whole points of the movie is the idea that the differences between people, ideologically, racially and even gender…ly are not as deep as we think they are, and employing the same actors to play multiple parts in different races and genders is kind of the lynchpin of this whole idea.
However, given the massive amounts of money that the eventual German investors threw at this thing, is THIS really the best you could do? Of course people got fucking angry you idiots, they look like racial caricatures at best and horrible burn victims at worst. Christopher Lee didn’t look any better as Fu Manchu and that was fifty years ago! Are you telling me within the movie’s multiple BILLION dollar budget this is the best you could do? Some of the other effects here and there are rather nightmare inducing as well, particularly Doona Bae’s Caucasian transformation. Let THIS sucker haunt your dreams for all eternity.
And with the occasionally cartoony makeup effects comes a naggingly exaggerated feel to a lot of the stories. In some cases, this works, like the post-apocalypse one where we’re supposed to assume racial dividing lines are on the brink of utter collapse anyway so it’s fine if someone looks like you slammed three totally different ethnicities together. Other times it’s just jarring, like when Tom Hanks waltzes in in a distractingly bad wig or when someone clearly in their mid-twenties in “old person” makeup shows up or…THIS. Especially in a film trying to tell as relevant and sincere a story as this, the little distractions like this kneecap it somewhat.
Other times, one gets the sense the film is straining a tad to draw connections between one story and another. It’s all fine and good when one character reads the diary of another for poops and giggles because it was the old days and they didn’t have snarky websites yet, but Halle Berry’s random search for a record composed by Ben Whishaw’s character in another time period seems like a random aside.
There’s also a sense, especially towards the end, that the movie is trying a tad too hard to be deep and meaningful and self-important. Cite my youthful cynicism if you like, but after the third voice-over narration about fate and destiny and crap set to generically soaring music showing people doing heartwarming things in slow-motion I just wanted to tell the damn movie to get over itself.
However, for all the faults I lay at the movies feet, and there are more than a few, I can’t fault it for the sheer ambition of what its trying to do. Interwoven narratives has been done. Actors playing multiple parts has been done. Multiple time periods has been done. All at once though? And woven together with this level of intricacy? Madness, madness I say. There’s a scene in this movie where a gunfight in a futuristic skyline with wirework and lasers and shit is spliced together, almost shot by shot, with a scene straight out of Horatio Hornblower.
The narratives are all presented more or less at the same time, cut together in what had to be an editor’s nightmare, and you’d think that the movie wouldn’t be able to keep that many plates spinning but damned if they didn’t. I thought I’d have to be constantly rewinding or keep a character flow chart with me, but not only did it keep me from being confused about what was happening, it managed to keep me interested. Should win an Oscar just for that.
Part of this comes from the pace, which moves pretty damn quick for all the important stuff it has to accomplish, and even with a nearly three hour running time, the movie still doesn’t have much time to just stop and smell the roses, though I can understand this given what they were working with.
I’ve already crossed my thousand word limit and the FTB snipers have my bald spot in their scopes, so allow me to wrap this up. Cloud Atlas is, despite its faults, a good movie, if only on the virtue that it’s testing the limits of what cinema can do. Ten years ago, they’d have called this movie unfilmable. Hell, someone probably called it unfilmable now, that’s why it took so damn long to fund the fucking thing. But the Wachowskis, rather than listen to reason, opted to try something that would either work or blow up in their faces in a firestorm of racial insensitivity, bloated and self-important storytelling, and Tom Hanks character performances.
Depending who you ask, that may indeed have happened. But from my point of view, even though what they came out with is flawed, it still is worth looking at, and the sheer audacity to even attempt a movie like this should be applauded. Hopefully the next time they try something that really pushes boundaries (probably around 2046 or so) maybe they’ll have ironed the kinks out.