Sunday, November 4, 2012

In the clouds

It’s amazing that a film as ambitious and as superficially vast as the new Cloud Atlas leaves you with so little to think about afterwards. Based on a novel by British writer David Mitchell, and lasting almost three hours, it has six interlocking stories: one set in the nineteenth century, two in the twentieth, one in the present day, one in a high-concept future landscape, and another after it all collapses and humanity largely returns to primitivism. Officially, this constitutes “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future.” To emphasize this theme of continuity and interlocking, and to imply a sense of souls transmigrating, the film casts its principal actors in multiple roles: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant for example appear in all six segments, although sometimes so briefly and/or so heavily made up that you only find out from the end credits.

Fiendishly complex

Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) conceived the film and directed three of the segments; Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) directed the rest. The stories have some tonal differences – the present day sequence seems conceived as broad comic relief; the 1970’s story appears to be aspiring to be a fast-paced conspiracy thriller in the style of The Parallax View; the two future sequences are typical high-concept gobbledygook – but for the most part, watching one of them feels much like watching any of the others, and you feel much the same way five minutes into the movie as you feel five minutes from the end. One thing happens, then another, then another, and then it just stops, and you go home. It’s not exactly boring, but it’s seldom impressive in more than a narrowly technical way, and it’s far from enlightening.

In her Globe and Mail column (always a good reference source if you ever forget what the sound of a Hollywood ass being kissed sounds like), Joanna Schneller quotes Lana Wachowski as saying how the process of adapting Mitchell’s “fiendishly complex” novel (which I haven’t read) was “like some horrible higher-level algebra class.” Maybe it ought to constitute a stellar grade that the finished film in no way feels fiendishly complex , but it just leaves you wondering what the fuss was about. Sure, you’re sometimes not clear on what’s happening, but just because someone vandalizes the signposts on a country road, it doesn’t mean the route suddenly became inherently more complicated.

From womb to tomb

Some of the strands – in particular the conspiracy story, built around Berry as a crusading journalist trying to expose the risks at a nuclear power plant – are so simplistic and mechanical they feel more like high-level synopses than actual narratives. The connections between the segments are mostly cursory – for instance, a character in one episode reads a book written by a character in the previous one, and the people in the following episode watch in turn a movie based on his adventures. The multi-casting of the actors is a mixed bag (especially since, for the most part, they don’t fit particularly well into a lot of what they’re called on to do), in no way evoking a sense of reincarnation, or of anything more than a questionably conceived stunt.

And what’s it all for? Schneller quotes, seemingly with approval, the following sample utterance: “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Peter Howell ends his Star review with another one: “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” And there’s plenty more where those two came from. Well, this all seems to me the epitome of blather that gets you nowhere. Sure, no man is an island, what goes around comes around, all the rest of it. What is any Peter Howell review but a multitude of letters (and most likely not arranged in the best order)? In fact, wouldn’t focusing on its ultimate composition as a multitude of drops be the least productive way of engaging with the meaning of the ocean, of our dependency on it, of how we potentially mistreat it? Maybe I’m sounding pedantic here, but what sense does it make to characterize a film as “daring and visionary” (as Roger Ebert put it) if the “vision” can’t be articulated in terms more complex than a fortune cookie?

Giant follies

The Guardian said the film “carries all the marks of a giant folly,” and you know, cinema would be much the poorer without its long history of giant follies (I’m using the word loosely) – works of enormous ambition and scope that almost inevitably got caught up in fights between art and commerce, often released (or escaping) as a result in multiple versions, which just adds to the sense of something existing beyond your grasp. I was rewatching one of them the same weekend I saw Cloud Atlas – Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. I was watching the DVD of the 229 minute version, which contrasts with the 139 minute version originally released in North America, and also with the 245 minute version they showed at Cannes this year, and also with the 269 minute version they’re reportedly still working on restoring. Another example, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, is just about to be released on a Criterion DVD.

Cloud Atlas surely ought to be such a film – something so large it resists a “definitive” version, leaving you with the feeling there would always be something else to tweak. Maybe it ought to have been made by someone like Terry Gilliam, whose whole career has been marked by such follies. But as crafted by the Wachowskis and Tykwer, it carries a deadened sense of certainty (the reference to an algebra class, with its implication of cracking the equation, and then with no real need to reopen it once that’s done, seems telling). Of course, by their nature, the pieces could have been shuffled differently, or individual segments could have been expanded or contracted, but it feels like a jigsaw that’s been completed, then glued together and covered in a layer of lacquer, before being locked under glass. Oh, no doubt there’ll be an extended version that shows up on DVD, but this won’t add a thing, except more glue and lacquer.


The film belongs with those other works I mentioned in one sense anyway – it’s been a colossal financial disappointment, making much less in its first weekend than Ben Affleck’s Argo made in its third. I didn’t much like Argo, but at least it was stimulating to consider and write about the ways in which I didn’t like it. Writing this review of Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, felt merely like a slog. I hope it’s not an action that’s significantly birthing my future.

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