Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas (Movie Review)

I'm a huge fan of the Matrix Trilogy. I love the way the Wachowsky Brothers combined crazy cool sci-fi action with rich symbolism and philosophy. Even though I find myself often at odds with some of the philosophies expressed in those films, I appreciate their presence in a genre that is too often based on mindless explosions and bad one-liners.

Cloud Atlas was completely off my radar until I saw the first trailer a few months ago. Since then I've been waiting to see this movie with great curiosity, and as it turns out "curiosity" is a great word with which to describe this film.

Although Larry Wachowski was not involved in this film, Andy Wachowski, his wife Lana and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) share the director's chair for this multi-story experience.

I say "multi-story" intentionally, rather than "multi-thread". Although the film regularly cuts back and forth between multiple stories, it never connects them beyond some extremely loose ties and the fact that each story features the same set of actors playing re-incarnated versions of the same people in different time periods.

IMDB describes the film this way:
"Everything is connected: an 1849 diary of an ocean voyage across the Pacific; letters from a composer to his friend; a thriller about a murder at a nuclear power plant; a farce about a publisher in a nursing home; a rebellious clone in futuristic Korea; and the tale of a tribe living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, far in the future."

"Everything is connected" is clearly meant to be a theme in this film. Unfortunately, everything is mostly disconnected. Yes, we have the basic premise of reincarnated people and the different lives they live, but beyond that there is almost nothing connecting these stories aside from theme. There is no brilliant plot element that unites all of these stories into a single larger one in the last 10 minutes, as you might expect or hope. In fact, despite a few sequences of editing that show some rough parallels between the stories, I think you could just as easily enjoy all of these stories one at a time, if the film were edited to play them that way. (In fact, it might be more coherent and enjoyable experience!) As it is, the movie bounces from story to story with no significant payoff for doing so, and only makes it more challenging to follow each story and invest in the characters.

This is a shame because the film employs some all-star talent. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are at the forefront, and are interesting to watch in all of their scenes. Additional familiar faces abound in every story. It seems only a matter of time before the same handful of actors show up one by one in different make-up and sporting a new accent. Eventually it felt gimmicky, and the novelty of wondering what make-up and accent I would seen an actor in next took me out of the stories.

The cinematic style still has that great, compelling Wachowsky vibe and alternates between cool, beautiful and epic in scope. The visual effects (though looking like visual effects) are very enjoyable and the designs of the future worlds are fascinating.

The music is also a nice touch, and the recurring musical theme the film is named after is haunting and tender.

The make-up jobs, which the film relies on so heavily, are hit or miss. They were good enough in several instances to have me guessing which actor was hiding under the latex, but just as bad in those instances because I could tell some actor was covered in latex. And the odd "asian-ating" of several cast members leaves me wondering if the Asian community will find the prosthetic make-up offensive in its representation of their facial features.

There are some quick flashes of unnecessary nudity and one brief sex-scene in the midst of a narrated montage that frustrated me a bit. I always wonder how female directors feel about this kind of objectification of women and would love to pick Lana Wachowski's brain about these bits. Of course she may have not directed those scenes.

I think there is a lot that the writers and directors want us to ponder during and after watching this movie. The primary influencing philosophy seems to be Hinduism, as reincarnation is a major part of the film's basic premise. There is also a clear theme of desired freedom in most of the stories. Either freedom from obvious social institutions, such as slavery, or freedom from a presumed fate the characters have imposed upon them by "the universe". This lines up with what some unsettled Hindus may feel regarding their "dharma", or the duty they were born into and are intended to fulfill in life.

Cloud Atlas, like American pop-spirituality, rarely commits to or defines a consistent representation of reincarnation, or a specific eastern faith from which it draws inspiration. And although the film is clearly saying some things, it never provides grounding for its values or says anything bold. It has such a strong thematic sense to it, but never commits to a primary message. (A mistake, in my opinion, if your plot and characters aren't holding the movie together.) But this is a classic representation of pop-spirituality: Affirming many ideas, but not committing to any of them. In this way, Cloud Atlas is a great representation of post-modernism and pop-spirituality, brought to life onscreen. But it also steals satisfaction if you're hoping for some answers to your questions or a plot that is ultimately unified.

In the end, this is a movie to watch someday when it won't cost you a dime and you've got three hours to kill. (Yeah, the run time is a hefty 2 hours and 40 minutes) I think it will be forgotten by most (despite how well it reflects popular thinking) and remembered by others mostly as a lengthy, unusual, cinematic curiosity.

Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use

Quality: 7.0/10

Relevance: 8.5/10

What do these scores mean?

EDIT: I mistakenly referred to Lana Wachowski as Andy's wife. Andy is married to Alisa Wachaowski, who was not involved in the film to my knowledge. It was brought to my attention that Lana is the new legal name of Larry Wachowski, who has transitioned into living life as a female using the name Lana. 

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