Friday, November 2, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Alternate Title:  The Story of Us

One sentence synopsis:  The lives of a group of people cross again and again throughout the past, present, and future.

Things Havoc disliked:  Yes, I know that normally I start with what I liked, and leave the whining until later, but this time I had to get something out of the way:

I don't like it when movies decide they're too smart for you. I don't like it when they go out of their way to be impenetrable, artifice-laden slogs. I don't like having to disentangle a movie from the pretensions of their authors, and I absolutely hate it when the movie compounds this issue by playing around with the basic language of cinema for some bullshit 'cognitive effect' dreamed up by an overindulged 'artiste'. Setting, character, shot selection, coherent editing, narrative flow, these are not optional elements in a film, they are the mechanisms by which the fever dreams of a cinematographer's imagination can be translated for the rest of us, and films which abuse these elements for the purposes of showing off how superior they are tend to arouse my ire.

Cloud Atlas, based on a novel by David Mitchell, is an unfilmable mess, worse by far than the Lord of the Rings adaptations ever were. The novel consists of six different stories told across time and space, linked together by the fact that many of the characters in each one are the re-incarnations (I assume) of one another. I am forced to assume this, as opposed to knowing it, because while in the film version of this novel, these characters are played time and again by the same actors, what is actually going on is never, ever explained. Some gestures are given to magical birthmarks, some to deja-vu, some to spiritualism and some to God, but we are clearly meant to simply sit back and accept the central conceit, something that would be much easier to do if it were made clear at any point if the characters played by such actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Kieth David, or Hugo Weaving (to name only the ones I recognize) are meant to literally be the same person brought forth in a new time and place, the descendents thereof, or something else entirely. I just finished the entire movie, and I couldn't tell you the answer.

Indeed, I can't tell you a whole hell of a lot about this film, not even if I had the time to sit down and parse out the various narratives of this story one by one. Part of the problem is that the stories are tied together so closely and with such rapid shift from one to the next that we scarcely have time to get our bearings in terms of what is actually happening in one tale before we're whisked off without warning or hesitation to another. Worse yet, several scenes actually have the temerity to flash-forward within the same (or even a different) narrative, further confusing everybody as to just what's happening. And as though that wasn't enough, one of the larger narratives takes place with the characters speaking some kind of post-apocalyptic argot that's effectively incomprehensible. And since subtitles (or, you know, English) would spoil the majesty of whatever brilliance the filmmakers are deigning to place before us plebeian swine, I still have no idea what most of the characters in that sequence were saying. Of course, this would be the one plot thread where the directors decide to actually slow down and linger for a time.

You can therefore imagine my frustrations as I sat through this interminable (three hour) movie, completely lost as to what was going on, who the characters were, what they were doing, and even what words they were speaking to one another. What greater point the movie was trying to make was only dimly perceptible beneath layers of artifice, confusion, and artistic chaos. And all I could think of as I sat there, was that eventually it was going to be my task to come home and try and make sense of this mess to the rest of you.

Things Havoc liked:  And then, around the 45 minute mark or so, something very strange began to happen...

Each of the six stories that we are told here, taken in and of itself, carries a different theme and a very different tone, all this despite the actors occurring and re-occurring within each one. Some of these actors, like Hugo Weaving or Halle Berry, are constantly playing the same basic character archetypes (slimy villain and intrepid explorer, respectively), set down in settings as varied as a 19th century ship, 1970s San Francisco, or the distant future. But what began to dawn on me was that other characters, particularly those that Tom Hanks portrays, are not. Hanks portrays, at times, a violent thug who brutally murders people in a drunken rage (his cockney accent leaves something to be desired), at times a nebbish scientist dragged into doing the right thing against his will, and at other times a cowardly fisherman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world of cannibalism and death. He's not alone. Jim Broadbent goes from a murderous, virulently-racist ship captain one moment to a conniving book publisher trapped in a mental hospital, while Jim Sturgess and Korean actress Bae Doona go from demure Victorian aristocrats to fire-breathing rebel leaders in an Orwellian superstate. Once this became apparent, and it took some time, it dawned on me that what was being represented here was not a specific set of characters, replayed through the ages like broken records. What was being represented was a range of human experience. And how some people, for better or worse, can change over time, and some people, for better or worse, cannot.

This recognition, such as it was, was the first of many within this film's enormous running time, and as the movie moved on, I became more accustomed to what it was trying to tell me, and more importantly, how it was trying to tell it. What appeared at first to be maddening artifice slowly evolved into a different language entirely than the one I was used to experiencing in movies. The overlap between the stories, I came to realize, was not based on tone or scene tension levels (action scene links to action scene, for instance), but based around something else entirely, specifically the relationships between all of the various characters at given moments, and the resonances, not repetitions, that their interactions had as they rippled across time and space itself. And once I had gotten over my confusion, even in the slightest degree... what a tremendous landscape this film unveiled before me.

Every element to this film, taken by itself, is done extremely well, with great fidelity to the style and times required. The pastoral periods, be they pre-civilized or post-apocalyptic, are shot in glorious, vibrant color, while the futuristic dystopia setting has dark, gritty cinematography livened by bursts of bright visual effects, ones that honestly resemble Tron more than they do the Wachowskis' famous Matrix trilogy. The cinematography changes too, from broad canvasses appropriate to adventure films for the 1840s scenes, to a blocky procedural style for the 1970s segment, and to a more modern caper-flick Scorsese-inspired set of sweep-shots and held takes for the sequence taking place in the modern day. The major linking factor through all this is the truly incredible score, written by co-director Tom Tykwer, a score that somehow manages to make the same piece of music work for adventure, action, romance, and inspirational scenes all at the same time. It is able to do this because, as with everything else in the film, the important element isn't what scene is currently playing, but the overall tapestry of human experience that the movie is trying to portray, and a score appropriate to that will by definition be appropriate to every scene that represents it.

Indeed, Cloud Atlas might be one of the boldest films ever made, a sprawling, elaborate spectacle, both visually and in the sheer complexity of its narrative, which twists and turns around itself like a helix, filling every scene, every shot with detailed references to other stories, past or future. It's true that none of the individual stories that comprise this enormous offering are terribly nuanced by themselves, but taken in summation as they are, the stories buttress one another to produce a larger, more universal narrative, reflecting the themes of power, love, abandonment, indifference, and hope. Life, at times, is not terribly nuanced either, and only when combined with the stories of the lives of everyone that surrounds us does it acquire definition. This is not the sort of re-incarnation story where we see characters play out the same tale over and over again with changes of costume and scenery. Every story, every relationship, every moment of this film is unique to itself and yet rhymes in a strange, almost rhythmic way with moments and scenes scattered across creation. The various tracks that the movie jumps between with such frequency are not actually individual stories, but elements of a larger, cohesive whole, simultaneously unified and multifold, a record of human experience throughout the ages, and the ways that the black evils and selfless kindnesses that we do for one another resonate with people we never meet, whose lives we can scarcely imagine.

Final thoughts:  If the above sounds inane, meaningless, or like a particularly bad bout of over-analysis, then I apologize, but this is a film that defies easy description. Some critics have savaged the film for being a plodding bore, others for being overly full of itself, and some even for being horribly racist (several actors change their ages, genders, and even races for some of their characters, not always with the most convincing of effects). And yet, if I am to be brutally honest with everyone, I can't possibly describe it in terms other than near-rapture. I've seen dozens, hundreds of films in my life, both before and during this grand experiment. And yet I cannot name more than a handful of movies that have left me with such a feeling of awe and wonder as this one did. All the complaints I leveled against it in the beginning are true, and remained true throughout the movie, and yet at some point, I simply began to perceive what this film was trying to show me, and like an incomparably intricate Swiss clock, every element simply slid into place. What response it will generate from others, I cannot possibly speculate, yet the passion, heart, and empathy of the film are so strong as to be overflowing, all without once veering into maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. It is, without question, one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

'We are all connected to one another,' says one of the characters in this movie repeatedly, and indeed both the narrative and the thematic hearts of the film are encompassed within the above statement. This film's subject matter is no less than the interwoven nature of our lives, not in some basic tit-for-tat sense, but in all its glorious, majestic complexity. It shows us as we are, billions of individual threads dancing around and between one another, forming iterative patterns much greater than ourselves, simultaneously newly minted and long-worn. When revealed in all its glory, the resulting tapestry is vast beyond scope, yet infinitely detailed, a fractal pattern repeating itself forever, and each time in a manner wholly new. We call the result History.

Final Score:  9.5/10

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