‘Cloud Atlas’: Is it this year’s best or worst film?

By Tim Posada, 11/01/2012


Remember the last time a film ended and you didn’t know if you enjoyed it or not? Meet “Cloud Atlas”, either this year’s best or most pretentious film. Either the sibling filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski (directors of “The Matrix” trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) are off the Hollywood reservation or they stumbled on to something unforgettable. Now that I think about it, yeah, I do like it, though the idea of recommending it to anyone is a matter of deeper ethical consideration.

Jim Sturgess as Highlander and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes in “Cloud Atlas”. (photo by Reiner Bajo)

In the tradition of hyperlink cinema (films with no lead character or plotline), “Cloud Atlas” consists of six stories that occur over the course of 600 years. 1) A lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Strugess), and a slave, Autau (David Gyasi), travel across the Pacific Ocean during early colonial time. 2) A young composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), in 1931, helps an aged one, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), compose one final masterpiece. 3) A journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), in 1975, uncovers a dangerous plot by a major oil company. 4) Present day, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) escapes several loan sharks only to be imprisoned in a seniors home, ruled by the evil Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving … that’s right). 5) In the 22nd Century Neo Seoul, a liberated worker clone, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), leads a revolution against society’s destructive consumerist ideology. 6) More than 100 “seasons” after the fall of civilized society, a tribesman, Zachry (Tom Hanks), helps Meronym (Berry), one of the few remaining members of a technologically-advanced sect of humanity, make contact with humans who left Earth hundreds of years ago. Much like “Magnolia”, these various stories are spliced together, but by adding a touch of reincarnation to the hyperlink structure, each main actor appears in different, reincarnated roles (often digitally changed into different ethnicities, like Halle Berry as a Caucasian woman and Hugo Weaving as an Asian man and an elderly Caucasian woman), as both heroes and villains.

“Cloud Atlas” is a markable film for its mere un-marketability. As one of the most expensive independent films of all time, the three directors — the Wachowskis and Tykwer — have no way of recouping costs for themselves or other producers. Yet I must admire the Wachowskis and Tykwer for attempting something that nearly crumbles under the weights of its own audacity. Layering cliché upon cliché, this network of narratives is impossible to label as terrible or amazing, falling somewhere between incoherent and remarkable. At times, I’m watching “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” re-imagined as a comedy with Nurse Ratched portrayed by Weaving (Agent Smith), or a dystopian liberation film with top-of-the-line special effects. Then it’s “Apocalypto” set in the future with Hugh Grant in full tribal garb. Now, let’s jump back to “Amistad” if the would-be slave met a lawyer, forging a special bond. Then add a murder mystery in the 1970s, and a young composer in the 1940s whose sexual orientation prevents him from reaching critical acclaim, even though “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a splendid piece.

While “Cloud Atlas” is a financial disaster, that’s hardly reason to declare failure. By Hollywood standards, its similarity to Darren Aronosky’s “The Fountain” is the kiss of death.

But for the few of us who actually enjoyed that “bad idea”, this one’s “terrible” on an even more delightful level. It’s not groundbreaking, but it builds upon a handful of films seeking to expand cinema’s too-often three-act structure. For that reason alone I can’t discard it as pretentious drab. In many ways it succeeds where “Tree of Life” drones on in a boring stew or whispered monologues.

So, is it worth the near three-hour running time? I’m not sure. But isn’t that the sign of compelling filmmaking: something with imperfections and moments of true beauty. Something that makes you think, even if — like “There Will Be Blood” — you don’t experience viewing pleasure but cinematic disdain for a protagonist. That moment when you hate a character — especially a villain — proving how compelling (again, not necessarily entertaining) the performance is. In linguistic terminology, I’m referring to “jouissance”, a complex pleasure of bliss rooted in anxiety. “Cloud Atlas” does just that. It speaks to joy, laughter, tragedy, spectacle, anger and confusion. It’s hardly effective on every front, but rarely a snooze.

If you can make it through the first 45 minutes, which honestly aren’t strong, or look past Tom Hanks’ surprisingly disengaged performances, “Cloud Atlas” hits a wondrous stride, coming to life in several montage sequences that effectively tie together these many narrative yarns (by the end, I even wanted more). Film doesn’t get more grandiose or emotionally complex than this beautiful mistake.


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