Jackson Arn reviews the adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.
The tag line for Cloud Atlas, the Wachowski siblings’ latest science fiction epic, is “everything is connected.” Unfortunately, the movie itself does little more with its nearly three-hour running time than beat us over the head with endless illustrations of these three vacuous little words.
There’s a 19th century yarn about an American lawyer who befriends an islander. Then a 1930s story about a composer who finds himself being blackmailed by his employer. Then a Pakula-esque thriller, set in the 1970s, in which the villain is big oil. Then a present-day story about an aging publisher who is imprisoned in a hotel for unwanted elderly people. Then a futuristic adventure about a clone who rebels against her government. And finally, a post-apocalyptic story about a peaceful tribe of foragers trying to find a new home (I feel like I’m forgetting one). As in David Mitchell’s 2004 book, each storyline echoes the other five, and some characters appear to be reincarnations of earlier ones.
The problem with this ambitious setup (“ambitious” being a required, albeit misleading word in all Cloud Atlas reviews), is that none of the stories are particularly interesting. The seventies bit isn’t so much a Pakula-esque thriller as it is a horrible mishmash of clichés from Alan Pakula movies, with a touch of The Da Vinci Code thrown in (Tom Hanks is there, after all). The clone storyline, which is “echoed” elsewhere with an offhand reference to Soylent Green that the Wachowskis no doubt find highly clever, is only slightly less pulpy than Soylent Green itself, though it takes itself twice as seriously.
Defenders of the film, of which there are bound to be many, will argue that the six stories cannot be appreciated in isolation from each other, that they gain nuances of tone and characterization when seen together, and that this is the whole point of the movie (“Everything is connected! Get it?”). In fact, the frequent cutting back and forth between different storylines has an unpleasant, often jarring effect. What is the point, for instance, of cutting from the slapstick humor of Jim Broadbent’s stay in a hotel to the dystopian horrors of futuristic Korea? How is the audience supposed to react? There is a common criticism of Cloud Atlas the novel, as well as the movie, that the stories are too slight to stand alone. But at least Mitchell sticks with one story at a time, establishing a consistent tone before continuing on to something new. The Wachowskis, on the other hand, cut back and forth between storylines quickly and sloppily. Just as I started to become mildly interested in one set of characters, I was forced to move on to another.
In a movie where falls are a recurring trope (“trope” being another required word for Cloud Atlas reviews), it occurred to me how far its stars have fallen from their former glory. Tom Hanks, still hailed as a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, has stumbled badly in the last decade with Larry Crowne, Angels and Demons, and The Ladykillers. Here, he doesn’t have much to do, despite playing a total of six characters. The closest he comes to portraying a fleshed-out human being is in the post-apocalyptic storyline, where, sadly, most of his lines are delivered in barely comprehensible future-slang. Susan Sarandon, so articulate in Dead Man Walking, barely speaks in this movie, except when spoken to. The movie’s most disappointing performances come from Halle Berry, at her very worst in the seventies storyline, where she breathily delivers such gems as “What would dad do?” and “If I wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.” Can these be the same people who won Academy Awards years ago?
I very much wanted to enjoy Cloud Atlas. I have a soft spot for sprawling science fiction epics, even when they’re not very good. I enjoyed Watchmen for what it was, and I liked V for Vendetta and The Matrix, too. I find that I can tune these movies out when they get too preachy, while still enjoying them for the big, dumb fun that they are. Unfortunately, Cloud Atlas is too inane to be serious and too serious to be fun. When I saw the film at a midnight screening, everybody clapped through the end credits. Some people were clapping because the credits sequence for Cloud Atlas is one ten-minute “aha” moment that reveals the identities of all the actors from beneath their makeup and prosthetic beards – all these stories really were connected, after all! Others, like me, were clapping because it was three thirty a.m., the movie was over, and it was finally time to go home and go to bed.