Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas
**1/2 out of **** 
Here it is: An ambivalent review.

Cloud Atlas is a gigantic film that must have been a massive undertaking and seems to exist in a valley between the mountains of astonishment and the cliffs of the ridiculous. You are essentially watching six –yes, six movies at the same time! They are all different genres telling stories of human oppression ranging between dystopian science fiction and modern dark comedy. They also span across time from the mid-nineteenth century to an unknown post-apocalyptic time. The stories are edited with intercutting constantly interrupting one another.

So what’s it like watching it? Imagine taking Waterworld, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Logan’s Run, Billy Budd, The China Syndrome and One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest, then abridging each one and splicing them all together giving the audience five minutes of each film at a time. I found this to be disorienting but I think I started to get used to it at the two-hour mark. Oh yeah… This movie is three hours. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just need to let you know what you’re up against.

An interesting thing the film does to connect the stories, is the use of the same cast throughout. This gives us a showcase of the range our given players possess and the work of very busy makeup artists.

Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon are all challenged with playing a range of characters varying in race, sex, good, and evil. The results range between convincing and not so convincing. Sometimes, it’s like watching a high caliber cast do experimental theater. Then again, you may feel like you’re watching an Austin Powers movie, feeling all too aware of the multiple performance gimmick.

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry seem to be getting top billing in the domestic marketing campaign for this film. Despite their good work in the film, they seem like bait for the wrong audience. If you hated Magnolia, Babel, Short Cuts, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Tree of Life, then Cloud Atlas doesn’t stand a chance with you. Personally, I can say that most of those movies I felt unsure of on my first viewing but eventually grew to love them.

The content and form of this movie is quite like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Around the middle, I was finding it as difficult to enjoy as Charlie Kaufman's very challenging Synechdoche, New York. If I were to compare this movie to something much closer, it would be Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan-themed, I'm Not There. which left me with a very similar feeling to this movie.

I was never bored when watching this film, no matter how strange it felt. The truth is, I felt frustrated getting yanked out of a story when it started to get interesting and thrown into another one for which I didn’t care as much. I was on the edge of my seat in awe during the futuristic Orwellian nightmare story, felt the pain of the melancholy drama surrounding the young composer in nineteen-thirty-one Belgium, and laughed out loud several times during the modern comedy about the elderly publisher tricked into incarceration at a rest home.

The most challenging part for me was the post-apocalyptic tribe speaking in a futuristic form of English for which I had trouble adapting. That story took the longest time for me to care about. I eventually did but it felt like the most awkward of all the film’s interruptions. 

This movie's form is working with the assumption that the central theme, being the struggle for freedom, can connect these stories in a philosophical and emotional sense. Seeing this movie once wasn’t enough for me to be sure if it really succeeds at that. All I know is that I saw something very strong.

There are also more literal connections between characters. For example: A character from one story may be reading the preserved diary of a character from another. The movie keeps making the statement, often literally through dialogue, that we are all connected. Sure, it’s pretentious. Then again, many great movies are. The novel by David Mitchell, on which the film is based, is said to work in a similar way but organized differently. I am easily curious if this works better on paper.

The stories are split up among the film’s three directors you have Andy and Lana Wachowski who were both responsible for The Matrix Trilogy as well as an awesome little thriller called Bound. Then there is Tom Tykwer, who is famous for the German movie, Run Lola Run but made two very underrated films, The Princess and the Warrior and Perfume. A marathon of their films would easily be labeled, "A Celebration of the Subversive.” They love clever outlaws and anyone struggling against the intimidation of power. A collaboration between the Wachowsis and Tykwer sounded very promising and had me very exited to see this ambitious endeavor.

Now that I have seen it, my brain won’t rest. Is it great? Is it horrible? Does it need an alternate cut? Does it need to be seen multiple times in order be appreciated? Maybe someone will see it once and instantly fall in love. Maybe they will walk out of the theater as I saw several people do during my viewing. What is certain is that this is no mainstream mindless escape. This is a film with a vision and is nothing to forget about. 

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