Cloud Atlas – The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer make the most expensive independant film of all time. (film review)

Lana and Andy Wachowski have definitely got a “real is not really what you think real is” thing going. With the enormous success of their Matrix trilogy and then the follow-up successes with films such as V for Vendetta, they have established themselves as a powerful force in that world between worlds narrative. Tom Tykwer gave us the thrilling pace of Run Lola Run and besides being a great writer and director is a huge film buff which may account for the very interesting way that Cloud Atlas keeps quoting and parodying itself, as if it were already an established cult success made years earlier.

I read in a recent review that this is a film that can’t work out if it’s a blockbuster or art house and suffers for not having made that decision and that is a fair comment. It’s a really odd film in many ways, and there seems to be a kind of review scramble on to work out what its problems are – and also why you can’t help liking it so much. Well, I fall into the later category at least. I enjoyed the film and had a wonderful viewing experience.  For me the three hours (!) flew by. However I do have to concede it is an odd film, with some sublime moments and some mediocre moments.

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Cloud Atlas is enormous. I mean, enormous!  It is based on the novel by David Mitchel which was shortlisted for the Booker the year it came out.  Apparently the book has its own cult following.  A large difference between the book and the film is the narrative is chronological in the book.  The film chooses instead to tell the stories in narrative order – we start with six expositions, six rising actions, six climaxes, six falling actions and finally six denouements. The result is an intense experience of cinematic montage working in with an alternate narrative structure. Despite this, the film is not difficult to follow – if you are willing to let it take you over. It is different to any film I have ever seen in its structure, however few films have the scope and the magnitude to be able to pull this off in the first place. In many ways it’s a movie times six, and one of its successes lies in Alexander Berner’s deft editing and the fact that no story seems unfulfilled, bereft or even – strikingly – carrying any plot holes.

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One of the oddities of Cloud Atlas is the relationship the film carries with its actors. This is one of the keys to the films successes and one of the possible problems. The Twelve main actors portray many different characters who rely heavily on (sometimes) excellent makeup and (sometimes) dreadful makeup to have them appear to “re-occur” as a variety of nationalities and sexes. There are times when this conceit works very well.  Hugo Weaving as an evil nurse in a retirement home has “legend” written all over it, and Hugh Grant as a blood-thirsty cannibal is so much fun you almost can’t bear it. However, the makeup used to make Caucasians Asian and Asians Caucasian is so peculiar that it is completely distracting, let alone unconvincing and poor old Jim Sturgess has to spend a large amount of screen time this way. There is a wonderfully credits moments when all the actors have their “faces” revealed next to their names and it is fun to realize there were many occurrences you missed the first time around. This is another thing that works in Cloud Atlas – there is so much internal referencing, that you can see the film being popular with fans for years as they play cinema-crosswords matching them all together. Tom Hanks, who is the “man’s man” of that wide scope intelligent feel good film is a bit of a let down because he is starkly obvious in all his incarnations. High Grant does a much better job (I know I know) of “being” each of his incarnations and Jim Broadbent is completely at home with it. Hugo Weaving, the Wachowskis darling is perfect for all his roles as is to be expected, and Susan Sarandon (as you can hear in the trailer) does as much with her beautiful voice as she does with her commanding presence.   Halle Berry is wonderful, particularly as Louisa Rae and Ben Wishaw is gorgeous and constitutes the other powerhouse performance.

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Then, after all the above, the philosophy of Cloud Atlas – the hinges that allow for our time and story jumping – is another of the oddities that works marvelously at times and falls into almost unbearable schmultz at others. The unbearable moments for me were made bearable by the strength of other aspects of the film, but it does get into some very odd territory. The reincarnation theme is impossible to escape with each character resurfacing in different time periods in different “lives” and the sow-what-you-reap theme is played out strongly, but not obviously which gives it a little more power in terms of message. Then there is this funny intuitive theme where people get a “sense” of having been somewhere before, or of having met someone before, but this does not occur with the various battles we must face, so we don’t see folk (for example) continuing a specific struggle down through the ages and through different lives. Unlike the idea of reincarnation, there seems to be no lesson to learn, the bad folk keep coming back just like the good folk and they don’t seem to learn anything particularly from their previous experiences. The resurfacing of souls appears to be random.  There is no hint of a god and no rewards for doing good other than the pleasure and joy one feels and then gives to those around them. Circumstances and events are entirely bound by time, while living souls continue to surface either for brief pockets of time or for long drawn out lives. There is no ‘progression’ inherent in all religious beliefs.  Cloud Atlas is the very incarnation of ‘time and chance happens to all’ except Cloud Atlas thinks it keeps happening to all.

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I have to add a brief word about the splendid music. Composed by co-director Tom Tykwer and his longtime collaborators, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, it is a beautiful feast and an enormous contribution to the wholeness or integrity of the film. Given one of the key stories involves two musicians who write a piece of music they have heard through time and dreams, the music was essential to the substance of the narrative. Have a listen below.  It really is lovely.

There is a piece of me that wants to say “I hope Cloud Atlas makes it.” By that I mean, I do hope it calls itself into cult status. It deserves to.  It’s not as deep as a thinker such as myself would like it to be, but its breadth is enormous and genuinely does make a solid attempt at making up for that. Of course, in terms of revenue it has already exceeded its budget at the box office, so it has been a financial success and no doubt will continue to keep its mysterious investors very well fed. I like the idea of mega-movies being made by independents. There is hope for me in that idea.  I’m not foolish enough to think independent money won’t have its own baggage attached to it, but at least its baggage might be less offensive. This is the first huge film I have seen for a long time with no product placement for example – or if there was any it’s subliminal.  It also didn’t have to politicize or tone down its gender-bending aspects, or beef up its anti-racism white comforts. It’s a genuine vision made real by three visionary directors.  In many ways, it’s the first film of its kind.

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