Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012) – Review

Review: Cloud Atlas is an extraordinarily ambitious piece, woven together with absolute brilliance. The film features six stories about human relationships throughout the history of man, dealing with love, friendship, freedom, and bravery among other things – each connected in some way to the last.

Cloud Atlas is structured as a series of six shorts that are all intercut to tell a story about human resilience (the triumph of will and pursuit of truth and love). In each short there seems to be a love story, a friendship and a journey that leads to the flourishing of freedom (freedom from bondage, freedom to love, freedom from persecution, freedom from wrongful imprisonment, freedom from tyranny, freedom to find truth, freedom from past mistakes, and just plain freedom – the right to be free). Each short is also linked by the work of a character in an earlier story (a book, political teachings, letters, and journal). The lead character in each future reads about or sees the story of the character in the short before theirs, which seems to have an impact on them. There is also a piece of music that seems to exist outside of time that links all the stories (much like the comet birthmark), seeming to indicate these characters are also connected on a spiritual level as well (like destiny continually bringing them together across time inhabiting different bodies – which makes sense out of having the same group of actors play different roles in each time period).

While the stories are all fluid, and the overall piece has a sound structure, the high level concepts in the film, like destiny and ‘everything is connected’, feel a bit messier. The comet birthmark for one – does this suggest that the spirit or soul of the person is transferred across time, reincarnated over and over and drawn again and again to other versions of the people they loved and truly befriended in past lifetimes? There are so many references in the film; it would take multiple viewings to catch them all. Is there a puzzle that can be solved or mystery unraveled by acquiring and linking all these connections? Or, are all the connections just an artifice, merely present as a McGuffin – or a through line for the narratives? It certainly does encourage further thought, which can be taken as a good thing.

Cinematically, the film is a massive undertaking (the biggest German production of all-time), with the six stories split between two crews. Director Tom Tykwer wrote and directed Letters from Zedelghem, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, while the Wachowskis (Andy and Lana) wrote and directed The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, An Orison of Sonmi-451 and Sloosha’s Crossin’ an Ev’rythin’ After. And yet, the most impressive aspect of the film is how well it flows and how well all the elements of the different stories go together, both building on each other and existing as separate narratives. From and writing and editing standpoint, it is one of the most astonishing films in recent memory.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis get the audience to care about the characters in every story. There is not one story or set of characters that dominate the audiences’ attention (which is vital to the film’s success – especially since it is 172 minutes long – one short cannot take persistence leaving the others to be a lull in the overall narrative, and conversely one cannot be particularly less engaging as this would disjoint the flow as well). The film, along with great characters, is filled with gripping tension, exciting action and compelling drama, but also infused with enough comedy and fun moments to give the audience a break and let them breath. All the stories are cut so that their own three-act structures fall around the same time in the film, giving the whole piece an overall momentum and tone that is in sync.

However, the film has some issues as well. Chiefly, its thematic messages (everything is connected and freedom) are a bit heavy handed. The viewer is practically beaten over the head, repeatedly, with the themes. Some of the connections are (somewhat) subtle (like Timothy Cavendish reading Javier Gomez’s book on the train or Vyvyan Ayrs dreaming about the eatery where Sonmi-451 works), but most are essentially grandstanded and shoved in the viewer’s face constantly (seemingly assuming that there is no other way that the viewer could make the connections – like the comet birthmark being explicitly focused on). This does detract from the film quite a bit, taking away from the wonder of the story. Force-feeding the film’s ideology blatantly to your audience is not really the best way to go about it.

Also, the film goes to great lengths to present clearly established good guys and bad guys. There are almost no complex characters struggling with both dark and light elements (Zachry being maybe the only one who the audience truly questions, with Timothy possibly being a bit dubious at the beginning). Overall, the characters are well-drawn and dramatically interesting (making for good protagonists and antagonists), but when it comes to their morals they are all fairly cookie cutter. The audience never doubts the intensions of any characters, nor are they ever skeptical about a character. The character roles are just too cut and dry (this one is unilaterally good and this one bad).

Another issue arises as a result of the actors playing multiple roles across the six stories. The make-up is sometimes unintentionally comical or at least noticeably odd looking. This takes the audience out of the moment (which is something, as a filmmaker, that you never want). But really, this is more of a minor issue that does not take away from the film that much as a whole.

Issues aside, Cloud Atlas is a magnificent, entertaining and engaging film, and one that is essential in today’s film landscape (where blockbusters are mostly sequels and generic broad studio fair). This is a film that dares to be challenging and adventurous. I wish there were more blockbusters like it.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Both Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made great films in the past (Run Lola Run and The Matrix respectively), but those films were over a decade ago with unsatisfying work since. Cloud Atlas sees their collective return to prominence as talented and important filmmakers (and is my favorite of their films to date). Suddenly, I am looking forward to their next films (the Wachowskis are in preproduction on Jupiter Ascending).

The work of the crew on the film is wonderful. The score composed by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer has a beauty to it. Their Cloud Atlas Sextet feels both timeless and musically important, functioning as the emotional nexus of the film. Their score has dramatic weight and magnitude to it as well, accompanying the scale and scope of the film presenting a wondrous tone (I like this piece). Visually the film is splendid – capturing the feel, delicacy and awe of each story. Cinematographer Frank Griebe and production designer Uli Hanisch worked with Tykwer and cinematographer John Toll and production designer Hugh Bateup worked with the Wachowskis. Even with two separate filming crews, there is a shared aesthetic to the film (it is actually tough to tell which crew shot which section) – one that features a very clean and glossy look, but with a hint of grit and grim behind the scenes. The photography is stunning, allowing the colors of the film to pop; while the design of most of the sets seems to be a mixture of a nice façade that when looked upon closer shows levels of decrepitude. There seems to be a constant clashing of clean and glossy elements with dirty and worn out ones (both visually and narratively).

The company of actors must have had a lot of fun on the film, many getting to play six characters. The performances are mostly good, but there are also a few instances in which it is clear that certain actors are better suited to particular roles than others. Tom Hanks, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, and Hugo Weaving are all very good, but Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw steal different moments of the film (and Halle Berry is not terrible, which is really all you can ask for). Hugh Grant is also his charming self (and has a fantastic, completely different appearance).

Summary & score: Cloud Atlas warrants multiple viewings (and at least one of those should be in the cinema to take full advantage of its grand and radiant scale and scope). The question is – will it get better with each viewing or grow tiresome (I really do not know), its initial splendor revealed to be a dilapidated mess (much like the Neo-Seoul eatery once the customers have gone home)? But, after one viewing, it is remarkable. 9/10 

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