Friday, November 2, 2012

Film Review: Cloud Atlas

I knew someone in high school who knew just a little bit of Eastern philosophy.  But they thought they sounded so wise that they didn't realize how foolish the appeared.

I had that same impression with Cloud Atlas.  To say that it is a bad movie is to miss the point.  A bad movie that knows that it is bad is like a good friend who knows he's told a bad joke.  You wink and go on enjoying their company.

But Cloud Atlas wants so much to be IMPORTANT.  It hits you over the head that this movie MATTERS.  That it is DEEP.

In fact, it SHOUTS it at you the entire time.  Rather than letting the narrative simply unfold, they fill it with unecessary voiceovers.  Narration is a short-cut in movie story-telling.  Rarely does it work well (as it did in  The Shawshank Redemption).  But usually it is a simple cheat.  The voice overs in Cloud Atlas tell us what is happening between the characters instead of letting the characters be discovered through their dialogue and action.

And the way the voiceovers hit the themes is about a subtle as a sledgehammer.  This is not a movie that respects your intelligence.  This is a movie that takes pauses to explain things to you because it doesn't think that you can follow its DEEP, IMPORTANT MESSAGE found in the story.

And what is the story?

Well, that gets a little complicated.  There is a reason the trailer was 6-minutes long. 

There are 6 stories set in different times that intercut throughout the film:

A.  The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849):  A young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) makes a slave deal with a trader in the South Pacific.  Along the way he becomes sick and is tended to by a strange doctor (Tom Hanks).  And he also befriends a runaway slave (David Gyase).

B.  Letters from Zedelghem (1931):  A gay musician (Ben Wishaw) becomes an assistant to an old composer (Jim Broadbent)

C.  Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975):  A journalist (Halle Berry)uncovers an evil plot surrounding a nuclear power plant.

D.  The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012):  An elderly book editor (Broadbent again) is tricked into being imprisoned in a nursing home.

E.  An Orison of Sonmi~451 (2144):  A clone servant (Boona Bae) is enlisted to start a rebellion in Neo Seoul

F.  Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (post-apocalyptic future):  Zachry (Hanks again), a shepherd in the post-apocalypse must help a Precient (humans who are still technologically advanced) name Merynym (Berry again) to find a special place in the mountains, all the while he is tempted by the Devil (also called Ole' Georgie played by Hugo Weaving).

If that sounds like a strange combination of stories, it is.

And they don't connect.

That is probably the most frustrating thing about this movie.  Sure, there is some overlap of some characters, but it is so tangential that it is maddening.  The trailers imply that these characters are born and re-born and keep interacting with each other.  Hence the use of the same actors over and over again. 

But it becomes very clear in the first half hour that this is not the case.  The leads appear in all 6 stories but to varying degrees.  Tom Hanks does not play the same character re-incarnated in each of the 6 stories.  In one story the character is born as Wishaw, the next as Halle Berry, and only later as Hanks.  But this totally defeats the point of having the actors keep popping up in each timeline.  At that point it does not help the story, but distracts from it.

On a side note, I know that some people were upset at making Caucasian actors look Asian through special make-up effects.  As a half-Asian man, this didn't bother me.  If anything crossed the stereotype line it was Halle Berry's make-up in Story B.  In that she plays a Jewish woman, but did they have to pound home their point by giving her a giant hook nose? 

The acting is not very good either.  Hanks does some fine work in Story F, but not much else stands out.  And I'm sorry, but Doona Bae is just awful.  She is supposed to be a character so charismatic that she launches an uprising and is later revered as a god.  But if her "rousing" speech was a youtube video, it would barely get 20 hits.  She is duller than a clay spoon.

Again another digression: there is a not so subtle dig at Christ in this movie with the character Somni.  The idea is that she teaches some moral lessons and stands up for what she believes.  Then the primitives of the post-apocalypse worship her as a goddess, but the smarter Precients know better.  The implication that good moral teachers will be worshipped as gods by the stupid, implying that this is the case with Christ.

But the main problem with Cloud Atlas is that most of the characters are worthless.  I couldn't find myself caring about most of them.  The lead in Story B is a self-centered, selfish idiot.  Story C hinges on a love at first sight that is as believable as a Bill Clinton denying an affair.  Story D revolves around a character who is despicable in morals and also deeply stupid (I actually turned to my wife at one point during the this storyline and asked "What the hell is he doing?").  And Story E only makes sense if the future does not have video cameras (which it does).

That leaves only Story A and Story F, which are actually not that bad.  Story A may be trite and well trod (finding humanity in a slave), but it has an advantage of not have revolting heroes.  Story F is actually kind of fascinating if you can get passed the future slang.  Even the parts where the devil actually appears (and apparently is love-child of the Green Goblin and Michigan J. Frog) are fascinating.  But even this story falls apart with large plot holes.  Merynym, arrives on super-high tech ship and needs Zachry to guide her through mountains.  Why not take a helicopter?  Or did that piece of "advanced" technology get lost but super-floaty-speedboats are still around?

One more digression.  One of the main themes of Cloud Atlas is that every life matters, whether it is a slave, an elderly person, a clone servant, or superstitious shepherd.  But in Story D Hanks plays a mobster author who throws his biggest critic off of a roof.  This is done not to fill you with horror or pity for the poor critic.  It is done for shocking laughs.  But you can't have respect for human life as one of your central points and then have someone horribly murder another for comedic effect.  This kind of thematic schizophrenia serves to remind us that the makers or this movie (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) have no idea what they are trying to say.  They are repeating empty platitudes that they don't quite understand in order to sound profound.

Cloud Atlas is cinematic sophistry.  It promises insight and wisdom and heart.  But it is all as insubstantial as the cloud in its title.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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