Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas

To say there’s never been a movie like Cloud Atlas before is a bit of an understatement. One has to go back to Intolerance to find some cognate for storytelling this radically different, thematic threading this mathematically elucidated, historical scope this deep and wide (Ebert has already called it “one of the most ambitious movies ever made” – again a necessary understatement). The comparison to the 1919 classic is of course absurd, except that the movie that created Hollywood as we know it, that huge and weird wing and a prayer for cinema as an art form, seems unprepared for, as indeed there’s nothing in literature, philosophy or even religion to prepare us for Cloud Atlas.

What can one say about a movie that says more about slavery than Amistad, more about robot-human hybridization than Blade Runner, more about complicities in composer rivalries than Amadeus, more about Scottish pride than Trainspotting, more about corporate conspiracies than Erin Brockovich, more about nursing home loneliness than Cocoon, more about tragic gay love than The Crying Game, more about the Asian mindset than Raise the Red Lantern, more about the British class system than A Clockwork Orange, more about the flaws of enlightenment thinking than Soylent Green, more about the distant past than Stargate, more about the dystopic future than Idiocracy, more about kids solving mysteries than the Spy Kids, more about dialects than Nell, more about the clash of advanced and primitive civilizations than Avatar, more about medical ethics than, well, any movie yet made? This list can go on and on, but none of those qualities even hint at what this movie’s really about. One can compile lists of movies that could get us in the same stadium genre-wise, like those vast interrelated ensemble affairs like Nashville, Short Cuts, Magnolia, Crash, Babel — but none of those have the same actors playing all those different characters. Or one can find any six movies to combine into this one (I’d probably choose 10,000 BC, I Robot, Moby Dick, Silkwood, Copying Beethoven and Calendar Girls) — but it would reveal nothing of how interrelated each one is at all levels. Or one can split the considerable differences between, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Baraka, Dr. Strangelove and The Time Machine, The Streets of San Francisco and The Fountain to conjure a ghost approximation. Again, a sense of how slippery the movie is to define, nothing about its very real coherence and structure.

This is a movie that, in one of its six interrelated storylines, vividly dramatizes how advanced civilizations, inevitably dying from a lack of love and compassion, need the primitive tribal cultures with their fears and ignorance more than the primitive cultures need them and their superior weapons and healing. But it’s just a backdrop to a backdrop, a way to sell an unlikely romance by demonstrating how even belief systems literally light-years away from each other are fundamentally the same.

This is a movie that envisages fast food in the future as instantaneously created food and fantasy, yet the human servers are even worse off than they are today. This staggering thought — paid off horribly without comment later on — is hardly noticed, just as we hardly notice the future virtual apartment that is more convincingly displayed than ever seen before in a movie, for all the audience can care about at the moment is the way the woman listens to the sleeping man’s heart.

This is a movie where a robot becomes a Christ figure for later characters in the movie after being exposed to second-hand Solzhenitsyn from a centuries-old TV movie (from a book written by an earlier character in the movie). But that linear connection seems unimportant at the time, for all we can feel is how she succeeded on her unlikely rise to God-hood by simply deciding to speak in the first place.

This is a movie where the best trapped-in-an-elevator sequence in movie history is also the best sexy hot babe and older gay guy sequence in film history, but it’s only a minor contrivance designed to advance the plot(s).
This is a movie where Halle Berry plays a kept Jewish woman named Jocasta, Tom Hanks plays an alcoholic novelist who throws a pretentious critic to his death from a 20-story building, Hugh Grant plays a savage aborigine in face paint. But it’s unlikely you’d know who played these roles until the closing credits.

This is a movie that actually dares to document the suffering sea of existences and how deep and wide the ripple waves from all the interconnected affinities grow (or, as one character says, "what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?").

This is a movie where characters bathed in 1970’s brown share a joint at a nuclear power plant sunset and talk about Carlos Casteneda; where a sadistic transvestite nurse is beaten to a bloody pulp by angry soccer fans; where tattooed Maori slaves glare, seedy Scottish innkeepers extort farthings, Korean prostitutes dress in plastic wrap. All of these vividly realized details and hundreds more not only appear so effortlessly presented as if to emerge from the source of creation itself directly (from "Shen," the common mind that is the source of dreams), they are inextricably connected to the plotlines like the motifs and variations of a symphony that vary in suspense and rhythm to build and expand the viewers' capacity for comprehension, compassion, expansiveness until all the senses meld into one and are humming along with cognition organically and so smoothly that everything is happening all at once, without time.

This is a movie where multiple and convoluted storylines become one at the very end, by breaking down the vast dramas of empires gained and lost to their essence of relationships between people, who are shown — as the onion peels itself ("there is no spoon") — to be the same souls.

Ah, I have captured nothing of this movie.

Let’s try again.

All we can say for sure is that Tom Hanks should only act in the future in roles where he has one eye and speaks pidgin English. Or that the movie is a giant fuck you to Christopher Nolan and all the other Matrix wannabes if nothing else — not to mention Hollywood itself, using its own tricks to de-manipulate if ever so slightly. We’d expect that from the Wachovski’s (no longer brothers after Larry became Lana), just as we’d expect a few fighting future Asians with ridiculous weapons and gravity-defying tools. And a few mind-blowing quotes stuck perfectly in the middle of the action to remind us that we are the movie. We get all that of course, as well as “Mr Anderson” always being waved over the proceedings by Hugo Weaving’s many appearances, but this movie is the reverse of the Matrix series. There, the holy book was hidden in a blockbuster genre picture — here the genre plots are hidden in the holy book. And that is why you will hear over and over how it is a great movie that you will hate, because we are not in the West quite comfortable with the idea of reincarnation, much less the idea of a movie showing how reincarnation actually works — how the murders, mass brainwashings, multiple forms of enslavement, and (especially) cannibalism so rampant throughout the film are only important as personal development lessons, like a 2nd grade reader. For all its nifty plot resolutions, the movie is not too escapist to forget that the forces of evil, fear and darkness serve a very noble role of creating a structure for the individual to act against. For all its scale, the movie is not too big to emphasize that it’s the tiny acts of kindness in the face of overwhelming evidence of how meaningless and hopeless life is that changes the world. For all its relentless historical (and futuristic) detail, the movie is not too epic to forget that the world that is changed is only superficially the public world, it is really and only the personal, and the real strength of the movie is that it dares to go to the mask behind that mask, letting it fall away to reveal how the personal isn't even known to the person.

In answering the question: "why do we always make the same mistakes over and over again?" filmmakers Tykwer and Wachovski are humbly content to just show us, without comment. Just think of Hugh Grant playing a savage aborigine for a moment. Again that understatement.

The Wachovski's (from The New Yorker)


Anonymous said...

After reading this, and other info about the movie, I decided I'll need to invest in multiple viewings.

I was not aware of this movie until your review, by the way.

erin said...




pleasepleaseplease submit this...SOMEWHERE! this is the best movie review i have ever read.

does it need to be said? i will see this movie.

(what madness, william. i was almost weeping through this review, that someone has dared to make such a movie. perhaps all is not lost?)