So good it can make you forgive the Wachowskis for SPEED RACER – and that is really saying something.
Encased, each of us, in his or her own little mantle of flesh, we wander through life – singular, individual, alone. Or so it seems. The individuality we prize so deeply can have side-effects: isolation, alienation. We forget – or perhaps never notice – the inter-connectivity that runs throughout our lives, the intricate web of cause and effect, of action and reaction. Those threads bind us together; perhaps sometimes we feel restrained by them, but in our luckier moments we feel the the joy of communion and solidarity, of shared experience and common ground; we feel that Sense of Wonder that infuses our souls with something grander than the simple struggle for survival – a feeling that life has meaning or at least is worth living. Unfortunately, those gossamer webs connecting us are often too fine to be seen, hidden from view like an optical illusion – a failure of perception. We need to clear our vision, to wipe the scales from our eyes. We may turn to religion, mysticism, meditation, or drugs. Sometimes, we turn to the cinema. One of those times is CLOUD ATLAS.
The new film from the writing-directing triple-team of Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski is an epic tone-poem on the subject of inter-connectivity, portraying lives past, present, and future, whose stories intertwine and feedback on each other, whose themes repeat with variations, like the motifs in a great symphony. The concept may sound precious on the page – pretentious, even confusing – but on screen the results are captivating, almost from beginning to end.
Certainly, there is a little initial trouble; as the various timelines are being laid out and the characters introduced, the narrative gambit feels gimmick being used to goose up individual story lines that may not, in and of themselves, be particularly interesting. Fortunately, within fifteen minutes, the concept begins to coalesce in your mind, helped along by the fact that the various plots parallel each other in ways that make the jumps in time completely logical (figuratively – and sometimes literally – when a door opens in one era, another door closes in a different era).
Also assisting the audience is the casting continuity,which see the major players taking on multiple roles. It is not always clear that each actor is always playing his or her equivalent in the different timelines (in fact, a tell-tale birthmark suggests a completely different line of descent in some cases), but the sense of echoes and reflections is enhanced, increasing our sense of an overall understanding, even if the actual lines of connection require multiple viewings to sort out.
Or perhaps not. One of the sly jokes in CLOUD ATLAS is to bracket its story with Tom Hanks as an elderly version of Zachry (one of many guises he assumes), telling the stories to a band of young children. It’s certainly conceivable that the jumble of events, flip-flopping back and forth in time, are simply the result of senility, an accidental mash-up by an old coot who keeps forgetting one plot and jumping to another.
CLOUD ATLAS is filled with references and allusions to other works (everything from Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad), which might help us get a grasp on how to read this sprawling epic. I’m sure it’s no accident that Moby Dick is conspicuously name-checked – another sprawling epic, the scope and scale of which ultimately wins out over any objections about its ungainly structure.
Strangely, the closest point of comparison I can find for CLOUD ATLAS is the Errol Morris documentary FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL, which told the story of four different people in unusual professions, cutting back and forth, and eventually overlapping dialogue, until the underlying continuity gradually emerged to the viewer, creating a sense of some unified whole that was more than the sum of the parts we were seeing.
The through line running throughout CLOUD ATLAS is freedom-versus-slavery, sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. Even as the film advances its vision of interwining events, the characters fight to find and/or retain their own identify, to defeat the so-called “natural order” of things, in which “the weak are meat, and the strong eat.” The message seems to be the the values we hold high – decency, fairness, equality, dignity – may be, in some sense, unnatural, and the fight to achieve them may be long and hard, but ultimately worth it because there is something eternal in us that cries out to achieve it, at whatever cost.
As piece of technical craftsmanship, CLOUD ATLAS is impeccable. Equally important, the technique is put in the service of a vision with substance; the splashy visuals never usurp the drama. Even the gimmick of casting and recasting the same actors, sometimes under pounds of makeup, becomes part of the fabric, as the cast dig into their roles like actors rather than movie stars, relishing the opportunity to find the subtle differences in relationships and stories the span centuries but somehow remain consistent. Hugh Grant has a kick, playing against type as a savage; Keith David is so strong you wish he were on screen more, and Hugo Weaving proves he has all sorts of different shades and colors he can use to express villainy (most gaudily as the Devil – or at least Zachry’s imagined version of the Devil).
Not everything in CLOUD ATLAS is perfect. The murder of a literary critic is played for cheap laughs (he’s a critic, right, so good riddance!), and the consequence is at least dubious: the murderer’s book becomes a best-seller (a far more likely result would be a brief fifteen minutes of fame during the trial, followed by obscurity in prison). The future scenes, set in Neo Seoul, sometimes descend into second-rate MATRIX-style action, which would be fun in a summer popcorn flick but seems wildly out of place in the grander scheme of things here. The makeup intended to turn Jim Sturgess into a Korean ends up making him look more like Keanu Reeves (an inside joke, perhaps?) At first, Jim Broadbent looks so much alike from scene to scene that we lose track of which era we are watching. And the post-apocalyptic time period sparks unwanted memories of bad ’70s sci-fi telefilms.
Ultimately, these flaws matter little, because the rest of CLOUD ATLAS is so good that it can make you forgive the Wachowskis for SPEED RACER. And that is truly saying something.
CLOUD ATLAS (Warner Brothers, October 26, 2012). Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski; based on the novel by David Mitchell. Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant.