Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012)
Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker

3 out of 5

Six separate stories unfold across six different time periods in Cloud Atlas, an ambitious adaptation of the "unfilmable" David Mitchell novel about the synchronicity of souls from the passengers on a mid-19th century merchant vessel to the hunter-gatherer hermits of a post-apocalyptic island paradise.  It's dystopian sci-fi and a conspiracy caper and a friendship-through-adversity real-life adventure and a tragic romance and a happy romance.  Mostly, it's a feature length bout of déjà vu as a small group of recurring characters - or, at least, their essences - keep colliding with each other and harken back to one another through various era-appropriate methods of communication (a journal, a recording of classical music, a futuristic video message, etc).  A rich cinematic smorgasboard of themes and ideas, Cloud Atlas often plays out as writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker intended - one long, elegant montage about the nature of freedom and the possibilities of love.

On the other hand, the buffet-style approach can encourage overindulgence.  Because the filmmakers choose to run each story simultaneously, crosscutting across several centuries of action, Cloud Atlas presents information at a rate that's almost too fast to absorb.  It's never completely disorienting, but it can be disappointing when the film abruptly drops an intriguing thread - like the flight of a test tube-born cocktail waitress (Doona Bae) from a pernicious omni-government in 22nd-century Korea - to dutifully advance a less exciting storyline.  It also doesn't help that some portions run out of steam early (Jim Broadbent as a publisher confined to a nursing home is as wild as it sounds), and it becomes a waiting game to see exactly how the audience's patience will be paid off.

That, however, is the other issue with Cloud Atlas.  For a movie marketed with the tagline "everything is connected," it doesn't deliver on this promise as much as it should.  The colorblind, gender-bending casting of the same actors as multiple characters in each of the six chapters is just a distracting shorthand for what the film claims to be trying to do.  (And, despite a Herculean effort in makeup and costuming, a painful reminder that very few men make attractive or even convincing women.)  The characters constantly talk about their potential past lives or the unexpected nostalgia brought on by chance encounters with strange people or objects, but the movie often stops short of making these connections explicit.  There's something to be said for discretion.  But when it comes to the meaningful metaphysical kismet that is supposed to define this project, Cloud Atlas does too much telling and not enough showing.

At least what is being shown looks beautiful.  Every story receives a unique, often stunning, visual motif to match its genre and tone, and the Wachowskis again prove they are the undisputed masters of seamless, unobtrusive CGI.  Unfortunately, the audience is rarely given the proper amount of time to savor these harmonies.  Music, the composer Claude Debussy once said, is the space between the notes.  By that measure, Cloud Atlas is more cacophony than symphony.  Financed in part by the Wachowskis' personal coffers, it's fun to watch the filmmakers fearlessly manifest the book's weird idiosyncrasies in full-on splendid detail, like the Cajun-inflected internal struggle between Tom Hanks' island dweller and his dandy demon, Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving).  But  as a film, it's simply too dense and discomfiting to effectively register its point about the interconnectedness of individual lives.  Somehow, the characters in Cloud Atlas seem to know exactly what to make of it all.  I wish I did, too.

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