Friday, November 9, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS Soars With Grand Ambition and Mind-Blowing Imagination


- CLOUD ATLAS is a sprawling, ambitious, thematically-rich epic that is practically bursting with ideas, philosophy, high-concept storytelling, and audio-visual fireworks. It's also an unabashedly earnest movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. In short, a lot of people will probably hate it. But personally, I was totally captivated by its mind-blowing ideas and time-spanning story. To see a movie that looks this good, with this sort of A-list cast and incredible f/x - to see a movie of that high production value tackle themes so heady and grand - well, you couldn't ask for a better alternative to what typically passes as blockbuster filmmaking these days. The Wachowskis have always pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema - and that's brought them both mainstream success (the Matrix), and popular dismissal (the still-underrated cult classic Speed Racer). But Cloud Atlas might just be their most boundary-pushing film yet - and also their best. This film has it all - pulpy adventure, star-crossed romance, hysterical comedy, and imagination-igniting sci-fi. But when all was said and done, I felt like I had just watched a very personal film from a group of artists telling a story their way. Despite all of its grandeur, Cloud Atlas still feels like a thesis-statement film - a personal rumination on life, the universe, and everything. This is one of the must-see movies of 2012.

Cloud Atlas' premise can seem intimidatingly vast on paper, but I actually found it fairly straightforward and easy to grasp. Essentially, the film takes place over six different time periods, with people and events in each period having some sort of game-changing effect on the subsequent era. As the tapestry unfolds, we realize we're not just seeing the story of six disparate groups of people, but of six interrelated events that serve as a microcosm of humanity's story. In these six events, we see mankind rise, fall, and rise again. We see the seeds of the sorts of hatred and divisiveness that ultimately lead to annihilation and apocalypse, and we also see the sorts of bonds of love and friendship that could prove to be our salvation.

The oldest era explored in the film is in the 1840's. In this story, a young man meets with his slave-owning father-in-law and prepares to set sail on a business venture. One of the slaves stows away on the ship, and becomes an unlikely friend and ally of the businessman, especially in the face of a sinister doctor who is plotting against him. In 1936, a young, secretly gay musician leaves his lover to become the apprentice of a reclusive master composer. In 1973, a crusading journalist seeks to expose dangerous corruption at a nuclear power plant. The powers-that-be at the plant are on to her, and will stop at nothing to silence her story, and anyone who tries to act as an informant to her. In 2012, a book publisher squanders his unlikely, late-in-life success by accumulating debts and getting in with the wrong sort. He seeks help from his wealthy brother, who - instead of helping - prematurely confines him to a prison-like nursing home to get him out of his hair. In 2144, revolutionaries lead an uprising against an oppressive regime. Their rallying cry revolves around the liberation of "fabricants" - a genetically-modified slave-class of clones, from their subservient and demeaning way of life. One of those fabricants - Sonmi-451, becomes an unlikely messianic figure once recruited by the rebels. Finally, in 2321, earth is a post-apocalyptic mess. The lucky ones live in remote sky-cities, while others have reverted to a primitive, tribal, savage way of life down below. An emissary from one of the cities travels to tribal lands on a unique mission - trying to find a long-lost site that might open up communication with other worlds. Perhaps, she hopes, humanity's ultimate salvation from this post-Fall desolation lies in the stars.

Much attention has been paid to how the six stories interweave. Again, the film's trio of directors - the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run), tell each story in a fairly easy-to-grasp manner. But what the do brilliantly - in a departure from the novel on which this is based - is to intercut between each of the stories. The theme of six, of the sextet, comes back again, as the film is loosely divided into six thematic sections, with a prologue and epilogue as bookends. This could have been confusing, but by elegantly tying each segment of each story together through thematic links - discovery, capture, escape, pursuit, etc. - each of the six stories rides the same wave of momentum. It may sound cheesy, but the movie really is structured in a symphonic manner - it ebbs, flows, and builds to a narrative crescendo. The name "Cloud Atlas" comes from the piece of music - the Cloud Atlas Sextet - composed in 1936 by one of our key protagonists. And it's fitting, because the film unfolds in a manner that mirrors its titular composition. It's sort of awesome.

Now, from a narrative standpoint, the way the stories relate is pretty straightforward. Key events in one era come into play in the next era and beyond, causing a domino effect of history. But there are also all sorts of notable crossover moments and similarities between the eras. Names recur. Motifs come back. Family legacies extend across eras. This is a movie that has many, many layers. Beneath the surface is an ocean of connectivity. But the directors go even a step further - by casting the same troupe of actors as different characters in each story, in each era. Here is where the movie *could* become complicated if you let it. One could spend hours trying to decipher the connections between the characters played by each actor. And one could interpret the nature of these multiple roles in different ways. You could say it's just an acting exercise - that it's just an excuse to have talented actors play different parts. Or you could look at it as each set of characters played by an actor as representing different incarnations of one soul. This is the interpretation that I like, but I also wouldn't overthink it too much. The point, to me, is to show the different types of journeys that one soul can take. Some are eternally evil - witness the characters played by the great Hugo Weaving, each reliably ruthless and sinister. Some are eternally good - the characters played by Halle Barry, for example, always seem to be crusaders fighting for truth and justice. And some, like the characters played by Tom Hanks, seem to be on a more up-and-down path - always torn between right and wrong.

But speaking of the actors in this - wow. Cloud Atlas is a total tour de force, acting-wise. I'll preface by saying that each segment of the film has a different tone, so some of the acting is silly, over-the-top, or melodramatic - but, it's supposed to be. The cool thing is that each time period evokes not just a certain time, but a specific film genre. So the 70's-set segments have the drab, gritty look of a 70's-style crime thriller (think All The President's Men), while the future-world segments evoke a mixture of Star Wars-style swashbuckling with Blade Runner-esque neon-lit dystopia. The 2012 segments are an homage to classic screwball comedy - with an almost Python-esque wit. In any case, much of Cloud Atlas is intentionally pulpy, melodramatic, comedic, etc. And that makes the varied acting we see from the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, and the rest of the cast that much more remarkable. Those are some of the film's real MVP's, as far as I'm concerned. What they do in this one is pretty stunning. Hanks plays a scheming villain, a do-gooding whistle-blower, a simple tribesman ... and makes all of them work. The most classic, Hanksian work is in the post-apocalyptic tribesman role, where Hanks brings an fantastic groundedness, earnestness and moral complexity to a story that is fairly epic and crazy. To look at the sum total of what he does here - it's mind-blowing. I don't know if it will be recognized come awards season - perhaps the pulpiness of some of the characters will be held against him (or his brief, silly turn as a foul-mouthed Irish writer in the 2012 segment). But holy crap, this is some of the most impressive work I've ever seen from Hanks. Same goes for Halle Barry - she was probably my biggest question mark going into the film - could she pull this off? She does - effortlessly playing a number of roles - most less showy than Hanks, but very effective nonetheless. She particularly shines in the 70's segments as an intrepid reporter with an axe to grind. But I also thought she was pretty great (and incredibly kick-ass), in the post-apocalyptic segments, as a woman on a quest for answers. Weaving - wow. He recurs as a villain throughout the film, but he plays everything from an expressionless hired thug, to a battleaxe of a woman in 2012 (yep, Weaving plays a woman!), to a demonic creature who haunts Tom Hanks in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Awesome. Finally, Jim Broadbent is the guy who may get the most critical acclaim, because he's just such a scene-stealer. Chiefly, as a book publisher trapped in an existential nightmare in 2012. Broadbent is just hilarious in these segments. But he also shines in the darker and more somber 1936 segments, as a master composer who comes into conflict with his young apprentice. Jim Sturges is also amazing in this. Keith David kicks ass. Hugh Grant, of all people, surprised me - he plays in his wheelhouse as a smarmy CEO, but also (quite convincingly!) plays a savage tribal leader. Who woulda' thunk it? Susan Sarandon has some memorable moments. James D'Arcy is also great, particularly when you think about how he so convincingly plays the same character as a young and old man, in the 1930's and 1970's.

But I will single out one other MVP of the cast - Doona Bae. She is the heart and soul of the film as Sonmi-451. Even without speaking much ... it's all in her eyes. She is a real find, and I can't wait to see her in more movies. Now, it's occasionally awkward when they've got her playing some of the other characters that are more out of her comfort zone. But as Sonmi, man, she just nails it, and is instantly iconic in the part. If there's one lasting image that CLOUD ATLAS leaves you with, it may just be wide-eyed Sonmi confronting the horrific reality of her Fabricant existence, that until now she was blissfully ignorant of.

Some of that iconography can again be attributed to the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Again, can't say enough about their directorial prowess here. Prior to this, I thought of the Wachowskis as fantastic genre directors, but now I put them in the categories of great directors - period. That said, the sci-fi and action stuff in Cloud Atlas is just off-the-chain and badass as hell. Get these guys on Star Wars. At the same time, the comedy stuff in 2012, the period piece drama in the 1840's and 1930's, the gritty crime drama in the 1970's ... equally well-done. And the icing on the cake is how it's all so skillfully woven together. The various time-periods interweave in a way that is exciting, that keeps the momentum high - but that also brilliantly ties scenes together from a thematic perspective.

As I said, it's rare that such an epic, blockbuster film can also feel so personal. But this is a movie that is bursting with heart and soul and humanity. It's a thesis statement on the human condition, a look at who we are and where we've been and where we might go. Not everyone wants such ambition in what is, in some ways, a popcorn flick. But I gladly absorbed it all and went along for the ride. To me, this was big, thought-provoking, cosmic storytelling - the kind of thing I wish we'd see more of at the movies.

My Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Finally, someone else who appreciates this film.