Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 October 2012

Cloud Atlas

The new film from the Wachowskis (The Matrix and its sequels, Speed Racer)  is also the new film from Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior – I somehow skipped his films Perfume and The International).

Cloud Atlas is split up into six separate storylines that do not so much as converge as repeat in odd kind of ways. They reverberate. So, for example, in the 1930s a young composer writes letters to his lover at Cambridge while he attempts to write a symphony before he commits suicide (we find this out in the film's first 5 minutes, so it isn't a spoiler). Those letters are found by a young reporter in the 1970s, who is attempting to write an exposé of a certain nuclear power plant. The mystery novel that the woman writes is read in 2012 by a publisher who goes through a very humorous ordeal as he is locked into a nursing home, and he later makes a movie of his travails. That movie is seen in the 22nd century by a young clone who is being used as slave labor, etc. etc. You get my drift. Cloud Atlas is grand in scale like the Wachowskis' previous movies, and the Wachowskis directed the futuristic sequences of the film; Tykwer's sections were the 1930s, the 1970s and the one in the present day.

Each of the threads is fairly interesting on its own, and each also manages to be a basically different genre of story. Some are more interesting than others; I was not at all, for example, interested in the story that takes place in the distant future on a random island. But here's the thing: all the stories take place at the same time in the movie. Like a hyper-realized version of The Hours where there are six stories instead of three, and where the viewer is asked to connect the stories as best she can.

But they're not connected, or at least they don't work together. In book form, I think they might, and this movie made me really want to read a novel that I suspect works really well, but as for the film, we switch back and forth from time to time and the links between the storylines (that I was waiting for) just never appear.

Worse yet, nearly all of the main actors appear in each of the storylines. I found this head-spinning. Not because I couldn't make sense of it, but because it actually does not make sense. Tom Hanks plays a kind of mountebank quack doctor in the storyline in the 19th century, a blackmailing hotelier in 1930, a nuclear physicist in the 1970s, a gangster/autobiographer in the present day, an actor in the 22nd century, and a kind of Celtic family man in the distant future. All of the actors have these kinds of repeats, and they create additional resonances. Or rather: they are intended to create additional resonances, as though looking into the eyes of a young woman you just met you might see the lover who left you forty years earlier come back into your life serendipitously. I appreciate this sentiment. I think often, in fact, about the ways people come back to us and the ways in which the people remind us of others in our lives. But the actor-doubling doesn't actually have these resonances. It only simulates them. It makes no sense, in fact, that Halle Berry should play the doctor in the 22nd century who helps Bae Doona get free as well as a Jewish woman in 1930 married to a doddering old composer. I mean why? I found myself spending much of the film thinking about why the actors were playing certain characters instead of actually watching the movie. In other words, Cloud Atlas presents its audience with a puzzle that has no solution, and one is invited to solve the puzzle over the duration of the film. Do I think the film would have worked better without all of this doubling? I am pretty sure I still would've disliked it, but I would have disliked it less.

And then there's the movie's politics. The "message" of Cloud Atlas – and make no mistake, this is a "message" film (like The Matrix Revolutions was) – is that our actions have reverberations. The small ethical choices we make in our day-to-day lives have effects that we cannot know until a long time into the future. We must behave ethically now and refuse to make decisions which harm other people, because we are all connected and because we do not know yet what the results of the good we do will be. I am wholly on board with this sentiment. We are all connected. We must work toward being better at who we are.

But the scope of the film as made presents these ethical choices as general: pro-human, anti-slavery, pro-freedom, pro-art, anti-big-business. All of those choices are obvious choices. Should we oppose slavery? Should we fight the plan that a big oil company has to blow up a nuclear power plant? Should we try to stop people from killing our families? Ya think? And yet, Cloud Atlas does not present any instances when such decisions are actually difficult. The world, even centuries from now, is only ever seen Manichaeistically. It's easy to choose when the choices are "good" and "bad."

There are two gorgeous moments in the movie – both from Tykwer – one in which an elderly Jim Broadbent remembers being young and the film swirls around him and he is kissing his girlfriend on a train platform, and another where Ben Whishaw in the 1930s is standing in the bedroom of his beloved in the 1970s, a continent away, and then the vision fades. I would have loved more chiasmatic plays with time like these, but they are, sadly, few. I want also to say that I thought Ben Whishaw was perfect in this: charming, beautiful, and charismatic, and because I liked his storyline best, it might have made me the most angry of all of them. What looks as though it is something that will be lovely ends up being just one more cinematic love affair between men where one of them kills himself. I have seen that enough times, thanks.

I am sorry for being so frustrated with this film. I really did want to like it. But Cloud Atlas is preoccupied with form so much that it can't manage to tell even one straightforward story.