Hair-net is looking good Halle.
Back in the day, and we’re defining ‘the day’ as the pre-TV, Pre Nazi roaring 20’s, montage films were all the rage. Before the techs figured out how to synchronize sound to picture, it was very difficult to tell a conventional a satisfying point A to point B narrative without burying the audience in text cards, or keeping things SUPER simple. The Montage film allowed cinema to deal in complexity, in loftier subjects and ideas, filtered through a whirling series of images communicating in pure emotion what pre-historic technology did not allow to words to express. Naturally, once they figured out which button to press and when and sound came into the picture, montage films were redundant and have remained mostly as the module film students least look forward to ever since.
Cloud Atlas is essentially a montage movie. Its unveils several stories out simultaneously, stories set in different time-zones, different places, told in different tones and different genres, all the usual things that connect ensemble dramas such as this. No, what connects the various narratives in Cloud Atlas is the philosophical supposition of re-incarnation, given tangeability by having the same actors play multiple roles to visualize the concept. That is to say, you know which re-incarnated character carries the soul of Tom Hanks because he will also be played by Tom Hanks. Confusion sidestepped.
You have the tales of a slave trader (Jim Sturgess) befriending a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) on board a 17th century vessel; a young, penniless composer (Ben Whishaw) playing piano man to a decrepit and aged composer (Jim Broadbent) in the 1930’s, a journalist (Halle Berry) trying to get to the bottom of a corporate conspiracy in the 70’s, A ne’er-do-well Publisher’s (Jim Boradbent) plight after being placed in an old folks home under false pretenses in the modern day, an artificially created waitress flesh-robot (Doona Bae) learning how to be a real girl in the not to distant future and in the far depths of the post apocalypse, the story of a simple villager (Tom Hanks) falling in love with a visitor (Halle Berry) from a technologically advanced far away land, whilst trying not to get eaten by tribal cannibals (Including Hugh Grant). I think that’s everything, but if I’ve missed anything it would be an entirely forgivable mistake given how much is going on in this movie.
Now before you ask, I haven’t read the novel, so there’s undoubtedly some more complex meaning and art that I’m missing in the adaptation, but I’ve long been a believer that an adaptation needs to stand on its own, and if it requires knowledge of the source material to fill in the gaps and make it a more satisfying experience then the bad is with the movie, not with me. But I liked Cloud Atlas. I didn’t love it, and I think it has a lot of problems, many of the severe variety, but for me it’s a movie that becomes more than the sum of its parts through sheer rip-roaring ambition and commitment. This is an attempt to make the greatest film ever made, and while it falls way short of that goal, it contains enough flashes of brilliance, ingenuity and boldness that ultimately make it a stark and original experience, worth watching for the moments if not the bigger picture.
I do however think that no story-line in and of itself is a 100%, the closest probably being the Ben Whishaw lead Composer segment, the simplest and most emotionally resonant, perhaps because its purer character story, whilst too many others get caught up in their own plot machinations, wasting precious time and lessening impact. I thought the Doona Bae lead story of the artificially created waitress was very good in its beginning but tailed off into something more generic at its end, but Bae is terrific in it. The conspiracy thriller and the Old person’s home farce were fairly abysmal, whilst the 17th century and post-apocalyptic segments leaned towards the bland, though both had their moments. Everything felt a little too rushed, as if they were trying to cram everything in to an already epic 172 minute running time, and lost a lot of nuance along the way.
Perhaps the main joy of the movie is seeing it’s various actors forced to work their acting muscles unforgivingly in multiple roles. For some reason I love movies where actors play more than one part, so that makes me a bit of sucker for this, but I think it gives you a fantastic, condensed example of what actors are really capable of. Hugh Grant is largely wasted, playing a series of peripheral parts in the various story-lines without getting one to really take centre stage or even play second fiddle, though the image of him as a murderous cannibal is certainly striking. Ben Whishaw inhabits the most developed character and also is the soul of the movie, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess do jobs, whilst Doona Bae excels in a her featured role but is weaker in others. The two stellar performances, the first, somewhat predictably, comes from Hugo Weaving, who only has minor roles but is in full on boss mode and in almost all of them, but particularly in the post-apocalyptic episode, where he plays a malicious voice in Tom Hanks head, and looks like an overgrown, decayed Jiminy Cricket. Glorious.
The second comes from Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks is just one of the best actors on the planet. He’s an easy guy to forget because of his enormous success as an every-man, but the man has never given a bad performance in a movie, and almost invariably the strongest aspect of everything he’s in. And maybe with the exception of a Weaving performance here and there, the five best turns in this film are all Hanks, whether in over the top supporting turns or in his more traditional performance as the every-man survivor Zachry, Hanks really shows the depth and range he has to offer here, and it was gratifying to see him stretch himself like this.
Ultimately though, I can’t help but feel that if Cloud Atlas has cut out a couple of its weaker segments it would have been the better for it, narratives fight each other for screen-time and inevitably the threads of some get lost in lieu of making space. But there are enough great scenes and performances that I feel fine in recommending this bloated, ambitious mess. It’s punching for the same kind of visual poetry of an Eisenstein or Bunuel, but to bring it into cinema at its most modern, yet its handicapped by exposition and cliche and occasionally a lack of inspiration. Still, you want see anything else like this at the cinema this year, I guarantee you of that.
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