Ten Word or Less Review : Atlas does more than shrug.
We live our lives again and again and again in a seemingly rigged cosmic craps game where we fight against the powers that be over and over and over in an unending struggle of the righteous underdog against the overbearing power of manipulative, controlling evil. Or as one character so pointedly puts it, “The weak are meat and the strong eat.” There. Everyone’s been trying so hard to summarize Cloud Atlas I figured I start off with that and get it out of the way. It took me a couple of tries to phrase it right, and I still like that line from the movie more, but that about sums it up. Atlas spans six individual tales taking place in six different periods of time, from the mid-19th century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future, all interconnecting with one another on a thematic level, but sharing a story element that connects one story to the next. The character in this time reads the letters of the character in that time. One character in the future watches a movie adaptation of one character from the past. It’s all extremely ambitious and admirably executed in the hands of the sibling Wachowski’s (The Matrix) and German director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run). The trio of directors have set an amazing project in front of themselves, one few others would ever attempt. Not many filmmakers try to make a movie which encapsulates the EVERYTHING of our lives. All the effort though hasn’t quite delivered the awe inspiring masterpiece they clearly intended to make. Cloud Atlas works so hard that to not at least respect the effort is to needlessly spit on its shoes. But to love the thing, that may be asking too much.
David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel which inspired this epic gamble of effort was considered by most to be unfilmible, which is a silly cliche to say about a book because anyone can set out to film anything, the devil is in the details. Mitchell’s novel presented the first half of 5 narratives in chronological order, each one interrupted abruptly mid stream. In the middle sat the sixth story of a world on the verge of extinction, after which the back half of the first five stories played out in the reverse order of which the books started. Think of it like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. Got it? It’s not that hard to follow and the structure made for a compelling novel. Each story worked on its own terms and while Mitchell started hammering his theme home rather bluntly by the end, one had to admire the circuitous nature in which he pulled off his work. The Wachowski’s and Twyker, knowing full well that this format won’t work for their movie, have thrown all the narratives together and run them consecutively, like little girls weaving together shoe laces. The most amazing thing about Cloud Atlas is that the format, confusion and incoherence rarely enter the mix. Some future gibberish speak may shoot past a few ears. Each story is deftly sewn together into the other, careful to construct a fabric which the viewer can follow. This technique of sewing the stories together accomplishes a large goal but sacrifices another. The overriding theme that each story shares is crystal clear. The individual stories though have lost their importance.
A reader can pick up Cloud Atlas, read any one of the six tales and find themselves enveloped in a high quality piece of fiction. In their zeal and determination to shoehorn in all the narratives of Mitchell’s novel, as well as be respectful of the central characters of each, the screenplay to Atlas all but abandons the details which made the stories work on their own. They’ve been stripped down to such bare bone narratives that they hardly work as individual stories. Atlas the movie demands that we take in all the narratives concurrently, slowly building into a grand scheme we can appreciate. Thus, a good 90 minutes or more go by before one feels genuine pull into this massive story of cosmic karma. That’s a long time to wait around to be engaged by a movie. If Atlas hooks you sooner, then you’re in for a rare cinematic treat. If not, you may start clock watching before you reach it’s bigger, satisfying moments.
How does one go about casting six different stories for one movie set in different eras and nations? You use the same actors over and over, applying generous amounts of make up. This gimmick works wonders for some but embarrasses on others. Tom Hanks slips into most of his parts with genuine conviction. He is by turns a poor, goat herder in the future, a scheming, buck-toothed doctor in the past as well as an Irish hooligan writer of today. He has no singular showstopping moment but the effort as a whole is the first time he’s pushed himself as a performer in quite some time and its fun to see him in something as singular as this. Halle Berry appears fleetingly under heavy makeup, her turn as a white lady goes by with no dialogue, but her major roles are mostly prosthetic free and she does well by them. Hugo Weaving suffers the worst in this game of make up decreed age and ethnicity. His turn as a nasty, green skinned, subconscious lurking demon named Old Georgie that whispers nasty suggestions to Hanks emotionally shaken goat herder of the future, all while wearing a ratty top hat, is Weaving at his scenery chewing best. But in another story he’s buried under a monstrosity of a forehead in a botched attempt to pass him off as Asian. It looks like a silly joke and it’s not even the worst of it. He’s also been done up as a nasty female nurse in a freedom depriving old folks home. It’s as if his Agent Smith from The Matrix married Nurse Ratchet form Cuckoo’s Nest and this is their sinister offspring. Weaving’s drag getup is ridiculous and completely takes you out of the movie. This hit and miss system draws far too much attention to itself. One stops watching the movie constantly to keep playing this game of spot the actor under the make up. Without this needless distraction one would be more inclined to appreciate how good Jim Broadbent is in his multiple roles, as well as be equally annoyed that Susan Sarandon is wasted in not one but four parts. Kudos though to whoever did Hugh Grant’s transformations. See how long it takes you to spot him as a cannibalistic warrior decked out in face paint and tattoos.
The rest of the production is handsomely mounted which makes the bizarro make up even more perplexing. The Wachowski’s and Twyker utilize sophisticated special effects as well as beautiful location shooting to accomplish their multi-century set story. There’s little to fault on a technical scale. The film score is routinely gorgeous, that haunting melody from the preview plays through out, and all the participants can take some sense of respect away that this was all done without a major studio behind the wheel. No studio would ever fund such unorthodox material.
I pick at this admirable creation for it’s slippy narrative and lousy make up but I still have to recommend seeing it. It’s unlike much of anything which has come before it and there will likely be little else to come after that resembles it. Sadly, works like this always seem doomed to financial failure and divisive critical response. It gets to go sit in the corner with Aronofky’s The Fountain as another piece of high minded, spirit gazing cinema no one would bother to see. It may have a strained narrative one struggles to involve oneself in but if you keep giving it a chance, you may find yourself wrapped up in that rare thing at the movies, a real work of art. I can never bring myself to truly slap someone down for being this brazenly creative. In an age where commercial movies are so uniformly rote, and independent movies commonly cynical, to experience a movie like this should be appreciated, warts and all.