Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Earlier this year I was really looking forward to the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas. I didn't know the book the film is based on, but particularly this New Yorker article, Beyond the Matrix encouraged me. The early reviews were not good and I kept hearing the word pretentious associated with the film. Still I was curious and saw it, and really liked it.

At two hours and 45 minutes, it's a long film, but I was never bored and was engaged pretty much the whole time. The film tells six stories and while I understand they were nested in the book, in the film they are all told at once and cut between them. The editing is fantastic, I was never confused and most of the time there were logical (and literary) transitions from one story to another.

The six stories have many fundamental differences but even more connections between them. They're set in different times and places: 1849 in the South Pacific, 1936 in the UK, 1973 in San Francisco, 2012 in the UK, 2144 in Neo Seoul and 2321 in Hawaii. The stories cover different genres: the slave trade, musical composition, a journalist investigating corporate corruption, a comedic escape from an old age home, a sci-fi chase with fabricants seeking freedom and a post apocalyptic adventure.

The same actors play roles in each of these stories. The film stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry but they only have the lead roles in some of them. Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy, Hugo Grant and Susan Sarandon also play many roles. Hugo Weaving is a villain in each story. Probably the worst element of the film is that the makeup involved in some of these transformations is very distracting. In some I didn't notice at all, when they're buried under cannibal warpaint it's hard to tell who the actor is, but when they've just changed their eyes to be more or less asian, it's pretty bad.

But it's the thematic similarities that I really enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. I don't think it's slavish in requiring every theme to be portrayed in every story, but it is audacious in how much it covers and is willing to put in several stories. There are big chases, mysteries, overbearing corporations interested only in profit, love affairs between people that society says shouldn't be together, reasons to live, reasons to die, environmental issues, and subjugation in a variety of forms. Various motifs are repeated like bridges, keys, books, and the number six. I noticed most of these while watching the film and really enjoyed discussing them after seeing the film. There aren't that many films, particularly big budget ones, that have so much to give. What's more impressive is that it was entertaining. This isn't a ponderous film like The Master or a Terrence Mallick epic.

I assume the book used the opportunity to write the different stories in different literary forms. Some of the stories were told as letters, I'm not sure if all had voiceovers but some did. One difficulty is that the dialects used in some, particularly the post-apocalypse was very difficult to make out at times. I'm glad there weren't distracting subtitles, and I appreciate the effort to make the stories be different in as many ways as possible, but I think they weren't a little far at times.

I'm not rushing out to see it again like I did Inception, but I'll certainly be seeing it a few more times on cable or dvd. I'm also glad I saw it once in a theater. The visuals are gorgeous and I appreciated a lack of distractions while watching it.

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