Monday, December 10, 2012

Cloud Atlas

2012, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski -- in theatre

Cloud Atlas is a big, bold experiment in cinematic storytelling, not completely without precedent, but truly unequaled in scope.  Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia comes to mind, a broad film of disparate characters and situations tied together through both an emotional connectivity and a thread of loose personal association.  Where Magnolia's characters were all part of the same community, in a manner of speaking, Cloud Atlas explodes the connection across centuries, further distancing one character from another.

Anderson's film is a challenging work, one that viewers have either connected with or been left cold by.  This radical endeavor from a trio of filmmakers who have built careers on trying something different, will do much the same, although at once be more commercially appealing and less critically endearing.

My immediate reaction, upon the start of the credits scroll, was "That would make a great book."  Yes, I was well aware it was an adaptation, having heard more than a few times of David Mitchell's so-called unfilmable story in relation to this project.  While the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer produced a valiant adaptation, it's maybe sixty percent a good movie, and I'm not certain there's a whole lot else the trio could have done to make it much better.  A little, perhaps, but not a lot.

The writer-directors started with a novel that's, in a sense, an anthology, comprised of six stories, each treading different genre waters, from Victorian-era drama, to a high-seas adventure, to a 70's detective drama, a modern-day retirement home farce, and a pair of futuristic set-pieces allowing for action and theological/sociological pondering.  Simply weaving these disparate source elements should prove challenging enough, but the filmmakers do so rather brilliantly.  The key facet of any success the film might have is its masterful editing. Timing the rhythms of the story, hitting upon those synchronous moments is, at first, overwhelming in the opening minutes of the film, but very quickly reveals itself as integral to the storytelling.  Jumping between the eras of the picture is disorienting but proves ultimately rewarding even by the half-way point of its 172 minute run-time.

As long as it may seem from the outside, it's rarely, if ever, boring, even in its unsuccessful moments.  That it managed to effectively condense it all down to under a 3 hour runtime is itself an impressive feat.  To bridge these stories together, Cloud Atlas informally plays with the idea of lineage, thus using the same actors throughout the eras, though most only play a role in two or three of them.  It's both a necessary shorthand, and one of its weakest and most distracting facets, particularly because in doing so the Wachowskis and Tykwer utilize an inordinate amount of makeup effects, to retain the character of an actor or actress but then change their ethnicity or gender in its most extreme cases.  The make-up team is remarkably successful about half the time, but in the times it fails, it's has the most crippling impact on the film, drawing the viewer to focus almost solely upon the make-up.  The option would be to have different actors playing many of the roles in different eras, but the visual connectivity would be lost, so either way there's a sacrifice.

As noted, most of the key actors in the film take on roles in each sequence, but it's Tom Hanks who stands out the most, and not necessarily in a positive way.  His buck-toothed quack from the seafaring sequence is a corny and cliched performance through and through, a decision that condemns an already hokey story even further.  It's as if he took his Professor character from the Ladykillers and went broader.  In a later era, he channels Bob Hoskins to play an aged British heavy, which I realize in hindsight was supposed to be funny, but came off as painful and truly unbelievable.  I like Hanks (and, really, who doesn't) but he's a man who cannot distance himself from his own character, no matter how much make-up or what kind of accent he applies.  He can lose himself in a character, but that doesn't always mean he's believable as that character, and as is the case here, it's another of the great distractions the film has to offer.  Think if Brad Pitt were there instead, how Pitt is able to completely get disappear within a role, what an improvement, if minor one, it would be.

Similarly, Hugh Grant and Suzan Sarandon both play a couple of roles in the film, but in all cases they're minor roles, which leads me to wonder what these A-level players are doing in character actor parts.  Like Hanks, their stature as performers overpowers their ability to be hidden in a minor role, and as such it's something that pulls the audience somewhat out of its investment.

Invariably the film, in its sweeping, circular movement, manages to suck the viewer back in whenever a distraction occurs, and by the end, it's proven to be a rewarding, if not completely triumphant experience.  Sincerely, Cloud Atlas should best be approached as a novel, and thankfully, there is one.