Re:View – ‘Cloud Atlas’
Better a brave failure than a lazy success, I say, but the very brave ‘Cloud Atlas’ cost over $100 million to make and took less than $9 million in the US (it went on to just about recoup its outlay in the rest of the world).
Making a big-budget movie that experiments with the form or tells an unusual story in six separate time-frames is asking for trouble in these weirdly conservative times, yet I have a list of lavish oddities that I’d rather watch over another ‘Superman’ origin film any day. These would include ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Synecdoche, New York’, ‘Mr Nobody’, ‘Agnosia’, ‘Memories of Matsuko’ and ‘Upside Down’, but there are many, many more lurking around the hinterlands of cinema experience.
To these can now be added David Mitchell’s volume of six stories nestled like Russian Dolls inside each other. As much as I love Mitchell’s dreamlike writing, this was the book that broke the spell, partly because I simply wasn’t prepared to invest the necessary time needed to decode the story written in future Hawaiian slang. Phonetic writing is always more fun for the writer than the reader (I wrote one – I may publish it here soon).
Transposing ‘Cloud Atlas’ to film took the talents of Matrix team the Wachowskis and German director Tom Tykwer, who has never made a bad film and even dabbled in this multiple-choice genre before with ‘Run Lola Run’. The clever idea was to turn an unfilmable book into a cohesive whole by jumbling up the stories scene by scene, creating climaxes and moods according to the cuts, as Christian Marclay did with his installation ‘The Clock’ (see columns passim).
First they composed the superb score so the editors had rhythms to cut to, but the hardest part was scheduling so many locations and stars into one shoot. The stories stretch across the globe and time itself, from far past to distant future, and this brings in the directors’ second smart move; to cast the same actors in all the roles, allowing them to switch colour and gender according to requirements.
Surviving the first 20 minutes is a struggle as the WTF? factor kicks in, but as the stories unfold the complexities lessen, eventually forming a new way of viewing that feels quite natural – we’re already part-way there anyway, with our iPads balanced on our knees while we watch streamed features and add comments on Twitter.
The subject at root is almost banal – the universality of love and free-will and karmic balance – but the tales are terrifically good fun. Inevitably some strands are more involving than others; the Jim Broadbent strand is particularly memorable because it’s less portentious in tone, while the far-future/primitive sequences suffer for having wise old soothsayers and the like. Tom Hanks seems a bit out of his depth against so many other good actors, but there are other problems. The multiple-roleplay means there are a lot of rubbery prosthetics on display, and the decision to keep the future-slang in one story required me to keep the DVD subtitles on – God knows what cinema audiences must have made of it.
My opening line holds, though. It’s a brave and rather lovely undertaking, and everyone can at least say they did it. Without such wayward films we’d be restricted to a diet of cartoonish nonsense.