c l o u d a t l a s
22nd February 2013
Many, many people
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry
172 Minutes (not a typo)
11th March 2013
If it hadn’t been erroneously deleted, you could have read my preview for Cloud Atlas. If you had, you may have noticed an air of scepticism around perennial over-promisors the Wachowskis and the wisdom of having three directors for one film. I’ve never quite forgiven those Wachowskis for trampling all over the two Matrix sequels with their big, stupid, allegory boots. And I always wondered where Tykwer got to after his superb minimal foot chase movie Run Lola Run. Add to that lot the generally mixed reviews I failed to avoid reading prior to finally getting to the cinema to see this and I wasn’t entirely looking forward to spending 172 (one hundred and seventy two) minutes with this one.
Well, it’s actually not as bad as some have made out. It’s also not as good as some have made out. I haven’t read the book and to be honest, hadn’t even heard of it when I first looked at the trailer for the film. Which probably speaks more of me than it does of the book. Briefly (because I don’t have the will / nous to explain this too much), the film tells six ‘interwoven tales’ spread across time, starting from 1849 through to 2321 (according to Wikipedia – in the film itself I’m sure it just says something like ‘six winters after something or other’). Quite how they are interwoven is somewhat up for debate, beyond featuring the same cast in varying degrees of prosthetics. But the ambition is there.
To say the segments vary in degrees of success may be something of an understatement; in fact the unevenness of these segments is probably what undermines the grandiose ambition of the filmmakers. You can kind of see where they were heading, particularly with the themes of enslavement (in various forms) and of repeating mistakes, but it never quite becomes the whole that they must have been aiming for. Equally, some of the actors’ incarnations work much better than others. Hanks works great as the villainous Dr. Goose in the Pacific segment and probably best as Zachary in the After segment but his turn as the sociopath novelist Dermot Higgins is odd to say the least.
The current day segment, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish deserves a special mention for undermining the film almost single-handedly. A sort of riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it more closely resembles an extended episode of Last of the Summer Wine, particularly as it ends with Howard (boyfriend of Marina and long-suffering husband of Pearl, if my Summer Wine memory serves me correctly) standing on a table and inciting a racist comedy brawl in a pub as a bunch of willful pensioners attempt to free themselves from the watchful eyes of Agent Smith. In drag. And no, I did not have to make any of that up for comic effect. And this in a film supposedly painting a glorious canvas of interconnectivity between lives and across time. You have to raise an eyebrow.
But then, when it’s at it’s best, it is truly gorgeous and almost, almost, profound. The Letters from Zedelghem section is a wonderful portrait of desperate ambition and tragic love and the music is beautiful. Ben Wishaw is entirely perfect for the role of doomed composer. The latest section (chronologically) is also interesting, finding Hanks as a cowardly goat herder in some post-apocalyptic valley, forced to confront all kinds of carnage when Halle Berry’s upper class character arrives on the shore seeking something or other. Sadly the at times completely unintelligible language somewhat hampers this section. I spent half the time cursing the stupid lexicon when I should have been wondering at the profoundness of it all.
The 2144 section plays out a little like a cross between a Blade Runner cheapy and something that Christian Bale would have done for cash before he struck critical and actual gold with Nolan in the new Batmans. It tries hard to say important things about being human and the false lines drawn between different races (in this case a fabricant), but never quite manages to be as convincing as anything put forward in Blade Runner. The failure is probably more to do with the utter inevitability of that comparison as anything else.
But I don’t want to finish on a down for this film. It’s harsh to judge something so ambitious as a failure because it tries so hard to be something better. It’s beautifully shot, magnificently scored and the cast have more hits than misses in their multiple roles. I guess how much you take out of it probably depends a little on how much you buy the central conceit that ‘our lives are not our own.’ For me, I more sided with Halle Berry’s character in the otherwise pretty standard section Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – ‘Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes... over and over.’