By Bob Clark
By now, enough time has gone by for a reasonably definitive answer on the question of Cloud Atlas to develop. Weeks have gone by since its release into theaters and subsequent failure to find purchase amongst audiences who have since moved on to subsequent releases like the new Bond, Tolstoy or Lincoln pictures (curious to think of the Railsplitter as quite the same kind of cinematic trendsetter as spies or Russian romances, but he did just save the republic from vampires, don’t you know). Much was made of this high-profile experiment with multi-narrative, multi-genre and multi-director filmmaking, its subject matters far removed from the typical Hollywood blockbuster and its budget significantly higher than your average art-house fare. That the film has so-far performed so tepidly has suggested among many critics a disappointment with audiences as profound as those with any auteur, especially as the major studios and production houses gear up for an extended period of franchise nesting instincts, a cinematic hibernation that puts both filmgoer and filmmaker to sleep in the face of never-ending sequels, prequels and remakes to boot. At the same time, there’s been just as much skepticism towards the overall merit posed by this film, adapted from a headscratcher novel by a trio of directors whose career highpoints were at least ten years ago or more, and with it a kind of passive-aggressive hostility towards the perceived waste of such capital, creative and otherwise. Is it the fault of audiences for not braving theaters and seeking out something this ambitious and daring, or the filmmakers’ for risking it all on a mediocre product and thus making any future high-concept experiments all the riskier? Or is the assumption that for a high profile film to succeed that its success be as visible as its production– isn’t it possible a cult-hit was the best-case scenario for something like Cloud Atlas all along?
It goes without saying that the film, based on the novel by David Mitchel and helmed by Run Lola Run director Tom Tywker and Lana & Andy Wachowski, creators of the Matrix trilogy, was going to be something of a gambit proposition for any kind of audience. At three hours long and juggling six different storylines set in periods as disparate as the 1800’s Pacific and two distant futures, it presents a challenge to mainstream viewers on a simple narrative and dramatic ground even before one gets to the potentially off-putting prospect of actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry adopting elaborate make-up to play multiple roles of different sexes, creeds and colors. At the same time, its freewheeling mix of various science-fiction and period piece jig-saws stands as an obstacle for art-house crowds preferring one genre to the other, to say nothing of the copious amounts of action set-pieces and bizarre otherworldly philosophizing throughout. Those aspects should likely come as no surprise to fans of the directors’ previous efforts, although some of the period dramatics and experiments may, resulting in a cinematic mixture that’s sure to arouse curiosity in nearly any conceivable audience demographic but not necessarily engender much affection. In attempting to play as many games at once and attract as many different crowds to the theater, it risks promoting itself poorly by the bad word of mouth it’s bound to get from at least some of those who show up, and see something other than what they expected. Make that many promises, and you can’t keep all of them.
There are certainly precedents for the kind of big-budgeted experimental literary adaptation that Cloud Atlas represents– usually they’re more in the purely dramatic mode of The Hours, another expansive multi-narrative/multi-period assembly of stories, but occasionally the reach for higher concepts and audiences are present. David Fincher’s Fight Club took a hefty bite out of Chuck Palahniuk’s anarchist novel with big-stars like Brad Pitt and flashy CGI headlining, and it though it didn’t reach any more than cult success at the box-office it’s since gained recognition as one of the few genuine classics of the modern era. At the same time, television has presented new opportunities for ambitious storytellers looking to expand beyond the ordinary creative horizons presented by the limitations of cinema– original efforts like Lost have done a reasonable job of balancing sci-fi and fantasy storytelling with more realistic soapy narratives with judicious use of flashbacks, while adaptations of challenging fare like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America have proven the small screen capable of providing fertile ground for experimental works of all manner of media. The way in which Kushner’s epic two-part play found itself turned into an equally epic mini-series for HBO at the hands of Mike Nichols suggests how an alternate path for Cloud Atlas might’ve looked, and vice-versa– both works employ actors playing multiple roles, and unfurl over long running times for their mediums, with significant uses of special-effects throughout. But two nights of television gives Angels in America six hours to play with– Robert Altman had toyed with the idea of directing Kushner’s play as a film, with a planned running time of just three hours (the running time of the play is about seven).
So was turning Cloud Atlas into a theatrical film a case of mere media misdirection? Would the vision posed by Tykwer and the Wachowskis have fared better with the more generous allotment of time afforded by a mini-series production, rather than cinema? Over the years we’ve seen no shortage of European efforts straddle the line between television and film, at least given how they’re often released here in the states– Bergman, Fassbinder and Von Trier, among others, have all been prodigious directors for TV, and if sometimes the works they create with an eye for the small screen feel a little out of place on the big (Fassbinder’s 16mm compositions in World on a Wire get a little lost when blown-up for 35mm projections) at least they fare a little better than epics of the big screen reduced for pan-and-scan presentations at home. American television has seen a few big-screen directors make big impact, though infrequently (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice here, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks there), and recent years have seen cable outlets like HBO turn out high-concept genre and period fare that more than equal their equivalents on the big screen (who needs Tolkien when Game of Thrones is on its way again?). It’s easy to imagine a television version of Cloud Atlas easing some of the narrative claustrophobia that the film gets from trying to cram in as much of the stories as possible– not a scene goes by in all three hours that isn’t dominated by dialogue or voice-over narration. Because of this, the visuals often serve as little more than containers to present the characters or ideas being represented in the script, instead of expressing anything of their own via pure aesthetics, which is a big disappointment especially from genuine visionaries like Tykwer and the Wachowskis.
To be fair, there are striking moments of pure visual splendor throughout the film, and enough in each of the six narrative components so that the whole of the movie manages to spread its pictorial qualities evenly, rather than one chapter or another outweighing the rest. With the three directors dividing on-set duties between themselves equally (Tykwer handling the three middle portions of the 30’s, 70’s and present while the Wachowskis share a sandwich with the 1800’s and future segments), there’s a nicely even visual style and tone that’s developed, one that relies heavily on a very Lucas-ian sense of master-shot composition and editing, criss-crossing from one strand to the next with echoing shots and incidents. But there’s a nagging sense of uniformity in the different director’s approaches, a feeling of sameness that waters down and dilutes what’s often best about each creative team when they’re apart. What’s more, there’s a fair overreliance on cinematic influences and styles from the past that keep the film from being as visually original as it is narrative wise. Tykwer borrowed subtly from 70’s paranoid thrillers in the underrated The International, only to lift so heavily from them here you might mistake Keith David for a freshly rebooted John Shaft. The Wachowskis crib even more liberally with their sci-fi sections, with ample amounts of Lord of the Rings (Tom Hanks hiding from Hugh Grant as a post-apocalyptic cannibal warlord echoing hobbits playing hide-and-sneak with Ringwraiths) and Attack of the Clones (Halle Berry’s retro white unitard/poncho ensemble close enough to Amidala’s wardrobe to count as cosplay) as well as any of the dozens of sci-fi metropolis landscapes from the post-Moebius era (“Neo-Seoul” works as a smart little genre joke once, but then just looks like a screensaver).
Aspects like these speak of an underlying derivativeness at the heart of the Cloud Atlas experiment that in a way extends all the way to its central multi-narrative premise– what is this mix of intercut storylines following injustices from one age to the next across wildly divergent periods and genres but a mere updating of Griffith’s Intolerance with sci-fi spectacle substituting for the old-school Biblical variety? What Tykwer and the Wachowskis lack when compared to the Griffith epic is a true sense of scale and scope, given that the main thrust of their narrative is achieved through scripted dialogue rather than the silent image. Would the benefit of additional running time on television have given their vision more time to breathe and something closer to a truly epic aesthetic register, or would the over-dependence on the dramatic elements of dialogue and performance have become even more emphasized on the small-screen? Television is more a writer’s and producer’s medium than a director’s, with a sense of scale that’s diminished from the heights that cinema can reach (as much as I enjoy the world-building of Game of Thrones, for example, I wonder how well it would really stand up to scrutiny on the big screen). The trouble with Cloud Atlas as it stands is that it nearly feels like something produced for television in the way it favors close-ups and medium-shots for the most part, and streamlines its way through its narratives as much as possible. That headlong sense of pace gives the movie a nice momentum (it may be the shortest-feeling three hour movie I’ve sat through), but that doesn’t keep any of the storylines from feeling any less separate and independent. For a movie that insists upon interconnectedness and eternal return so stridently, there’s little sense of real connection between the narratives themselves except an incidental nesting between stories told in one episode to the next. There’s no sense of purpose or building climax between the different stories, as there was with the blurred borders at the end of Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Yet there is something about the film that lingers with me, at least, in ways that other gambits like Aronofsky’s film, or Malick’s Tree of Life or even this year’s Holy Motors from Leos Carax fail to. As compromised as the film is at times, there’s no denying the impression that the sheer ambition and dedication can make throughout, and though the intercutting scheme doesn’t quite work with these narratives as it does elsewhere, they keep the pace generous and quick enough for the time in the theater to positively fly by, and keep each isolated 30 minute episode distinct and engaging. Some storylines fare a little better than others– I would have been perfectly happy to see a feature length versions of the Wachowski’s post-apocalyptic episode or Tykwer’s 1930’s tale of a gay composer (the only story that winds up having any kind of genuine suspense in its outcome)– but none of them are anywhere near boring, even when the effect produced by the derivative visuals and outlandish make-up becomes off-putting. I remain curious to see how the film may or may not benefit from the prospect of an extended directors’ cut– perhaps in cutting the films’ various stories to the essentials that can be fit into three hours some of the more glacial visual components were lost, only to be saved for later. Cloud Atlas is the type of film that a cult-following will assuredly rise up around over time, and though I don’t know if I’d count myself in their members myself, I’ll at least keep some spare change in my pocket in case I ever run into one of them offering flowers at an airport.