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Cloud Atlas (2012)

A Matrix of Revolutions

There is no such thing as deathlife is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather.

--Bill Hicks

One of Cloud Atlas's big ideas is that we're all connected by behaviors that have repeated themselves since time began, and which will continue--in one way or another--until the last human spirit has been extinguished. Looking at life through this cosmic/karmic take on the Butterfly Effect could be a troublesome prospect, or a very liberating one: sure, we may all be doomed echoes of a bizarre screenplay that almost literally has no end. But as characters, we become richer through the centuries, with future acts of grandeur building upon what were once major stumbling blocks in our psyches. Having fully adopted this philosophy in the thirty hours since I saw their groundbreaking new movie, I'm fully prepared to forgive Andy and Lana Wachowski for those God-awful Matrix sequels.

In 1999, the Wachowskis blew the doors off of the sci-fi action genre with The Matrix, a heady, kinetic feast for the eyes that made its screenplay's twisty philosophy ultra-palatable through cutting-edge computer graphics and just-shy-of-inaccessible weirdness. It put Keanu Reeves back on the map, and gave the world "bullet time." Those missteps aside, the movie was pretty terrific--until the last act, when it succumbed to the brain-dead, shoot-'em-up clichés the filmmakers had just deconstructed.

The two follow-up films reaked of Warner Brothers executives' shitting their pants at this surprise, monster hit. Each successive outing became more convoluted and obnoxious than the last, with whatever vision the Wachowskis started with getting lost in a sea of naked slo-mo dancing and Big Boss climaxes inspired by third-rate video games.

I realize now that the Wachowskis had to make those movies, along with the criminally under-appreciated Speed Racer, in order to shore up enough clout and cash to get Cloud Atlas made. This may be the riskiest film of their career and, with a $100 million price tag, the biggest box office disappointment. If this is their mainstream swan song, I'm happy to report that it's a beautiful one, a significant one--the kind of movie American audiences don't get to see anymore because, frankly, they may not deserve it.

Working with co-writer/director Tom Tykwer to adapt David Mitchell's 2004 novel, the movie tells six stories that span continents and centuries. Brand-name actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant head up the large ensemble cast, sure, but that doesn't mean the film panders to the actors' core fan bases. From Hanks' opening monologue, spoken in futuristic gibberish, to the ensuing pre-title montage that flits between the Chatham Islands in 1850; 1970s San Francisco; 22nd-century Neo Seoul, and beyond, it's clear that Cloud Atlas is not a casual night out at the movies. The film requires a switched-on, patient, and adventurous mind just to get through its first five minutes. If that sounds too daunting or boring, please stop reading now and pre-order tickets for Fun Size.

If you're on board, let me assure you that the Tykwer and the Wachowskis have crafted a lovely, rewarding cinematic experience that succeeds where the likes of Terrence Malick and Ridley Scott have failed miserably in recent years. Tackling the mysteries of the universe and the nature of mankind are impossible challenges, but I've always thought the key to approaching them, artistically, is by having a distinct point of view. Because none of us have returned from the great beyond to tell the tale (or lack thereof), every attempt is a poke in the dark--so why not be full-throated in your bullshit and go for it? Just because the the cosmos won't answer our questions, doesn't meant creators can't present a coherent (if likely wholly off-the-mark) point of view.

The filmmakers here (and, I suppose, Mitchell, in his book, which I haven't read) suggest that a privileged lawyer's (Jim Sturgess) reluctant relationship with a stowaway slave on a ship bound for California will affect not only his soul's decision to intervene in freeing a genetically engineered service drone from termination four hundred years hence, but also affect the manner in which he gets involved. We see this man pop up in lesser roles throughout the film, playing versions of what we suppose his imperfect self to be; he's a karmic work-in-progress whose sketch of a personality also factors into the destinies of the other characters.

Likewise, Hanks's character goes through drastic iterations on his way to becoming the scar-eyed, mumbling mystic we meet in the film's opening moments. He's a kooky island doctor, a hip nuclear scientist, a London bruiser turned failed novelist, and a hallucinating, post-apocalyptic forest dweller, among other things. His journey involves the adoption of science as a tool for evil; science as a tool for good; a rejection of science and education in the service of self; and a post-societal religious fervor whose skepticism of science almost leads to the ruination of his race. It's a fascinating progression, the stuff of term papers--and it's all bundled up in a collage of brilliant, chameleonic performances that only occasionally register as "Tom Hanks".*

Looping back to The Matrix for a moment, one of the film's greatest surprises is the apparent evolution of the Wachowskis as storytellers. In 1999, their version of a dystopian future saw machines rising up to turn people into food for cybernetic organisms. Thirteen years later, they remove the artificial menace and place the blame squarely on our shoulders; through the all-important hunger of consumerism, our quest for decadence leads to some dark places that Philip K. Dick would proudly call home. In keeping with their thesis, Andy, Lana, and Tom don't let our species off the hook with a global nuclear meltdown: the remnants of humanity persist in the ridiculous, predatory spiral that feels unique to our capacity for sociopathy; to quote the film's timeless mantra, "The weak are meat the strong do eat".

Since this is a film blog and not a term paper, I'll refrain from diving deeper into the movie's themes. Besides, Cloud Atlas isn't a film you watch, it's a film you experience and talk about with others who've been through it. The best I can do is sell you on rushing out to the theatre immediately.

I understand it's a hard sell. The story can't be condensed to a two-line elevator pitch, and the nearly three-hour run-time (which even boast giant robots or wet-dream super-hero team-ups) may turn off audiences bred on spectacle instead of Shakespeare. But there's enough here to engage even entry-level movie lovers. The Wachowskis' signature blend of cyber-punk doom-and-gloom, crossed with a devout fetishism to pan-Asian aesthetics guarantees that the 22-nd century stuff will provide just the right jolt of gee-whiz visuals and blaster violence to get them through the existential portions where "nothing happens".

Only occasionally did I feel the weight of the clock; Cloud Atlas could give Return of the King a run for its money in the False Climaxes department. But I predict the movie will feel much breezier the second time around.

And I promise, there will be a second time around.

You see, the default response to films like this is that they're so complicated as to require another viewing before audience members can even begin to understand their details. This nonsensical excuse has been applied to shams as art-house as The Tree of Life and as pop-trashy as The Dark Knight Rises. Often, I think, it's the reaction of people who really wanted to be blown away by a film, but whose underwhelmed feelings lead to a kind of shocked denial ("Maybe it's just too deep to 'get' the first time out"). I always err on the side of the engaged audience member in these cases. It's okay to admit that a film is terrible and pretentious. Not every filmmaker has a clue as to what they're trying to say, and it's up to us to not let them get away with claiming the contrary.

In this case, the Wachowskis and Tykwer deliver a clear message whose intersecting storylines have distinct resolutions, as well as miniature gateways into equally intricate and interesting possibilities (yes, one can have it both ways). I say that Cloud Atlas demands a second viewing only because it is the kind of movie, like The Usual Suspects, that is so instantaneously immersive and unrelenting in its forward momentum that there are bound to be clues and connections that newcomers will miss the first time out--by virtue of simply trying to keep up.

I hope my galloping arrogance hasn't turned you off to giving this film a chance. Several times the other night, I lamented the fact that Paranormal Activity 4 did well enough to garner a sequel, but that a challenging, exciting piece of art like Cloud Atlas will likely have a hard time getting out of the red. I can only hope that, in the coming years, this film catches on as the American classic I believe it to be. Yes, it's probably way too early to throw that phrase around, but this movie feels special in the same way that Lawrence of Arabia feels special; or 2001; or--strap in, I'm going there--Citizen Kane. This is a big film with galaxy-sized ambition, heart, and ideas, crafted lovingly by artists and performers who call upon man's most recognizable storytelling traditions to spin a gripping philosophical yarn you've never seen before.

Note: It would be dishonest of me to not mention Cloud Atlas's single greatest flaw: the prosthetics and makeup used to transform well-known actors into characters of radically different genders and races from their own. Sometimes it works; more often than not, though, it's distracting as hell. Doona Bae, for example, plays the rescued Asian service drone, as well as a white, 19th-century daughter of privilege and a 20th-century Latina.

Not since White Chicks have I seen rubbery appliances and wigs so laughably, distractingly vulgar. I get that the filmmakers had to work with Bae for the sake of keeping the audience, but the results are so far beneath the quality of the rest of the production as to best be described as "unholy".

*The exception is the failed-novelist character, Dermot Hoggins, whom Hanks plays with the worst accent I've ever heard delivered by an Oscar-winning actor (though Berry comes close with whatever the hell she was doing in Bryan Singer's first X-Men film). It's a puzzling embarrassment that, thankfully, only lasts about five minutes.