November 10, 2012 by Zack
“What is an ocean? But millions of droplets.” That line, spoken by one of the protagonists in the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas”, pretty much sums up the idea of the film in general. It also illustrates how empty headed this nearly 3 hour pseudointellectual exercise is.
It’s hard to really lay out the plot of this film, because it’s one of those movies that strings together a bunch of little vignettes to try to tell one singular narrative. In this case, your choices lead to consequences, which lead to legacies. That’s what the film is about, and it strains it until it becomes completely meaningless.
It takes a few different main characters, some played by the same actors, and tries to tell a story throughout time about people who all have choices to make. Their choices will change the futures of some of the characters, just like in real life, you know? The most interesting stories involve a journalist (played by the always appealing Halle Berry) uncovering a malicious nuclear plot that could destroy mankind, set in the 70’s; and a bisexual pianist who has been chosen by one of the greatest composers to flesh out his last masterpiece before he dies. The pianist, Robert Frobisher (played by Doona Bae), has to leave his lover, Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy in one of the film’s only Oscar calibur roles), and in doing so, compromises his only true love for the love of himself and musical self-glory. This story is probably the most keen in bringing out what the film is about.
The film’s at its weakest and most groan inducing when it is in the future, where 2 of the stories are set. One looks straight out of “The Matrix”, in a place called Neo-Seoul, where servants are produced and re-produced to supplement the regular population. The other takes place deeper into the future, something that looks straight out of “The Time Machine”, where a tribal people led by Zachry (Tom Hanks) are ruled by a god that was actually one of the replicants from Neo-Seoul hundreds of years ago. The Neo-Seoul future is just preposterous and retread. But it’s at least somewhat entertaining. The tribal future is just downright silly, and there’s an annoying “demon” that honestly looks like Leprechaun popping up whenever the hero Zachry has a moral dilemma.
There are other plots involving a slave stowaway on a ship in the 1800’s, and a publisher who becomes the victim of his brother’s revenge after a debt is needed to pay off gangsters. The former is a bit stiff, and the latter is amusing but sometimes over the top in its attempt at humor. All of the stories, as I said, reuse the same actors. I would say that by the 6th incarnation of Tom Hanks, you’ll be rolling your eyes. There’s one version of Hugo Weaving that is supposed to be funny, I guess, but it really just comes off as ludicrous and stupid. And it’s somewhat disjointed in its attempt to be humorous because the rest of the film is supposed to be taken so seriously.
The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it’s ambitious. In the tradition of similar films that try and use different time periods to beat you over the head with a simple theme such as “Being Human” and “The Fountain”, “Cloud Atlas” tries too hard to be important, and doesn’t try hard enough to be engaging. The characters are never given enough screen time to be anything more than a guessing game of “OK which actor is this?” Behind the makeup (some of which is awful), it is hard to tell at times. And I’m sorry, but as much as Tom Hanks can be a fine actor–here it’s like he’s trying to be that fun uncle at a birthday party to trick the kids into thinking he’s 8 different people. But he is always Tom Hanks.
This film is based on a book, and I can imagine the book is not this abrasively eager. It could be equally ambitious; but a book can get away with that, because I’d imagine the characters are more fleshed out in the book. A film is constantly moving; you can’t sit there and ponder something when the film changes to something else. And this film doesn’t let up for a second with its story. You go from the middle of a story to the next, with no breather. It’s literally flipping back and forth, with its own agenda, and it’s up to you to keep up.
There are good performances by Jim Sturgess and the man who plays a slave, David Gyasi; and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant have some funny moments in their different roles. But as I said, you become so aware of who the actor is far more than who the character is, and that takes the emotional impact the film is going for right out of you. There are perhaps 2 moments where I “felt” the film. One of those involved the characters of Sixsmith and Frobisher. There’s a very nice moment where Frobisher has lured Sixsmith into thinking they’ll meet, and they never do. There is a wonderful subtle beauty to that scene, that moment, and that idea.
But the film never achieves take off with its ideas. Instead it uses narration to drum between the ears about its supposed thoughtfulness on life, the universe, and everything. And that ocean of droplets becomes nothing more than a body of water that can easily be flushed down a toilet, and never thought about again.