Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Ballsiness in both the ambition and the… basic-ness?

Directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix) join forces to adapt David Mitchell’s sprawling epic 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas. The story spans six different eras, from the colonial past to several dystopian futures. The interwoven elements (themes, characters, stories, and the same actors playing different characters across the various stories) are dizzying and delirious in audacity and execution. As much as one may find here at which to laugh, the end result feels, for me at least, headily inspiring.

While this film was met with substantial derision and some understandable side-eye regarding its yellow- and white- (though apparently not black-) face, I enjoyed it in the way I imagine others enjoy a Terrence Malick film. As the film cross-cut between plots and scenes, reiterated lines of dialogue, points in timeline, and the same actors playing different roles, genders and races, I felt as if I was inside the creation of a collage-as-essay meditation on universal human truths about how we relate to eachother. I didn’t agree with everything being said, and often laughed at the way things were being said, but I never for a second doubted its earnestness or stopped admiring the ambition, not just of the scale of the film (six stories, set apart in time from the distant past to the very distant future), but the obvious passion of the film makers about these ideas of love, connection and destiny, and the circularity of time and existence.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis are dreamers – artists who put themselves on the line.

While watching Cloud Atlas, I felt like I was in the middle of a grand experiment in cinematic storytelling – which I imagine is certainly how the directors and collaborators Tykwer and the Wachowskis would regard their film. I’d never refer to Cloud Atlas as “pure cinema” – as visual as these directors are, I feel they have neither that level of fluency, nor even interest in communicating on that level or in that way. The heavy-handedness suggests a lack of confidence, either in cinema’s, the audience’s, or their own, ability to convey or infer their ideas. But I’m not sure they’re interested in making films in that way either – not only is there a certain fun in this approach to conveying a high-minded mish-mash of philosophies and cultures in such literal, pulpy terms, but there’s also a ballsiness in both the ambition and the… basic-ness?

The Wachowskis in particular have certainly had more misses than hits since The Matrix (beginning with that movie’s own two sequels), but I admire that they keep going for things, taking risks, following their imaginations to often disastrous ends, gambling big – and often failing (critically, if not commercially). The messaging in their films is often undercut by their mannerisms, but perhaps that’s beside the point: the Wachowskis, and Tykwer, are dreamers, artists who put themselves on the line. The three directors financed this movie themselves, when the studios opted out, making this the most expensive independent film ever – and they at least try to do what they don’t see anyone else doing. There’s nothing cynical about this kind of film-making – these artists clearly believe in it.

Further viewing

MovieBob traces exactly how and why readings of “whitewashing” and “yellowface” in Cloud Atlas manage to both be inaccurate and miss the function of these choices in portraying its central premise:

Perhaps less video essay than video philosophy, Renegade Cut‘s Aristotlianistic (he may take issue with that description) questions about immortality are inspired by, and explored in the same heady spirit as, the movie: