It is as it says.
1) Cloud Atlas is a crushing 164 minutes long. I have absolutely no problem with long movies, but this is the cruelty that makes these other sixty-five abuses of the cinematic form possible. If you're going to bind your audience to their seats for nearly three hours, you'd better at least have something of substance to sustain that kind of runtime.
2) So what does Cloud Atlas attempt in this generous frame, exactly? Everything. It's less a movie and more a shameless, pearl-clutching missive on the ills of the world. There is a desperate lack of focus to its sociological ranting - the class system, "natural order," human bondage, identity and cloning, race, homophobia, nuclear power, capitalism, greed both private and corporate. It never ends. And that doesn't even include the porridge of grander philosophical concepts bubbling under all this...
3)...reincarnation, predestination, the infinite rippling of causality, the existence of a soul, religion and belief. On their own, all of these things are interesting, which is why movies are made about them. When they're all crammed together, dispersed over six different narratives, and then delivered with all the grace and subtlety you'd come to expect from the folks who made The Matrix, it turns into a giant, unwieldy, overstuffed sack of hot nonsense.
5) (Said birthmark is so goddamn hokey looking!)
6) To put a point on this narrative issue - the editing is completely awful, flitting manically from story to story not on the basis of any satisfying rhythm, but oblivious attempts at tone matching. It's hard enough to get invested in one of the movie's action scenes, but imagine bouncing in between three of them without warning or cause. And one of them involves a very old man busting out of a nursing home with his wacky senior friends.
7) This also calls attention to the fact that even at such a long runtime, each storyline and character is only given a little more than 25 minutes to essay sprawling, profound "truths," while creating a sense of time and place, while trying to not come across as lifeless mouthpieces. Suffice it to say, they almost always fail at all three of these standards.
8) Tom Hanks is terrible. This is a clear career worst. Tribal warrior, snarling Cockney gangster, maniacal avaricious alchemist; doesn't matter, he's miscast in every single one but pours himself into them with reckless abandon. Second-hand embarrassment in a major way.
9) The makeup is not hilarious, like I thought it would be. It is just sort of sad and borderline offensive.
|This is what Asians look like.|
10) Are we supposed to feel a sense of triumph when a character whose first line is "No niggers" beats assassin Hugo Weaving to death for shooting her dog and calling her a wetback? If so, the Wachowskis must think we are very dumb.
11) Cloud Atlas drops the n-bomb at least half a dozen times. Yes, okay, 1849 was obviously a highly fraught year in terms of race relations, and 1973 fell right in the wake of the civil rights movement. Still, it comes up way too much to give it any sort of justification. Considering the rest of the movie is a purple prose overload, the repeated inclusion of coarse offensive language simply feels like a cheap way to shock audiences into remembering that people in the slave trade were racist. Surprisingly.
12) Your film is not improved by referencing (Soylent Green), paying homage to (Blade Runner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amistad), and definitely not by stealing from (Battle Royale) superior films.
13) The tagline is "Everything is connected" because the movie doesn't make it clear enough already.
14) "Do everything you can't not do."
15) Asians as a homogenized, robotic people, engineered specifically to fulfill laborious unpaid tasks for the state without any consideration given to humanity or fulfillment? Creative. (/racist!)
16) While we're on the subject of stereotypes: one scene involves those incorrigible senior citizens rallying a group of drunken Scottish pub-dwellers to beat up their pursuers. Because they're drunk and Scottish and can be incited to brutality at the drop of a hat.
17) Still on it: sensitive artistic gay man Ben Whishaw kills himself.
18) But not before crafting the greatest piece of music ever written, of course! This is his character's resounding accomplishment and the sole reason for his plot existing, but the music serves no greater purpose, except to demonstrate the far reaches of human creativity when faced with oppression. Cool, another message.
19) I'm not saying that every plot point in a movie should figure into its grand scheme, but Cloud Atlas demands this constantly (remember: "everything is connected"!), and the fact that it can't even play by its own rules to make a whole sixth of itself matter is pretty jarring.
20) The song is not even that great. The movie has good music by and large, but the problem with adapting a novel is that concepts that work wonderfully in our imaginations, like a song of unparalleled majesty, are inevitably neutered when they must be brought forth in reality. Cloud Atlas avoids this in part by never letting us hear the whole song, unless they played that shit over the credits that I definitely did not stay for, but that in itself devalues Whishaw's chapter even more than it already had been.
21) Samsung product placement in the 2140 chapter? Samsung is the reigning mobile phone brand of the future? This movie can't even get its capitalist shilling right.
22) Of course, in a flaming anti-corporate hosannah like this one, there really shouldn't be product placement at all. I understand that it's a necessary evil, especially when your soapbox rests atop $100 million, but when a movie psychotically essays its ideological stance over and over again, you'd expect it to actually keep to it.
23) Every chapter is awful in its own special way, but some more aggressively so than others. Easily the worst offender is poor Jim Broadbent's lead turn as Timothy Cavendish. He's a publisher who runs afoul of some gangsters and is forcibly committed to a no-leave nursing home by his asshole brother. The story frames itself by talking about how infuriating flashbacks and flashforwards and other time tricks are when used in popular entertainment, which I guess is supposed to be Cloud Atlas's attempt at having a sense of humor about itself...
24) ...since this chapter is meant to be interpreted as a film within the film. Asian slavebot Sonmi-451 watches its dramatic rendition in order to learn that humans have heart or whatever. On paper this doesn't have to be a bad move, unless you've sworn off cheeky masturbatory self-reflexivity. Cloud Atlas seems to think that its status as such gives it the right to completely break tone and be the funny timeline of the six. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out this way because...
25) ...it's not funny. Excruciating, in fact. Comic highlights include a middle-school double entendre involving the word "pussy," Hugo Weaving dressed up as a female nurse and doing his best Ratched, and...
26) This picture:
27) The inclusion of comedy in an otherwise serious film can leaven and enhance it considerably, of course. The humor that Broadbent brings us is such a jarring left turn from the deathly serious tone of the two other hours of the film, however, that it never even had a chance to work out. The fact that it's so clumsy and predictable simply makes matters worse. Timothy Cavendish's cinematic adventures are supposed to be the sliver of culture that teaches Sonmi-451 of the inspiring power of art, which I guess makes sense if you're a robot who's never seen a movie before, but the effect could have been reached far more elegantly by showing her a clip from Modern Times or something. Would have saved the movie a half hour's worth of utter bullshit, too.
28) This chapter simply rots in the middle of the film like an infection, weakening every other part of the already disastrous narratives around it. Cloud Atlas's insistence on frequent cuts from storyline to storyline, in addition to making the whole film feel like the wasted Friday night of a channel surfer, heavily weigh down any attempts at suspense that it may have otherwise built. By far the worst is the inclusion of a senior citizen car chase, sitting helplessly betwixt several other action scenes and robbing them of what little momentum these stupid characters in stupid situations might have built. I legitimately wanted an old man to die just to make the movie go by faster.
29) Broadbent's joyless hijinks aren't the only ones to suffer from the Wachowskis' sudden infatuation with postmodernism. Halle Berry's chapter, about a spunky girl journalist exposing fatcats like her daddy used to, gets another groaner courtesy of her spunky boy sidekick:
"I'll tell you what's going on later."
"You realize that in every mystery story, that's what a character says right before they die?"
No, I did not realize that. Thank you for teaching me a trope, Cloud Atlas. Is there anything you don't know?
30) Berry's 1973 chapter is a close second to Broadbent's for most painful. There aren't any hilarious bar brawls or nursing home escape attempts, thank God, but dramatically it is inert and completely unsurprising. She uncovers a nuclear conspiracy, the details of which are omitted for what I imagine to be time's sake, trouble befalls her and her loved ones/allies as a result of her investigations, an assassin comes after her, the assassin is thwarted and all is well. It's like every journalism thriller ever made, except distilled down to less than 30 minutes, rendering it totally simplified and indistinct.
31) Aforementioned spunky boy sidekick cashes in on her journalistic integrity with a series of "Luisa Rey Mysteries," which serve as the connective tissue to the Broadbent chapter. Every chapter is obliged to use a McGuffin to tether one story to the one that follows it chronologically: a diary, letters, a fictionalized account, the movie treatment, crappy CGI video device. Except for the video device's connection to the final story, there are no causal links between one narrative's events and the next, so it ends up much less a way to organically connect each plot and more of the Wachowskis proving that more than a dumb birthmark makes these characters significant to each other and the universe at large.
32) Berry is...well, she's Berry. Competent at best, horrifyingly tone-deaf at worst, she's never been an actress I could get into. Her work here is not an over-invested humiliation like Tom Hanks', but she just sort of melts into whatever story she's featured in at any given time. Doesn't contribute much of anything, for better or worse. It's a stroke of luck to go unnoticed in nonsense like this, though; she'll have lived down the humiliation long before Broadbent, or Hugo Weaving, and especially Hanks do.
33) Berry, untrained in martial arts as far as the audience knows, easily subdues an assailant with at least six inches and fifty pounds on her.
34) The dubious distinction of being the third-worst chapter in Cloud Atlas is a tie between the 1840s, the 1930s, and 2250. These three stories all fall into a disappointing rote badness; by the time anything even remotely substantial has happened in any of them, the film has already tipped its hand as a ponderous, silly mess. Thus it becomes awfully hard to care, or to even try to care, about what transpires in these storylines.
35) The gallery of atrocity on display is occasionally entertaining, not on purpose of course, but this is the exception rather than the norm. A vast majority of what is seen is rooted in cliche so as to be crushingly boring. Most fun disasters at least attempt something original or against the grain - Cloud Atlas's narrative elements are too conventional to be amusingly awful, and the way they're assembled is too incoherent and inscrutable to actually derive any schadenfreude from.
36) All this said, I have to give #4 to the 2250 Tom Hanks chapter, simply because it is host to the moment when I realized the movie was beyond redemption. 2250 falls in the thick of a post-apocalyptic fugue for humanity, where very few survive and those that do lead brutal militaristic lives. In order to convey the passage of time and evolution of culture, characters all talk over each other in some of the dumbest dialects I've ever heard in my life. The linguistic rendering of this dialect is typically consistent, but none of the actors can seem to agree on an accent, which becomes achingly obvious in one particular scene: Hanks, Susan Sarandon, and some random girl start babbling at each other at the same time, so desperate to be taken seriously through such a ridiculous-sounding form of communication that the reservoir of absurdity Cloud Atlas accumulates bursts then and there. All downhill, folks...
40) Shit, just read this.
41) Hanks' name in this chapter is Zachry, calling to mind the follies of every late-90s soccer mom to ever bring shame upon our great nation.
42) As mentioned before, poor old Tom is a casting coup. He's built a career on a sort of signature awkwardness, all of it heaped atop his awkward potato-shaped body. He is by no means suited to be the leader of a post-apocalyptic warrior clan, a fact that should be evident from the start but is laid bare whenever he tries to do anything requiring vague physical exertion. Most awkward is watching him through the forest with his shoulders bouncing up and down simultaneously, like some broken toy. He calls to mind a mathlete running through the halls of his high school from class to class.
43) This story acts as a frame for the rest of the film, which is really unfortunate, because it puts Hanks in even more makeup (this time as an old man) and makes him growl out incomprehensible statements of deep truth to an audience of beguiled youngsters. Half of what he says is completely lost; he's basically Quint from Jaws, except substituting the charming saltiness with general purpose discomfort.
44) Nonstop. Fucking. Narration. Every character narrates the events of his or her story in voice-over because there's way too much going on that can't be visually explained. This is a telltale hallmark of an uncinematic story, betraying the very purpose of the medium itself: to tell us something through a moving picture. Cloud Atlas drowns us in words, so repetitive and tangential that they eventually just become background noise.
45) Each chapter is host to an "evil incarnate," played by Hugo Weaving. In 2250 he's The Man in Black, a slime-coated tophatted leprechaun who sneers hammishly and talks in the same silly dialect. Like the rest of the movie, he is impossible to take seriously...
46) ...just like in every other chapter. Weaving has a menacing face, sure, used to its best effect in The Matrix. Here he is so beyond caricaturally evil, no matter the circumstances of the story that surrounds him, that he fails to be compelling at all.
47) There is absolutely no moral ambiguity in the film! The issues that Cloud Atlas spends three hours lecturing us about are immensely complex, but you wouldn't know it from its brainless, oversimplified approach. These very serious topics are done a great disservice by the film, which I suppose means well, but cannot take a stance any more nuanced than "some things are bad and some things are good and we should get rid of the bad things."
48) The third least offensive chapter goes to Jim Sturgess in his 1849 slave trade odyssey. He plays a clueless notary on the return home from a highly profitable excursion to Africa. Despite being deeply cliched (much like the rest of the movie), and yet another slavering, over-the-top Hanks performance, a majority of the dramatic elements here actually function as they should. The problem is that there are barely any.
49) Sturgess spends nearly this entire chapter unconscious or feverish as Hanks keeps him in a perpetually poisoned state so as to steal his money. Kind of difficult to get attached to a protagonist who manages to take about two pivotal actions: giving a stowaway slave a piece of bread, and then prevent that slave from getting shot by offering him up to the captain as a competent deckhand.
50) And on that note, the Magical Negro archetype is in full force throughout the film. Sturgess first forms an iron bond with this stowaway when they make eye contact during some sort of tribal ritual and immediately passes out. The man then goes on to teach him the value of kinship and overcoming race and ugh whatever by beating Tom Hanks to death with a treasure chest. On the opposite side of the timelines, the primeval post-humanity warrior men undergo a fraught alliance with a clan of psychic black people called Prescients, who are possessed of inexplicable foresight and healing powers.
51) As pointed out by this article, there are some obvious double standards in regards to the race makeup. Blackface is never used for obvious political reasons, but for some reason painting the actors up as every other ethnicity is okay. This could have been avoided by casting unknowns who looked like the better known actors, which would have been difficult, but not that difficult on a hundred million dollar budget. It would have also spared us the cringeworthy sight of Bae Doona as a redheaded white woman, or the eldritch horror that is Asian Hugo Weaving.
52) I was really tempted to put Sturgess' chapter right at the bottom because it contains this little gem:
"Your efforts will be but a drop in the ocean!"
"What is an ocean...but a multitude of drops?"
FUCKING KILL ME
53) Quotes like this abound throughout the movie, and to write them all would be an even greater waste of my time. Cloud Atlas is clearly insecure that a mass audience will not understand all of their spiritual pabulum, and so it is stressed time and again that reincarnation is possible in this universe, and these characters have been here before, felt this way before, heard this song before, etc. As if the birthmark wasn't enough. Or the artifacts connecting each time period to the one preceding it.
54) This might also be a consequence of the film thinking it's much more complicated than it actually is, but again, there are no causal links from one storyline to the next. It's not difficult at all to keep the storylines separated from one another, since the protagonists and visual styles are so highly differentiated. It's not at all complex, but simply longwinded.
55) It's hard to resist intellectual elitism when confronted with such graceless cinematic devices such as these, but the Wachowskis reject any sort of critical discourse almost out of the gate. In the Broadbent chapter, Tom Hanks, playing a gangster/autobiographer, throws a highly vocal literary critic off of a highrise and kills him. There's nothing quite as sanctimonious as a once-praised auteur suddenly turning on the critics that bolstered them - see also M. Night Shyamalan murdering Bob Balaban's movie critic character in Lady in the Water. Implicitly rejecting the word of those who spend their lives dissecting and analyzing films isn't funny or insightful and it doesn't safeguard your movie against criticism. It just reminds the world of what a thin-skinned jerk you are.
56) But then this scene might have been in the book. I have no idea: I've never read it, and I'm not sure if I want to now. I imagine that it has to play better in text, though. Sometimes the unadaptable should be left unadapted, a lesson that Tom Tykwer got burned on six years ago with Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I like to imagine that Andy and Lana Wachowski bullied him into it because they saw Perfume and really liked that massive orgy scene at the end and breathlessly whispered "everything is connected" to one another. Remember the cave rave in the second Matrix? The Wachowskis love them some unity...hokey, hokey unity.
57) I guess this leaves me with the second-best being Ben Whishaw gayin' around in the 1930s, but really, what is there to say? Doomed gay love, okay, can you guys wake me up when the Wachowskis have managed to leave the 1980s?
58) I think to myself after writing about each of these chapters that whichever one I'm working on has the most infuriating ending, but this one may well take the cake. Whishaw, blackmailed by an employer threatening to reveal his dirty sodomite secrets unless he surrenders the Cloud Atlas Sextet to him, shoots him but fails to finish the job. Scared, he runs away, hides for a couple of days, and then kills himself, seeing no other path of action. No relocation, no taking shelter in the arms of his true love (who he cheats on once, and attempts to again because gay men are sluts duh!). He can't get anything right so he decides to just puss out. UGH.
59) The movie is exploding with florid, hyperbolic prose, but it is clearly at its worst in this chapter. Realizing that their best opportunity to sneak in everything they learned in Erudite English 101 would be through a homosexual in the 1930s writing letters to his boyfriend, the Wachowskis work double-time to prove that they are highly literate people. The free use of words like "amanuensis" points to a piece that thinks it is much smarter than it actually is. Not that I have a problem with big words, clearly, but a sophisticated script they do not often make; they simply draw attention to the fact that it's trying way too hard, a kind of attention that Cloud Atlas definitely does not need more of.
60) Fifth chronologically but sitting at the dubious top in terms of quality, the 22nd-century chapter starring Bae Doona is largely the least excruciating to sit through. The visual design is pleasant, if not uninspired; there's little there you haven't already seen in Blade Runner. The action is at its coolest, with one particular highwire shootout standing at the apex of the film's surprisingly tepid fight scenes. And Doona gives the film's best performance; it's a retread of the ungainly, robotic naivete she displayed to remarkable effect in Air Doll, but using these talents to bring a futuristic clone waitress to "life" is as good a reason as any. The biggest frustration present in this chapter is that it screws the pooch unbelievably hard in the last five minutes, with a ~twist~ that has no impact at all and by far the most graceless implementation of the film's themes.
61) For those wondering: Sonmi-451 is a Fabricant, an interchangeable (Asian) human designed to do menial labor while remaining completely unstimulated and compliant. If they manage this for a period of time, they eventually accumulate enough points to "ascend," which is couched as some hallowed ritual guaranteeing the Fabricant sisters a life of peace and glory. If you can't see what fate lies in store for them, I seriously feel sorry for you, but let me just say it anyway: they are killed, dumped mercilessly onto an enormous boat, and then converted to "cheap protein" for the other Fabricants to eat. Not a terrible plot, though not really deserving of its position in the film's narrative as the Absolute Worst Human Atrocity Imaginable. But then it has been imagined before, forty years ago, by Soylent Green, which Cloud Atlas fucking referenced an hour and a half previous to this point. The effect of the reveal is utterly numbing.
62) Cloud Atlas further abuses Doona's engaging characterizations by forcing her to be the mouthpiece for a majority of the film's ungainly philosophy. Upon escaping waitress captivity, Sonmi-451 is retained by a rebel faction, taught the entire body of human knowledge in a five-second montage, and then becomes the all knowing prophet of a new movement toward free will. Her role is reduced by the end of the chapter to reciting a speech behind a glass screen to the rebel fighters as they wage a war (???), but apparently what she's saying is so profound and meaningful that the humans of Tom Hanks' chapter revere her as a goddess 106 years later. Any hope for a satisfying resolution to the one vaguely functional storyline is dashed upon the rocks after hearing Doona mutter "we are not free, tomb to womb" for the sixth time.
63) You see Doona's boobs, which is cool for those interested I guess. For all its polemics, the movie is curiously free of any opinion about sexism. Boobs sell tickets though, and I can't help but wonder if the Wachowskis realized that making any statements about the abuses of women would in turn be contradicted by their own.
64) Despite Neo Seoul being the most interesting setting, there is almost no time to explore it, yet another consequence of all the stories' truncated runtimes. The most flavor we ever get from this science fiction mishmash is inside a garishly bright, automated restaurant, full of incessantly cheery Asian waitress automatons. It gets in, shows us a few nifty images, and gets out; no need to dwell on it. Why the Wachowskis deemed this a setting worth lingering on is beyond me, since the rest of Neo Seoul remains a mystery in long shot, but it hints at design potential that the movie's structure restrains it from reaching.
65) The question of potential surges around Cloud Atlas. I was looking forward to this film for nearly a year, and it disappointed me in every capacity imaginable. Was there a chance that this could have been a movie that was at least not horrible, and possibly even good, and by the faintest of margins even great? If the book is as unfilmable as everyone says, then it isn't likely. If the book is as cliched and tedious and utterly up its own ass as this movie, then it is not possible at all. But the project is undeniably ambitious, and as mentioned before, its intentions are good. A lot of critics seem to be giving the movie a pass for being something "original" in a decidedly unoriginal cinematic climate, but this isn't exactly grounds for a reward since it's such an abject failure. Lady in the Water was original, and that was a heaping pile that received no praise at all for said originality. Many ardent defenders of the film fail to address anything other than its virtues, writing detractors off as the mere consequence of a "polarizing" "work of art," as if to imply that this couldn't possibly be the debacle that a few writers have pegged it as.
66) Cloud Atlas is made the exception for many of these critics simply because of its scope. To them the movie works because it is BIG: big scope, big themes, big visuals, big music, big length. I don't begrudge them their enjoyment of the film at all, and I'm actually glad that they derived something positive from it. It is ultimately a positive film, despite its complete failure as a work of its medium and some questionable political choices. But it's no different in intent from any given specious superhero blockbuster, where throwing money at a fundamentally unsound project somehow redeems its issues because it's pretty and brainless and we can lose ourselves in it for an hour and a half or three. Cloud Atlas was never meant to be a blockbuster. It is a film, by its own admission, with many things to say. But it says them in an immature, stale, unoriginal, heavy-handed way, and that makes them not worth listening to. Few people scrutinize ugly or unsuccessful art of their own volition; this, simply by virtue of some impressive visuals and sweeping orchestral music and "complex" temporal relationships, creates an illusion of its own importance or meaningfulness.