It’s all too easy to rip someone else’s work apart. As Richard Linklater says, “We give ourselves lots of leeway, but expect consistency from other people.” But, if the new consistency is making big movies that are more like concepts for movies than cinematic narratives themselves, then Cloud Atlas is to be expected.
The three-hour, century-spanning movie is directed by a trio – Andy and Lana Wachowski (the duo behind The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowskis had me at “Morpheus believes he is the one,” and I’ve been a fan ever since, pretending, like most of us, that Speed Racer never happened. I’ve followed Tykwer’s career since Run Lola Run. His follow-ups, The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven, both made an impression. Later, The International showed he could handle something with big bucks behind it. The book Cloud Atlas is based on comes from David Mitchell, a very likeable British writer. The ingredients were there for a thrilling spectacle.
The movie, though, never seems to happen. About an hour in, I realized I was still waiting for things to get going, for the various tangential set-ups to start not only tightening their weaves, but for some central storyline to emerge, or, at least, for the connections between the stories to become more prominent. Something. Honestly, I wasn’t critically interpreting anything while sitting there; just waiting. I was reminded of the same feeling I had watching Inception. Inception was like listening to a travel agent describing your dream vacation, but never letting you out of the office and putting you on the plane. Cloud Atlas was like watching a preview, albeit a very long preview, for another movie. Maybe even a preview for a preview of another movie. And in the middle of it all were the scenes with Jim Broadbent that felt like something out of Waking Ned Devine.
Something is happening in cinema. I’m not smart or shrewd enough to know exactly what it is. David Mamet would know. I’m not a film geek with strict allegiances to films like Stranger Than Paradise or anything. I purposely avoided traditional film school in order to sidestep three years of Film Theory. But, like the rest of us, I can recognize when I’m engaged by something. Cloud Atlas hopped from one narrative piston to the next. With some regularity, the music would start up and the timbre suggested that something was about to happen, but then the suspense would dissipate and things settled back again, hopscotching from one staccato scene to the next. After three hours, it ended.
In fairness, there were notable performances and all that. Each of the main actors played a stable of characters. For most, like Hanks, it worked, though it felt a bit vaudevillian. Some of the effects were great, the future gizmos understated and cool. While some of the make-up jobs were superb, others, not so much. I’m sorry, but even the most skilled make-up artist cannot transform Doona Bae, a beautiful Asian woman with a thick accent, into a freckled Irish girl from the 19th Century. She ends up looking like a Fraggle.
Cloud Atlas was fun to talk about after it was over. Some of the connections between the narratives were so tenuous there seemed to be almost none at all, but with a little post-viewing discourse, you might be able to suss them out and have an “ah hah” moment. Many of these potential connections, however, will leave you scratching your head. Who was the green man? What was the purpose of Cavendish escaping the nursing home? Chances are good that you will leave as I did, thinking you just spent three hours of your life listening to someone’s pitch for a really great movie. You’ll want to endorse that pitch, and see that movie, but then you’ll realize you’re already in the car and driving away from the theater.