Possibly my favorite paragraph in film criticism comes from David Thomson’s “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film”, where he writes about seeing David Lynch’s masterpiece “Blue Velvet” for the first time. In it he writes “The occasion stood as the last moment of transcendence I had felt at the movies – until The Piano. What I mean by that is a kind of passionate involvement with both the story and the making of a film, so that I was simultaneously moved by the enactment on screen and by discovering that a new director had made the medium alive and dangerous again. I was the more captivated in that I had not much liked David Lynch’s earlier work”. This perfectly captures the feeling for me of experiencing a new film that I almost immediately sense is one of the greats, the kind of moment that I go to film after film in search of. His description of both fully engaging with the film on a narrative level, while also evaluating it and marveling at the making of such a film as ‘transcendence’ is apt: it is a kind of experience where one completely loses one’s self-consciousness and becomes completely absorbed by the film experience. This kind of experience seems to rarely occur when you expect it to, but rather seems to sneak up on you and take you by surprise. Perhaps the first time I was aware of such an experience (i.e. after reading Thomson’s piece) was at the screening of another David Lynch film: 2006’s “Inland Empire”. Since then I have only had a similar experience at three films: 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”, last year’s “Melancholia”, and now “Cloud Atlas”.
There is some difference between the experience Thomson describes and mine: in all four cases I was very aware of the filmmaker in question (I would have been disappointed at any less of an experience at Inland Empire), and Lars Von Trier is the only director of the four films whose previous work I didn’t care for at all. But in all of these cases there was a real sense of discovery, and perhaps none more than “Cloud Atlas”.
The directors of the film were a big part of my surprise: it is one of the rare movies that credits three directors, who apparently directed different portions of the film in separate production units, one headed by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski, the other by German director Tom Tykwer. The Wachowski’s are hardly an obscure duo: they have a very particular place in film history (and infamy) as the directors of the Matrix trilogy, a series that began with one of the greatest American action films, and eventually devolved into a duo of interesting, memorable, but enormously flawed and heavy-handed followups that attempted to take on far more weight than they could sustain. Their work since then has been a mixed bag: first an adaptation of the classic graphic novel “V For Vendetta”, which had it’s equal share of admirers and haters, and a live action adaptation of the 60’s anime “Speed Racer”, which seemed to exist solely to capture on film the feeling of throwing up after eating too much candy. Tykwer’s career has been just as odd and uneven, including “Run Lola Run”, his engaging but spastic debut,“Heaven”, an adaptation of a Kryzstof Kieslowski script, “Perfume”, another imaginative adaptation of a difficult novel, and “The International”, a generic heist film. Based on this eclectic and inconsistent pedigree I expected an interesting but incoherent mess of a film, but was surprised by how emotionally engaging, and thematically powerful it ended up being.
The narrative is difficult to describe: it involves six different storylines, one revolving around a plantation owner (Jim Sturgess) stranded on the Chatham Islands in 1849, one about a young gay musician (Ben Whishaw) who collaborates with a cranky but brilliant composer in Brugges circa 1936, one about a female reporter (Halle Berry) in 1970’s San Francisco, one about a bumbling author in present day England (Jim Broadbent), one about a Korean clone (Bae Doona) in “Neo Seoul” circa 2144, and the last about a goatherder (Tom Hanks) in an unspecified, post-apocalyptic future setting. Though each story revolves around a different character, most of these actors (along with several others) appear in almost all the other storylines as reincarnations of their characters. The film carries on in a long tradition of “everything is connected” films, where a vast number of characters are coincidentally linked together (the masterpiece of which is still Paul Thomas Anderson’s devastating “Magnolia”). This genre appeared to have been repeated to the point that nothing original could be added to it, yet Cloud Atlas succeeds by connecting the characters across time in an extremely satisfying fashion. Other films, particularly Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious failure “The Fountain”, have attempted such a structure, but were overly obvious and emotionally hollow. Unlike the weaker films in this genre, like the heavyhanded “Babel”, “Cloud Atlas” does not establish direct and convoluted narrative links between the segments, but ties them together thematically, and through coincidental and unpredictable interactions between the key characters.
It is certainly an extremely unusual film, in that almost all of it’s power of the film lies in its structure. At first the film seems disjointed, and seems to be attempting to tell six stories at once, and it isn’t until nearly an hour in when the different tones and style start to mesh together. None of these stories would be particularly stunning or unpredictable if taken individually, but linked together they create an unforgettable and stirring kind of mosaic narrative. There are elements in the film that don’t seem to belong in any respectable work of art: among many other spectacles the movie features Hugo Weaving essentially playing Nurse Ratched in Mrs. Doubtfire style drag, a significant plot twist ripped straight out of “Soylent Green”, several nearly direct addresses to the viewer, many instances of bizarre casting across gender and race lines, and voiceover that sometimes seems to run throughout half the movie. Yet the film is so self-assured in its direction that it not only carries the viewer through these rough patches, but transforms them into strengths. As it goes on, the editing intentionally becomes more and more fluid, and key scenes across time periods and storylines are inextricably linked to each other. It isn’t clear until the final 30 minutes (out of nearly 3 hours) what exactly these stories have in common, but by that point the viewer is unable to separate the threads from each other, as the editing links them in visual and emotional ways that make sense on a completely different level from the intellectual themes.
But I do not mean to indicate that this is a particularly intellectual or difficult film. Like most successful films with complex narrative structures, it seems vast and nearly incomprehensible at first, yet is deceptively simple by the end. On paper it may sound like the kind of postmodern structure that would be comparable to a Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch film, but it has just as much in common with epic, crowd pleasing romances like “Titanic” and “Gone with the Wind”. Like those films it has massive flaws which are nearly impossible to overlook: including wildly over the top supporting performances, massive tonal shifts, pieces of tin-eared dialogue, and underdeveloped storylines, but features such universal emotions and entertaining spectacles that its power is difficult to deny. Once the themes of the movie reveal themselves, they are much more romantic than intellectual in nature, something that the directors wisely realize and emphasize. There is a self-awareness to the film that manages to temper the sillier aspects while not distracting from the serious emotions at it’s core: it is clear that the directors know that is inherently amusing to make up the beautiful Halle Berry as a decrepit male Korean doctor, and make these kinds of moments gleefully absurd, rather than awkward and embarrassing. This is aided by the exceptional makeup effects, which are by turns subtle, artful, grotesque, and hilarious.
There are six different narratives and nearly eighty significant characters here (almost all played by the same 12 or so actors), yet the script and editing are so artful and precise that the various threads never become difficult to parse. This is partly because some narrative shortcuts are taken: there is not really time to develop the characters as specific individuals, so most remain archetypes on which the audience can project their own emotions and experiences. While normally this would result in vague characters that arouse little in the way of emotion, this works for two reasons here. Firstly, though the reincarnation theme causes some actors to be cast very oddly in small roles, all the central roles are cast to perfection, with the actors conveying the specific humanity within the characters that the script does not have time to establish, and secondly because the editing clarifies the arc of each character outside of the context of their specific storylines. Certain narratives might be much more effective than others if the storylines were separated (the parts set in Neo-Seoul, and 1930′s Brugges are particularly engaging) but the directors makes it impossible to do so, tying every stray part into an inextricable whole. While the reincarnation theme could have come off as a goofy pseudo-profound gimmick, instead it works to clarify certain character arcs and heighten the emotional payoff. Perhaps the most original aspect to the film is that it suggests that the characters do not experience their other lives in chronological order: for instance there is a moment in the film where a pair of lovers are separated in a future storyline, and simultaneously reunited in a past one. This kind of situation sounds inscrutable and abstract, but it is edited in such a way that becomes a powerfully emotional and relatable romantic moment. More than any other film in recent memory, “Cloud Atlas” is a reminder of the magic of cinema, that there are certain ideas and feelings that film is better equipped to convey than any other art form.