Cloud Atlas Is Better As A Trailer – A Review

Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski

Adapted from the novel of the same title by David Mitchell (published 2004)

Why are you interested in this adaptation? 

Elena-

Oh, wow, I am interested in this movie for a lot of reasons, none of which have to do with the book itself which I have never read or even heard of until this movie was announced.

Probably the biggest reason I’m interested in seeing this one is the idea that drives it—a web of stories of the same souls meeting again and again, sometimes as lovers and sometimes as friends, but always looking for each other.  That kind of reincarnation/affinity has always resonated with me; regardless of whether I believe it, the idea is powerful and beautiful.  It perfectly suits my aesthetic of High Romance.

Otherwise, the film looks visually stunning.  I was sold on seeing it after the first 10 frames or so of the preview (so maybe my primary interest is the visuals).  I am especially interested in the future sequence, and would see the movie for that storyline alone even if all the others looked terrible.

There is also the matter of who is involved in it…I trust Tykwer as a director, and I think the Wachowski brothers shine much more brightly as producers rather than directors (unless they go old school Bound style and stop using CGI).  I think they all make a great pairing of artistically conscious directors who have experience with fragmented narratives, large casts, and Butterfly Effect nuances of how big a difference one change can ultimately make.

Rachel –

I’m not particularly interested in Cloud Atlas. I guess you could say I have a chip on my shoulder about novels that are talked about as “Literary Fiction” when they are clearly frakking SciFi. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE when genre stories are embraced by the literary elite. They need to realize that genre stories are just as relevant, hard to write and hard to read as any other piece of fiction. (I mean…the good ones. Let’s just admit there is some pretty bad genre stuff AND some pretty bad “literary” stuff. But mostly the resistance to genre is all about pretensions and outright prejudice.) Cloud Atlas was short listed for a Nebula Award so, ya know…SciFi. Accept it.

I was also pretty epically disappointed in The Matrix Trilogy. I’m expecting this to be a bit of a mess. A pretty one with a couple of good fight scenes and a lot of heavy-handed appropriated mythology.

Elena-

The last Matrix movie pretty much ruined me on the trilogy. The first one was pretty good, and the second was mostly good.  The third just free-fell down the black hole of letting the CG nerds do anything they could jizz out onto the screen. Also the behind-the-curtain mythology got stupid.  So I agree there is definitely mess potential.

What would make it awesome?

Elena-

If the movie lives up to its preview, it will be awesome.  I expect it to look beautiful throughout, tell interesting sub-stories, and weave together into a sweeping epic where everything truly is connected by the end.  Also I expect there to be some creativity in the filming and editing (hallmarks of both Tykwer and the Wachowskis as directors).  If they can deliver that…I will be satisfied.

But that’s just the technical side of things. What would take this movie over the top is if I also love the characters (or at least some of the characters) and their stories.  If we get some Fountain-esque tale of spending 500 years trying to save someone that just pushes all my button about impossible (but maybe not!) love stories that span space and time…you know, all those glorious True Love motivations that the pragmatic German in me just couldn’t do in real life and hence must live out vicariously.  Yeah.  Give me that, and the technical spec’s I asked for, and you have made an awesome movie.

Rachel –

Girl, did we even watch the same preview? I watched a trailer that was 6 minutes long and made no damn sense except I got to see Tom Hanks and Halley Barry wear a bunch of terrible wigs…

FOR SERIOUS WHAT IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT?

LOVE.LIFE.KISSING.

DEATH.TOMHANKS.SUNSETS.

I gave up and read the Wikipedia synopsis of the novel just now. Nesting novels! Dystopian futures!!! The structure of the novel is the most interesting part about it; I hope they keep that structure in the film. That would make it awesome.

What would make it suck?

Elena-

A movie of this scope carries a number of inherent risks:  having to rush through the various storylines to fit them all in, having one weak sub-story/sub-cast that brings the whole to a screeching halt because it just doesn’t work, getting so lost in the sub-stories that the main story/overarching story is left undeveloped.  This is a bigger cast and set of storylines than either Tykwer or the Wachowskis have handled before, so while it might not be beyond their reach to pull off, it will be a stretch.

Beyond that are a couple of risk factors specific to this project.  First is the possibility that the story is built on an idea that seems profound at first glance but, when examined, turns out to be nonsensical or totally shallow.  I haven’t read the book, so it might be that the book is based on a not-so-profound idea, but there is the secondary risk that an adaptation of the book will dumb down a great idea into a trite one.

The other danger I see is how the stories are woven together.  I actually really enjoy tapestry movies when they are done well.  Crash was a movie that, I thought, did it well, whereas Babel was terrible.  The sub-stories have to be intimately connected for the whole to work; otherwise they just look like coincidences, and coincidence is weak storytelling.

Rachel-

I’m having all sorts of The Fountain flashbacks, I really am. And I didn’t enjoy that film like you did. I fell asleep.

I get really bored when movies try to preach at me and say “everything happens for a reason.” I am emphatically against that mindset. I think it’s a huge problem in our society…but I won’t start ranting now.

The way the novel ends, with a reminder that no matter what your contribution to the human race – it can affect someone. I think that’s nice. I think it’s even nicer that such effects are not based at all upon having children and spreading a philosophical legacy via them. I like that it’s more particular and individual. (Okay…the whole society on Hawaii things (no Spoilers) is just…fucking hackneyed, but everything else seems interesting so I will let it slide.)

This movie has a high “total mess” probability.

Additional thoughts on casting or production?

Elena-

I have really high hopes for this film.  I know my expectations are high, but I don’t think they’re unmeetable, and I trust the people involved enough to be capable of pulling off a movie like this.  While I do have some fears that this one will ultimately be a disappointment, I am hopeful for a movie-going experience that sweeps me off my feet and never lets me down.

Rachel-

Eh… there are lots of people in this movie that will appeal to my mother (but I love Tom Hanks!!! I luff him I dooooo). Casting is whatever. I heard that there was some yellow-face going on in the film (when a white person plays an Asian person, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but I didn’t see any evidence of that in the trailer. Some of the actors play different characters indifferent time periods…I sure hope they don’t have any white people playing Asians in the dystopian Korea. That…would be a terrriiiibllleee idea. 

Reaction to film?

Rachel-

I’d like to tell you a story. A story about a couple generations of highly evolved mammals on the planet Earth that douched around using up fossil fuels and screwing with several world eco-systems until said planet Earth started becoming another planet altogether – Planet Hurricane.

One day Planet Earth (not quite yet Planet Hurricane) conjured a Hurricane as big as an ocean and sent it blasting along some of that planet’s most heavily populated shores.

One of the cities on those shores was called New York, and New York functioned almost entirely through a maze of subterranean electric trains. In the days that followed the Ocean-Sized Hurricane’s visit, New York was renamed THUNDERDOME, and it didn’t have those subterranean electric trains anymore. It didn’t even have food anymore. No, all it had were diseased migrating rats, block after block of cold, dark buildings, and a halo of ash floating in flood waters that used to be where the latest generation of highly evolved mammals lived.

THUNDERDOME was not a place of frivolity. THUNDERDOME didn’t have such establishments as Movie Theaters.

THUNDERDOME ONLY HAD THUNDERDOME.

Elena-

I think the moral of “Welcome to Thunderdome” there is, Hurricane Sandy happened in order that Rachel would not have to watch Cloud Atlas.

Truth be told, I almost envy her.  I liked this movie so much more before I saw it.

I really, really, really wanted to love this movie.  Obviously.  I walked out of the theater not sure how I felt about it.  A movie with this many storylines and messages does take some parsing out.  Unfortunately, the more I thought about it the less I liked it overall.

Technically, this movie was up to my expectations for it.  Beautiful to watch, varied and creative without being distractingly so, just a treat to look at.

However.  If you did more than look at it, by which I mean, paid attention to the stories and characters, then problems arose.

First of all, ugh. This movie was so politically correct! Big evil oil trying to control the world’s energy! Misunderstood ghey lovers! The slave with career skillz and a heart of gold who convinces a man to become an abolitionist!  The evil government overlords who want to control everything and kill anyone who opposes them!  A slight complaint, really, but it did make me roll my eyes, like “Really, that’s the best you could come up with?”

I didn’t mind the multiple castings.  I don’t know if there would have been a clear way to delineate who was who in each scenario without something even hokier than repeating actors, like always putting the “same” character in one particular color or giving them physical ticks or habits like smoking, reading the same book, eating the same thing, etc.  That would have been worse.  None of the parts really stood out to me as amazing character work on their own; Tom Hanks definitely differentiated his characters better than Halle Berry.  The others played such different parts, in such different stories, that I sometimes forgot they were the same actors.  But the real scene stealer was Hugo Weaving.  Mr. Anderson was a fucking fabulous villain, playing the, or at least an, antagonist in basically every storyline and nailing each one—even the comedic one in the most light-hearted of the stories.

To address Rachel’s concern about the yellow-face—in the context it did not bother me at all.  This was because it was applied consistently, and to characters who were from a different race than Somni.  She was a fabricant (cough *replicant* cough), while they were not.  So I don’t know if they were actually meant to be Asian or if they were meant to have some odd forehead deformation that was part of their physical characteristics as a race at that point.

Honestly, the two biggest problems I had with this movie is that there was no real philosophical or emotional payout from the film as a whole, and most of the relationships didn’t really work for me.

The two that moved me were the gay lovers and the dystopian city genetically modified girl/natural “full human” man.  Interestingly enough (or perhaps this is so expected it’s not interesting) those were also the storylines that engaged me the most.  I didn’t really like the publisher’s story. It seemed needlessly frivolous, like it was comic relief for a movie that really wasn’t intense enough to require comic relief.  The reporter/scientist storyline seemed built mainly on their mutual sense of déjà vu, and the plot was a pretty tried-and-true evil corporate cover-up gone murderous.  The future, post-apocalyptic story was just sort of there.  The sea journey was painfully cliché.

I did really, truly enjoy the composer’s story.  That was a very compelling storyline, and I enjoyed the characters and their relationship. Definitely the most complex of them, and the story that will stick with me the longest.

I also enjoyed the future story.  The city was definitely in the mode of Bladerunner dystopias, and the events carried the sort of desperate romanticism I was expecting.  The girl’s philosophy, of only needing to convince one person of the truth of her words, was a nice twist away from the typical over-the-top rhetoric about telling “the people” the truth and giving them enlightenment.

But that leaves a tally of 4-2 stories I didn’t like to stories I did, and in the end I really didn’t feel much of a connection between the stories and characters other than being told these were reincarnations.  Small pieces were woven together—the composer is reading the journal of the abolitionist, the reporter knows the composer’s only work, the publisher has a manuscript for novels written about the reporter by her friend, the future girl watches a movie about the publisher’s time in a nursing home, the goat-herder’s religion is based on the girl’s “revelation.”  To Rachel’s point above, it actually is a clear representation of things we leave behind us, marks on the world, that have nothing to do with children.  A positive, but in the end much more a Babel than a Crash in terms of weaving stories together and making them necessary to each other.

So for me, this movie is better in the 6-minute version than the 136-minute version.  The long trailer captured many of the most beautiful scenes and most of the best lines.  It hinted at an idea that was really never explored more deeply in the film than it was there in the trailer, and thus done better with the brevity that allows your own imagination room to breathe.

I’m not saying this movie was a bomb.  It wasn’t terrible.  It had a lot of redeeming qualities.  But for all the glitz on its surface, its heart was made of tin, not gold, and so I have to come down solidly on the ground, having been let down, after all.

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