My first impressions of Cloud Atlas


 As members of the Miami Film Society we get invited to free previews of first run films. This week I was lucky enough to see a preview of Cloud Atlas. Here are my initial impressions. Keep in mind I haven't yet read the book. Mild SPOILER ALERTS toward the end of the article.

The film is 172 minutes, that's three hours, folks. Surprisingly no one in the Miami South Beach audience moved or breathed, hardly. No one got up to go to the bathroom, which is amazing considering the audience in the theatre was skewed to middle age (and mostly Latin). There were non-sci-fi people sitting around me who knew nothing about the book, but no one had trouble following the six interwoven plots.

Except for the Neo Seoul plot which I would argue is the "main" plot, each plot is fairly simple to follow on its own. To get a general audience to follow six interwoven plots is a huge accomplishment in and of itself. I'm a fan of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's work, and on the surface the script for Cloud Atlas seems to take the approach favored by Arriaga—to link together several disparate plots with some cosmic, metaphorical significance—to an extreme. However, Cloud Atlas doesn't quite master the "cosmic significance" part. Instead of encouraging us to connect the philosophical dots and leading us into a state of meditation on the grander meaning of life and maybe an epiphany about our own little roles in it, as Arriaga does, Cloud Atlas tries to tell us what it's all about.

As I've written about elsewhere, Arriaga starts writing his own scripts with just a single word, like "revelation" or "love" or "friendship," that sums up the theme for him. Instead of an outline, he has a structuring concept. In Amores Perros it was the car accident -- we witness the before, during and after from different character perspectives.

Similarly, the filmmakers have used a structuring concept here: reincarnation. To visually embody this concept, they have the same actors playing different characters in each episode. On the outside this seems like a great puzzle structure, because part of the fun of the movie is figuring out who Tom Hanks or Halle Berry or Sturgess or D'Arcy are playing this time. Trust me, even in Hank's or Berry's case, it is not always obvious. But the same device pulls us out of the story, because figuring which star is playing which character doesn't really serve the story at all, except to distract from it. The tattoos, which I'm told had greater significance in the book, mean almost nothing here. And the insistance on having the same actors play such very disparate roles led to some unfortunate choices.The Asiatic makeup looks ridiculous -- they either should have spent more money on it or cast real Asians. I didn't buy Halle Berry as a Jew, sorry, that simply did not work, and that makeup catastrophe threw me out of what is otherwise one of the best plotlines in the film. I also did not buy Doona Bey as a Victorian lady, simply because not enough cash was put into the effort.You can see an image gallery of some of the makeup here.

Keeping track of which actor is playing which character in any given episode is kind of fun, and didn't distract me from following the plot, but I think it was an unnecesary game; it would have been better to have more actors and use the tattoos better to indicate that these are reincarnations. The way they did it, having one actor play reincarnated roles, made the tattoo superfluous; keeping the tattoo made it seem like these people were somehow "special" or "chosen," when in fact, as far as I could tell, they were meant to be a representative microcosm. The reincarnation, according to the portentious moral argument dialogue (there's a bit of it in every episode: I just had to cringe and try to drown it out), is something we have to do until we can fix our own mistakes as humans. But the story doesn't really support that: in each case most of the characters are clearly doing the best they can do under terrible circumstances.

However, all the actors were very good in their roles, and were clearly having an EXCELLENT time. If you feel confused about who was playing whom, stick around for the credits; alll is explained, with pictures, there.

Some reviewers have nothing positive to say about the plotline where Jim Broadbent plays a vanity publisher and Hanks has a stellar turn as an author called Knuckle Head (a truly delicious performance). But that plotline was my favorite. It is the only one that was farcical, that incorporates black comedy, and if you are talking about human life, and if on top of that you are trying to convince us that we are going to live not once, but over and over until we "get it right," then by golly you are going to need some black comedy. The audience cheered at certain moments of this plotline. Write to me and let me know if YOU cheered.

I would sum up my first impression as, this is a sci-fi movie aimed at a general audience, not people who aren't die hard sci-fi fans as I am. (SPOILERS AHEAD) There are clear hommages, if not outright ripoffs, of classic genre films like Bladerunner, Logan's Run, 2046 (Wong Kar Wai), Soylent Green, a hilarious parody of Hammer films with some acknowledgement of Mike Leigh thrown in, and then some classic dramas like Silkwood(!), Amistad, and Ghost Writer.

Because this is the Wachowski's (as well as Twyker) there is a tongue-in-cheek non-diegetic homage to The Matrix that doesn't detract and also makes one of Hugo Weaving's less believable incarnations a little easier to take. Overall I'd say it felt like the first season of a TV series analogous to Lost packed into one three-hour movie. The good news is, the general audience (note, it was an audience of Miami Film Society members, so, regular filmgoers, not regular couch potatoes) had no trouble following it. Except for the bad Asian makeup, it looks GORGEOUS throughout. This might be a promising development for complex storytelling in particular and sci-fi in general: maybe as a genre it's coming out of the closet where it can be appreciated by all, and not just us diehard fans.

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