Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas

It's a cumulus! Or a cirrostratus!
It's best to begin by a straight-up admission that I wasn't at all sure about this one. Cloud Atlas is long - like Gone with the Wind long and, for the most part, contemporary audiences get antsy around the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute mark. It involves actors playing multiple roles across multiple storylines, switching time periods, races, and genders. The film has come under fire for "yellowfacing" - having Caucasian actors play Asian characters rather than hiring Asian actors. There are three - THREE - directors, two of whom are the Wachowski siblings, who once were the Wachowski brothers and that's a whole other kettle of mackerel that I'm not getting into, aside from saying that I imagine that Lana Wachowski has a unique perspective on just how much a person can change. The Wachowski siblings have a track record that shows a definite bent for visually striking films that dabble in theology and Big Questions.

Not sure, not sure.  But this is my not-quite-job, so I bought my ticket, not at all sure if this was going to be the first Matrix movie or Speed Racer. (Hey, like your career hasn't had the occasional misstep?)

I have to say, I've never seen anything like this movie. Ever. I think it's absolutely brilliant and let me explain why.

All too often today, films lack ambition. Worse, they don't trust the audience to figure anything out, so the storytelling tends to be "tell," rather than "show." Cloud Atlas trusts you to be able to connect the dots (by the way, a "cloud atlas" is a real thing) and expects you to try. It's not about stunt casting, although some will seize on that, since you have Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and the incomparable Hugo Weaving (among at least half a dozen others) playing multiple roles. The key concept in the movie is that things, events, people, and (most importantly) love, repeat throughout time. Who's playing the "good guy" and who's filling the archetype of the villain might change, but the roles are always there because we have a hard time learning our lessons.  There's certainly some Carl Jung in here - I caught myself mulling over the concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious after the credits ran. And Joseph Campbell would swoon over this film.  Swoon.

Some will balk at the length. Some will balk at the pidgin language used in one part. Some will balk at the mixing of time periods.

I think all of these people are missing the pointCloud Atlas is huge and glorious and celebratory (there's a scene in a Scottish pub that had me punching the air in my seat) and tragic and funny and will both make you glad to be human and sorry to be associated with such a screwed-up species.

Go see it.  

Oh, and about the pidgin language part. I've read some criticism that griped that this part should come with subtitles. Really, buddy? Stop taking snarky notes on your popcorn bucket and try concentrating. (I know - that was snarky. Trust me, it was deserved.)

And about the time switches.  Just pay attention - the time period switches aren't random at all.  They occur when a significant plot point is reached in the Grand Story.  That's one of the key points - life is the same story told over and over.  It actually reminded me of John Gardner's line that "in all the world, there are only two stories.  You take a trip, or a stranger comes to town." (And Gardner showed in Grendel that he understands the power of telling a familiar tale through the lens of another character - he'd probably like Cloud Atlas just fine for that reason alone.)  Honestly, if you ever teach any sort of narrative structure class - playwrighting, screenwriting, or just plain ol' longhand fiction - Cloud Atlas could be a great film to use as a teaching tool, for it shows the same big events multiple times.

To sum up, Cloud Atlas is a movie for viewers who are willing to settle in for a long ride, who aren't afraid to think and who can still marvel at the way a movie can touch us emotionally. All that said, Cloud Atlas isn't for everyone - and it certainly doesn't make you a dunderhead if you decide it's not your cup of sweet tea.

But I'm oh-so-glad I saw it!

1 comment:

Didge said...

I know this is an old post, but hubby and I finally saw this one. I fell asleep the first time, which has nothing to do with the quality of movie and everything to do with the hour in which we started it and the fact that pregnancy has destroyed my ability to stay awake past midnight.

I knew the movie must be good when Hub was wiling to watch it a second time in only a matter of weeks.

It was wonderful. It's one of those movies that's so underrated. Mind you, due to content, I couldn't recommend it to everyone. There are those, though, that I will insist upon seeing it.

It had all the deliciousness of a steak dinner with the filling satisfaction of oatmeal.