There’s a peculiar tendency when grand, spectacle films with ambitious narratives come out, to treat the work like a safe, something to be “unlocked.” It happened with “Inception” a couple years ago, with all sorts of helpful infographics making the Internet rounds to explain what was a dream, what was real, how a certain shot or symbol was the key to all our questions. There’s a documentary out this year, “Room 237,” which essentially does the same for Kubrick’s “The Shining,” laying out half a dozen complex interpretations that various obsessives have “discovered” in the elusive imagery of the horror classic.
“Cloud Atlas” is already well on its way to receiving the same treatment, with its six intertwining stories spanning hundreds of years and dozens of echoed themes, symbols and characters. With nearly three hours of screen time, any number of grandiose speeches and an advance reputation for taking on a notoriously un-filmable novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” certainly feels important. But in my eyes there seems to be a certain amount of confusion between the scale of production and the scale of meaning behind it – why do we assume that a film is a puzzle just because it has a few more pieces than normal to move around?
Don’t take this as a criticism – while I don’t think “Cloud Atlas” is some kind of cosmic riddle, it’s certainly playing a game, and a very engaging one at that. Chess might be the most appropriate metaphor: each move or moment follows a certain amount of immediate logic, often reacting to direct threats or developments, but always beholden to a larger scheme. Moves are made with initially no apparent purpose, only to prove extremely significant much further down the line. As observers, we may understand how each piece moves and the general rules, but watching chessmasters at work reveals the importance of creatively bending these expectations.
In the case of “Cloud Atlas,” it took not two but three players to lay out this particular game – the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, finally back on track after a decade of misfires, teamed up with Tom Tykwer, cult composer and filmmaker (“Run Lola Run,” “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”). The credits will tell you that the Wachowskis and Tykwer evenly split the six narratives of “Cloud Atlas” between themselves, but in interviews the directors have spoken of a far more collaborative effort, and that’s certainly believable. Elements of each director’s sensibilities bleed into every story (and I use the word “bleed” rather literally; neither the Tykwer nor the Wachowskis have ever shied away from graphic violence).
Describing all six of the stories involved in “Cloud Atlas” would simply take up too much time, so I would suggest going elsewhere for that kind of rundown. The details are mostly inconsequential, anyway – in the end, they all boil down to the same basic concept, just with slightly different twists. From a 19th-century ship traversing the Pacific to contemporary London, a future vision of South Korea and a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, “Cloud Atlas” follows the same fundamental arc: an overwhelmed protagonist battles against forces beyond his or her control, alternately menaced or assisted by those around them. These characters are played, from one tale to the next, by the same core group of actors, although any one individual will often play a wide variety of types. That goes not just for personality, but appearance as well: women play men, men play women, whites play Asians, blacks play whites, etc., etc.
Beyond the weaving narrative structure (the film jumps higgledy-piggledy from one section to the next, often at random, sometimes through obvious juxtapositions, but never so erratically as to lose interest), this stunt casting method is the film’s most obvious thematic indulgence. “Cloud Atlas” makes no attempt to hide its concern with reincarnation, identity and the consequences of personal action – so when Halle Berry shows up at various points as a Maori slave, a white British Jew and an Indian woman, it’s really not so difficult to sniff out what the film is up to.
The “we’re all connected” subgenre of drama is generally tiresome (see: “Crash”) but has had its sublime moments (see: “Magnolia”). “Cloud Atlas” doesn’t really have anything ground-breaking to say on the matter, which does make the matter of that race-bending makeup extremely problematic. The directors are obviously well-intentioned and it is an effective device for suggesting the persistent presence of certain archetypes across the realm of human personality, but the effect is often too uncanny, especially when it comes to the South Korean episode. Superficial attempts to make Jim Sturgess or Hugh Grant appear Asian (who cares about bone structure, let’s just give ’em some slanty eyes!) serve just to point out how stubborn certain stereotypes are, even as the directors proclaim a message of tolerance and liberation. It’s to the film’s credit that Asian actresses Doona Bae and Xun Zhao are allowed fluid racial identities as well, but it’s also worth noting that none of the white actors attempt blackface, a cop-out that undermines any real challenge to socially acceptable conceptions of race.
But that’s not the kind of thing you’re thinking about in the middle of “Cloud Atlas.” At that point it’s better just to let the sheer technical prowess on display wash over you. Again, I can’t say that I think the film is terribly successful at enforcing its explicitly New Age message – if we are meant to interpret each actor as one soul moving through time, why does Tom Hanks wildly bounce back and forth between greedy schemers and saintly heroes? His actions seem to have little consequence on his own future. And if we are not meant to interpret the casting so literally, then why does Hugo Weaving have to be the heavy in every single segment? It doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, but “Cloud Atlas” is so vividly engaging on a moment-to-moment basis that it hardly matters. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission for a sublime scene (possibly a dream) in which Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy (gay lovers in the film’s most subtle, hauntingly beautiful segment) smash a china shop to exquisite bits. “Cloud Atlas” is rife with such fine, visceral filmmaking, and it admirably shoots for the stars in a way that we just don’t see very often (no, probably not even in Star Wars VII).
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars