Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012) Movie Review

Cinema has reached a crucial turning point. That's what pop-movie alchemists, The Wachowskis, and Tom Tykwer have established with their grand-scale art experiment adapted from the 2004 David Mitchell novel. Spanning generations of human existence from the past to our distant future, and presenting metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, cause, effect, and the eternal bonds shared by all souls is visually expressed by way no major film has done before, and is even further bolstered by the audacious use and re-use of its cast (including Hugo Weaving, Jim D'Arcy, and Keith David) in various eras, locales & circumstances, all interweaving and in service of each other. Unlike the novel, the film takes a riskier route by intercutting all six stories into a tapestry of lives, often impacting each other unknowingly, and even carrying over certain consistencies, seemingly ready to repeat themselves until a cycle is found broken, thereby creating new paths. And as a film, it is a thing of often unwieldy beauty, punctuated by lapses in subtlety that have remained a Wachowski staple since the beginning.

Of the stories we experience..

On the Pacific Ocean, 1850..Young, and sickly notary, Adam Ewing(Jim Sturgess) has his morality tested as he befriends his ship's newly aquired slave, all the while he is slowly being deceived by the doctor Henry Goose(Tom Hanks), who claims to be capable of curing him, but only seems to be furthering his demise in hopes of stealing his inherited fortune.

Belgium, 1931. Young musical genius, Robert Frobisher(Ben Whishaw) seeks his fortune by attempting to become the assistant to long quiet composer(Jim Broadbent), only to find himself at the mercy of those who would ruin his future (even his inspirations) in a divided society. In letters, we are shown his loves, his secrets, and dreams shared with one Rufus Sixmith - a man who could very well be his lover.

San Francisco, 1975 where reporter, Luisa Rey(Berry), daughter of celebrated journalist finds herself at the center of an ecological conspiracy after a chance meeting with an elder Sixmith. With chance meetings and unexpected turns, things go from mysterious to deadly.

The UK in 2012, where panicked and aging publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) finds himself tricked by his own family into living in a prisonlike retirement home. It is here that he re-examines his choices, that ultimately fuels inspiration for a great escape.

Neo Seoul, 2144. Humanoid fabricant, SONMI-451(Doona Bae) recants a record of her life as a restaurant server in a largely techologized future, where she awakens to the horrifying plight of her kind after being liberated by Hae-Joo Chang(Sturgess), a man who believes she is key toward revolution.

The film is bookended by a tale told through the eyes of Zachary(Hanks), an elder with a story that charts the turning point from his days as a primitive villager, to his role in humankind's great turn after the fall of civilization. It is in the meeting of the enigmatic, Meronym(Berry), his fears and faith are tested as she comes, an emissary from an advanced people on the brink, with grave purpose.

So when the film takes on the bold task of intercutting all six stories in a manner antithetical to the more standard anthology format, the viewer is continuously whisked between characters' worlds, and what is clearly meant as a tribute to universal onenness, and eternal recurrence that is bound to divide, and likely confound. So when my impressions come off as more than positive considering a film that requires more than a little active viewing, it's all in the name of running one's hands through the sands of this major project in order to better figure out why it may not to be everyone's taste. And in doing so, for all the things that make the film an ambitious joy to experience, it is also (much like the Oshii-meets-HK action favorite, The Matrix) far more shallow than it purports to be. As each tale remarkably works as a showcase piece for some good to startling performances, there is always the spectre of a lack of complexity within what is meant to be a far more literary examination. By taking the cinematic route, much of the film's intended human subtext is often lost within a general love of all things film history.

That's right. In the end, Tykwer and The Wachowskis have fashioned not only a grand, loving tribute to movie mythology, but a summation of the works that have made them famous. Just as much as the stories involve causality, and the threads we weave, it is also a set of stories about seemingly ordinary pawns who awaken to their respective systems, only to find their way out of them. Whether it be by way of broken chains, hover bike, or gunshot, the spirit of rebellion punctuated by the kindness of others lies at the heart of the film. And even when these attempts fall flat in sections (most ineffectively in areas that likely shouldn't) there is certainly a celebration of visual language on display that perhaps will offer more upon repeat viewings. It's film education by example, and at places, says far more than most works explicitly about the medium, and its power to illuminate.

The issues that at least upon first viewing, kept me from a full catharsis remain in the hands of The Wachowskis who remain masters of pop filmmaking, only squeaking the surface of the drama, and often fashioned at arm's distance. This aversion to the more humanistic nuts and bolts contrasts largely with the 1975 segment, which has its own issues, but at least carries with it a weight that reverberates throughout. Tykwer clearly has a more personal stake in the project and it shows. And as stories that require more than the usual amount of intimacy, this comes as a series of minuses that dogs a lot of the film despite all the spectacle Cloud Atlas brings to the fore. Hanks, Berry, and the rest of the cast deliver universally well despite makeup issues that may as well serve as consistent thematic points.

But please don't allow the minuses outweigh the pluses, the genre-busting gymnastics of Cloud Atlas are a wonder to behold, and are far more invigorating than a dozen Avatars.

 To quote a certain inspiration, " And where does the new cinema go from here? The frame is vast and infinite.."

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