Friday, November 2, 2012


FAIR WARNING:  If you’re looking for an afternoon of light entertainment, CLOUD ATLAS is not the movie for you.  Have fun at PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, and don’t put your brain on overload. In fact, tickets to this nearly three-hour long, mind-expanding epic film by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings of MATRIX fame should come with a caveat:  Not-So-Bright or Inattentive Audiences Enter at Your Own Risk. 

On the other hand, if you enjoy the occasional challenge of a chess game, the NY Times crossword or a trip to the Louvre, then you might appreciate the intellectual effort required to follow CLOUD ATLAS.  Or if you can just relax and go with the flow and not worry too much about what the heck is going on until all the pieces come together, then CLOUD ATLAS is well worth the discomfort of its first fifteen minutes, which play something like watching television with a channel-surfing ADHD teenager.

Like the novel by David Mitchell on which it is based, the film follows multiple characters across six basic storylines in different times and places.  The characters are interrelated across time and space and meet each other in different guises and incarnations over and over again.  Okay.  The structure of the film is such that we meet the characters in each of these storylines all at once in the beginning, in something like 30-second snapshots, and return to them in random sequence, much as if that teenager were flipping the channels on us.  (Now, I didn’t have a stopwatch, and I don’t know how long the actual sequences were, but it seemed like no more than 30 seconds at first.)

I’m actually a channel-surfer myself and pretty good at switching “worlds” in rapid succession, but in TV land we usually have about four or five minutes between commercials to see how the story is progressing.  In the beginning of CLOUD ATLAS, we have nothing like that kind of time to ground ourselves in the Pacific in 1849, Cambridge in 1936, somewhere in the U.S. in 1973, Britain in 2012, Neo-Seoul in 2144 or Hawaii  “after the Fall” (sometime in the future) before we’re whisked off to the one or the other of the scenes to witness another piece of the plot. 

Things slow down after the first whirlwind minutes of the film, and the jumps are slower, but they speed up again at crucial junctures.  There is good reason there’s only one editor on this film (Alexander Berner)—any more hands in the mix and there would have been blood as well as celluloid on the cutting room floor.  I’m not sure whether Berner deserves an Oscar for his work or a medal for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.  (Directors Tykwer and the Wachowskis divided up the camera work and ran two separate crews to film the sprawling epic.)

Still, if, (and that’s a big if, I grant you) you can hang with the frenetic pace of the first half-hour of the film, something wonderful happens.  With the possible exception of one storyline, which I’ll address in a moment, the characters begin to grow on you.  You begin to get involved in the plots, which in almost all cases, are compelling.  You become enthralled with the stunning visual effects of Neo-Seoul, in the historical and cultural details of the 1849 and 1936 worlds, in the thriller action of 1973 (and its possible connection to “the Fall”), in the post-apocalyptic drama of “after the Fall”.  The structure of the film gives way to the power of the stories.

As a writer, I think this as it should be.  Even in the movies, we are telling a story first.  But the filmmakers might argue, as Marshall McLuhan said, that “the medium is the message.”  To Mitchell, who wrote the original novel and had a hand in the screenplay, to Lana and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed, and to Tom Tykwer, who directed the film in this form, both the stories and the way they are told have equal significance.  They chose to tell these six stories in a complex, interlocking form to get across the message that Everything is Connected (the tagline of the film). 
In the end, they succeeded, and for that alone CLOUD ATLAS deserves kudos.  This was a brave project, generally well executed, and as a filmgoer and a science fiction fan I can do nothing but applaud.  The best parts of the film were those set in the future.  They were the most engaging, the clearest of vision and, because they were romances, among the most emotionally touching.  The storyline set in Neo-Seoul was also a feast for the eyes, not surprising given the Wachowskis’ involvement.
There were minor glitches.  The attempt to use a kind of pidgin for the dialogue in the post-apocalyptic segment was cool, but needed subtitles.  Remember, writers, clarity above all, whether you’re dealing with a Scottish brogue, techno-jargon, or, as in this case, a completely made up future lingo.  Of course, the makeup crew will be nominated for all kinds of Academy Awards, but from all evidence it remains easier to turn a Caucasian actor into anything than it does to turn an Asian or African American actor into a Caucasian. 
And not every story lived up to the high standards of the stories set in the future.  The tale of an unlucky publisher set in 2012 seemed to be included largely for comic relief.  It was funny, but lacked the depth of the other segments.  
Maybe that story was there so we are clear at the end of CLOUD ATLAS that not only love, the fight for justice and the expression of art, but also humor and perseverance extend across time and space.  As the final scene suggests, those qualities of the human character will follow us even as we move out into the galaxy to other worlds—and meet ourselves again.

The megastorm that was Sandy came ashore well north of Virginia, so here in Fredericksburg, in the the central part of the state, we were spared all but a good drenching of rain.  Further north in Washington, D.C. and Maryland and east on the Virginia beaches, things were not so balmy, of course.  And in the mountains, the Arctic air converging from the north and the winter storm blowing in from the west hammered the western part of the state and West Virginia with up to two feet of snow.  All I can say is I am grateful to have been in the ONE place that seemed to be out of the way of Mother Nature this time.

Our thoughts are with the folks in New York, New Jersey and all along the storm's path that took a beating from the high water, downed trees and other forms of mayhem.  Here's wishing you a speedy recovery as the waters recede.

Cheers, Donna

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Donna!

    I especially loved this line: ...not only love, the fight for justice and the expression of art, but also humor and perseverance extend across time and space.

    So well put, and I think it's what we strive for -- even subconsciously -- when we pen our SFRs.

    Glad you got through PF (Perfect Storm) Sandy without too much drama, but my heart goes out to those people and communities that were so hard hit on the Eastern seaboard. The pictures of the devastation are terrible, but I'm sure they don't begin to capture the personal and emotional devastation Sandy left in her path.


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