Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cloud Atlas


That word is not sufficient to describe the experience of watching Cloud Atlas, a breathtaking work of cinematic art made by one of my favourite directors, Tom Tykwer, together with the Wachowski siblings. All three of these writers/directors enjoy thinking outside the box and experimenting with new ways of making film. This film certainly qualifies as such an experiment, though it’s a big budget experiment with clear ties to Hollywood (even if independently financed).

There were times when Cloud Atlas felt like a Hollywood film, but mostly it felt like an odd European film (something Terry Gilliam might make, for example), which it is. It’s very long but it’s the kind of film you don’t want to end. And it doesn’t feel long because it never slows down long enough to notice the passage of time. More specifically, very few scenes are more than a minute in length and I’m sure the majority are closer to twenty seconds. If that isn’t hard enough on those of us who still have long attention spans, the scenes bounce back and forth through 500 years of time (between 1849 and 2349), telling six different stories which happen to feature most of the same actors (well-disguised, of course, though I recognized most of them immediately). I will make no attempt to tell you what the six stories are about.

By now, you should have a feel for how bizarre a film Cloud Atlas is. It’s a sci-fi film, an action-adventure film, an historical drama, a mystery, a romance and so on. One does eventually get into each of the six stories, short scene by short scene, but trying to tie the six stories together to see the big picture of how lives across time impact each other is a feat that surely can’t be contemplated until a second or third viewing, which is absolutely required, though I’m not sure how I’ll pull it off before it leaves the theatres (since I am on the road for most of the next month). 

Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Tykwer-favourite, Ben Whishaw, among others. Each of these plays five or six different roles and, for the most part, they do so extremely well. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, the score is magnificent and the six stories are all worth watching, though I appreciated some much more than others. Cloud Atlas is based on the novel by David Mitchell, which has been sitting in a stack of books beside my bed for three years, waiting to be read. Had I known what it was about, I suspect I would have read it long ago. Now I am both afraid and eager to do so. 

As wonderful as Cloud Atlas is, it suffers, alas, from at least one serious flaw, one that I am particularly sensitive to, namely redemptive violence. While some of the stories are much more violent than others, it is a feature found in most of them and almost always in a redemptive (often revengeful) way that I abhor. So sad. As in Looper, the violence is not meant to be enjoyed, even when a baddie gets it, so that’s good, at least. 

Of course, the violence is part of the big picture in Cloud Atlas, a big picture which has to do with standing up (like Jesus? - there is at least one crucifixion scene) against the Domination Systems of whatever time you happen to find yourself in and, well, darn if that isn’t as good a reason to make a film as any I can think of, even if you mess it up with violence. Cloud Atlas is not content with dealing with just one favourite theme of mine but also throws in the themes of how we are all connected, impacting the lives around us every minute (even the lives of people in the distant future), and how, as one character says twice, “By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” 

Cloud Atlas is full of memorable lines and wondrous ideas. I suspect I will love it even more after the second viewing. If that is the case, it may very well become my favourite film of 2012 (though there are still some treasures awaiting at the end of what has been a dull year for film). An easy ****. My mug is up and overflowing with rich flavours.

BUT BE WARNED: Many critics panned Cloud Atlas, so obviously this is not for everyone. 


  1. Sounds like something not to be missed. We'll have to wait until late February before it's released here.

  2. Well, I'll confirm the 'wow.' I'm surprised at the hesitancy from critics and the show at the box office. I was quite impressed by pretty much all of it (except the violence as you suggest - especially the graphic quality of part of it). In terms of its philosophy, I think it's stuck somewhere between karma and grace - not too surprising. I wonder that the implications of Sonmi's speech aren't seen as more strongly in contradiction to the violence.

  3. Having now almost finished the book, I must comment on the inconsistencies in this story in its depiction of redemptive violence. I had hoped that the book was so clear in its own use of redemptive violence that the filmmakers (working closely with the author throughout) had no choice but to fill their film with it. But the book is much more ambiguous (though inconsistent). Early on comes the story of a pacifist tribe in the South Pacific which is killed or enslaved to the very last person because of their refusal to defend themselves. The message there is very unclear and perhaps I need to wait until I have finished the book (and the last half of that 19th-century story) before commenting further. But I have completed the story of the distant future, in which we see the protagonist (Zachry) slitting the throat of a Kona man who has passed out in Zachry's home (the Kona had just wiped out the village, enslaving the survivors). Zachry had been given three prophetic warnings earlier in his life, warnings which he took very seriously. The first warning was not to kill Meronym by cutting the rope which would have led to her death. The third warning was not to cross a certain bridge. Zachry heeds both of those warnings and the results have a very positive outcome in his life. The second warning is not to slit the sleeping man's throat. The warning causes him to hesitate, but he kills the man anyway, though he is convinced that he will suffer dire consequences as a result. Indeed, he lives in constant fear every minute that he will suffer those consequences. But as far as I can determine, the only consequence of that action is that he gets an arrow through his leg. Painful, yes, but it eventually heals with no long-term effect and hardly seems worth the warning. So what was the big deal? On top of that is the inner conversation Zachry has just before killing the sleeping man, a conversation in which he convincingly argues against the killing of the man because: 1) his people forbid the stealing of another person's life, saying it will poison the killer's soul and such a person is then shunned for life lest they infect other's souls; 2) this act of revenge would not bring his family back to him; 3) it would "stone" his soul; 4) he himself, or his brother, might have been born a Kona or adopted by Konas and so it was like he was killing himself or his brother; and 5) Old Georgie clearly WANTED Zachry to kill this man. All very good arguments but he kills the man anyway, saying that "in our busted world, the right thing ain't always possible. Okay, I understand where Zachry and the writer (Mitchell) are coming from, and I wish some of that conversation and hesitation had been conveyed in the film, but ultimately all of the "redemptive" violence in the story is excused in one way or another as part of what it means to be human. Killing the Kona was seemingly supposed to result in consequences which would make Zachry ultimately regret the human impulse of revenge, but I find no evidence of such consequences and continue to have serious doubts and questions about a book and film that are otherwise brilliant. I cannot, of course, expect writers and filmmakers to share my opinions about redemptive violence, but I look for signs of recognition of the inconsistencies which this story flags up time and again (including Walter's comment above).

  4. I may have to watch the film again to know - but I thought there were clear consequences to killing the Kona man. My memory may be incorrect, but I thought there had been a window where, if he had left the Kona man alive, he could have hidden and survived without the battle (and didn't someone else get injured besides his leg?).

  5. You may be correct, but my comments on that killing were entirely based on the novel.